This is the transcript of a wide-ranging, two-part, three-hour interview with Al Gore, touching on the impact of technology and the Internet in politics, both in the U.S. and abroad; the state of the mainstream media and the left and right blogosphere; the role of the Web in spreading the facts about global warming, among others topics. The interviews were held in early and late October, first in the San Francisco offices of Current TV, then in his geothermal system-powered home in Nashville, which is certified as Gold LEED, one of the highest ratings for green design. An excerpt of the Q&A appeared in the Dec. 10, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.
Jose Antonio Vargas: A year ago, weeks before the election, I visited Blach Middle School in Silicon Valley and spoke to a group of young reporters. In the middle of the talk, Naib Mian raised his hand and asked if I had downloaded Obama's iPhone application -- which showed, in real time, where Obama was campaigning, the number of campaign offices within a few miles of where Naib lives, how much money he had raised...
Al Gore: [Laughs.]
JAV: This kid was 13, and politics was right in his pocket.
JAV: What do you say to a kid like Naib?
AG: More power to you. More information to you. You know, politics, as we understand the word, is a recreation of the Greek concept which arose in a culture where spoken word was a medium of the community within which individuals could express themselves well, could yield influence and political power with ideas. Before we talk about what's happening now, let's look back to the history of the printing press. The printing press catalyzed the emergence of an information ecosystem with very low entry barriers for individuals and created a marketplace of ideas in which individuals were literate even without wealth, family connections and force of arms -- all important prerequisites for power during the period from the fall of Rome to the emergence of the printing press. Individuals use ideas without any of those prerequisites as a source of power or influence or political authority, then the ecosystem that flowed out of the technology of the printing press was eclipsed by electronic medium -- the antecedent being the telegraph, and then the radio and then the big kahuna, you know television, which has you know the attraction for the brain because it's moving. You know the average American now watches TV five hours a day. The average American in an average American lifetime spends 17 uninterrupted years -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week --- watching TV. Seventeen years! So the reason why all the newspapers are in a nosedive is because -- first, that started with the afternoon newspapers, when television colonized that market niche. And the coup de grace was the Internet, coming in and taking in classified advertising...But now what's happening is, as evidence by that 13-year-old in Silicon Valley, that young kid with an iPhone, is that the Internet is now getting close to the stage where it will be possible for the Internet to eclipse television.
JAV: That's the process we're seeing now?
AG: That's the process we're seeing now. As the great writer [William] Gibson said -- he wrote this phrase: "Television will sink into the digital universe." I think we're beginning to see that happen. But we're not there yet. We're still at a stage where TV is completely dominant in our political culture.
JAV: As we see with Glenn Beck...
AG: Yes, and where candidates and elected officials are concerned, they have to spend more than three-quarters of all the money they raise to purchase 30-second TV ads and the only way they can get that amount of money on a consistent basis is by relying on business lobbyists. During the Enlightenment -- which again flowed out of the printing press -- ideas displaced some of the remarkable amount of the influence that had been placed on money and also power, and led to the blossoming of representative democracy and the modern version of capitalism. As you know, the Declaration of Independence and The Wealth of Nations were both published in the same year. And they were both based on the idea that individuals, empowered with information, can make intelligent choices, and then their choices can be aggregated to give the kind of a massively parallel processing of all the data that society has to digest and process to guide the economy, to guide self-government. But when television replaced print, there was kind of a "re-feudalization" of political power -- because those with a lot of money were able to exercise enormous influence in the political system. So what you have now is that the Congress finds it almost impossible to take any action that is opposed by very powerful business lobbyists. They still do sometimes -- if popular sentiment rises above this threshold that causes them to say, "Wait a minute, you know, this is popular with the people." But by and large, the underlying algorithm of governance is, an intensely held minority view can trump a weakly held majority. If a small group that has lot of passion and means to make their views heard has one point of view, and the general public interest is in opposition of their view, but most of the public is not aware of it, then the small group, which is often a special interest group, dominates. Now television has anesthetized the body politic and has made the citizenry an audience, and the dominant political act of participation today is sitting motionless watching ads, and it's one-way meme. But the Internet empowers that 13-year-old kid to connect directly to all the information he can absorb about whatever political topics, or whatever topics, he's interested in. So if he develops passion for Obama's campaign or points of view that Obama is expressing, he can participate in the political process, once again, by using the power of ideas. So I see the Internet as a great source of hope for re-energizing representative democracy, and making it possible for people to really participate.
JAV: So we have a case in which the people are basically ahead of the politics?
AG: Yeah, yeah.
JAV: In 1969, you wrote your 103-page college thesis on the impact of television on the American presidency. Because of the social Web, however, people's expectations of politicians -- how transparent they are, how authentic they seem to be -- are changing. Expectations are different in a Web-based democracy, right?
