Noam Chomsky is Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
He is interviewed in person on August 15, 2012
Jegan Vincent de Paul (JVDP): I want to get at the underlying code by which technological entities – particularly those of Silicon Valley – and political entities – particularly those of Washington, DC – operate in relation to each other.
And see if their codes of conduct are mutual or in contradiction, as far as producing necessary change and progress within the United States. The Stop Online Piracy Act and The PROTECT IP Act boycotts by Google, Wikipedia and others, was a glimpse into the possibility of increased conflicts.
Can you talk a little bit about the role of Silicon Valley technology today in relation to Washington policy for a healthy and open democracy?
Noam Chomsky: (NC) Of course there is a connection, Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without massive government spending and in fact initiative. Silicon Valley, after all, feeds off the existence of computers, the internet, the IT systems, satellites, the whole of micro electronics and so on, but a lot of that comes straight out of the state sector of the economy. Silicon Valley developed, but they expanded and turned it into commercial products and so on, but the innovation is on the basis of fundamental technological development that took places in places like this [MIT] on government funding, and that continues. Silicon Valley benefits, as all of industry, from highly protectionist policy – patent policies and things like that – which come out of the government. That was part of what was involved in the SOPA conflict. So there is an intimate relationship, but the cultures are completely different.
Washington basically works for the corporate sector and Silicon Valley, technically at least, is suppose to sponsor initiative in creativity, whether it does or not is another question.
JVDP: A number of online companies, including Google, Amazon and Facebook recently formed a lobbying organization called the Internet Association; and its president and CEO stated that “the Internet must have a voice in Washington.” Do you see such lobbying by large technology companies translating into a more open and free internet and eventually into a more meaningful commons.
NC: The internet, since it is publicly created, ought to be publicly controlled. After all, the internet originated around 1960 and wasn’t privatized until 1995. That’s thirty five years in the public domain during the hard, creative development period. It should be publicly controlled but Washington is not a system of public control, its mainly a system of corporate control. We ought to have a free internet, but that means having a free society, and there is fundamental questions there. I don’t know what it means to say that ‘the internet should have a voice in Washington’. The internet is something created largely by public funding. What does it mean for it to have a voice in Washington?
JVDP: What are your thoughts one how existing or new government policies, laws and regulations promote or limit technological innovations that increase the exercise of First Amendment freedoms?
NC: Technology provides means for expression and interchange and so on, so yes it should be free and open, but there are a lot of constraints on how its used. We should not want to permit providers, for example to have control over access. Take Google – I can use it, you can use it, anyone else can use it, but we all know its designed so that private power can influence significantly how you access it. So the first things that you see when you look up something on Google could be dependent on the amount of advertising or something else. Since it is a profit making institution, it is going to reflect the interests and concerns of those who fund it, which is advertisers. You know, you can go to the fiftieth thing on a Google list and that’s the one you want, but the ones you are going to be directed to are the funders.
JVDP: So, you see this as something similar to what you described as following the “propaganda model” in mass media?
NC: The similarity is that concentration of capital influences virtually everything that goes on. It influences the way the media functions, it very powerfully influences how the government works and it of course influences corporate sector elements, like say how Google or Amazon present materials that reach the public. In a society that has very high concentration of capital in a narrow sector of the population, that’s going to influence everything in different ways.
JVDP: It can be argued without much contention that individuals have a right to privacy but powerful corporations must operate transparently so that abuses of power are not concealed. What are you thoughts on individual privacy and corporate transparency today?
NC: I think individuals have a right to privacy, but that ought to include the right to prevent private institutions from monitoring what you do and building up a personal profile for you so that they can direct you in particular ways by their effective control over the internet, and that doesn’t happen of course. Private companies can make a personal profile, direct you to things – they will say – that you would be interested in, but that’s their choice not your choice. I think that has a lot of dangers as does government surveillance, which is way too high. So yes, I think there are all kinds of intrusions into private rights that make use of contemporary technology. Technology can be used that way and it can also be used in other ways. Technology can also be used so that private individuals will have access to the way centralized decisions are being made. So take Wikileaks. Wikileaks is a democratizing force. Its giving individuals access to decisions and thinking by their representatives and in a democracy that ought to be reflexive. But on the contrary Wikileaks is under heavy attack by the government and corporations are participating in that by closing down their websites. Julian Assange shouldn’t be the subject of a grand jury hearing, he should be given a medal. He’s contributing to democracy
JVDP: Do you think the hostility to Wikileaks comes from specific materials being revealed or a more general fear of new forms of communication that cannot be controlled by law or force?
