Interview with Vice President Al Gore
By Lawrence J. Magid
January 11th, 1994 was a pretty important day for those of us who follow computers and communications. That's the day that Vice President Al Gore outlined the Clinton administration's goals, objectives and plans for helping to implement the national data "superhighway." I interviewed Gore at UCLA shortly after he delivered his speech and continued the discussion aboard Air Force 2 en route to the Bay AreGore.
The interview, which follows, provides a glimpse into the thoughts and concerns of the man who must steer a precarious course to balance the needs of both the pubic and private sector as we take the next step into the information age.
Gore's initiatives come at a time when an increasing number of Americans are calling for less -- not more -- government involvement in the commercial sector. Yet, as the interview reveals, Gore, too, is anxious to avoid what he calls an "awkward government mandate" while encouraging industry to provide affordable information services that are accessible to all Americans.
I was also interested in learning about the Vice President's own computer use and his personal experiences in helping to bring modern technology into his own operation at the White House.
What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion.
LARRY: I asked all my friends and family, "What should I ask the Vice-President?"
Everybody wanted to know whether you use a personal computer?
GORE: Oh, yes I do.
LARRY: And people want to know what type of PC you use.
GORE: Well right now I mainly use a Macintosh Duo Doc 270-c.. And I also have an AST (IBM compatible) PC. Those are the two that I use the most.
LARRY: And you do what kind of work do you do with them?
GORE: I write a lot of materials like segments of speeches. I am working on a personal project and I use it a lot for e-mail.
LARRY: Are you experienced using on-line services such as Prodigy, CompuServe or America Online?
GORE: Yes I have, and I enjoy them. We have had some problems in the White House using some on-line services and, and connecting to the Internet the way we would like to because there are requirements in the open access records laws. The Freedom of Information Act, which I've always supported, has that some privileged communications within the White House only take place electronically if you don't do certain things. It's frustrating to me because I think we ought to be fully linked to the Internet. Basically the White House that we inherited was way-way-way behind the curve and we have spent the last year trying to get it up to speed.
I hope soon that we will be able to use on-line services a lot more readily.
LARRY: That brings up another question. I sent you a message on the Internet I addressed it to email@example.com." I got a "form" acknowledgment but I didn't get a response. Had I sent you a letter via U.S. mail I probably would have gotten something back. Now is that just a snafu in this embryonic stage?
GORE: Yes. Yes.
LARRY: Will it be corrected?
GORE: We expect to have it straightened out fairly soon. You don't need to know the details, but we inherited a real mess. And it takes time to straighten it out. That's basically the problem.
You may have heard me talk about the (White House) switchboard with the cords. Well you can readily imagine that if that's what the telephone system looks like, the computer system is also a museum piece.
LARRY: Let's start about your dreams when it comes to access to government information. The United States Government owns a tremendous amount of information including legislative and administrative datGore: What's your dream as far as citizen access to the information that the government itself holds?
GORE: I favor digital libraries that contain government information. There are private entities which add value by searching, displaying conforming and presenting publicly financed datGore: And they have an important role to play. But the public ought to have access to public files. And there are now ways to greatly increase the public's access to information and we're moving fairly vigorously.
LARRY: Are you talking about making it available for free or for a nominal cost?
GORE: Yes. Well you could just say "at cost". Which is not free.
LARRY: This gets us into some into interesting issues. For example your speech today. It was carried on commercial TV networks such as CNN and C-SPAN but you're a public official and, presumably, your words are not copyrighted. This event is not copyrighted. Should that speech be available on the Internet?
GORE: Of course. It already is. The audio portion was carried live on the Internet.
LARRY: When I'm on an online service, once the high-speed digital highway is in place, I want to be able to click on "Gore Speaks at UCLA" and see and hear Gore speaking.
GORE: Well, I'm normally bashful, but I'll, I make an exception for the Internet.
LARRY: Can social problems be solved by technology?
GORE: Well the solution to some social problems can be found more readily with the assistance of technology. But one of our deepest problems in modern civilization is the too-easy assumption that technology by itself will yield a solution to every problem. Many problems can only be solved by changes in the human heart, by changes in the way we relate to one another. And sometimes the automatic assumption that you can simply create a new technology to solve a problem like that actually moves you farther from the solution rather than closer to it. We certainly see this in environmental problems where what I've called in my book "technological hubris" can create more problems than it solves.
LARRY: Do you worry, as we march toward this information highway, that we may be creating expectations that may not be realistic?
GORE: Well to some extent I do, but I honestly believe that this is an example of such enormous unrealized potential that we have a long way to go before we get into that particular danger zone. An enabling infrastructure is not as prone to the phenomenon I've just described because it's a tool that everyone can use. And it enhances everyone's ability to solve problems.
LARRY: I'm sure you've given a lot of thought to the issue that many people in today's society, children and adults, can't read simple books. How are these people going to be able to read or participate in the on-line world When so many of them are still illiterate.
GORE: Well it's a disgrace that we have the illiteracy rate we do. Nations like Cuba just put us to shame, where illiteracy is concerned. And it's time we realized the need for a national effort to deal with this problem. But where education and training is concerned one of the best ways to improve productivity is by using new technologies. Information technologies can, themselves, make a contribution to combating illiteracy.
LARRY: The high-speed data highways will make it easier to deliver video, audio and graphics over the wire. Could we, in a sense, be contributing towards further illiteracy by making it even easier to get information in non-textual ways?
