Former vice president Al Gore and Napster co-founder and Web entrepreneur Sean Parker on led a discussion Monday evening at the South By Southwest conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. An audience of thousands attended the Austin Convention Center talk and more thousands more watched via a live stream.
"Our democracy has been hacked." said Gore. "I'd like to see a new movement called Occupy Democracy," Gore said as Parker nodded in agreement and a packed auditorium of attendees cheered and applauded.
To fix what he called a no-longer functional U.S. government, Gore urged the audience to begin a new "Occupy Democracy" movement. He pushed for the creation and implementation of digital tools and social media to "change the democratic conversation."
The SXSW Conference is an annual convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.
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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."
"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."
-Sean ParkerStill, 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.
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