NC: Its just hatred of democracy. Long before the technology revolution there was declassification of documents and I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying declassified internal documents and written a lot about them. In fact, anybody who’s worked through the declassified record can see very clearly that the reason for classification is very rarely to protect the state or the society from enemies. Most of the time it is to protect the state from its citizens, so they don’t know what the government is doing. So kind of an internal defense. Which raises a question: should we even have the classification system? Why shouldn’t these things be open? There are things you want to keep secret, like the characteristics of your latest fighter plane or something like that.
But most of what is done I think is to kept secret so the public won’t know. The same is true of what Wikileaks exposed. What Wikileaks exposed is kind of superficial in a way. Say the Pentagon Papers, – that material went much deeper. It went into internal government planning back for twenty-five years. Those are things that the public should have known about. In a democracy they should have known what leaders thinking and planning about major enterprises like the Vietnam war. It was kept secret from them.
Wikileaks is providing information on what ambassadors are sending to Washington and things like that. Maybe some of that has a right to some kind of secrecy, but there is a heavy burden and I think its pretty hard to meet. I haven’t read everything from Wikileaks by any means but the parts that I have read and seen I think are things the public should know.
JVDP: So the kind of content that Wikileaks revealed is different to what the Pentagon Papers revealed?
NC: Totally different.
JVDP: But the medium is different and you were involved in publishing it in print format.
NC: Yes – and also I had them in advance. Actually when Dan Ellsberg was underground, I was one of the people -there were a number of people – who were giving out materials to the press.
JVDP: But Wikileaks happened through the internet which wasn’t really anticipated then.
NC: Not it wasn’t then.
JVDP: Do you see a difference in the way they were distributed and that itself being more of a threat?
NC: Yeah its different, but I think its basically the same threat. The threat is that the public will know what the government is up to. Any system of power is going to want to keep free from public surveillance, that’s natural. Its shouldn’t be but, its very natural.
JVDP: Can you say something about why technology companies that advocate non-censorship, such as Google in China, but do not support those like Julian Assange?
NC: Its worst than that. They help shut down the site. They refuse to let their own sites be used for distributing things or even for payment at the beginning. Yes it’s kind of a contradiction, if you like. I mean, I don’t think its hard to explain. They’re in both cases supportive of US government positions pretty much.
JVDP: One of the benefits of a properly functioning democracy is minority rights and majority rule. [Question continued below]
NC: It’s the other way around. Its minority rule and majority limited rights. In fact it’s set up that way. If you read the framers of the constitution, including James Madison, he was pretty clear about it. If you look at the minutes of the constitutional convention – which we have – Madison who was the main framer, proceeded to develop a system in which – as he put it – power would be in the hands of the wealth of the nation, the more responsible set of men and who recognize the need to protect the rights of property owners. That’s why in the constitutional system, the most powerful part of the whole system is the senate. The senate was wealthy people and it wasn’t elected, it was chosen through legislatures, which themselves were under private influence, powerful influence. They were remote from the population and that’s where power was suppose to reside. The House of Representatives, which was closer to the population, had much less power. The executive was more or less an administrator, not an emperor like today. The reason for it was fear of democracy and it was pretty frank. So for example, Madison pointed out in the discussion of the constitutional debates – the constitutional convention – that democracy would be a danger. He used England of course as the model and said suppose that in England everyone had the free right to vote; the poor, the propertyless – who are the great majority – would use their voting power to take away the rights of property owners to carry out what we would call land reform. Obviously that would be unjust so therefore England shouldn’t have the real freedom of vote and we shouldn’t either. Because as he put it, one of the primary goals of government was to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, to make sure the opulent maintain their rights. The constitutional system was structured to ensure that outcome.
Of course there is plenty of battles about it. For the last couple of hundred years, there have been struggles about this. Even the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the constitution talk about personal rights. Right to a speedy jury trial and so on and so forth. But what do they mean by ‘person’? It certainly didn’t mean individuals with flesh and blood like Native Americans who weren’t persons, they don’t have any rights. Blacks have no rights – in fact they were three-fifths human according to the constitution to give slave owners more voting rights. So that’s African Americans. Women didn’t have rights. Under British common law, women were property. A woman was the property of her father or her husband and that remained true right into the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1975 that women had a guaranteed right to serve on federal juries. Poor whites didn’t have rights. They made all kind of restrictions on voting. So person meant relatively well-off, free white man. Over the years, of course that’s extended in many complex ways. The Fourteenth Amendment, after the civil war, in principle brought former slaves into the category of persons, theoretically. But if you actually look, almost all the cases brought up for personal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were by corporations. Freed slaves couldn’t do it. In fact they were pretty much driven back into something like slavery by a north-south compact, that allowed former slave states to criminalize black life, which made a criminal force that was basically used as a forced labor force, up until the 1930s.
