By Dave Huth
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October 12, 2005

Al Gore Throws Down the Gauntlet; Will Vloggers Pick it Up?

Love him or hate him, vote for him or against him, the man who never said he invented the Internet is hoping it can serve in re-inventing the media. On October 5 Al Gore addressed the 2005 We Media conference, a gathering meant to generate conversation about distributing news and information through the Net.

Gore's keynote address was a cogent assessment of what has gone wrong with what he refers to as the "public discourse" necessary for democracy to work. Despite some omissions and overstatements (such as his idealization of America's hyper-literate past and his reluctance to explore the public's complicity in the pandering nature of TV news) Gore's critique is one of the best summaries I've heard from a politician of what's gone wrong with how people make political decisions and receive information about our society.

"Our founders knew all about the Roman Forum and the Agora in ancient Athens. They also understood quite well that in America, our public forum would be an ongoing conversation about democracy in which individual citizens would participate not only by speaking directly in the presence of others -- but more commonly by communicating with their fellow citizens over great distances by means of the printed word. Thus they not only protected Freedom of Assembly as a basic right, they made a special point - in the First Amendment - of protecting the freedom of the printing press."

He goes on to lament an intellectually lethal combination: 1. a shift from print to TV as the dominant forum in which our ideas are exchanged, and 2. the takeover of media heirarchy by corporate and political interests, thus shutting out a truly democratic plurality of voices.

"Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation."

Jay Rosen, speaking at the same conference, thinks the speech had something to say to anyone concerned with the collision between old-form heirarchical media and bloggy-form democratic media. Rosen heard the speech as a challenge to those of us creating media alternatives. He says it's our job to figure out how to use our new ideas, new access, and new models to rehabilitate the rule of reason in public conversation.

Accepting this challenge is a good reason to be involved in videoblogging. Not only is videoblogging (or as Apple is calling it now, "video podcasting") a good way to work through the technical twists and turns of distributing grassroots media. It's also a chance to experiment with creating new sorts of content that we hope to distribute.

What will an aternative to the 30-second political commercial look like? If we're not going to be looking at a one-way image-driven PR blitz, if we're not watching pointlessly polarized entertainment professionals scream at each other under the guise of "balanced debate," if we aren't going to watch political operatives endlessly repeating meaningless talking points, then what precisely will we be watching? Here are just a few examples. Certainly not a fully realized dream. But it's a start.

This past summer a group of video bloggers began an on-again off-again discussion of content that I hope will continue. Now that the iPod plays video, more people may be watching.

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