Technology in a Free Society

JOHN MALKIN:The Internet, computers, cellphones, tablets, and social media are changing how we live and having an impact on human thinking, communication, and collaboration. On the other hand, Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have revealed the ways that new technology is used for surveillance and control. Are the new digital technologies contributing to a more democratic and liberated society or a less liberated society?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Neither. The examples you mention are accurate, but the positive effects of technology which you mentioned are actually quite limited. For example, when the Arab Spring was happening in Egypt in March 2011, the Mubarak dictatorship closed off the Internet in an attempt to prevent just what you’re describing. But it had almost no effect. People just turned to other forms of direct communication, which were maybe even better.

There is a downside. This technology does offer opportunities for power systems—the state and commercial enterprises—to carry out activities that they should not be carrying out, that are very harmful, like the ones revealed in the Snowden revelations.

Technology can be used in many other ways, too. I use the Internet for research and that’s very valuable. In the case of the Internet, it is a fine tool if you know what you’re looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it can simply be a source of confusion. For example, say someone tells me that they’d like to be a biologist and I say, “Go to the University Biology Library and everything you need to know is there.” That is meaningless. You can’t do anything with that information because you don’t know what to look for.

The Internet is much worse, in fact, because almost all of what’s in the Biology Library is relevant and important. Whereas when you use the Internet you find that a vast amount is junk, misleading, distortion, and propaganda. So people are just at sea without some framework of understanding.

And that understanding requires education, mutual association, and cooperation with others. Lacking that understanding, the Internet can be a source of distraction, of cult formation, of creating the illusion that you know something when you’re actually being misled by gossip or propaganda. Those are negative aspects. The technology itself doesn’t care; it can be used to improve freedom, dignity, and understanding. It can also be used to coerce, control, and mislead.

I’m surprised these days when I hear people say, “I’ve never felt more connected with other human beings,” and they’ve just been alone in a room looking at a screen. You’ve spoken in the past of a childhood friend who kept a book that he claimed was a list of 200 friends. You couldn’t believe that he had 200 friends. This sounds like Facebook before Facebook. Is the sense of human connection via computers illusory?

I haven’t done a study so I can’t generalize, but my impression is that a lot of it is illusory. Worse than that, it’s keeping people from establishing real friendships because they believe that they have a friend if, say, they put on their Facebook page, “I’m having an exam this afternoon” and they get 200 responses that say, “Gee, I hope you do well,” from people that don’t know them from Adam. If that is what teenagers come to think of as friendship, then they could end up getting into trouble in their lives. That’s not friendship.

Most of the devices that people are looking at, talking into, and playing with these days were developed by the military and were later re-crafted for consumers. I wonder if the original research and development of digital technology and devices is somehow embedded and having some affect?

There can be technology that is developed for specific purposes that you or I would certainly regard as harmful. If the National Institute of Health were to fund research in biological warfare, maybe someday, somebody would find some good use of it. But that’s a remote contingency. It would mainly be designed to harm and destroy. I don’t think the INH does that; it’s completely hypothetical.

But when you go back to the cases you mentioned— computers and the Internet—these were substantially developed in the 1950s through the 1960s in laboratories and institutions that were overwhelmingly funded by the Pentagon, including the one where I happened to be working, the Research Lab of Electronics at MIT. It was one of the main places where these developments were going on. It was under full military funding. In fact, I was 100 percent funded by the military at the time. And it was understood by the people working in that lab that there could be humanly advantageous and useful ways to adapt and develop these things. A lot of the motivation behind the development of the Internet was simply to improve communication among scientists.

Originally the Internet was the ARPAnet, the Army– run net. It was designed with military purposes and the same was true of computers. But you can use the Internet and computers for all kinds of things. A lot of the original developments were used for the military, but that’s because they were in a position to use it. For example, in the 1950s, IBM was doing what we’d now refer to as a kind of pirating of military-produced technology to learn how to develop high-speed digital computers. That was also the goal of the military; they were trying to develop the next phase of the high-tech economy. By the early 1960s, IBM finally developed what was then the world’s fastest computer—the Stretch supercomputer—but it was so expensive that businesses couldn’t buy it and individuals couldn’t either. So, it was bought by the government and used at Los Alamos in weapons research.

The government can afford these things. If you look at the record, government procurement turns out to be one substantial form of subsidy from the taxpayer to private corporations. There are many kinds of subsidy, like bailing out banks and so on, and some are procurement. If the corporate sector learns from government research how to produce something and it’s early products are too expensive for the market, the government can step in and purchase them. And that typically means the military because they have more or less unbounded resources and can always find uses.

