Ten years ago, former vice president Al Gore wrote a book called “The Assault on Reason.” Now, Penguin Books has published an updated version, with a revised subtitle: “Our Information Ecosystem, from the Age of Print to the Age of Trump.” The Washington Post interviewed Gore by phone Tuesday, and we learned that he still believes the Internet has the potential to help save America’s beleaguered political system. Here are some portions of that exchange (both the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity):
The Washington Post: So you’ve decided to reissue this book. What is the argument you’re trying to make, at this particular moment in American politics?
Al Gore: The basic point I’m trying to underscore is that we’ve seen a radical systemic change in the way we communicate with one another in the United States of America. And the assumptions that undergirded our founders’ design have been, in important ways, radically altered.
The founders of our country saw a well-informed citizenry as the bedrock of our system, and assumed that the communication among citizens and between citizens and elected representatives would take place in a way that lifted the best available evidence to the top, where it received more attention than all the noise below. And that no longer happens.
Secondly, there were almost no barriers to entry into the public conversation during the age of the printing press and now, in our present time, which is still heavily influenced by broadcasting technology, there are gatekeepers that bar entry to individual citizens. The ongoing displacement of broadcasting technology by the Internet brings the possibility to restoring the role of individual citizens in representative democracy, but it has not done so yet.
We focus on individuals, whether it’s George and W. Bush and Dick Cheney on one hand or Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon on the other hand, and of course their roles have been and are important. But the craziness that people are just dismayed by today really can be traced, ultimately, to this radical change. Those with a lot of money and recurring revenue streams to support a constant repetition of misleading messages to the public has distorted the essential role that reason used to play to a much larger degree.
Many people with a diversity of perspectives and life experience and every other way, . . . under the right conditions, can be much smarter than the smartest individuals in the group. And that is one of the reasons the United States rose to be the most respected and most successful and most admired nation in the history of the world. [But that success] relied upon our conditions that have been radically disrupted.
Those with wealth and power have been able to dominate the public conversation with phrases like “clean coal.” You have these extremely misleading information campaigns that displace the kind of robust conversation of democracy that used to keep us on track.
WP: In the new version of your book, you note that you were probably overly optimistic about the Internet when it was first published a decade ago. Although you are consistently optimistic about how the Internet can really restore some of the foundations of democracy that you see in peril right now. How do you reconcile what you’re saying, about the need for connection and the idea that the Internet is this mediating force, when in fact, right now, it’s really been a vehicle for reinforcing people’s preexisting ideas and circulating information that’s inaccurate?
Gore: People choose to go to Internet sites that reinforce their preexisting ideas. But there is a signal that individuals are finding their way back into a prominent role in the conversation.
Look at the group Indivisible, as an example. Those three former congressional staffers put out their blueprint for citizen activism on the Internet last December after they had been aggrieved by the outcome of the election. [That guide has been downloaded 1.9 million times.]
Now all of a sudden we see in these Republican town hall meetings all over the country, huge crowds that have organized in advance, that have their messaging down pat, that are really beginning to change the tone of this Congress and turn the ship of state. And it’s certainly too early to predict how successful it will be, but that’s an Internet-based phenomena. And when you look at all the reform movements that have sprung up in every issue area, all of them live and thrive on the Internet. And as the generation of digital natives ages into more positions of power and prominence, then I don’t think it’s unrealistic at all to believe the architecture of this new information ecosystem is going to give us a chance, once again, to elevate the role of reason, and best available evidence.
WP: One question about Scott Pruitt and the Environmental Protection Agency. Clearly he created some controversy last week when he said he could not reach a definitive conclusion as to whether carbon dioxide has been the primary driver of climate change in recent years. What does it say about our political discourse when you have the head of the EPA saying that?
Gore: The premise of this book is that beliefs that are obviously false and easily demonstrated as false to the satisfaction of any reasonable person who looks at the underlying facts used to be shot down more readily when the conversation of democracy was operating in a healthier pattern. But again, we’re seeing this response in social media to the latest false statement by Pruitt, and that’s having an impact on news coverage more generally. A combination of forces that resulted in his appointment are still propping up this false belief. But it won’t survive for long.