That’s a little more information than I need to know, or information anarchy and the plight of the ignorant.

Noam Chomsky interviewed by RosieX and Chris Mountford

Chris Mountford: Professor Chomsky what do you see as the present influence of technology - primarily low cost small powerful computers and global public information networks - the technology of the so-called information revolution, on the mass media power in the future?


Noam Chomsky: Well, I think it’s double edged and you can already see the competing/conflicting tendencies developing. Up until now it’s been pretty much a monopoly of relatively privileged sectors, of people who have access to computers in universities and so on. Say, in the academic world it’s turned out to be a very useful way of communicating scientific results, but in the area we are talking about it has been used pretty efficiently in distributing information and setting up interconnections etc. Do you have peacenet or something equivalent in Australia?

Rosie X: Yes the Pegasus Network.

NC: Okay, in the US and particularly Europe, Peacenet puts across tons of information and also loads of specialist Bulletin Boards where groups with particular interests and concerns interact and discuss all sorts of things. The main journal that I write for is Z magazine, an independent left journal. They have a Z bulletin board which leftie types subscribe to. They are now bringing in the readership of other media left, so on some issues (eg East Timor) it’s just been invaluable in organising. The reason for that is most of the information about it isn’t in the mainstream. So for example a lot of it comes from Australia and until recently the Australian press was really accessible only to special lucky people... it was accessible to me cos I have friends here, who have been clipping madly for 20 years and sending me stuff, but that’s not much help to the population. These days it’s readily available, like say the Dili massacre, you know all the news was out at once. Other issues have come to the fore, which is all a positive consequence of the technology.


NC: However there’s a downside, several in fact. One aspect of it which is hard to quantify, but I see it very clearly myself. I am deluged with mail, in fact I spend 20hrs a week or so just answering letters, and often they are long interesting letters.It’s a reflection of the fact that global society is very atomised and very much alone. They think they are the only person who thinks in a particular way. I constantly get letters saying I read something you wrote and I thought I was the only person in the world who had these crazy ideas and so on. Things have been so atomised and broken down and de-personalised that people have lost the normal bonds of association and communication, and so there’s tons of mail. Recently e-mail has been mounting very fast, and its to the point where I have to stop answering it, cos its physically impossible, so I am now have to send form letters saying, "I just can’t do it"... send me snail-mail...


NC: The big effect which I still haven’t mentioned and the one that worries me most is what the corporate world is telling us they have in mind. And what they are telling us they have in mind is taking the whole thing over and using it as a technique of domination and control. In fact I recall reading an article in maybe the Wall Street Journal or somewhere which described the great potential of this system and they gave two examples to illustrate their point; one for the female market and one for the male market. Of course the ideal was to have every human being spend every spare moment alone in front of the tube and now it’s interactive! So for women they will be watching some model advertising some crazy product which no sane human being would want, but with enough PR aura around, and since it’s interactive they can have home delivery in ten minutes. For men, they said every red blooded American male is supposed to be watching the super bowl. Now it’s just passive and you watch the super bowl and drink beer with your buddies, and so on, but with interactivity what we can do is, before the coach sends in the next play, everyone in the audience can be asked to punch in what they think it oughtta be. So they are participating, and then after the play is called they can flash on the screen 43% said it should have been a kick instead of a pass... or something, so there you have it something terrific for men and women. And this was not intended as a caricature; that’s exactly the kind of thing they have in mind and you can see it make sense... if I were a PR guy working for Warner Communications that’s just what I’d be working on. Those guys have billions of $ that they can put into this, and the whole technology including the Internet can go in this direction or it can go any other direction. Incidentally the whole thing is simply reliving things that have gone on with earlier communication technologies and it’s well worth having a look at what happened. Some very clever left type academics and media people have charted the course of radio in US since the 20s. In the US things took quite a different course from the rest of the world in the 1920s, the United States is a very business run society with a very high class business community. Like vulgar Marxists with all the values reversed, their stuff reads like Maoist tracks have the time just change the words around.


NC: In the 20s there was a battle. *radio* was coming along, everyone knew it wasn’t a marketable product like shoes. It’s gonna be regulated and the question was, who was gonna get hold of it? Well, there were groups, (church groups, labor unions were ex tremely weak and split then, & some student groups), but it was a very weak civil society, and it had been a very repressive period just after Wilson’s red scare, which had just smashed up the whole society. There were people who tried to organise to get radio to become a kind of a public interest phenomenon; but they were just totally smashed. I mean it was completely commercialised, it was handed over under the pretext it was democratic, cos if you give it to the big corporations then it’s pure democracy. So radio in the US became almost exclusively commercialised - they were allowed a student radio station which reached three blocks or something. Now the rest of the world went the other way, almost everywhere else it became public. Which means it was as free as the society is - you know never very free but at least to whatever extent people can affect what a government does, which is something after all - to that extent radio was a public good. In the US, the opposite. Now when TV came along in the US it wasn’t even a battle. By then business dominance was so overwhelming that the question never even arose. It became purely private. In the 1960s they allowed public radio and tv but in an interesting way. [The] public could act to some extent through the parliamentary institutions, and congress had imposed some conditions on public interest requirements on the big networks, which means they had to spend two percent of their time at 3am Sunday allowing a community group on... or something... and then every year they had to file reports to the federal communications commission saying, ’yeah here is the way we met our responsibility’, which was mainly a nuisance as far as CBS was concerned. Actually I knew someone who worked in one of their offices and she told me they had to spend all sorts of time lying about what they were doing and it was a pain in the neck. At some point they realised it would be better to just get the burden off their heads and allow a marginal public system which would be very poorly funded and marginalised and under state corporate control anyway, and then they wouldn’t even have to pretend any longer, and that’s pretty much how those two modes of communications turned out.


