Bill Clinton Calls Many Political Leaders Out of Touch with the Acceleration of Technology at Fortune Summit

January 1, 2000

ASPEN, Colorado, Aug. 3, 2001 — Former President Bill Clinton said many political leaders are “out of touch” with the acceleration of technology, speaking at Brainstorm 2001: The Fortune Editor’s invitational summit conference here.

Bill Clinton spoke for a half hour from a single page of handwritten notes, and then engaged in a dialog with several other participants. He spoke about the rapidly broadening interrelatedness of all the world’s societies, and the need to develop greater cooperation between nations to deal with issues that are increasingly international in nature. He pointed out that borders are often inconsequential in the face of new technologies.

He acknowledged that the protesters at recent economic summit meetings have a wide range of valid concerns regarding environmental and human rights issues, but that the commonly expressed view among the protesters that the emerging internationalization of the world’s economy was the cause of these problems was fundamentally wrong. He described how the enormous increases in international trade and economic cooperation that we’ve seen in recent years have created enormous wealth, which can be shown to have provided profound benefits for the world’s poor.

However, Mr. Clinton pointed out, the new communication technologies have also created greater awareness of disparities in wealth among the peoples of underdeveloped nations. He called for greater steps in debt forgiveness, a movement he said had been endorsed by people as diverse as the Pope, Jesse Helms, and Bono of the rock group U2.

Clinton said he has been actively encouraging policy makers, as well as audiences that he speaks with, to read about the future, and in particular to understand the enormous impact that future technologies will bring. He recommended several books including Non Zero by Robert Wright, which calls for programs and agreements in which all parties benefit, and The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil, which he called a “compelling view of the future.”

Stu Kauffman asked how international programs and institutions can avoid crushing indigenous cultures. Clinton replied that emerging trade agreements and policies need to strengthen and respect the wealth of divergent cultures in the world while engaging emerging societies in the world economy. He cited the enormous latent wealth in underdeveloped countries in the form of local talents that are not adequately harnessed because of the lack of adequate financial and credit institutions.

Ray Kurzweil, citing the numerous accelerating and intersecting revolutions in biotechnology, computing, communications, and the neural sciences, described the potential to greatly ameliorate the problems of poverty that Mr. Clinton had spoken about, while at the same time introducing grave new dangers. Kurzweil pointed out that the specter of a terrorist being able to create a bio-engineered pathogen was not far away, and that nanotechnology will increase these stakes further. He asked how very slow moving international organizations like the United Nations can be made to move quickly enough to deal with both the promise and peril of these intensifying developments.

The former President replied that policy makers in the United States and around the world do not spend enough time and attention understanding science and technology and their enormous implications. He described how busy his wife was just keeping up with the day to day demands of the legislative process, and that few political leaders have or take the time to look beyond today’s political agenda. He encouraged more forums such as this Fortune summit where political and scientific leaders can reflect on where society is headed and to explore ideas that would harness technology to alleviate the poverty of one billion people living on less than $1 per day.

He also cited programs he had put into place to make preparations for new forms of terrorism, including the potential use of biological and information-based weapons, indicating that his administration had been sensitive to making needed preparations without causing alarm.

The three-day conference includes about 100 leaders from the worlds of technology, business, government, and culture. John Huey, Editorial Director of Time, Inc. described the event as “the smartest people we know expounding on the challenges and opportunities of the future.” The October issue of Fortune will be devoted to the conference and the ideas of the participants.