al_gore

Former Vice President Al Gore spends a lot time talking about tech in “The Future: Six Drivers of Social Change,” his new book out today that details his assessment of the main drivers of global change.

No surprise there. The veep is a co-founder and chairman of Generation Investment Management, a senior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and an Apple Inc. board member. He also has direct or indirect investments in companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter.

What is surprising, though, is how little fresh insight he brings to a more than 550-page discussion about the future and technology’s impact on it.

That’s not to say he doesn’t quite literally say a lot. There are a lot od words in the book. When Gore gets around to listing technology as one of six drivers of global change, for example, he summarizes himself in a sentence that’s nearly 100 words long. But you sort of know what you’re in for when even the inside cover flap has paragraph-long bullet points.

The big takeaway I get from the book, at least as far as his thoughts on tech are concerned, is that Gore thinks that we’re too busy playing with shiny iPhones, posting Facebook status updates, and ordering books from Amazon to realize what all that convenience is costing us. He confesses, for example, to being part of a generation that’s “often surprised by the amount of personal information shared on Facebook by those who are younger.” And he does talk about privacy in a way you might not associate with a Democrat.

For starters, Big Brother is totally watching you, writes Gore without a hint of irony, given that he’s someone who’s invested in and helped direct companies that have conditioned us into expecting daily, casual, always-connected access to the digital grid.

“Surveillance technologies now available – including the monitoring of virtually all digital information – have advanced to the point where much of the essential apparatus of a police state is already in place,” Gore writes.

That’s an example of the yin and yang dichotomy that pervades the book, a theme Gore really only just identifies and stops short of resolving.

The loss of privacy and data security on the Internet must be quickly addressed. The emergent ‘stalker economy’ based on the compilation of large digital files on individuals who engage in e-commerce is exploitative and unacceptable. Similarly, the growing potential for the misuse by governments of even larger digital files on the personal lives of their citizens – including the routine interception of private communications – poses a serious threat to liberty and must be stopped. Those concerned about the quality of freedom in the digital age must make new legal protections for privacy a priority.

The veep is hitting the talk show circuit this week to talk about “The Future,” and he’s likely to be asked about the recent sale of the TV network he co-founded, Current TV, to Al Jazeera. He hasn’t really addressed the sale yet, save for a statement issued in its wake.

That’s sexier than talking broadly about the impact of technology on the future. Maybe for his next book, Gore will take another pass at the topic instead of a professorial summary of what many people already know.

Reading “The Future” is akin to someone collapsing after feeling faint, and a doctor approaching them and calmly explaining, “It’s really quite simple. This is what’s wrong with you…” and offering no restorative help.

All that said, I take away a different suggestion from Gore’s inclusion in the book of a reference to the Goethe poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” In that poem, a young trainee who’s left alone decides to dip into one of his master’s spells to try and bring to life a broom to help him clean a room.

The spell works, but the enchanted broom quickly becomes an unstoppable force. The young trainee frantically whacks the broom in two with an axe — serving only to then create two brooms that have come to life.

What brings the situation back under control is the re-emergence of the master, who breaks the spell.

You could take more than one meaning from that. Maybe Gore is saying we have to be careful about the forces we’re tampering with. But underneath that warning is the calm, seductive reassurance that – alas, I know you will tamper with it anyway. But who “the master” is in Gore’s analogy is anyone’s guess.

[Image courtesy Center for American Progress Action Fund]