SXSW: Al Gore Talks Surveillance Culture, Spider Goats

Clearly knowing his SXSW audience, Gore also dropped an Indiana Jones reference at a crucial juncture.

AUSTIN, TX—Former vice president Al Gore sat down with Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg at this year’s SXSW conference to talk about the future—specifically, what Gore sees as the dangers and opportunities awaiting the planet for the next few years.

One aspect of those dangers, as delineated in Gore’s new book “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change,” comes from the use of sophisticated algorithms to trade financial commodities at superhuman speeds. “The high-speed trading is one detail that I think should be regulated much more tightly, and regulators in several countries are moving to do that,” he told Mossberg. “They’re into milliseconds now.” A millisecond of high-speed trades, he added, has a value of untold millions of dollars.

Nonetheless, that type of lighting-fast trading has become increasingly ubiquitous on Wall Street over the past few years. After all, why let a human being make a big bet on a single stock when a machine can digest massive quantities of financial data and make tons of money off millisecond trades? But the software behind those speedy transactions has been blamed for some bizarre market activity over the past few years, including “Flash Crash” in May 2010.

Super-fast algorithms are part of what Gore sees as a radical change in how human beings interact with their computer systems—loaded with opportunity, but also fraught with potential dangers.

In a similar vein, Gore also suggested (both onstage, and evidently in his new book) that the relationships between political entities, the military, and the citizenry are undergoing dramatic change—a cause for much potential trouble, if it leads to social instability. The flow of money into the U.S. political system, he argued, and the need by politicians to fundraise has led to special interests gaining undue power.

“Our democracy has been hacked,” Gore told his audience, referring to the U.S. Constitution as “our operating system.” While there’s never been a “golden age” of American Democracy, he added, the perils emerging today are new. “If a Congressman or Senator has to spend five hours a day begging special interests or rich people for money,” he said, they’ll be more concerned about how what they’re saying will appeal to those interests—rather than their constituents.

Gore also drilled down into what he referred to as the “stalker economy.” The rise of apps such as SnapChat, which allows smartphone users to control how long friends can view messages, is emblematic of people reaching the “gag point” with pervasive recording and surveillance by government and business.

“The government is about to complete this two-billion-dollar facility in Utah that can sweep up everything” from phone calls to emails, he lamented. “And the Supreme Court just ruled you can’t sue…”

Gore also railed against genetic engineering, including Spider Goats, which are goats with spliced spider DNA that allows them to secrete spider silk along with their milk. The goats breed, extending that trait to future generations. Gore sees such things as a case of science run amok, alternately creepy and scary.

Gore’s book touches on numerous other issues confronting the Earth, including the climate change that has become his pet cause over the past decade. Sounding much more like a firebrand than during his politician days, Gore made it clear to the SXSW audience that he intends on speaking about all those issues for quite some time to come.

 

Image: SXSW Live Feed

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