GORE: Well video plus text is an improvement over pure video.
LARRY: When I think about your efforts, I can't help think back to 1908 when Henry Ford started making Model Ts. What if Teddy Roosevelt's Vice President (at the time), Charles Fairbanks had a given a speech about a national transportation policy?
GORE: I saw that in your column. That's a lovely example. By the way, he's the second most forgotten Vice-President.
LARRY: Perhaps that why - that he didn't make that speech. Seriously, I keep thinking that we're on the threshold of something very big and that we have a chance to steer it so we don't have gridlock and pollution on this highway.
GORE: Yes. That's why this effort is so important.
In addition to the example that you have used with the Model-T and the beginning of the automobile stage you could also cite the beginning of the nuclear age. I have often used that example to make the same point. And the problem of course is that it's so difficult to imagine exactly what the problems and opportunities are likely to be.
In the context of the dawn of the atomic age, there was this wonderful documentary called "The Atomic Cafe." One segment showed a group of scientists opposed to the development of the hydrogen bomb seriously arguing that the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb might very well begin a chain reaction in world's oceans that would lead to a drying up of all the oceans in the world. Patently ridiculous.
But while time and effort was wasted on an improbable scenario like that, very little time was invested in exploring the real questions about how this would intensify the Cold War, how the world might avoid a situation in which two super powers pointed thousands of nuclear weapons at each other and threatened the annihilation of the human race on a moment's notice.
How we could avoid spending the trillions of dollars that were spent on both sides of that conflict.. And here at the in the early stages of this accelerating information revolution we're tempted to make similar mistakes by focusing on improbable scenarios that are almost certainly marginal concerning the future.
The more basic questions about how this revolution is going to form our society need much more attention, debate and, and dialogue. And I think we're fortunate that that is now beginning to take place. And we're fortunate that a consensus is beginning to emerge about the right questions to ask and the right goals to set.
LARRY: Commercial online services have agreed to post pictures of missing children as a public service and, as you pointed out in your speech, Bell Atlantic and TCI have just announced that they will offer free digital access to all schools in their service areGore: These are laudable gestures but should such things be a requirement. Should this be like radio and television stations have an obligation to provide access and public service?
GORE: Well let's try it this way first. It may work this way.
LARRY: Do you really think so?
GORE: Yes , I think it's plausible.
LARRY: Couldn't you envision, for example, the Bell Atlantic and TCI offer and say, "Yeah, this is great, we're going to do it." And maybe these companies do it perpetually but none of their competitors do. Maybe these companies do it for 10 years and then charge, start charging. Are you sure this is going to work in the long run?
GORE: No, but it's worth, it's worth a try because it's so preferable to an awkward government mandate. But if a government mandate is the only way to accomplish it, then that's what we ought to have. And there are ways that such a mandate could be made less rather than more intrusive.
There are a lot of different ways to approach it. But let's work with them and take them up on the offer that many of them are making and look for ways to solve the problem together.
LARRY: Let me ask you a question as someone who has had a career pressing the flesh, meeting people. Do you worry that the face-to-face interaction in the community, the literal "town halls" of America may be diminished by the virtual communities that we're developing?
GORE: No, I don't. The percentage of people in a given state that an elected official can actually seek personally is so small in any event that virtual "town hall" meetings will be an advance.
LARRY: Go beyond politicians. What about communities, churches, friends, classmates. I mean it's possible now to colleagues who you never see. If you and the President only communicated via e-mail would you be missing something that you're now getting?
A , Of course. But I don't think that will happen. Many people are missing a great deal just by virtue of the automobile. I know a lot of folks who don't even know the names of their neighbors because they drive into the garage at night and watch TV and stay with their families. And then the next morning they drive to work again. But they've lost something in the process. By taking advantage of network technology, many virtual communities can become very meaningful to other people who participate in them and strengthen real communities.
LARRY: What's the postal service's future in all of this?
GORE: They're quite aware of the challenge they're facing, but certainly premature to assume they're obsolescence. I think they are have a critical role to play for a long long time to come and they will also play an electronic role.
LARRY: Before we wrap up, I'd like to raise an issue which I know is very important to your wife, Tipper Gore. What about pornography and violence. As you know, get the Internet now provides access child pornography and other material that very few adults, let alone children, would want to be exposed to. What do we do? Do we establish ratings? Do we have filters? How do I keep my kids from getting on the Net and typing "alt.sex.bondage."
GORE: Well, maybe all of the above. There are, as one of the participants of the forum today said, electronic keys and new tools of various kinds to enhance the authority of parents to protect their children against material for which they're not, in the judgment of the parents, emotionally prepared. And more generic filters can be installed by those families that wish to make that choice. There are a lot of new tools that can help to solve this problem. In addition, however, one of the central points that my wife has made for many years applies here as well. Responsible companies which are, after all, groups of human beings who are not just in business to make money but because that's the way they spend a large part of their lives, have a role to play in exercising ethical judgment about what contribution they want to make to the future of our society. And more and more consumers of information or consumers of products are curious about the ethical judgments being made by the businesses they patronize.
And I dare say that these new information tools can also enhance the power of consumers who wish to register their disapproval of this company or that company by exercising their First Amendment rights even if it is in a way namely "withholding their patronage" that drives that message home pretty forcefully.
LARRY: Thank you very much Mr. Vice President