AG: What I have learned since writing that thesis paper is a greater appreciation for the economics of media, and how the interaction of media and society and the business model for different media also have a powerful influence. The most important aspect of the shift to television -- of course that thesis was focused on governing and the constitutional balance through the lens of the presidency -- is the extraordinary expensive price tags for these television ads that have reshaped the U.S. political system. You know, when I first visited the Senate as a child -- since my father served there, I spent time there watching him -- he would take me to the floor of the Senate. In those days, debates really counted for something. Now, it's rare to have a debate on the Senate floor. And the reason they're not there, usually, the principal reason is, they're in fundraisers all the time. All the time. And the reason they're on fundraisers all the time? Mainly, is to make sure they could stockpile enough cash to overwhelm any potential opponents, by having so many 30-second TV ads that the other candidate doesn't have a chance. And again the only way they can get that money is by going to all these little cocktail parties and receptions that are populated overwhelmingly by business.
JAV: What was going through your mind as you watched how the Obama campaign was using the Web?
AG: I was happy about it. I had tired to do it, when I ran in 2000, but the technology was still at an earlier stage. There weren't enough practitioners for it to really take hold. I was very happy that they were doing it. I do think that there is a way to use this technology for governing that will similarly revolutionize the effectiveness of self-governing. One early example is something called ComStat -- do you know about ComStat? It's short for Computerized Statistic. I have a new book coming out. I only have one copy, I can't give it to you, it just got off the press, I just got this today. [Gore gets up, grabs book, sits down and flips through the pages as he looks for a large graphic that begins a chapter.] Chapter 17 is the power of information. I don't know if you're ever seen that graphic? That's a visualization of the World Wide Web. It's really a beautiful work. It's accurate in its depiction. These are all the e-connections, where the real hubs are, and different colors for different languages. And the reason I'm showing this to you briefly is that, there's an example of ComStat being used in a place called Redlands, California. This shows the incidence of crimes. The police chief down there leads the charge. They map the crimes, and then deconstruct them to find out: why did this crime happen? The data shows your everything. And as a practical matter, in terms of the clicks and bricks model. [Gore gets up again, walks over to a white board in his office, grabs two pens (one blue, the other red) and starts drawing.] They have a horse-shoe table, basically, with a podium. One precinct displays data from that precinct, computerized data, okay? So, look, you've got 18 burglaries. That's a simple diagram. The point is, when the data is visible and understandable because it's visualized and it's held in the consciousness by all the relevant decision-makers in the organization -- they're sharing the consciousness of the problem to be solved, everyone is focused on it -- and the problem is solved. [William] Bratton put it in effect in New York City, and it spread like wildfire in police departments. But the same basic model can be used for immunization, illiteracy, AIDS prevention -- any problem that the society has to cope with. The computerization of the data, the sharing of the data, and creation of the kinds of clicks and bricks hybrid model for absorbing and responding to the implications of the meaning contained in the data -- that's really where self-governance needs to go.
JAV: That's re-inventing government, that's Government 2.0?
AG: Yes, yes. The government has to be more transparent. Technology demands transparency.
JAV: Is Washington prepared for something like this?
AG: Um, well, no. because now, an embarrassing number of the meetings are with lobbyists and special interests. Scheduling is too often driven by that. The great victory in the idea of America was the revolutionary declaration that we the people are the best stewards of our common destiny and that the old model throughout the Middle Ages was information and power were held in a monopoly. You had the medieval church and the feudal lords and they really controlled everything, and 99 percent of the people were illiterate. And their ignorance begat their powerlessness. And when the printing press spread information widely, first the Bible then the classics translated in the popular languages, and then modern authors -- Shakespeare -- the journals, which turned into newspapers, that's when the ancient Greek dream was reborn in its modern guise in the Declaration of Independence. It was never perfect; you can always point to examples of where wealth played a disproportionate influence as it always has. But ideas could change the world through the democratic process. The progressive movement -- you had Upton Sinclair writing about abuses in meat-packing, and so the Congress said we will reform meat-packing. And they did. [He laughs.] Today, the meat packers would have lobbyists and campaign contributions and TV ads, like the insurance industry today.
JAV: When you were campaigning in 2000, one of the most provocative and insightful passages in one of your speeches was when you said, "The world is a system and not a collection of individuals." Let's adapt that to this new ecosystem, this new online political reality. It's made up of individuals using technological tools. But a new system is forming, right? A new political system?
JAV: How would you describe it?
AG: I want to show you this quote, and I've had it here for seven years. [He stands up again, walks over to his desk and shows me a quote that's taped to his Mac deskstop. He reads it out loud.] "In assembling complexity, the bounty of increasing returns is won by multiple tries over time. As various parts reorganize to a new whole, the system escapes into a higher order." I used to head a group called Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future -- it's one of the places where I started exploring technology.
JAV: Yes, you were an Atari Democrat.
AG: Yes, yes, I was. [He laughs.] The group was in some ways like a glorified Speaker's Bureau, but that was one of the places were brought in computer experts and networking experts. They weren't hearings in Congress. But I brought in people for hearing, too. This was a bipartisan group, a self-selected group, and we brought in Ilya Prigogine, a Belgian Chemist. He died maybe four or five years ago. And I think that eventually his key discovery will be recognized as a law of the universe on par with the relativity theory. I honestly do. He studied open systems. [He gets up, walks over to his board again and draws.] An open system as opposed to a closed system. An open system as opposed to a close system has energies flowing in through and out again, okay? So he found a class of open systems where when the flow of energy was increased above the threshold, two things happen in sequence. Number one, the pattern in the open system broke down because the new flow -- the old pattern couldn't handle it. But then the key discovery was that then, amazingly, and this is a law of nature now -- it's astonishing -- the system reorganizes itself at a higher level of complexity and the flow then continues. So Prigogine wrote that as various parts reorganize to a whole, the system escapes to a higher level.
