Al Gore and the age of hyper-change

By Chrystia Freeland
February 27, 2013

This book review was originally published in The Washington Post.

Sprawling, earnest and ambitious — its modest title is “The Future”—Al Gore’s new book embodies both the virtues and the flaws of its author. But those hardy souls who slog past the weaknesses will be rewarded by a book that is brave, original and often fun. Inevitably, there’s a lot here about the two signature Gore preoccupations — climate change and technological innovation — but what really makes “The Future” worth reading is two newer ideas.

The first is the premise. Gore believes we are living in a “new period of hyper-change.” The speed at which our world is changing, he argues, is unprecedented, and that transformation is the central reality of our lives. The technology revolution, Gore writes, “is now carrying us with it at a speed beyond our imagining toward ever newer technologically shaped realities that often appear, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘indistinguishable from magic.’ ”

This is not a truth universally acknowledged — some economists, such as Tyler Cowen, argue that innovation has stalled and that our low-growth economies are the result — and that is part of what makes “The Future” interesting.

Characteristically, Gore doesn’t play down his conviction that this time, things really are different. He thinks that the world is experiencing “exponential change,” that the transformation is different not just in degree but in kind from previous periods of tumult and — in one of the leaps across millennia in a single paragraph that are a leitmotif of this book — that our Ice Age brains are struggling to cope with a world governed by the kind of exponential increases suggested by Moore’s Law.

Gore’s thesis of hyper-change is the justification for the vast, messy range of this book. It is risky to write about all of human and geological history, about the whole world, about all the important frontiers in science, about business and politics and society and nature. But Gore makes no excuses for this widest of lenses. On the contrary, his thinking demands it. If humanity is changing more profoundly and faster than ever before, you have to try to connect as many dots as your Stone Age neocortex can bear — and if the result isn’t the neatest of narrative arcs, that hardly seems to matter.

Gore’s second big argument is based on this first one. If you buy his view that we are living through a mind-blowing economic and social transformation, you are likely to conclude, as he does, that we need a correspondingly ambitious political response. Here again, he is thinking in ALL CAPS. He believes that business has become truly global (a phenomenon he dubs, a la New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, “Earth, Inc.”) and that the nation-state is becoming irrelevant. We don’t need merely a robust national reaction to hyper-change, we need an international one, and Gore thinks that needs to be led by the United States or it won’t happen at all.

But in what is both the most compelling and the most depressing part of the book, Gore fears that the U.S. political system isn’t up to the challenge. He can’t resist drawing on his techno-enthusiasm to describe the problem: “American democracy has been hacked.” That cute phrase is a little unfortunate, because his point is serious and bold: “The United States Congress, the avatar of the democratically elected national legislatures in the modern world, is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.”

Much of what is powerful about this allegation is who is making it. This isn’t the rage of the dispossessed: Gore is, after all, a former vice president; a board member of the world’s largest technology company, Apple; a partner in one of the world’s leading venture-capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers; and a multi-millionaire who netted close to $100 million on the sale of his Current TV to an emir in democracy-challenged Qatar shortly before this book was published.

The argument is compelling, too, and that is largely because Gore gets into the weeds. Most of his book’s value is in connecting dots — the bullet points are condensed conventional wisdom, a sort of Reader’s Digest for the Beltway intelligentsia. The E.U.’s political and economic crisis gets four paragraphs, which precede a quick jump to the Fertile Crescent; the 2008 financial crisis gets one paragraph, and the budget deficit gets three. But when it comes to how money is corrupting U.S. politics, Gore goes beyond the Cliffs Notes.

PHOTO: Former U.S. Vice President and Current TV Chairman and co-founder Al Gore speaks during the panel for Current TV’s “Politically Direct” at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, California January 13, 2012.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

8 comments

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As a young man I never liked Al Gore. But I have certainly come to respect him.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Well, I’ve been looking for a new book, so I guess I’ll go ahead and order this one. Thanks.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Mr. Gore, for once, is quite correct and his reference to Moore’s Law to the ever-increasing rate of change entirely appropriate. He is also right that “…the U.S. political system is not “…up to the challenge…” of a world in which every individual of every nation is simultaneously squabbling with hands out and palms open to increase their “share” of a fixed or shrinking “economic pie”.

