You and Al Gore
The New Critic’s inaugural person of the year is the former Vice President of the US, Al Gore, for his film An Inconvenient Truth, which has been so deeply influential in this country in shifting public and political consciousness on global warming. On 17 November 2006, Gore spoke in Perth to a sold out audience at the Concert Hall and later to a capacity dinner at the Convention Centre. The weight of Gore’s message is staggering, delivered in carefully crafted layers in his lectures, but summed up in a few words in the subtitle to the book of the film: global warming is a ‘planetary emergency’, a thing so vast in scope that every single human being and all other life on the globe is captured in its grasp. What is at stake is ‘[o]ur ability to live on planet Earth – to have a future as a civilization.’ Yet Gore insists on a vision of hope and it is the skill and power of his call to the pumps which merits recognition. Gore’s optimism is not blind, but based on the assessment that if we grasp the scope and cause of the threat, then through unity of purpose and ingenuity of reason we may yet stave off the apocalypse.
Now it is up to us to use our democracy and our God-given ability to reason with one another about our future and make moral choices to change the policies and behaviours that would, if continued, leave a degraded planet for our children and grandchildren – and for humankind.
We must choose instead to make the 21st century a time of renewal. By seizing the opportunity that is bound up in this crisis, we can unleash the creativity, innovation, and inspiration that are just as much a part of our human birthright as our vulnerability to greed and pettiness. The choice is ours. The responsibility is ours. The future is ours.1
We face a task that is awesome in its dimensions and consequences but, Gore exhorts, we may yet prevail: ‘It is our time to rise again to secure our future.’*
Gore’s repeated use of inclusive plurals: ‘our’, ‘we’ and ‘us’, is in stark contrast to Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2006, named simply as ‘you’ and illustrated with a silver reflective panel on the cover of the weekly magazine’s final December issue. Every individual with access to the particular issue of Time can stare at a shimmering distorted image of themselves named as ‘Person of the Year.’ ‘You. Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.’ Not ‘us’, not ‘our’ community or society, but ‘you’. However, ‘you’, to state the obvious, are not just anyone. The primary assumption embedded in the rhetorical trick is that ‘you’ are a person who is literate, has a minimum of tech savvy and has access to a networked pc. ‘You’, then, are not statistically indicative of the majority of the world’s population. More specifically, ‘you’ are one of those netizens who has adopted the new technology to participate in virtual culture, by developing an online networks of friends, uploading your videos or photos to a public site or blogging a diary. If ‘you’ are anything like one of the ‘citizens of the new digital democracy’ featured by Time, then in one way or another ‘you’ are also a winner from the new technologies, using the web for your own self-maximizing ends.
Lev Grossman argues in the Time leader that while it is ‘a mistake to romanticize all this any more than is strictly necessary’, that nevertheless the web is predominantly a force for good, offering ‘an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person’:
It's a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who's out there looking back at them.
Perhaps, but one wonders about whether the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the web is really more likely to promote social behavior which is other-regarding. After all, the condition experienced by a person who is fascinated by being looked at by others is narcissism, not empathetic curiosity. Although the language of netvocates is dominated by the rhetoric of connectivity and communication, one is dogged by the suspicion that the principal motivation for many is nothing more than the gaze.
Time features a number of people who have made the financial big-time on the web through a mixture of drive and ingenuity. No economic losers are depicted, though the capacity of the web to contribute to the driving down of wages is actively celebrated by another of Time’s writers, Jeff Howe:
Why pay a professional when an amateur would work on it for dramatically less money? In fields ranging from photography to the sciences, companies are taking jobs once performed by staff and CROWDSOURCING them to the enthusiastic, increasingly adept masses.
Time is also rather coy about those who are most obviously exploited on the web, the individuals who feature as subjects on countless sites devoted to pornography of every imaginable kind. The magazine features only the glitzy and seductive surface of the sewwwage, personified in a woman called Tila Tequila, who is a kind of soft-porn cyber celebrity, pictured looking ecstatic in a gold mesh bikini, leaping out of a bubbling bath. Ms Tequila is hardly representative, one imagines, of the tens or hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of individuals who are the fodder of the internet porn industry.
There is no doubt that the web can function as a force for restraining the powerful. As James Poniewozik comments in Time, ‘[i]n Washington or Hollywood, the days when you could expect your bad decisions to disappear into the mists of time are disappearing. Somebody’s watching.’ Yet it should not be so easily assumed that the ‘beast with a billion eyes’ is a benevolent guardian of freedoms. The proliferation of digital camera photography and the capacity of the web to move information instantaneously is a set of conditions which lends itself to the destruction of the lives of individuals, not by an Orwellian state, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy or a Hobbesian leviathan, but by individuals engaged in mass-communication for profit or titillation. The internet might have brought down George Allen and Mark Foley, but it has also been the apparatus which has damaged or destroyed the lives of any number of ordinary people who have had an email or a photograph go astray, or have made a calculating enemy who has in turn made use of the new technology. Never before in human history has the vicious humiliation of an ordinary person been so easy to achieve, so fast, to an audience of so many. If you so choose, a veritable coliseum of grisly spectacle is on your laptop every minute of every day, on demand. For some, the net seems to exist as a kind of amoral space, where behavior that one might think unfathomable in the everyday, proliferates and is replicated.
It remains best to be optimistic about the web, but not with Time’s pronounced lack of insight and sophistication. The web is indeed an apparatus capable of magnificent application but then it is being operated by humans who retain the same biological hardwiring that has served us for millennia. As Gore says in An Inconvenient Truth, ‘Old habits + Old technology = Predictable consequences’, but ‘Old habits + New technology = Dramatically altered consequences.’ It is not clear what the longer term impact of the new technology of the web will be but, as ‘you’ know, the dramatic alteration of human society as a consequence is already upon us. It is ironic, that as we struggle to comprehend what the new virtual world means for human society, it may be our lot to be brought undone by the unforeseen effects of the technologies of an older generation. The question for our age then is whether ‘you’ can overcome the planetary emergency of the climate crisis, or whether, for all the extravagance of individual spectacle and opportunity for self- optimization presented by the web, we are to share a collective doom.
We choose hope: The New Critic rides with Mr Gore.