JAV: It's as if there are two kinds of politics in America today -- the politics in which many people feel connected to because of the Web, and the politics as practiced by the majority of politicians. What is the current state of our political system in your view?
AG: We are in a transition, and we're at an early stage in which the old political model still dominates but energy in the form of money raised online, information available online, number of people participating online -- however you want to measure it -- it has increased dramatically. And the old system, while still dominant, as I said, is showing signs of weakness. Eventually, it will emerge at a higher level of complexity where the individual's role is restored.
JAV: How many more years -- how many more election cycles -- before the political system adapts to this new online-based reality?
AG: The metaphor of the tipping point is powerful because it describes a moment in non-linear systems that's unexpected in a linear-way of thinking. Because when the potential builds up to the point where instability resolves, then it can suddenly flip and it can happen very quickly, and there are multiple examples of that happening. I'm taking off my belt to use an example here. [Indeed, he takes off his belt.] One scientist described this to me once by saying if you have a complex system that's illustrated by this belt loop, it has a basic shape that changes but the basic shape stays the same. If one of the critical boundary conditions changes enough then it can flip to an entirely different order. And so when will it flip, when will it escape to a higher order? Hard to predict. It will take time. The power of the TV medium is such, but the Internet is encroaching it.
JAV: Your father, Albert Sr., was instrumental in creating the legislation that gave us the Interstate Highway System. Decades later, you were instrumental in creating legislation in expanding the reach of the Internet and fostering what you called "an information superhighway." How would you describe the evolution of this "information superhighway"?
AG: When I finally introduced the legislation, it was the 30th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System. When I was a boy, my family and I used to drive back and forth form Carthage, Tennessee to Washington, D.C. -- four, six times a year. They were two lanes on the road. I remember so vividly when i was very young, my father pointing out the old highway 70 between Carthage and Nashville -- Carthage is a little small town east of Nashville. The tail lights were strung out in front, and the headlights were white ribbon coming at us and it was just what we would today call gridlock -- it wasn't called that then -- the proliferation of cars and trucks after World War II just grew at an exponential rate while the two-lane roads did not. He had this idea to have a national network of superhighways. I remember him -- I know the pattern now, having been a father and a grandfather -- he would take me to work with him a lot. I remember sitting in the subcommittee hearings -- he was on the public works committee and chair of the highway subcommittee, and he had these hearings designing the Interstate Highway System. And I remember vividly when they had a short hearing and then a discussion, and one of the questions that they had to vote on was, what colors should the sign be? And for a kid, 6 years old, the difference between green, black, red, whatever -- well, I can understand that! And they had a full discussion and they chose green. They voted on it and they voted for green. And then I saw the green signs go up, "Wow!" I remember one senator from the upper Midwest somewhere -- I can't remember the guy's name now -- but he was complaining that the proposed lanes on the interstate highway was way too wide. We're wasting a lot of asphalt, he said. He measured a car and put it in a lane, and said you could put two cars, side by side in that lane, you don't need that much asphalt. My father and some of the other senators were saying, "Well, when you're going fast, you need to have a little leeway." So they voted to affirm the width of the lanes. And then every year, we'd drive home for Christmas and then drive back for New Year's, we'd drive home as soon as school was out, drive back in the fall, sometimes we'd go for spring vacation, and every trip, the interstate highway would get a little bit longer. And the difference in our trips! It used to be 16 hours. We'd plan to spend the night. Usually at a Howard Johnson's and get up the next morning and finished the trip, and now it's like an 11 hour trip instead of a 16 to 18 hour trip. That really made an impact on me. And the benefits to the nation as a whole of having an Interstate Highway System with limited access so it didn't become just another tool for local commerce but tied the nation together.
JAV: It brought the country together...
AG: The key insight was the rapid growth in the number of cars, and the very slow capacity of local and state governments to build and the willingness of them to build these new roads. Only when it was done at a national level could the highway-building match the disproportionate growth in the number of vehicles. In some ways, what was happening in the physical Interstate Highway System is happening in the virtual Information Highway System. So in the '70s, when I came to the Congress, I had a background by virtue of the work that I did in information theory in order to do that college thesis. [The thesis on was TV's impact on the American presidency.] Marshall McLuhan. I read everything he wrote. I was already 10 years old before our family got our first television set, and boy did that change something! Anyway, by the time I got to Congress by January of 1977, I started being very active on this Congressional Clearinghouse, and in one of our early presentations, the key thing that clicked for me was there was an exponential increase in data flow because Moore's law was already in full swing and the [computer] processes were becoming more powerful -- doubling in power every 18 months or so. And the explosion of the amount of information that could usefully be transmitted from point A to point B was completely overwhelming a communications network that was built out of twisted copper -- two copper wires twisted together. That was our network. I remember meeting in the '70s with the head of Ma Bell -- before the anti-trust case. There used to be one telephone company for the entire country, and it was all one big giant. That was Ma Bell. [Also known as Bell System.] I remember talking to a guy names Charles Brown. I had a one-on-one meeting with him and I laid out this idea. I said, "Look, the information through pits are going like this, your twisted copper pairs, they can't handle it, we need to design and build a nationwide fiber-optic network with the switches and the mathematics that can handle vastly increased data flows." Not only was he not interested...
