Vail Daily column: Re-examining Al Gore and the Internet
Some of what I’m writing here is borrowed from Walter Isaacson’s new book, “The Innovators,” a fascinating tome about the people who created computers and the Internet. Besides being a gripping read about the innovations we too often take for granted (and too seldom understand), it sheds a brief but bright light on former Vice President Al Gore, a frequent visitor to Happy Valley, and his rightful place in the pantheon of the Information Age.
Gore and the Internet, as you likely know, have become an unfortunate punch line — unfairly, as it turns out.
Apparently the misinformation began this way: When Gore was teed up to run for the presidency, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him to list his qualifications for the office. Among other things, Gore said, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Which, by the way, was true.
Pundits and stand-ups aside, Gore never said, and never claimed to have “invented” the Internet. And that he was instrumental in its creation — likely more than any other legislator of his time — is, as it turns out, entirely the case.
Borrowing from Isaacson, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, two of the people who did in fact invent the Internet’s protocols, spoke up on Gore’s behalf.
“No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the vice president,” they wrote.
Even Republican Newt Gingrich defended him, observing, “It’s something Gore had worked on for a long time … Gore is not the father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.”
So what, exactly, did Al Gore Jr. do?
In 1986, Gore launched a congressional study that contemplated the coming Information Age. The study was broad in its reach with a keen focus on expanding bandwidth and opening up networks to greater public use.
Ultimately, the study led to detailed hearings which led in turn to the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, known also as the Gore Act, and the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act of 1992. Among other things, what these acts did was to allow commercial networks to tie in to the research network run by the National Science Foundation, and, via electronic wizardry, to the Internet itself. It should be understood that until such time, various laws, rules, regulations and fraternal impediments effectively barred commercial enterprises — and thus the general public — from direct access to the Internet. In fact, until 1992, it was illegal for commercial companies to plug in to the Net.
What the former veep did was envision the Information Highway, gather the right players from both sides of the aisle in the Congress, the scientific community and businesses to come together, look into the future, sing Kumbaya, and construct a roadmap for getting to the promised land of bits and bytes in the most egalitarian of American traditions. Computing power to the people!
As the Boss has keenly observed, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” And Al Gore, if not the progenitor of the Internet, was at the least the legislative spark.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Some would argue — not without considerable cause — that computers, and the Internet in particular, has changed our world. Some compare it to the Industrial Revolution, others to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. More likely, it is some of both. What is indisputable, however, is that the Internet has shrunk our world and, like a construction nail in mud season, has taken at least some of the air out of despotism. Could the Arab Spring, for example, have bloomed without the Net and all its progeny?
Innovation consists of inspiration, perspiration, application and implementation. I could bore you with all of the good ideas that are stillborn because while perhaps brilliant and even inspiring, they never get beyond imagination to creation.
What Al Gore did was an instrumental artery of implementation for the Internet. He was not its creator and never claimed to be. Without his legislative will, his legislative muscle and his dogged wish to drag America first into the Information Future, the U.S. would have never been the tip of the spear in the current worldwide Information Economy.
So chuckle at him if you will. He could have been more artful in how he responded in 1999 to Wolf Blitzer’s extemporania. But without Al Gore’s single-mindedness, we might “just be dancing in the dark.”
And oh, one other thing: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says Gore was right on climate change as well. Just food for thought. You might chomp on that a moment, if you will. And extend a Happy Valley welcome and a thank you next time the former veep straps up under robin’s egg blue skies for a joyful day on our bountiful slopes.
Al Gore and the Internet? Yeah, there’s that.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address: Robbins@SLBLaw.com.