Information and Power – Thoughts on Al Gore’s Speech

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Kathleen Reich, Program Officer, Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy at the The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

By:  Kathleen Reich

Al Gore ended his speech at the Council on Foundations conference yesterday as you might have expected: with an inspired, urgent call to action on climate change. But in the first half of his speech, Gore talked about information and power—who has it, and who does not, and what that means for our society. I found the first half of his speech even more sobering and thought-provoking than the second half.

Gore began with a  history lesson, describing how, in the centuries before the invention of the printing press, information, power and wealth were  concentrated in the hands of a very few. The printing press changed all that. Within a few decades, people in Europe could read books in the vernacular. That led to profound and democratizing changes that spread beyond Europe throughout the world: the age of exploration, the Reformation, the rise of mercantile capitalism, the Enlightenment, and ultimately, the founding of the United States of America.

Gore now sees us in the midst of another revolution—one that is taking us backwards. He believes we are in the midst of a re-feudalization of information and power, a process that began with the emergence of broadcasting in the mid-20th century. Now it is increasingly easy for a few major corporations, or a single government, to control the channels of information and power. Gore cited Russia, Venezuela, and Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi controls 88 percent of the nation’s broadcast media.

Gore also talked about examples closer to home. He observed that in the United States, “The journalism profession has become the news business…and hatred and divisiveness have become entertainment.” He noted that, in political campaigns, money has replaced information and the exchange of ideas. He spoke of the self-interest of those who caused the economic crisis.

I was very surprised, especially given his life and work, that the former Vice President and Nobel Laureate did not speak of the single greatest force we can currently marshal against this aggregation of power and information: the internet. I work with many people who believe passionately that the internet is already changing the world. These folks would argue that the internet is forcing power to the edges. Anyone with a cell phone can take and transmit a picture that galvanizes world opinion, as happened in Iran. Anyone with an internet connection can blog, or pinpoint the location where relief is most needed in Haiti, or help foment a protest in Moldova. Aren’t we living in an age of more democracy and information, not less?

But then I started to worry that Al Gore, in addition to being one of the most brilliant minds of our time, sits on the board of Apple and advises Google. What does he know about who controls information that I don’t? And what can we in philanthropy be doing to ensure that the internet evolves as a force for good—for transparency, accountability, democracy, and the free flow of information—rather than yet another way to concentrate information, power, and wealth in the hands of a few? Any ideas?

One response to “Information and Power – Thoughts on Al Gore’s Speech

  1. Gore is right that philanthropies need to fund journalism but the reason is a collapse in fact-based journalism at the state and local level. McChesney and Nichols in “The Death and Life of American Journalism” argue eloquently that democracy is already being damaged because the public doesn’t know what is happening in their communities. Colorado has lost half of its journalists in the past year. The same is happening all over the country. McChesney/Nichols cite a Pew study in Baltimore that found only 4% of original reporting is coming from non-traditional media. Most is coming from the Baltimore Sun, which is doing 73% less reporting than 20 years ago. Bloggers give their opinions; almost none have the time for original reporting. Remaining media are so short of staff, they are doing a horrible job. We’re trying to do something about this disaster at a public television station in Denver, but it’s a hard task as so many people think there’s a plethora of information. There isn’t. There’s just an overwhelming tide of opinion, and a dramatic loss of facts on which to base those opinions.