JAV: What was his response?
AG: He was affirmatively opposed to it. Because, in the classic model of an incumbent protecting his turf, he didn't want that. For God's sake -- the government is going to help build a network that's many thousands times more capable than his? Of course he's opposed to it. The only company that I got a favorable response from was from a company that made fiber optic cable. But the key analogy was between two discrepancies -- the discrepancy between the rapid proliferation of automobiles and the inadequate roads on the one hand, and this incredibly powerful surge of data creation available with the power of computer processing growing, doubling every 18 months, my God! And the discrepancy between that and the information networks that we have. So that led me to discover what was being done in the Defense Department, and you know the original purpose of DARPANET was to provide an alternative communications grid that could survive a nuclear attack. Ironically, my father's bill on the Interstate Highway System was the defense Interstate Highway System because it was sold as a way to serve the national interest in mobilizing material for war, if we had another war.
JAV: So the Interstate Highway System, which is all about connecting towns to towns, people to people, and the information superhighway, which is connecting computers to computers, people to people, were both funded by the federal government?
AG: Well, from the beginning of the computer age in America, the government was very heavily involved -- subsidizing the creation of the new software, the creation of the new machines. It was always a public/private partnership.
JAV: There's a digital divide in this country. Is it possible to be a part of this information superhighway, this Web-based knowledge society, and not have Internet access?
JAV: Is Internet access then a fundamental right -- a basic necessity -- the same way water is, the same way electricity is, for an American kid growing up in this global, knowledge-based society? To be a part of this growing online-based democracy?
AG: I think it should be, yes. But the process by which a new capacity graves into that circle labeled "necessities," well, it's not a simple process. Telephone service started off in limited locations. Again, public/private. Congress passed a bill to run the first telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. Apparently, some of the senators got stock in the company. I haven't read the history of it, but I've read enough about it -- it's a sorted under-belly. Within, let's see, 40 or 50 years, television service was deemed a necessity. So the national rural telephone co-op program was set up, and there are subsidies to run telephone lines out to little, smaller areas because it became to be regarded a necessity. And I think that Internet access is on the cusp -- whenever you label something a necessity, and then you go further and label it a right, it brings up a new role for government. We are seeing the emergence of a digital democracy, an Internet-powered, self-organizing paradigm. That's the key for this. It's not a Democrat thing, it's a not Republican thing, it affects everyone.
JAV: I tweeted that I'd be interviewing you in about 24 hours and asked people to send in their questions as it relates to the Internet and the future of American politics. Someone tweeted me, "How to go beyond preaching to the choir?" Right now, it seems that American politics is as polarized as it's ever been -- if you watch TV, what Fox News is saying versus MSNBC, and of course we have liberal blogs v. conservative blogs...
AG: But the tools we use, the medium we use, do change our consciousness. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium becomes an extension of our body. There's a certain re-organization of thinking necessary to accommodate the use of a new tool. It happens with everything. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh live in a broadcast world. The Internet commentary on their broadcasts are different from the broadcast itself. There is a common view that the Internet itself is Balkanizing and spreading people into point of view communities. I have a somewhat different point of view of that. When you went to the conservative blogs, you found the link to the liberal blogs. The common protocol is to embed links whether it's a liberal blog or a conservative blog. And what's happening is, we're still in this transitional phase -- it's a different transition, but it's still a transition era -- I think that the people who become the true believers and armor themselves with orthodoxy get the most attention. But I think beneath that there is a more powerful phenomenon where lots of people will come across a site that has one point of view and it's so easy to say, "These people on the other side, just look for yourself at how stupid they are." And you click on the link and a lot of them think, "Actually, that doesn't sound stupid to me." That takes the dialogue back and forth to the point where it begins to move toward a higher order, and the arguments become more sophisticated. And some of the most respected sites on both sides of the ideological divide find themselves responding to third or fourth counter-arguments and the debates become more sophisticated -- and both sides actually listen to the other and learn from each other.
JAV: You mean, it's not like Crossfire.
AG: Correct. It's completely different. As video becomes more common on the Internet, as the capacity of the lines accommodates HD video and we don't have to wait that long for it to download, that's when TV sinks into the digital universe, and that's when the culture and architecture of the Internet redefines the information ecosystem within which our democracy lives.
JAV: Obama wrote the playbook on how to win an election using the "here comes everybody" nature of the Internet. But a year into his presidency, many feel that his administration is governing in the same old Washington way. What happened?