American citizen-voters are not being asked to define what kind of government they want because to do so they need to come to consensus as to America’s “needs” versus “wants” and then prioritize available funds. America remains a “work in progress” that, as a nation, has forgotten it simply can’t afford to do EVERYTHING it wants to today.

The promise and the challenge of such change is that such a bunch of tigers loosed simultaneously everywhere in the world in virtually every field of human endeavor can be “ridden” by no one for long. I am reminded of the Chinese use of two characters to express the concept of “crisis”. One means “Danger” The other,”opportunity.

No one has traveled so far so fast where no road or even beaten beaten path exists, so there are few, if any, rules. It’s a matter of jumping on for the ride when and where you can, and hanging on for as long as you can, knowing when the dust settles you may be better off, worse off, or just older, more tired and dirty.

The emerging future is one in which the smart and lucky will become big winners, and the smart and the unlucky big losers. The great majority of “not so smart” right down to the “bottom of the pile” will get ground up and spit out of the process wondering what the heck happened.

Suddenly there is abundant energy everywhere, but it’s relatively expensive to extract. If it is used too fast (such as materially increasing the standard of living for the “bottom four billion” humans already living) our big blue marble will rapidly become a big brown marble.

In some areas water will become increasingly precious. Having it means life (and food). L and lacking it means death (and starvation). The first human to live to be one thousand years of age may have already been born, but over much of the earth life will be as was common before WW II; short, nasty and brutal.

The world’s poor will try to demand or take what they need and they will fail. Many will die. The world’s rich will fight a defensive battle motivating those on whom the future depends to somehow preserve a way of life that allows the accumulation of knowledge to improve overall “quality of life” for perhaps a billion or two humans forward and out into the universe.

Or everything may come tumbling down in a progression of societal convulsions. The action will be in the arena, but I think I’ll watch and bet from the cheap seats.

We live in interesting times.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I saw Al Gore at Trinity Methodist Church in Savannah a couple of weekends ago. Your summary pretty sums up what he had to say with the exception of some pretty funny jokes he told. Gore is still brimming with vitality and brilliance, and he seems ready to share his vast knowledge with the rest of the world. Too bad most of the world is not listening. If Bush were president, maybe he could create another Pearl Harbor, 9/11 event to shock Americans into doing something. That seems to be the only way things get done in this country.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

Al Gore, President of the United States. Thank God we dodged that bullet.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

Al Gore is a very wealthy man who, like many very wealthy men, is interested in what will make him even more wealthy. To that end, his latest book is largely successful in raising his brand visibility, and also in moving units of his latest product. He presents the image of social responsibility without any real social responsibility, however, and for that reason I find his arguments are not compelling in the least.

His idea that we are living in an era of unprecedented change is just another sales pitch, and nothing more. Most of the world still lives hand to mouth, just as it has for thousands of years; and all of those people do not really care what Mr. Gore has to say- because it has very little to do with them. If he wanted to be relevant though, he would have to come down off Mount Boardroom and start living in the real world with all the little people- and if he did that, then what’s the point of being brought up an aristocrat?

Posted by SamRandom | Report as abusive

I remember Al and Tipper’s campaign against lyrics in rock songs. That was many many years ago when he was still courting the Tennessee vote. While I may agree with him from time to time, that particular series of dithering dullness makes me doubt he has a logical nature. Thus we could just be looking at a talking head. No different than say Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell, really. Some people are smart and some people are smart enough to repeat what they think people want to hear.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

@SamRandom,

Yes, “Most of the world still lives hand to mouth, just as it has for thousands of years”. Mr. Gore does not speak to those because they are pawns, and pawns seldom influence the “game of life” we are all part of.

Pawns are the “river of life”. It takes a dam, whether natural or man made, to alter a river’s flow. Those who would bring about change must convince those who will benefit from the dam and secure the necessary funding and construction priority. Pawns just supply the sweat.

In this context, “…all the little people…” are irrelevant except as one of us may at some point originate or push forward an “idea whose time has come” into public attention at a moment only 20-20 hindsight will reveal as pivotal.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive