Noam Chomsky interviewed by Fred Branfman

HotWired, February, 1997

Welcome to Noise on The Netizen. I’m Fred Branfman. I’m talking today with Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor who is regarded as one of the great linguists and minds of the 20th century. He’s also a prominent campaigner for human rights and a critic of the American political system. One of his recent books is called The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, and I thought we might begin there. Noam, if you could describe a bit what you see as the fundamental problems facing American politics as we enter the 21st century.

NC: Well, in brief, I think there is a major social experiment going on, not for the first time, but it takes two forms. That is to try to impose on the rich societies themselves, particularly the United States, our model, which is more or less the third world model. The typical third world society has a small sector of extreme wealth and privilege protected by massive state power and then a huge mass of people living in something ranging from unpleasantness to misery, and a sector of superfluous people they have to get rid of somehow. And, I think, the social policy in the last 20-25 years has been designed to try to induce such a structure in the rich societies. That means, again, as I say, it’s not for the first time. The 1920s weren’t all that different. That means to ensure that the wealthy and the privileged that wealth is highly concentrated in their hands. They have a collective existence. They are supported by a very powerful state, which ensures that the public assumes the costs and the risk while profit is privatized, and most of the general public, especially the more poor and defenseless sectors, are thrown off to face market discipline, which can be extremely harsh. The rich are protected from that. That’s drawing the lines too sharply, but I think that’s the basic structure that’s being imposed. It means that, for a lot of people, life becomes very unpleasant. I mean, I think even for the rich, but for different reasons.

FB: Let’s talk for a moment about what we here at HotWired call the “old media.” The New York Times, The Washington Post, the big print dailies, as well as, of course, the TV networks. Now from your point of view, they’re also part of the system, even though, of course, the story is that they are fierce critics of the system. Bill Clinton is always complaining, and Newt Gingrich, about their treatment by the press. How do you reconcile these two story lines?

NC: Well, first of all, it’s not my position that they’re part of the system. No one doubts that the big media are major corporations, parts of bigger conglomerates, funded by advertisers. You couldn’t be more a part of the system. As to the fact that people in the political class say that they’re being treated unfairly, sure that’s true. If you go back to the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the Communist Party, the generals were bitterly condemning the media because they weren’t subordinated enough to power. They were raising questions about the Afghan war and so on and so forth. That’s 18 years ago. There’s no system of power that ever feels it has sufficient control. In this case, there is an empirical question. Given the unquestioned fact that the major media are simply at the core of the system of domination, does the media product reflect that fact? So does what they produce, the news, opinions and so on. Does it keep reasonably well within the spectrum of assumptions that define the acceptable realm of dispute among the powerful? Well, that’s an empirical question. I can’t review the facts here, but there are thousands of pages of documentation which I think show, quite conclusively, that the obvious prediction is borne out. Others can draw their own conclusions.

FB: Let’s turn to the key question that concerns us here at HotWired. And that is whether the evolution of new media, i.e. interactive media, communications through the Web, what some of us call many to many as opposed to one to many communication is going to make a difference. What’s your view on that? Do you think the advent of the Web and the ability of people to talk to each other more is going to change our political system, and the way things work?

NC: Depends who controls it. You could have asked the same question about radio, television, print. In fact, when print became established it was used initially very effectively, by traveling, radical levelers, radical democrats, to try to undermine the power system with their pamphlets and so on. And, in fact, the same’s true of the history of the American Revolution. A lot of radical pamphleteering was a significant fact in supporting some of the more radical democratic elements. And in the case of radio, the same could have been true. Over time, and in the case of radio very quickly, these media were, in fact, concentrated in the hands of private power. Radio, quickly, television, instantly. In the case of the Internet, we’re right in the middle of that process. Right now, the system, like just about all of contemporary technology, is developed and paid for by the public. It’s now in the process of being privatized. Most media analysts, industry analysts, predict that within some short period of time, maybe half a dozen international mega-conglomerates will have established effective control over a good part of it. If that’s true, it’ll be another instrument of oppression and domination. On the other hand, if people struggle and maintain control it can be retained as an instrument of liberation and arousing consciousness and activism.

FB: What would you predict is going to happen?

NC: You can’t predict the weather, I wouldn’t try to predict human affairs. We don’t understand enough. The issue in this case is not to predict, but to do something about it.

FB: And what would you suggest that folks do who are concerned with this issue?

NC: For example, I think people should take a close look at the Telecommunications Act of last year that was passed without public discussion. It was treated as a business story, though it’s surely a major public-interest story. It has to do with the nature of the new media and with the future of democracy. I think people should become engaged in that, and not let it be pushed off to the business pages. They should also look at the consequences. A year later, for example, there’s an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about it, not a big dissident journal, pointing out that the only measurable, detectable effects so far are to increase concentration of the media and narrowing of controls. Well, I think that’s predictable, and that will continue unless people do something about it. There’s no reason why these systems have to be handed over to private tyrannies and control.