AG: Basically, the whole arm of the campaign that used the Internet was severed from the group that moved into the White House. They used the Internet as a tool for enhancing the effectiveness of their grass-roots organizers, and they did it better than anyone else. They just haven't figured out yet how to move from campaigning to governance. That's a long and difficult transition for any politician to make...Now, there was an announcement -- maybe in December or January, I can't remember when it was, it was during that transition period -- that said that David Plouffe was going to go off and set up something that would be a support base on the Internet. As far as I can tell, that's never happened.
JAV: Actually, yes, it did happen -- Obama for America, the campaign, is now called Organizing for America, and it's housed at the Democratic National Committee.
AG: If it's working now, good, but I have not seen much evidence of it in the first 10 months. That's the first thing. Second, people who are good at campaigning have a certain set of skills, some of which are relevant to governing, but some of which are not particularly relevant to governing. And applying these new possibilities to governance is a task waiting to be completed. It will happen. It will happen. But it's certainly not in evidence yet. There are plenty of ways to do it. . . People feel shut out of the process now -- they don't feel like they have a way into it. This 13 year old you talked about -- I keep pointing like he's living inside your iPhone, and in a way he is -- he knows the way in. And his generation will certainly find a way.
JAV: What do you say to people [Obama supporters] who feel frustrated?
AG: It was inevitable that all these high hopes would collide with the still-impressive forces of resistance entrenched in the legislative branch. I would urge people to hold Obama accountable and keep the pressure on but to give him credit for the many changes he has already brought about. For example, even though he hasn't been able to get the Senate climate bill passed yet, his EPA has enacted tough new CO2 reductions. And just yesterday, he announced that new mercury regulations were going into effect in 2011...And there are so many examples. His FCC chair has just taken the initiative on net neutrality. That's very important. Understandably, there's a focus on some of the high profile issues like health care. And inevitably hopes were so high, and the Internet amplified all of that, because blogs are all writing about them, and it was inevitable that these high hopes would collide with the still impressive forces of resistance that are entrenched in the legislative branch, in other parts of the American system. It was, after all, designed to be difficult to enact legislation. Inevitably, some people were going to be disappointed and frustrated. I would urge them to hold him accountable, keep the pressure on, but to have an understanding of how much he has done, how much is in progress, and then take responsibility yourself.
JAV: Technology and the Internet are not just changing politics here in the U.S., it's also happening aboard. In the Philippines, where I grew up, grassroots organizers used text messaging to help overthrow a president. We saw what happened with reformers in Iran using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after the election...
AG: And look at what's happening beneath the surface in both China and Russia. Both [Wen] Jiabao and [Dmitry] Medvedev -- Medvedev is technically number one in Russia, but most Russians believe he's number two. Jiabao is number two to Hu Jintao. In both countries, the broadcast media of television and radio, and the newspapers, are controlled. But in both countries, the attempt to control the Internet has largely, largely failed, because there are so many hacks that can work around the system -- first the digital elites, then others find ways to get the information. In both countries, you have Medvedev and Jiabao making the most extraordinary speeches, confessing error, saying our system doesn't work, it's gotta be changed. I don't want to overstate this -- Wen Jiabao has now gone on to blogs and responded directly to bloggers and in both countries -- dictatorships, effectively -- they're out there campaigning. If there's a disaster in China, they're there within hours, doing photo-ops with babies, because the political consciousness of the people, even in dictatorships, has been awakened by the Internet, and they have to respond to it. And they are responding to it. So in China, there is beneath the surface, a growing pressure for democratization. The Internet is inherently a de-moc-ra-ti-zing force -- [he elongates the consonants] -- even more powerful than the printing press was. It will still take some time before it wins out, but it is a democratizing force, and the reason it's democratizing is the same reason that the printing press was democratizing. The architecture of the medium, the basic design of the information infrastructure that's defined by the medium, has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. And individuals -- intelligence is evenly distributed throughout the human population, it has no respect for family pedigree, for inherent wealth, they're sort of negatively correlated, actually -- [he laughs] -- and education is the key empowerment tool. When the printing press first began to grow in prominence, there was a wave of public demand for literacy. The average adult can learn to read and write in two weeks. It's not that hard. It's hard. It's a barrier. But it's not that hard to bridge. Once an individual is literate, then the Internet is there. And there's also digital literacy. My brother-in-law, maybe 10 or 12 years older than me, he never used the computer. He wouldn't dream of it. But after a few moths, you can't get him off it now. When I got him an iPhone, he said, "Ah, I don't want that thing." Now he's all over it. All the time. You look at the number of older people -- 50, 60, 70, 80 -- using the Internet, all the time, it's amazing. But the point is -- it doesn't matter your age, it doesn't matter your nationality. It's an advantage if you speak English, because so much of the science is in English. But it doesn't matter. As long as you have basic literacy skills and a rudimentary understanding of how to get on the Internet, then you can participate in shaping the way people think about common problems, common opportunities -- and that's really what democracy is all about. Of course the founders said that the bedrock of American democracy is a well-informed citizenry.
JAV: So in countries such as China, Russia and Iran, the Internet is not just a communications tool, it's a tool of rebellion?
