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The Vice President and the Playboy Entrepreneur

Assembling in the aircraft-hangar-like Exhibit Hall 5 for a conversation between Silicon Vallery wonder child Sean Parker (Napster, Plaxo, Facebook, Justin Timberlake) and ex-Vice President on the United States Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth, Apple board of directors, running the free world), you could be forgiven for wondering just what direction the talk would take.

Al Gore and Sean Parker. #sxsw

(Photo by archivalproject on Flickr. Original on Instagram.)

Parker, known for his technological vision and infamous party lifestyle and Gore, still trying to shake off the memories of that most famous runs for the presidency (or as Parker would put it at the end of the discussion “that time you won the presidency”), on paper seem to be the perfect example of an odd couple to throw up on stage. But Gore, now known almost as well for his climate activism, forceful calls for democratic reform and moderating liberal voice in the business world shares many common goals with Parker, the founder of Causes, a web-based platform for mobilizing fund raising for political and charitable non-profit causes such as Votizen and Nation Builder.

Unsurprisingly considering these shared goals, the conversation centered on democracy, the internet and how the two are becoming intertwined in order to mobilize and inform voters and slowly wrest power away from special interest groups and corporations and back into the hands of ordinary voters. A tall order for sure, but one that was torn-into with much gusto by two very different personalities.

Gore, ever the consummate career politician came across as charming, self effacing, intelligent and unsurprisingly unafraid to push his climate and political agendas. Parker on the other hand, who has garnered a reputation as a ruthless playboy, shocked at least this attendee with his thoughtful viewpoints, searing intellect and modest, slight discomfort in the spotlight.

Al Gore & Sean Parker

(Photo by coalcamplese on Flickr.)

Without wishing to document an entire hour long conversation in full, here are some of the key takeaways from what was a fascinating discussion:

Gore: The Internet is to culture today what Gutenburg’s printing press was to 15th century culture; a vital, new medium to democratize the spread of information and to provide a path for the masses to actually contribute to political and social discourse, something that has been lost in the latter half of the 20th century in our embrace of television as our dominant communication medium. A form of media with enormously high financial barriers to entry.

Parker: Political activism tends to mimic vitality online in terms of patterns and social graphs, but ironically this hasn’t traditionally translated to the online world. The challenge is helping political structures activate their communities by using online platforms in an efficient and coordinated way.

Gore: We need an ”Occupy Democracy” movement. An effort to reclaim the democratic process for individual citizens by lessening the influence of lobbying groups, corporations and special interests.

Parker: Incumbents within the existing system have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. We have a real opportunity to embrace technology and form active political communities online whilst those embedded in the system ”spin their wheels” is beyond doubt. We have to be savvy and nimble to use our technological headstart to meaningfully begin this process before the institutions get wise and use the same techniques to protect the current system.

Gore: The trend in politics is that the amount of money has gone up while the quality of discourse has gone down. $10m was spent on campaigning in 1960 versus $10b in 2010. TV watching goes up minute by minute every year, often while using the Internet at the same time. We need a new way of putting an end to the obscene campaign spending and getting the political messaging to the masses.

Parker: A two-step plan for changing the status quo; Part one is information. We need a well informed populace by providing easily accessible and digestible political information sources online. Part two is to do what those of us in the technology and creative sectors do best and to build (better & better) systems to aggregate power and elect the right people.

Overall, it was a classic piece of SXSWi. Stepping outside your industry bubble to listen great minds debate a subject as fascinating as it is vital.

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