I’ve known many of the individuals who were involved in the development of these new technologies—computers and the Internet—and they did not have military applications as their motivation.

You’ve said that TV dulls the mind and you’ve written and lectured extensively about the use of media for propaganda and control. You’ve also said that books are probably disappearing and that there is a popular belief that people—particularly children—are not affected by violence of video programs and games.

I can’t vouch for this but I’ve read credible sources that the drone pilots—the people looking at screens and running the drones—are trained with video games. As for the effect on children of violent images, there has been some study. What I’ve read is that they haven’t been able to find any affect of watching violent video games on attitudes toward, or use of, violence. There may be some, but it doesn’t seem to be massive.

What I have noticed about children and computers and video screens, without research, is something different and insidious. I happen to have lived for the past 50 years in a suburban neighborhood. My wife and I moved out there because it was a great place for children. Fifty years ago, our children were young and they could play in the streets; there wasn’t much traffic and the woods were nearby. The neighborhood was always full of kids, running all over the place, in and out of each other’s houses. That helped create a kind of neighborhood atmosphere. You got to know the neighbors because your kids were having lunch over there. It led to community projects and so on. That was 50 years ago.

ou walk around the same neighborhood today and don’t see a single child. You rarely see an adult. If it’s an adult, they’re probably walking their dog. Children are either indoors with video games or whatever they are doing or else they are involved in adult-organized activities. This has been studied. Children are losing childhood. They are losing the capacity to play, to be independent, to be creative.

One of my grandsons loved sports when he was younger. There happened to be a field near his house and I asked him, “Do you go out and play with kids in the field?” That’s what I did when I was a kid and it was the way my children had played while they were growing up. You go to a nearby field, other kids come around, and you have a pick up game and that was sports. My grandson didn’t even understand the question. For him sports meant something organized by adults, in leagues run by adults, and these leagues are run in ways which are pretty unpleasant. There’s a lot of that happening now, with children’s lives and activities being organized in a way that’s computer application-based. This is diminishing the joys, experiences and learning activities that are inherent in independent childhood interaction and activity. I don’t think it’s been measured, but I think it will be dangerous in the long-term.

The effect on reading is also noticeable. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes read newspapers and articles online and it’s a much more superficial experience than having the physical object in front of you that you can turn back to and maybe underline. It’s fleeting somehow. I suspect that this shift is introducing an element of superficiality into intellectual activity, whether it’s reading a newspaper or reading an article or novel. I do read things online—that’s the way to pick up professional articles. But if I really want to think about it, I print it out and re-read it. It’s the same way with books. Maybe it’s just the culture that I grew up in, but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

I share the same concerns. I sense that control by adults has grown and that kids learn and enjoy more when they design their experiences.

Exactly. That’s play. Play is a great learning experience. Play engenders creativity and independence. Let me give you one example: I mentioned that the house we lived in for 50 years has woods right in the back. There happens to be one tree back there that every child knew as a climbing tree. Now they don’t. The tree has branches sticking out all over the place and is easy to climb high up. You go back 30 or 40 years and that tree was a collective activity of all the children in the neighborhood. Kids would come up with a piece of wood and they’d put it up in the tree and someone else would come up with something else. It started in Spring and by the Fall it was an elaborate, complex tree house that all the kids were playing in—kids that didn’t even know each other were playing in the tree house. Now the tree is bare. Children don’t play there. Maybe the parents won’t allow them, but children now don’t want to go out there and do something as creative and cooperative as working with others to design an elaborate place where they could play imaginative games. I think a lot is lost by that.

Science fiction has often played with ideas of humans creating machines to be intelligent or emotional. In the meantime, humans seem to be becoming more like machines. Ray Kurzweil has famously predicted that within 30 years a machine will declare itself alive and no one will argue with it.

You could construct a machine right now which says, “I am alive.” You could build into it a complex enough database so that it might fool people into thinking that it’s alive. But it’s meaningless. A lot of this derives from a paper by Alan Turing, a great mathematician and one of the founders of computer science and of the basis for computers. He wrote a paper in 1950 that was about thinking machines [“Computing Machinery and Intelligence”]. That paper set off a huge industry of speculation. He proposed a test that is now called the Turing Test—if a machine passes the test we might want to say that it’s thinking.

