Al Gore Launches Interactive Digital Book App About Climate Crisis (Interview)

Graham Hill Interviews Al Gore

Graham Hill:  I guess I'd just like to start by saying I just got the app yesterday, and it's great. You guys did a really bang‑up job. It's really fun. It's really compelling. So I'm coming at it from that angle. So let's get started. So, slide shows, documentaries, books, talks. There are a lot of ways to tell a story and to influence people. Why this new format?

Al Gore:  Well, when we were finishing the production of the print book, the app universe was exploding, and we tried to re‑imagine the book on the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch platform, and that led us to Mike and Kimon. And what resulted was the multi‑touch interface, interactive infographics, animation, documentary footage, map locations for all the images, et cetera. And the reason for developing it is that it's a compelling way of telling an important story, in this case, about the solutions to the climate crisis. And I personally believe that in this multi‑platform world, where books and movies and all other forms of media are important, the app is, in many ways, the most engaging, most immersive, most interesting way to tell a story.

GH: That's great. I think it's really compelling, but I wanted to run this by you. I feel like this doesn't feel that far from the CD‑ROM stuff that was happening back in the mid‑'90s. So I'm wondering if you agree in general with that, and if so, why you think it's taken so long for this to come to here. Was it just too early? Was it about getting the details right? Any thoughts on that?

AG:  Well, let me take the second question first and invite Mike and Kimon to step in if they wish. It took a while because they had to build a completely new publishing platform in order to create this app. Now that their platform has been built, it will be extremely easy to publish other books as apps. In fact, the tools they've created make the experience more like a layout process than a development process. Now, the first part of your question. I think it's very different from the CD‑ROM experience, in several ways. There is no computer interface between you and the material. There are no technological hurdles. There is no complexity. It's all intuitive. There's nothing between you and the content. You can use your fingers. You can blow on it.

It's very immersive, intuitive, kinetic, and I think that makes a big difference. It's, in a way, similar to the reason why the iPad was a hit far beyond what many expected it would be. The ease of use, the immersive nature of the kinetic interaction, and the variety of audio, documentary, animation, text, photo essays, and all the rest, I just think that it's very different in the ease of use and the immersive nature of the medium.

But let me invite Mike and Kimon and Charlie to address that question, if that's OK with you.

GH:  Yeah, absolutely.

Mike Matas: Back when CD‑ROMs were happening, remember, people are sitting at desks with huge CRT monitors, trying to enjoy this content, where now this app runs on your iPad and your iPhone, which lets you enjoy it in the kinds of places that you'd want to enjoy this content, like on your couch, on a bus while you're commuting, on your iPhone. It's just a lot more ergonomic. Not to mention just the technology has moved forward a lot, just in terms of video quality and the speed of browsing this kind of stuff. The CD‑ROM era, people sort of laugh it off to some degree, but I think it just reflects the authors' excitement about doing this kind of content, but just maybe a little too early for the technology.

GH:  Yeah. I agree with you in general. I just think it's interesting because, in my mind, it's not that far. But it's about nailing the details, in the same way the iPad, the Newton existed a long time ago. But it's, again, the details. Thank you for that.

AG:  MS‑DOS is not that far from iOS, but the experience is very different.

Kimon Tsinteris:  This is Kimon from Push Pop Press. I'd also like to add that a lot of things kind of came together for you to just be able to download that book onto your iPad and experience it the way you did. The Internet. Downloading content. Just streaming it straight to your device. What's the distribution mechanism for a CD‑ROM? What if you want to update the CD‑ROM? What's the cost of printing another CD‑ROM? Can you price it at $4.99 as an intro price? A lot of things have culminated to bring us to where we are today.

GH:  I'm with you. Let me cut you off, because we're getting off‑track and we shouldn't. Thank you for that. So, next question. I recently got rid of about 90 percent of my books. When I tell people this, they get really defensive, and make it very clear that the physicality of them is very important to them. Al, can you see a time when most people don't own physical books? And if so, is it five years? 15? How do you look at this?

AG:  No, I think the book as a form is likely to survive for a very long time, but I don't claim special expertise in making the predication. I think that what has contributed to the durability of the book is not only the reader's experience but the author's experience. The process of translating thoughts from one human being's experience into a form that can be shared with others also requires an ease of expression on the part of the author. And the ease with which books can be put on paper, I think, is going to make them last for quite a long time. But I shifted, years ago, from making speeches to presenting slide shows, because the ability to communicate complex data sets was just greatly enhanced. And now, in the digital world, the ease with which ideas can be communicated in an app far exceeds what can be accomplished with a book.
So I'm really enthusiastic about this new form. But there are going to be lots and lots of people who will continue to want to express ideas in a way that does not require teaming up with technologists and programmers in order to do it.