AG: Well, it's a tool for collective awareness. And collective consciousness. The political consciousness of people is empowered by the Internet. That's been the case with most powerful new technologies -- sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Remember that the Iranian revolution in 1979 was powered by cassette tapes, basically. You had Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei and his followers smuggling in cassette tapes of his sermons and speeches. The political consciousness of the Iranian Revolution then was empowered by that new technology which was under the radar and escaped the censors. In the same way, but much more powerful, the Internet is allowing the rise of political consciousness in places like Russia and China, where the authorities are intent on stifling dissent and preventing the formation of the political consciousness that are rooted in the people themselves, that they're having a great difficulty stopping.
JAV: In April, at a seminar on the Web's future, the UN's Internet Telecommunication Union said that only 23 percent of the globe's population is actually on the Internet. Twenty-three percent. Let's look ahead, 10 years from now, what's going to happen in China, Russia and Iran, when a new generation of kids, with their video-enabled cell phones, are adults?
AG: The amount of bandwidth will increase dramatically. The connection within nations and across national boundaries will increase exponentially and there is already a global consciousness that is now rising. And most issues are now being dealt with in a global context. Science is completely global. A great deal of the world's GDP is now in the hands of businesses that essentially define their markets in global context. You have many industries that are dealing with transnational and international regulations and guidelines. Now when there's a merger, large businesses in the U.S. often have to pass E.U. anti-trust review. Microsoft, for example, is dealing with regulators in the E.U. as much or more than with those in the U.S. on some issues. Environmental issues are now being dealt with -- haltingly at first, but with increasing competency and force -- at a global level. And human rights is dealt with in a global context. But these are still -- as they say in business world -- early days, and some regimes have been able to insulate themselves.
JAV: Earlier this year, Newt Gingrich attacked a statement made by Obama while visiting Germany. Obama called himself a "citizen of the world." At a GOP fundraiser, Gingrich retorted: "I am not a citizen of the world. I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous!" But hasn't the proliferation of technology -- like cell phones and computers -- connected citizens much closer to each other?
AG: Yes, yes, absolutely. And you especially see this among young people across the world. They share very similar perspectives on the state of the world and their aspirations for the future. Young Europeans, for example, are much more psychologically invested in a European identity. It's interesting that, in some ways, there is among young people in many parts of the world a disinvestment in their primary identity, in their primary political identity as citizens as of the nation-state that they live in, that disinvestment is being reinvested upward and downward -- it's being reinvested in entities like the European Union in Europe, in a pan-African identity. It's very common in Africa now, no matter the nation, no matter the tribe, for people to speak about Africa...
JAV: Instead of just Nigeria or Egypt...
AG: Correct, correct. And yet simultaneously, there's a reinvestment in their identity with the region in which they live, and of course the urban area in which they live. But you find a rising awareness in regions like Catalonia, in Spain, Lombardi in Italy. Scotland is now enjoying a higher degree of Independence form the United Kingdom. The Internet is, inherently, a global medium. It doesn't belong to a country. It doesn't belong to a dictator.
JAV: Since you got your start as a newspaperman, and since the future of news is tied to the future of politics -- how politics is covered -- what do you think is the future of the news business?
A: Well, Marshall McLuhan wrote a long time ago that the content of the new media is the old media. And I'll give you several examples of that. When television news first began, it featured men in coats and ties sitting behind desks reading the news. When variety news began, it was dominated by radio entertainers who made the transition to video format with content that was essentially derivative of what they had done on the radio. In the case of television news, there was the Huntley Brinkley show. You're way too young to remember this, but before Walter Cronkite became dominant, NBC News had Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the New York Times complained that night after night -- I may not remembering this with absolute precision -- but night after night the 10 stories that they did were the 10 stories on the front page of the New York Times, in the same order, in the same, you know, ranking. Gradually, as more video became available from news events around the world, the pictures started driving the selection of stories. And now it's very common to have some story on the television news that's really driven by the compelling nature of whatever video is available. And I vividly remember a transition period when it became very common for people to say, I read this story in the New York Times this morning and then I saw it on the Walter Cronkite in the evening, and it's the same story, but the feeling I got, the impression I got, was completely different. That's sort of the transition. But your question is more about the future of newspapers...
JAV: Well, the future of news in general -- not just newspapers.
AG: Just as in the early days, the television news was derivative of newspapers until it found its own protocols and news culture began manifesting it. In the same way, most of the news in the Internet today comes from newspapers. And the transition from newspapers to the Internet -- leaving aside the broadcast illness for a moment -- takes place not only culturally but also economically, and the great flaw in these present predictions that Internet-based news organizations will take over from newspapers is that the economic model, the business model for Internet news, does not yet support enough revenue to pay a large team of investigative journalists. So we face the prospect -- and in some ways we're already in this transition -- newspapers are shrinking. Environmental reporters, by the way, are among the first to be let go. The same is true on television. The Weather Channel disbanded its excellent climate team. So you get a shrinking of the primary source of news before the creation of a standard business model for Internet news organizations that will be able to fill that gap. To some extent, that hole is being filled by widely distributed reporting from individuals -- citizen journalists -- but there's a danger in assuming that citizen journalists can play the role that professional journalists who are able to conduct extensive, prolonged research, and apply their professional experience to really uncovering the truth of these issues.
