Al Gore and the age of hyper-change
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