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Al Gore at #SXSW: On “The Future” and a changing world

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Former Vice President Al Gore has written a “scary book,” Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg told Gore on Saturday in a conversation at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

The environmental activist’s “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change” paints a world in danger and unable to do much about it. But Gore said each driver of change presents both “peril” and “opportunity,” although in his SXSW question-and-answer session with Mossberg, the “peril” was the star.

Earth Inc.

Gore opened with a rather conspicuous discussion of globalization and a more tightly connected world. He said that outsourcing and “robosourcing” will likely continue to accelerate, and that it’s possible that the Luddite fallacy — the idea that technological productivity advancements can destroy more jobs than they create — may turn out to be true.

Emergence of the global mind

The global mind, Gore said, is created by the connection of the thoughts and feelings of billions of people — not only to other people, but to electronic devices as well. He praised some of the new digital business models that have taken advantage of this trend, but warned that a reliance on Web tracking has created a “stalker economy” that may cause consumers to reach a “gag point” causing them to reject such technology.

Dramatic shift in power

Gore said recent changes in the political, economic and military power structure are the most significant in 500 years. As power is dispersed around the world, he said, the concentration of wealth in the U.S. is making governance difficult, resulting in a Congress that is “utterly and completely incapable” of passing any significant reform without getting permission from special interests. “Our democracy has been hacked,” Gore said, in line that was designed to be memorable (and was repeated with emphasis).


In every national and corporate plan, Gore said, the goal is growth. This has resulted in a conflation of progress and growth, with plans routinely failing to account for “negative externalities” such as pollution, as well as “positive externalities” such as spending on the arts and mental health. Gore said these externalities need to be internalized in the planning and measurement of progress.

The reinvention of life and death

Gore’ discussion of the revolution in genetics and biology — the changing of the fabric of nature — will likely be remembered most for his go-to example: spider goats. A spider goat, in Gore’s telling, are genetically modified goats that can produce valuable spider silk in their milk at larger quantities and with more ease than farmed spiders.

He said there are other, “less creepy” advancements that are helping ease human suffering and extend lives, such as 3D printing of bone replacements. But the separation of the “miraculous beneficial things” from the creepy ones will only happen if people can communicate and come to an agreement about human values, he added.

Climate in crisis

What would an Al Gore discussion be without the mention of climate change? The star of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” mentioned wildfires, drought and Superstorm Sandy as just the most recent examples of the negative effects of climate change. He said he was criticized for a scene in the movie showing the 9/11 memorial being flooded — and pointed out that Sandy made that come true in less than 10 years.

Toward the end of the Q-and-A, Gore gave a series of non-answers to a Mossberg question: How come he sold Current TV to Al Jazeera, which is owned by the oil-rich Qatar government? Gore didn’t address the apparent contradiction — an environmental activist pocketing a large amount of what is essentially oil money — and instead repeatedly praised Al Jazeera’s news chops and its ability to shake up the 24-hour-news status quo.