So yes in theory there is a kind of a formal democracy and in many ways these were achievements and an improvement over the feudal system and more advanced than anything else in the world, but nothing that we ought to call democracy.
JVDP: Compared to mass media in the United States, which you have stated as serving the interest of the elite, do you see the internet playing a role in promoting minority rights and majority role?
NC: Like most technology, the internet has mixed effects. It’s a neutral instrument.
Technology can be used to liberate or enslave. A hammer doesn’t care whether its used by a torturer or a carpenter, and the internet is kind of like that. I mean its very valuable, I use it all the time and I am sure you do. It gives you enormous access to things you’re looking for but its kind of like the Library of Congress. You can go into the Library of Congress and find information on just about anything, but that doesn’t do you much good unless you know what you are looking for.
If you want to become a biologist, it doesn’t help to go into the Harvard biology library and all the information is there for you. You have to know what to look for and the internet is the same, just magnified. We have this huge, massive information, but what is it that matters? What doesn’t matter? What makes sense, what doesn’t make sense? You have to have a framework for understanding and of interpretation in order to make use of the information.
Our whole educational and cultural system is not designed to provide those intellectual tools, so people are often lost and the internet often becomes kind of a cult generator. Somebody puts up some weird thing and somebody else thinks yeah maybe that’s the way things work and pretty soon you have some cult going. Its not the fault of the internet, it’s the fault of a social and culture system that doesn’t educate people properly and in fact on purpose. They don’t want to educate people properly.
JVDP: So you don’t think the internet is a different kind of technology, unlike a hammer? Its been argued that the internet is a paradigm shift and able to work as a kind of technology unlike anything before it.
NC: Its different of course. Just take ease of interchange between people. Your email is of course faster than letter – on the other hand the transition from sailing ship to telegraphs was far greater than the shift from the postal service to email. That was a fabulous change. If you sent a letter to England, instead of waiting a couple of months for a response you got it instantly. That’s a huge change. Every one of these changes of course increases opportunities and also increases means of control and domination.
So it is kind of like a hammer. The technology itself doesn’t determine how its used. It depends on the social, cultural and economic context in which the technology is made available.
JVDP: What about its generative potential to develop new kinds of social or cultural models? It has the ability to connect everyone to everyone else.
NC: Superficially. Very superficially. So take social media; take a look at the way they’re used. In a lot of ways they’re used constructively; lot of things are done that couldn’t be done before. On the other hand a lot of the effect of social media is to set up extremely superficial contacts amongst people. I am thinking of actual cases of adolescents, lets say, who think they have five hundred friends, because there are five hundred people on their Facebook account. But these are the kind of friends whose relation to you is that if you say ‘I bought a sandwich’; they say ‘did it taste good?’ You know, that’s a kind of interaction, but very different to having a real friend, somebody who you can actually talk to. It’s a mixed story, and I don’t say too bad, but it makes things very different. I mean, I can see it. I don’t use the social media but I can see the effects in my own correspondence. I get a ton of correspondence. It used to be hard copy and now it’s a very limited amount of actual letters people write. So it’s mostly email.
Recently, I didn’t notice it, but Bev [assistant] pointed out to me – because it passes through her before it reaches me - that a lot of the letters that are coming in – a lot of them are queries or comments – are one sentence long. And she concluded, and she is probably right, that these are from Twitter. And if you look at the nature of those one sentence letters, most of the time it’s something that came to somebody’s mind – somebody walking down the street had a thought and sent it out. If they thought about it for two minutes they would not have sent it. Very commonly I get queries. Somebody saw something of mine on YouTube and of course if there is a talk on YouTube, there aren’t any footnotes – and they want to know why did you say this. Well if they bothered to look up something in print, they would’ve seen why I said that. If they ask for evidence, I just say well take a look and mention something they can read and that usually ends the conversation.
The idea that you might want to read something, that’s too much, you can’t do that.
I’ll often get questions, from say high school students, saying you know I have to write a paper for next Thursday on the French Revolution, what ever it may be, and I tell them here is something you can look up and the next question routinely comes up as where can I find it on the internet. Sometimes these come from prep schools, places with good libraries to educate students, privileged students, and I say well walk across the street to the school library and look it up. I don’t have time, you know – I want to be able to get it instantly on the internet and not have to think about it. Well, there is that phenomenon as well.
