When Chomsky Misled Me


One of the interns who had worked with me and had done some good work, had, after joining higher studies at an Ivy League university, sort of blamed me for filling his head with the kind of stuff that Chomsky and others write and talk about. His point was that all this, meaning (crudely speaking) all this talk of injustice and the responsibilities of intellectuals and the need to try to change the world for the better etc. ends up harming young people, who have to go out and live in a world where it is not really possible to try to make the world a better place. Thus, people like Chomsky, and, to a much more modest extent, people like me, end up harming the lives of young people and they should not do that. They harm the young people, so to say, by misleading them.

I, of course, don’t agree with that. But Chomsky did, in fact, mislead me once, with some noticeable repercussions. In a very different way from what that intern said, however.

When I joined PhD in Computational Linguistics in 2003, at the age of 35 (something very unusual in India for someone who is not already in academics formally, say, working as a Lecturer and looking for a promotion), I was not in very good condition in career terms. But since building a career was never a goal for me, that was not a problem. The problem was that I was also not in a very good condition in many other ways. For one, I was unemployed and was hardly earning anything. And there didn’t seem to be any good prospects in the near future.

One of the main reasons I decided to join PhD in Computational Linguistics was simply my interest in the two related areas, language (and Linguistics) and Computers (and Computer Science). I did not have a formal qualification in either of these areas, but I had read extensively and had studied on my own, as much as I could. To be able to work, especially do research, therefore, in Computational Linguistics, was something that can be called a dream (one of many, but a very important one).

But there was another important reason. At that time, I was not only in a ‘bad condition’, I also had had so many bad experiences with people that I was not very hopeful (to put it mildly) of getting a job with good working conditions where I would be treated with at least some degree of fairness.

Also, not the least, I wanted to work for Indian languages, something that had been a passion for me ever since I started thinking about working life, that is, from the time I was in early teens.

Several years before that, when I was studying Linguistics and anything else on language, I had come across a passage in a book by Chomsky that went something like this. He said he had done some ‘little work’ long ago in Computer Science (which is taught in every Automata Theory or Formal Languages course to Computer Science students) and he had presented this work to the Computer Scientists of the day. And, he said, since these people were (I am paraphrasing) true scientists, they did not care about what his political views were or what kind of a person he was or any such thing. They just looked at his work on its own merits. He was contrasting this outlook to the outlook that some other people have, for example, the political analysts and establishment intellectuals. I don’t have the source at hand, so I am only writing what I remember, but I hope the point is clear, even if there is an error in the details.

That description had filled my head with the dream of being able to work with such people. And here I was getting the opportunity to do just that by joining PhD. Now, I wasn’t really interested in PhD as I wasn’t interested in a career. I was even prepared (in the worst case, if I did not get an RAship or Research Assistant’s salary) to take up a part time job and do research in Computational Linguistics.

I wanted to work (for a living or for creative satisfaction) with people, you know, who will not care about my political views or with the kind of person I am or am not.

That’s where I got mislead.

After about two years of working in this area (mostly with Computer Scientists), I found out that Chomsky had mislead me. That the people I was working with were as much concerned about my political views and about the kind of person I am (or am not) as any other people.

Not only were they concerned, they often (more than often) tended to judge my work accordingly. Not based on its own merit.

Just the use of words like 'funding' and 'privilege' could bring on very unpleasant consequences. Both of these are supposed to be taken for granted (as externalities) and not mentioned explicitly, even though they ultimately decide who can do research and what kind of research and on what languages. And where.

I found out that they could be mean, they could be vindictive, they could be given to the ad-hominem and their feelings towards me ended up influencing strongly their view of my work. They could be all that relentlessly. Not quite the thing I had in mind.

In this, I guess, they were just being human.

But it didn’t help, of course, that the Computational Linguistics (or the Natural Language Processing) community was not very friendly (an understatement) towards Chomskian Linguistics. In fact, in research papers these days, you can find statements about how liberation from the Chomskian dominance in Linguistics (and Computational Linguistics) has made it possible to proceed further in the research in this area, which was stuck (according to them) in a stagnant stage because of the tyranny of Generative Grammar and the focus on Syntax.

It also didn’t help that most of the members of this community are votaries of neo-liberal Capitalism. It didn’t help further that the research in this area is now not only dominated by commercial concerns, but that a large portion of it is oriented towards serving the post ’9/11′ Security-Surveillance Industry. Both of these things I have been opposing vocally wherever I could.

Right now, barely two years after completing my PhD, I am already effectively blacklisted, a fact that can be easily established on the basis of empirical evidence. I don’t have a stable job and have little hope of finding one, unless I reform myself and prove that I have reformed, which might involve (to put it bluntly) getting my nose rubbed into the mud as a rite of passage.

I get reviews in which often the reviewer seems to be talking not so much about the paper, but about perhaps me. Or I don’t know what.

I am done with it. From now on, I am not going to submit any paper as the first author to any journal or conference or workshop. I will only contribute to papers initiated by others, to the extent required in my job that I do for a living.  If I do write articles of this kind, I will put them on the Web somewhere.

I understand that this decision will effectively end my research career, but it is effectively ended anyway. I am just refusing to be an object in this matter and become and agent, if you know what I mean.

(I already have fewer options than others as I had decided not to work on topics like sentiment analysis or deception detection etc. because I know the dubious purposes for which they will be used. I know that almost anything in this area can be used for dubious purposes, but, as Chomsky said in a speech, almost anything can be used for the war purpose. I was just trying to restrict myself to work on topics like Machine Translation or creation of language resources for resource poor – less privileged – languages.)

It is as if all my work is going to what is known in Computer Science jargon as a ‘bit bucket’.

The positive side is that I will save some time.

I still like working in this area and would like to continue to the extent possible. I spent seven years doing PhD in this area from the age of 35 to 42 and several years before that studying informally.

What will I do now? No idea.

And, of course, I don’t blame Chomsky for it. By dragging Chomsky into it, I am just trying to bring some sense of humour here, which is very hard in this case. As it ain’t funny. (And perhaps I am also trying to get some courage from his name).

If I had to take the decision again, I would take the same decision. After all, I have done some work and have had some good experiences, along with many bad ones.

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