Last Tuesday, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore delivered a keynote speech on “Technology and the Future of Democratization” during Media@McGill’s annual lecture at its Beaverbrook Conference. While both technology and democracy were addressed, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate spoke more generally about the world’s current state of affairs and this generation’s imperative role in shaping its future.
After a 30-year political career, Gore unabashedly spoke of an increasingly capitalized and problem-ridden “Earth, Inc.,” as he termed it, as well as a “declining” U.S.. He drew upon historical and scientific anecdotes to address global issues in the economic, political, environmental, and societal spheres.
Gore explicitly criticized profit-driven capitalism. “The ‘one per cent’ is not an Occupy Wall Street slogan – it is a fact,” he said.
He called for systemic changes in economic policy toward a “sustainable capitalism,” one that abolishes “short-termisms,” changes incentives to account for externalities, and redefines growth.
As to what a new paradigm would look like, Gore was unable to give a clear picture. “I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Al Gore does either,” said Saurin Shah, a U2 student in Cognitive Science. According to Shah, Gore’s message was that, “‘All the pieces are there, someone just needs to pick it up’ and not ‘we need to build a new system’ […] He didn’t say capitalism is not sustainable.”
Shah did agree, though, that Gore evoked “a sense of urgency.”
Gore also addressed both the potentials and consequences of rapidly developing technologies in today’s quickly changing world. “The future of democracy depends on the choices we make, in relation to these new [technological] capacities,” he said.
In this respect, Gore addressed the student crowd directly: “These times now call for young men and women such as you to shape the future and make it what it should be.”
Payal Patel, U3 student in Political Science and Psychology, said she felt empowered after the talk. Although the content was not new to her, she said, “It was cool to see things from my political science class, my arts and science class, and my psychology class all come together […] and made me think about how it’s all integrated.”
Gore spoke openly about the U.S. – its current decline as a superpower, and its dysfunctionality as a country “radiating into global governance as a whole.” Shah, an American student at McGill, appreciated that Gore took a critical stance on America’s “crushing bureaucracy [and] increasing inequality of a developed nation of its size.”
Gore even called the recent government shutdown “pathetic” and “pitiful,” a far cry from what he called “an avatar for democracy around the world.”
In addressing this “democracy in decline,” Gore optimistically pointed to the internet as a powerful tool to participate, collaborate, and “win the conversation of making the right choice” – though he did not specify which, or whose, conversation.
However, Shah pointed out that Gore ultimately equated real change with institutional decision-making. While Gore admitted to declining confidence in the current capitalism-democracy model, he rejected neither, and in fact believed that they remain the best paradigms in governing society today.
“[As] a career politician, he is not really willing to […] condemn any government and say [their] method of democracy isn’t working,” said Shah.