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 with which our world is changing, he argues, is unprecedented, and that transformation is the central reality of our lives today. 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 downplay his conviction that, this time, things really are different. He thinks the world is experiencing exponential change, that the transformation in our lives 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 which are a leitmotif of this book, he warns that our Ice Age brains struggle 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 indeed 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 business has become truly global (a phenomenon he dubs, À 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 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 multimillionaire 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 itself 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 themselves are condensed conventional wisdom, a sort of Reader’s Digest for the beltway intelligentsia. The EU’s political and economic crisis gets four paragraphs, which precede a quick jump to the Fertile Crescent; the 2008 financial crisis gets one paragraph; the budget deficit gets three.) But when it comes to how money is corrupting U.S. politics, Gore goes beyond the Cliff Notes.
He describes the U.S. political system as a quarterly democracy, explaining that the requirement for revolving 90-day public reporting of fundraising has created a cycle in which every three months lawmakers madly raise money, partly in a show of force to scare off rivals. Perhaps not surprisingly for a man whose bid for the presidency was frustrated by the Supreme Court, Gore lays much of the blame for America’s hacked democracy with the nation’s top judges and tells a detailed story of the corporate legal takeover starting in the 1970s with the opinions of Justice Lewis Powell, who created the novel concept of corporate speech.’
By now, you won’t be surprised to learn that Gore concludes his chapter on politics in an operatic key: We as human beings now face a choice: either to be swept along by the powerful currents of technological change and economic determinism into a future that may threaten our deepest values, or to build a capacity for collective decision-making on a global scale. A tall order indeed, and that’s just the conclusion of Chapter 3.
Gore’s offering of bold pronouncements is a virtue of the book but also underlies its shortcomings. The Future is baggy, ponderous and seems to revel in complexity for its own sake. In his introduction, Gore happily recalls hours listing headings and subheadings, then changing their rank order and relative magnitude, moving them from one category to another and filing in more and more details after each re-reading. Those beloved subheadings, for instance – Rethinking Resources, Technology and the World Brain,’ Relative or Absolute Decline? – haunt this book and do not lend elegance to its prose.
Equally characteristic, and less forgivable, are the moments when earnest engagement decays into condescension. Most of the time, Gore is thrilled by the galaxy of facts he has spied, and excited by the connections he draws between them. That enthusiasm has a charm that easily makes up for the workmanlike writing.
Every once in a while, he slips from being an evangelical nerd to a superior know-it-all, and those lapses grate. I didn’t mind his reference to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or being reminded (OK – learning!) that it was originally a poem by Goethe, written a decade before Faust, but I didn’t need to be told that the story is well-known. This is a book only a wonk will love. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it surely means most readers won’t appreciate being told that GDP is the system of economic value measurement known as gross domestic product.
Now that Gore has cleared his throat with this account of how he thinks about everything that matters, I hope his next book is a more focused look at one piece in that enormous puzzle, U.S. politics, why it doesn’t work in the 21st century, and how to fix it.