AUSTIN, Texas--Former U.S. vice president Al Gore and Facebook's founding president Sean Parker argued passionately today that online communities must use the powerful tools at their disposal to save American democracy.
At South by Southwest (SXSW) here, Gore and Parker took the stage to tell an adoring crowd of several thousand that though they should be proud of the mass Internet activism that derailed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), there is still a huge amount of work to be done if Americans want to keep special interests from perpetually forcing their agendas down society's throat.
Fortunately, the two digerati superstars insisted, the Internet--especially in an age when hundreds of millions of people are on Facebook and when new political activism tools are popping up everywhere--offers us a huge opportunity to make positive change. As long as people don't let that opportunity pass us by.
"The Internet is the most fantastic tool ever brought into being to make things right and to fix our democracy," Gore told the SXSW crowd. "We can use it. It is going to happen. But how long? It depends on whether [you] feel passionate about it and get involved."
The discussion was billed as Gore interviewing Parker, but for the thousands of SXSW attendees who jammed the room to hear the two talk, it was definitely a love fest for the former VP--a man who is clearly at the top of his game these days.
"Our democracy has been hacked," Gore began. "It no longer works to serve the best interests of the people of this country."
These days, Gore is wearing a lot of hats. He's chairman of Current TV, on Apple's board, advises Google, is a senior partner at A-list VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, co-heads Generation Investment Management, and spends most of his time on the Climate Reality Project.
For his part, Parker, who in addition to his founding president role with Facebook co-founded Napster and Plaxo, is now putting much of his energy behind several online voting organizations including Causes and Votizen.
Parker recalled the anti-SOPA online activism of earlier this year and said it was a high point. But in the next breath he warned that people have otherwise been lackadaisical about wielding the power that huge connective systems like Facebook provide. "For one of the most powerful industries in the world," Parker said of the Internet, "we should be setting a model that all other industries would aspire to. For all that, our political apathy is somewhat pathetic."
He lumped himself among those who have not leveraged their power as much as they could.
For his part, Gore said that he thinks that for all the potential the Internet offers political activists, there have been few cases of that power being successfully harnessed--something that has to change.
There's a "tendency sometimes to believe that if you connect online and get someone to touch and click," Gore said, "that's the equivalent to signing them up [to be involved politically]. But actually the ties that are formed are often much weaker and less durable, and as a result, democratic organizing movements that put the Internet at the center [often] don't have that oomph, that staying power."
Still, Parker said it was worth noting that what happened with SOPA showed what's possible when members of the Internet community put their minds to something big. "I've been calling it 'Nerd Spring,'" Parker said. "It's like the Arab Spring, but the SXSW version of it."
Battling the power of money in politics
Both Gore and Parker asserted that one of the biggest dangers facing democracy today is the influence of corporate money in politics. But they said that while court rulings like Citizens United have unleveled the playing field, online tools can allow political activists to organize voters at fractions of the cost of the traditional TV commercial-oriented political campaigns that are being funded by corporations and SuperPACs.
"At the end of the day, if you could deliver votes to politicians much more cheaply and effectively, in fact close to free," Parker said, "the problems wouldn't go away, but they'd be less severe. We may have a window of opportunity to change the system."
Gore agreed, saying that unlike television, which is push media, the Internet "creates a public space for conversation, [and] like the printing press, has low entry barriers. It's easy to find any information you want...and easy to contribute your own ideas."
Added Gore, "We have to have a lot of emergent efforts to create new online tools to bring people together so there can be digital smart mobs, flash mobs, calling out the truth when these special interests try to stampede elected representatives to do what they want."
And Parker urged the audience on hand at SXSW to help lead the charge. "We have a lot of smart hackers here," Parker said. "We need to put our heads together and seize control over this system, quickly and stealthily before incumbent players wake up to what's happening. We will have a moment of opportunity...if we do it successfully, to reform the system."
Gore put it more succinctly. "Occupy democracy," the former VP exhorted the crowd.