NC: ... to tell you something personally I have a daughter in Nicaragua, and Nicaragua in the 80s was under a complete ban.You couldn’t get a letter down there, but we were communicating thanks to the Pentagon. Thanks to the Pentagon and the fact that I’m at MIT, I was the on the ARPANET, and it’s not meant for people like me but they can’t get me out, and so my daughter (who had a connection) and I during the terrorist war were actually communicating thanks to the Pentagon.

RX: Ahh, did you use or do you use cryptography?

NC: I just don’t care about secrecy. In fact one thing I have learned over the years in resistance, and been close to long jail sentences and been in trials. I know this system pretty well, and the one thing I’ve discovered over the years is to be complet ely public. The intelligence systems are so ideologically fanatic that they can not understand public opposition. I mean I can give you exact examples of this. They assume that everybody is as nutty as they are and so they spend all their time and energy trying to figure out the connections to North Korea or something like that, the idea that someone could honestly and openly say "I defy the Government, I reject what you’re doing, I’m gonna subvert it and so on"... they simply dismiss. The safest thing always is to be quite public. Furthermore there is no way to protect yourself from the National Security Administration snooping, you know, and they don’t bother, they don’t have the resources and if they had they couldn’t do anything with them cos they are to stupid to use the information.


CM: I’d actually like to take you up there on your point about one of the negatives of corporate control. At the moment a large number of online communities or groups who consider themselves communities don’t have the problem you mentioned, junk e-mail, because their group communications are public, there’s no possibility of responding to everything - that was given up long ago - quality is judged by the viewer. Perhaps it’s easier to find what you are looking for with this technology, you can do more than change channel. Compounding with that, unlike broadcast media which as you mentioned were appropriated by corporations, this is not broadcast this is not one-to-many but any-to-any, it can be one on one or one to a very large audience.

NC: The same is true of cable TV for example, theoretically you can have dozens of cable television channels, and in fact, in the US there are laws which require the major corporations to fund independent cable stations. Well the net effect is that virtually nothing happens and the reason is because [of] the distribution for resources, energy and organisation, so what you are saying is theoretically true. But the way it works out in practice is a reflection of the state of activism and organisation and resource allocation and so on. Incidentally the public nets where everyone is talking to one another have, in my opinion, the same degraded character as the individual e-mail messages; people are just too casual in what comes across... the effect is you often get good things, but buried... the quality of what people are doing is actually declining because of their intense involvement in these e-mail interactions which are have such an overwhelming character when you get involved in them. And it’s kind of seductive, not personally for me, but I know people get seduced by the computer and sitting there banging around at it. It has a negative potential and a certain positive potential, but I think it’s a double edged sword


RX: What about flaming, is it a sign of human nature having been oppressed for so long that people are hell bent on vetting their anger in a medium where they can be anonymous.

NC: I don’t think its very different from personal interactions, people throw things at each other and hit each other... its quite common place

RX: Do you think anger is an initial stage of the technology?

NC: I think the way the technology is likely to go is unpredictable... if I had to make a guess, my guess is corporate take-over, and that to the extent that it’s so far tax payer supported and it’s a government institution or whatever people call it, in fact it’s a military installation/system at base and they are letting it go, and the reason they are letting it go is cos they are not concerned about the positive effects it has, because they probably feel, maybe correctly, that it’s overwhelmed by the n egative effects... and these are things people have to achieve - they are not going to be given as gifts... like the Pentagon is not going to give people as a gift a technique for free communication which undermine the major media; if its going to take out that way it will be cos of struggle like any other victory for freedom.


CM: Do you think that the technology is inherently democratic?

NC: There is no technology which is inherently democratic or no technology which is inherently oppressive for that matter, technology is usually a fairly neutral thing. The technology doesn’t care really whether it’s used for oppression or liberation, it’s how people use it.

CM: If you have what’s probably pretty close to a level playing field, even with a cheap set-up, and have basically the same capability to publish whatever you produce as everyone else does, a quality document or whatever, (not just half-baked junk e-mail) it can be distributed more easily than traditional product- based means. Then you work in the looming financial link, what you mentioned before - people leaving their subscriptions behind, that could perhaps become all electronic.

NC: First of all the business... about level playing field is all a bit of a joke, I mean type writers and paper are also a level playing field but that doesn’t mean that the mass media system is equally distributed among the population. What’s called a level playing field, is just capitalist ideology, its not a level playing field when power is concentrated. And even if, formally speaking, a market is meant to be a level playing field... but we know what that to using this type of technology, the threat to left institutions is severe in my opinion. If people do or become so anti-social and so controlled by market ideology even people on the left, that they will drop their support for independent left media institutions because they can get something free, those institutions will decline and they won’t be anything over the Internet, as what goes over the Internet now is things that come out of the existing institutions. If those are destroyed nothing is going to come out that counts. There are ways around this, for example you could subscribe to some Internet forums... for example Time Magazine are putting their stuff out free on the Internet and this makes a lot of sense for them because a journal like Time does not make money when they sell subscriptions, they lose money. They make money from advertising, so they are delighted to not have to distribute the thing physically... they are delighted to give it away free, because then they don’t have the cost of selling it at news stands and sending subscriptions. They still get the same income mainly from advertising, but that’s not true for say Z magazine, they don’t live on advertising they live on subscriptions.

RX: What other publications do you read, and do you ever peak at Wired... or other high tech publications?

NC: I’m not much into high tech culture... even though I am at MIT, and my wife works at educational technology and my son is a computer fanatic. I don’t have time to read Zines, I don’t find them very enlightening.

Noam Chomsky web site :

Article originalement paru dans Geekgirl

Reproduit avec la permission de l’auteure, Rosie X.