FB: And what do you see as the potential of the Web to promote what’s called citizen power through tele-democracy? Have you given much thought to these ideas of direct democracy, of using the Web and other electronic, interactive technologies to transform how our democracy works?

NC: Well, it’s already happened. There have been groups that have used the Web very imaginatively to transfer information, to enlighten, to bring to people’s attention things they would otherwise not know. Take, say, the last Nobel Prize that was just given a couple months ago to the East Timorese leaders. The reason that happened was because of public ferment that developed over the issue. It’s a major issue. This is maybe the worst slaughter relative to the population since the Holocaust.

FB: What are the numbers on that?

NC: Well, the Norwegian committee that gave the prize estimated the total dead in the last 20 years as about a third of the population. Maybe that’s high, maybe low, anyway its substantial. The United States has been involved decisively since the beginning, still is. It’s an easy one to end, you don’t have to bomb anyone or carry out sanctions, or whatever, just withdraw our participation. How did it ever reach public attention? Well, certainly not through the media. At the peak of the atrocities, media coverage in the US was actually zero, let alone any discussion of the US role. I mean literally zero, not a word. Now, there’s a lot more, and in substantial part that’s been stimulated by a quite effective use of new technologies to bring the people information they wouldn’t get otherwise. That’s only one case. There are plenty of others.

FB: Let me ask you this, Noam. I was very struck by the quote that began the January 1997 issue of Wired, you know, those quotes they put on their first two pages that they highlight for the month was from you. And you said, “If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things.” Do you think that humans have an instinct for freedom as strong as, I don’t know, the sexual instinct or the instinct for food and water? What do you assume on that point?

NC: What do I think or what do I assume? Those are different things. I assume that they do, but I assume that for the reasons mentioned in that quote. We basically don’t know, and if we make the assumption that it’s true we might improve things. If we make the assumption that it’s false and sit and watch, we can be quite sure that things will get worse and worse. Given those choices, there’s no options for a rational person. As to what we know, well, the answer is very little. We don’t know much about human beings. You have your intuitions, your experience, you have history, there’s very little in the way of science, so you try, as in most complicated affairs, you try to make do with your best guess as to what you understand, keeping an open mind, and recognizing the consequences of the actions you take or do not take.

FB: As we come to the end of our interview, one last area I wanted to explore is the idea that in the 19th century, because of Darwin’s discoveries and so forth there was a predominance in intellectual life of biological metaphors to understand the human condition, “survival of the fittest” and so forth. And then in the 20th century with the Industrial Revolution, humans began to be seen as machines, we were looking at the inputs and the outputs and so forth. And now, of course, as we approach the 21st century, there’s been a shift to using much more information-age metaphors to understand the human condition. Talking about, for example, the Web as the new central nervous system of the human species, and human beings as collections of bits and bytes and information systems; there’s even talk of cyber-immortality, where we can somehow reduce ourselves to a set of electronic impulses which could live forever and so forth. And I’m curious if you think that this represents an advance in our understanding of the human condition and any improvement in getting closer to the truth of things.

NC: Well, metaphors are metaphors. If they’re a stimulus to the imagination, fine. Let your imagination be stimulated. But one should not confuse metaphors and imaginative leaps with understanding; they may be a help to understanding, but then we await the understanding to make judgments. As far as these metaphors are concerned, I think there’s also plenty of reason for caution. For example, in the 18th century there was important discussion of humans as machines. Right now, there’s very lively use of contemporary biological metaphors – which are not survival of the fittest, but that wasn’t really Darwin anyway, that was a kind of alterization of it. And I think there’s essentially nothing to say. Use whatever metaphor happens to help you to think, but don’t confuse the metaphor with a conclusion.

FB: Do you think we’re any closer to understanding the really important questions than we were 2,000 years ago?

NC: Very striking. If you go back to, say, the Greeks, and look at the range of questions they asked, most of them we’re still asking, without very much progress. There are some areas where there’s been extreme progress, in fact, in what we call the natural sciences. But that’s like a point in a whole sky of darkness that remains as dark as it ever was. We work our way through the murky problems as best we can, but without profound understanding.

FB: So it comes down to making existential leaps into the future and acting on our feelings and instincts more than any real hope of understanding.

NC: There is a fair amount of understanding, and it would be unwise not to use such understanding as there is. It would also be quite wrong to claim more than has been achieved. One has to keep a balance, and keep a skeptical eye.