JAV: Should government help fund journalism?
AG: I don't think so, I don't think so.
JAV: There's a report that...
AG: Yes, I heard about the report [written by Leonard Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, professor of communication at Columbia University's School of Journalism, calling for increased government funding for news-gathering and newspapers.] I think that's unrealistic. I think those who propose government-funding for the support of newspapers are overlooking the essential number of the relationship between the press and the government. And you think about Richard Nixon or George W. Bush. Dick Cheney. The first time some news organization that receives government support decides to be antagonistic toward the government. Whatever source of leverage -- [he laughs] -- the person in charge of the government has is a potential danger to the integrity of that news organization. I was watching "Meet The Press" this morning, or [George] Stephanopoulos, it was one of them, where they had this clip from John F. Kennedy -- [he laughs] -- and he was in a news conference, and I had forgotten this episode. The International Herald Tribune had been very critical of President Kennedy's administration. And they canceled all 22 subscriptions to the International Herald Tribune in the White House. [More laughter.]
JAV: How are bloggers continually challenging the press?
AG: They're challenging them, in a way, when it comes to not giving equal weight to arguments. Let's take global warming. You know there was a famous study by a father and son. [Maxwell] Boykoff and [Jules] Boykoff. They studied 14 years of newspaper stories on global warming in the Wall Street journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times. And during a period when the scientific community had expressed a consensus, unanimous consensus, the 14 years worth of stories, they took a representative sample of I think 634 stories, and 53 percent said -- maybe a problem, may not be a problem. That's a disservice. The title of their study was "Balance as Bias." And it's a direct result of the lost of revenue and the thinning of the reportorial ranks and the overburdening of the reporters who remain to the point where they feel that they have to take a shortcut by saying, "On the one hand, on the other hand. Some say the earth is round, but here are some people who say the earth is flat. It's up to you, dear reader, to reach your own conclusion." I'm no expert. I only did it for seven years. But I have a news organization now [Current TV], and I have always paid careful attention to [journalism]. And based on my own limited experience, I think reporting is an art as well as a science, but part of the art is determining when the reporter has a responsibility to say, "Okay, I'm gonna give you both sides here, but having immersed myself in reporting this story, I can tell you that the people who seem to have the best judgment on this are pretty clear in saying the earth is definitely round -- [he laughs] -- so don't waste a lot of time on people who say that it's flat." But if they're under time pressure, they have to do it quickly, if their bosses are under some kind of ideological pressure, if advertisers are putting pressure. I know of newspapers who have been bought by chains who now have the advertising people brought into the daily news meeting and make suggestions on what pictures and what stories go on the font page in order to sell more ads. And there's no written newspaper code that this says this is a violation of the newspaper code, but there is a news culture that's been built up that will tell experienced editors and reporters -- "No, no, no, no, no, that's wrong." You have to have integrity in trying to find the best evidence, evaluate it responsibly, test it against alternative views, reach some conclusions and report the damn news. And the good news is that there are still a lot of great reporters who are out there. In fact, you could assemble, you know, several dozen examples of the best reporters working today, and they will stack up against any generation of reporters ever. They're fantastic. Just to pick one example of somebody who was on one of these shows this morning. Jane Mayer. Wow. What a fabulous reporter. Not just because I often find myself agreeing with her point of view -- often I do, sometimes I don't. She just completed this lengthy story in the New Yorker about the use of drones and the larger implications of that. Well, that's not something that you're gonna get, that you're not likely to get, from an Internet news organization -- yet. But I yearn for the day when an Internet-based news organization will throw off enough revenue consistently to hire a Jane Mayer and to hire several dozen reporters who have that kind of experience and time and skill. But we're not there yet. It may be that we'll see the emergence of new models that combine newspapers and Internet outlets and have a source of revenue that maybe supplemented by foundations. There are some examples of that happening now. NPR uses that. The Jim Lehrer Show -- [now called PBS NewsHour] -- uses that.
JAV: Which specific bloggers and Web sites have been important to the rise of the left in the past few years? What do you read?
AG: Oh gosh. Well I have a custom-designed iGoogle page that has lots of different sites on it that I scan all the time. Some of them come and go, but a lot of them stick around...
JAV: Like Daily Kos?
AG: I think it's a great site, and I think it serves a great role. But I read sites that probably I know for a fact people don't. RealClimate.org. I wish more people read it.
JAV: Left-leaning bloggers have had a tremendous impact on the Democratic Party. But one of the biggest stories in Washington right now is how the Republican party is rebuilding itself. What do you think the right should do to rebuild the party and attract a grassroots-based movement online?
AG: Well, they have their own thriving presence on the Internet. But I think the culture of the Internet is democratizing inherently because it really works against ideological conformity. Because the entry barriers are so low, and individuals have ease of access, you are so constantly seeing orthodoxy challenged by a million different perspectives. The architecture of the medium kind of pulls people toward more engagement with new ideas. And I think that's a good thing.
JAV: It's almost there are two conservative movement happening at once. There's the Rush Limbaugh-Glenn Beck-Michelle Malkin kind of movement -- they all have Web sites -- and independent of that are blogs like The Next Right, which are trying to have more substantive discussions about where the GOP should go.