But when Turing talks about machines, he means the program that is running on the machine. The machine itself, say your laptop, that doesn’t do anything. It could serve as a paper weight maybe. What’s doing something is the program that you feed into it. It sounds less like R2D2 if you describe it that way. So the question is, “Can a program be constructed that will fool a human observer into thinking that a machine is alive for the short period of time of the test?” By the way, if you can design a program that passes the Turing Test you get $100,000.

IBM and others picked up on the idea and IBM developed a program called Deep Blue, which was able to defeat grandmasters in chess. All of this is meaningless. In fact, Turing pointed this out in the same short paper of eight pages. In the paper he says that the question whether machines think is too meaningless to deserve discussion. Of course, they don’t think anymore than submarines swim. If we want to call that swimming, okay, but it’s a terminological point.

Whatever humans are doing when they’re thinking is not what a big database is doing. It’s not what Deep Blue is doing. It’s a completely different action. A computer program is searching rapidly through a huge database. Undoubtedly, you can construct programs and memory systems that will enable very rapid searches through huge databases and come out with results that look superficially like intelligence. Actually, if you look up something on Google you get that result right now. You can delude yourself into thinking that this search program is intelligent as it is very quickly searching a huge database. But this has nothing to do with human or other animal intelligence. It can be useful, but it is not intelligence. I use Google to look things up, but we shouldn’t be deluded by it. I think Kurzweil is a good scientist. He may be deluded by the technology, or, at least, I think he’s deluding others.

Julian Assange has described the Internet as a tool for state surveillance. Information brought out by Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden has exposed the massive use of new technologies for surveillance and control. Of course, the U.S. government has a long history of surveillance, but for many of us, the breadth of the intention to collect and store so much digital data is startling.

Personally, I’m surprised by the scale of these current programs. Others are quite shocked by it as well. You may have seen that the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, cancelled a state visit because of outrage over the revelation that Brazilian facilities of business and government, even her own office, were being monitored by NSA. If we found out that China was secretly monitoring Obama, he’d think it would be time to go to war.

The scale of surveillance is certainly surprising. But not the phenomenon. The reason is the one you mentioned. As far back as you go, systems of power—state and private—have tried to exercise as much control as they can over what they regard as their subjects. In the case of government, that means the civilian population and other societies. They want to control them. Control requires some kind of data and some kinds of surveillance. After surveillance, it then goes on to other means like propaganda, intervention, murder, and so on. In the United States that has gone on for a long time and it’s typical that the systems devised for military use are then very quickly applied to control of the civilian population. Governments typically regard the civilian population as kind of an enemy. It has to be controlled, marginalized, eliminated, pushed to the side, kept in the darkness. Commercial systems do the same.

There’s a very good book on this by Alfred McCoy, a fine historian (Policing America’s Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State9). McCoy studied the techniques and measures that the U.S. government used in the Philippines a century ago after the U.S. invasion there, which was a murderous, bloody invasion that killed tens of thousands of people. But then they had the problem of pacifying the islands. In order to do that, they used the highest technology available to develop complex databases, engage in extensive surveillance, intervention, undermining movements, separating people from one another, and discrediting and so on. It was a very effective technique of surveillance, control, and disruption which was quickly applied in the United States against U.S. citizens. The techniques were used during Woodrow Wilson’s red scare a couple of years later and the British used it too. And the list goes on, constantly.

It’s no surprise that Washington or big corporations are doing what they can to carry out surveillance, domination, and control to ensure that there aren’t populations and others that disrupt their activities. In the 1960s, the worst such program in American history was in operation. It was COINTELPRO, a program run by the government’s national police force, the FBI. Its goal was not just surveillance, but disruption and the undermining and destruction of a whole range of organizations. It began with the Communist Party and then the Puerto Rican independence movement, the American Indian Movement, the entire New Left, the women’s movement, the Black Nationalist movements, and others. It was pretty serious and went as far as political assassinations, literally. That was finally called off by the courts in the mid-1970s. I presume it was called off.

But other mechanisms will be developed unless the government is kept under control. It can only be kept under control by an informed, active, and organized citizenry and that’s why what the people you mentioned—Assange, Manning, Snowden—are doing is essential. They have engaged in acts of honorable citizenship. They have let the public know what you’re elected representatives are doing to you. Of course, those in power don’t like that and the government will offer all kinds of pretexts for the surveillance, like security and so on. But we should bear in mind that this is the essence of what is happening and that such acts of citizenship are essential for a free society.


John Malkin’s writings and interviews have been published widely including in Ode, The Sun, Adbusters, Alternet, In These Times, Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, Sojourners, Z Magazine, Punk Planet and other magazines.