Now, Push Pop's platform may make it so easy that authors will just shift over to this over time, and successors to their platform. But I don't know when that inflection point is, and even after we reach it, I think you're likely to see books last for a long time.

GH:  Could you see, personally, you having much less books in five years than you have now?

AG:  I'm one of those who thought that I would never abandon books. And I haven't, but I'm one of those who now prefers to read electronically. You can carry your library with you. I just find the reading experience more enjoyable, for me, and so I do most of my reading electronically now.

GH: That's great. Same here. So surely people are going to ask about the footprint of the iPad. These are generally energy‑intensive things to build and to run. Can you comment on that?

AG:  Well, I think that it's a comparison to how many trees you want to cut down to make a print form of the book. This is in the app, by the way. There's a whole chapter on information and, in that chapter, an assessment of the growing footprint of the Internet and the digital universe. And it's around two percent of the emissions, total now, worldwide. But I think, on a comparative basis, there are certainly efficiencies. I made a speech this morning by telepresence to Indonesia. And the last speech I made in Indonesia, I flew on a commercial jet, halfway around the world and back again, and spent four days of my life doing it, and this was much easier to do. When I walked into the telepresence center, I saw the machines humming and thought about the electricity used and the carbon emitted and all the rest, but there was no comparison. And I think that, ultimately, the comparison between the app world and the print world is a comparison that favors the app world.

GH:  OK, great. Now, a little more conceptual. It seems like there are two main approaches. One is to inspire by hope, and one is to inspire by fear. "An Inconvenient Truth" made a huge impact, and I would argue it was largely inspired by fear. Does "Our Choice" take a different tact, and do you think we need both approaches? And has your thinking changed on this? How do you view "inspire by hope"/"inspire by fear"?

AG:  Well, I think that we do need both approaches. I would phrase them a little differently. "An Inconvenient Truth" was about 90/10: 90 percent a description of the problem, why it is so serious and why we must act urgently, and then 10 percent on pointing the way toward the solutions. "Our Choice" is about 5/95, with a brief description of the problem and virtually all of the book focused on the solutions, what they are, how we can implement them, and how they help us to solve other problems in the process.
I think that the description of the problem has been done to the point where it's as settled as the fact that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.

There will still be people who dispute it. But the existence of these solutions opens the door to action by people who don't want to argue about the science or the nature of the problem. If the solutions work and they are good for us in multiple ways, they're going to go in that direction. News Corp owns Fox News, which promotes climate denial, but News Corp has just succeeded in becoming carbon‑neutral as a corporation. [laughs] And there are lots of people who may not want to acknowledge the problem but will nevertheless be attracted to the solutions, for a variety of reasons.

GH:  That's great. As founder of TreeHugger.com, I often feel frustrated. I sort of feel like we have an execution problem. So we and the movement do a great job to inspire and educate people, but when you look at the numbers, few people are actually taking action. In other words, lots of talk and not a lot of walk. Any thoughts on this general premise and how we can move people to taking action?

AG:  Well, I love the work that you do, and I feel that I'm engaged in a similar and parallel effort. I think that communicating the nature of the challenge and the availability of the solutions is an ongoing process, and this app is the latest, and I hope the most effective, way to communicate critical information about the solutions. You just have to keep working at it. I do believe that we are close to the proverbial political tipping point. And change is, as you know, not always linear. The potential can build up, unmanifested, for quite a while before it acquires the critical mass to break through the barriers holding it back. And continuing the effort to get the message out there and to present the truth to people, not only about the problem but, importantly, about the solutions, is the way to get to that tipping point.

GH:  That's great. Currently, the app's priced at $5, which is about a third of the paperback. Any comments on the general pricing strategy?

AG:  Well, $4.99 has been a successful pricing strategy for apps, and the price elasticity in the app market appears to be one where there are thresholds that are not linear. And it's an introductory price. The practice, since the App Store opened, has been for prices to change, and I think that's because it's a new market and the price‑discovery mechanism is still evolving. And the price could change after the introductory price, but those decisions have yet to be made.

GH:  Anything that you can give our audience? Any suggestions on one or more sort of higher‑impact things that they might do to cut down on their footprints?

AG:  Well, buy the app. All of the profits I would otherwise make go to the Alliance for Climate Protection and will be devoted to solving the climate crisis. And in the app you will find the solutions that best fit your lifestyle, your work habits, and what you can most effectively do.

GH: Great. Perfect. Thank you very much, Al. And congratulations to you and the whole team. You guys did an amazing job. It's been really fun to play around with, and I think it's really compelling. So thanks a lot.

AG:  Well, thank you so much. And coming from you, that means a great deal. I really, really appreciate it. Talk to you soon.

Tags: Activism | Books | Electronics | Gadgets | iPhone | Technology