AG: It's so fragmented, the Republican Party. And this congressman from Louisiana? [Joseph] Cao? What an interesting political figure! I think they ought to really you know listen to that guy.
JAV: If bloggers had the same kind of influence in 2000 that they have now, would that have changed the outcome of the election?
AG: Oh, my God. No question, no question. Absolutely.
JAV: Imagine if people in Florida had cell phone cameras and took videos and photos of the hanging chads -- how confused they were by the ballots, how long the lines where in certain precincts, how certain people were being turned away from polls. Would it have changed the outcome, if the social Web where around in 2000?
AG: It might have, it might have.
JAV: During the 2008 election, more than 50 percent of Americans got their news from the Internet. Will the Internet eclipse TV as the most influential source of information?
AG: The Internet is on such an impressive upward trajectory that it will certainly play a much more prominent role in the 2012 election than it did in 2008. But that's not to predict that in only three years we will see Internet-based political communication eclipsed what's taking place in television. In practical terms, the build out of much higher bandwidth connections on a common basis will have something to do with that. I think that will also drive the amount of traffic to Internet video sites as compared to the cable and satellite television.
JAV: Is social media reaching its peak, or will participation in social media only increase?
A: I think it's in its infancy. Have you heard of Xanga? Xanga is on a trajectory that is unbelievable. I mean it exceeds the early years of Google, in terms of how rapidly it's grown. And there will be dozens of new social network sites -- some of them based on gaming. I think that the role of gaming is growing so rapidly.
JAV: Do you think the types of candidates that the next generation of Americans gravitate towards will look and sound different than the candidates we've had in the past? Younger?
AG: Well, in this election, the number of voters 30 or under exceeded the number of voters age 65 and older. Young voters turned out to vote. And and on global warming, the breakdown, on the legislation, is 75 to 16 among 30 and under.
JAV: I don't think there's any other issue out there that young people are more passionate, and more ahead in, than global warming.
AG: That and LGBT issues. I mean, young people, when they hear some of these gay rights opponents, they go -- what? It's ridiculous, it's ridiculous. [Laughter.] I mean, it's just, come on, it's ridiculous.
JAV: But of course there are the skeptics. In a column a few months ago, George Will wrote that "according to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979." The Internet is only amplifying what people already believe -- their biases. So how then do you convince people who don't subscribe to your beliefs?
AG: It's about facts. Since you mentioned him, let's take George Will. He wrote a few notorious columns last year that in years past might have attracted little notice. But immediately, when he grossly misstated the science several times, there was a storm on the Internet, and the Washington Post Syndicate was besieged -- [he laughs] -- and the controversy outweighed his ability to make the point he was trying to make because the gross mistakes that he included in his columns were revealed so widely that his column fell of its own weight. No other serious writer after that storm would dream of citing George Will as a source for the particular point that he was trying to make because everybody knew, by then, that they were on notice, that the scientific community had blown the whistle on the information. They provided links -- "Here, go to the original sources and look for yourself" -- and enough people did that his credibility on that particular topic, at least. Now he's a smart man, and often a thoughtful man, I think that he lets his ingrained biases drive him towards these kinds of mistakes.
JAV: Has the Internet helped or hurt the ability to get your argument out, this argument that you've made all these years?
AG: I think it has helped enormously, of course.
JAV: The Internet is changing the way we think of our relationship with government; it has the potential to bring to life what Abraham Lincoln said about the presidency being an instrument of the people. Thinking back, when you headed that Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, did you ever think a day like this would come?
AG: I hoped for it. And in a number of speeches back in that era, expressed the hope that it would bring about the emergence of online democracy. But whatever medium is dominant in society in any given era, it's important to look at how it interacts with human nature, which is essentially unchanging from one generation to the next. Remember, the American constitutional system was designed not as a pure democracy but as a representative democracy, within which individuals were chosen in the election process to represent the interests of different groups. And there's a misconception that the emergence of a fully-connected, broadband Internet with virtually 100 percent participation would empower pure democracy. Because our lives being what they are, the only way to have reflective thought is to have individuals who have enough time to really dig into the substance of issues and make decisions after reflecting on what they've learned and weighing their conclusions against their understanding of the true best interests of their constituents. A pure democracy empowered by the Internet is not the answer to our problems because without reflection, if you have sort of instant voting on everything, without that element of reflective thought...
AG: Yes, that's right. And that means time, that means dedication, that means having individuals who are fiduciaries for those they represent devoting the time to doing that. Parenthetically, one of the most debilitating elements of the television-based political culture is that the elected representatives don't have the time to reflect, because they have to spend all their time raising money going to cocktail parties. In any case, back to your main concern, I am excited by the trajectory of the Internet-based political culture. I am thrilled that reform movements around the world are based on the Internet, largely. And I'm extremely hopeful that the continued evolution of Internet-based politics will lead to a political culture that makes much better decision, that's much more respectful of the broad public interest, that empowers individuals with good ideas to have traction and to find support for those ideas, and that we will have a political culture that is less dominated by the power of money and the entrenched special interest group.
Follow Jose Antonio Vargas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joseiswriting