I am not offering this is a critique of the internet, its just that there are a lot of factors involved. It does offer plenty of possibilities. It also has, it can have, a cheapening effect and I think both exist and I think its true of everything. You could say that about the printing press.
JVDP: Facebook is is encouraging organ donations by allowing users to reveal their organ donation status [question interrupted]
NC: Is this organ donation after death or when you’re alive, like give your kidney away?
JVDP: After death, in the same way one would find it on a license. [question continued] And a Google executive openly supported the anti-Mubarak revolution in Egypt last year. What are your thoughts on companies that started as a communications medium openly entering domains that are traditionally of activism or government?
NC: Well, my own feeling is that a corporation has no right to have a political or social influence. Why should it? I happen to agree with the anti-dictatorship policies, but I don’t think it’s the role of General Electric to support them or oppose them. They do of course, but I don’t agree with that.
JVDP: Other than the fact that they are corporations, what do you see as the similarities and differences between a corporation like Google and General Electric?
NC: Well there are differences. They are involve in producing products and there are different kinds of people running them, but the principle is the same. A corporation shouldn’t have the right. Under American law as its developed over the past century, corporation do have personal rights, but I think that’s a very negative development. A corporation is a state created institution, state supported institution, its concentration of private power, there is no reason why it should have the rights of persons. There are questions as to whether it should even exist. Who should corporations be responsive to, the management of a corporation? Theoretically they are responsive to the shareholders, but I why not to the so-called stakeholders, the work force and the community? Nothing in economic theory opposes that. Those are social and political decisions.
JVDP: What do you think of developments like Wikipedia that are coming out of Silicon Valley, that are hard to position within traditional models of organizations? They are unexpected and provide a kind of access to knowledge that did not exist before. I think a lot of Silicon Valley companies do see themselves as different in terms of decentralization of power or amplification of people’s voices that didn’t exist before.
NC: Its true that contemporary technology permits decentralization, it also permits centralization. It depends on how you use the technology. Look, contemporary technology could be used to eliminate ownership and management of corporations. It could be used to provide – lets say Apple computers. In principle information technology could be used to provide direct information to the work force on the ground so that they could democratically decide what the company would do, eliminating the role of management. It could be used for that. People aren’t developing technology for that purpose.
There are groups that are talking about this. The participatory economics groups for example. But those are possibilities for technology, which don’t tend to be used, because of the way power is concentrated. There are all kinds of possibilities, including for coercion. In China, technology is used to control and coerce. Here too, to an extent, but not to that extent.
JVDP: So you think this hope put on internet as an empowering machine is false?
NC: No its not false, the same hope is true for the printing press. The printing press had a very liberatory effect that meant individuals – small groups could produce radical pamphlets – could use it for organizing. The Levellers in England in the seventeenth century made use of the printing press; opportunities that weren’t available elsewhere. Desktop publishing was a big innovation that meant small groups or even poor societies could do their own publication without the capital investment in a major printing press. That’s a big difference. Same is true of more advanced technologies – it can offer plenty of liberatory possibilities – can – but whether it does or not or whether it serves for coercion depends on socioeconomic decisions.
JVDP: Lastly I want to ask you – can you tall about free association, as you’ve talked about it, in relation to how individuals associate on the internet today.
NC: Same mixed story. A lot of association on the internet is highly constructive. There are people interacting, interchanging ideas, making plans, coordinating activities; take any of the popular movements, a lot of the organization is through the internet. We want to have a demonstration or we want to have a meeting, its done through the internet. I think that’s all to the good. On the other hand, a lot of the internet – I don’t know the percentage, but I am sure a great mass of internet use- is pretty superficial interaction amongst people. Its not necessarily a bad thing. A teenager wants to talk to her friend, that’s fine, but I think it probably contributes to atomization, which is a threat to the society. There is a big difference between tweeting to your friend about something that is happening and having a real personal relationship with people. It [the internet] probably has the effect of weakening personal associations.
One of the real problems of society is that its far too atomized, what sociologists call secondary associations. Groupings of people that get together, think things through, come out to plan and so on, like unions or true political organizations, they’ve disintegrated. And people tend to be atomized – you get down to a society based on social units based on an atom – an atomic element - which is a person and their computer. Not a society that is going to be able to function freely and democratically. The tendency is there; it doesn’t have to be, but its something to worry about.
JVDP: Professor Chomsky, thank you for your time.[END]
Interview conducted by Jegan Vincent de Paul with sound recoding by Yae Jin Shin
This interview of Noam Chomsky was conducted as part of Compare and Contrast: Codes of Conduct, a project by Jegan Vincent de Paul commissioned by ZERO1 and curated by Regina Moller with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
For further information about this project please see: