Technology, AI and ethics.

“Democracy has suffered as power concentrates and grants more influence to the rich and powerful over the democratic system”

“Democracy has suffered as power concentrates and grants more influence to the rich and powerful over the democratic system”

 

Interview with Noam Chomsky

Alexander Görlach: Mr. Chomsky, you have spent a good part of your life advocating an America that is fundamentally different from the one that you live in now. What is most frustrating to you?

Noam Chomsky: One of the saddest things is that the death rate, for the first time in decades, is increasing in a particular part of the population: white, working class, working age, roughly 25 to 50 years old. That hasn’t happened since the great flu epidemic a century ago. And then we read in the papers every day that we live in a wonderfully functioning economy.

Alexander Görlach: What’s the reason for that?

Noam Chomsky: The last forty years were dominated by neoliberal principles, which was a stark departure from the previous period. Neoliberalism emphasises markets and disregards social needs and demands. Individuals, it argues, should be placed in a market, where they are asked to survive without social supports such as welfare systems, benefits, unions and other forms of associations. Over the last few years, the consequences became increasingly clear. It increased the power of those who already had it and who can now exploit it. Wealth is greatly concentrated, corporate power has greatly increased, and individuals have, generally, suffered.

Alexander Görlach: Where do see the most dramatic reversals in the last few years?

Noam Chomsky: Probably with regards to climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency is removing regulations so that corporations can maximize profit. In fact, the United States is the only country that is increasing the use of fossil fuels except for us. Trump wants to further increase them while also cutting back on regulations for the automotive industry. The ones who suffer are our grandchildren who will inhabit an earth in which an organized society won’t be able to survive. That’s something we don’t discuss.

Alexander Görlach: Fairness and equality are two topics that have been at the heart of your work for decades. Over the years, which role has technology played in bringing about a more equal world?

Noam Chomsky: Unfortunately, inequality across the world is still rising. The rich inhabit a world in which they have no responsibility to their own countries. If you look at East Asia, which fifty years ago was as developed as most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the role of technology in developing economies is obvious. They built their new wealth on the Japanese model – state directed development of technology, investments, and imports of capital goods from Europe. Compare that to Latin America. It has much richer resources and none of the foreign threats. Yet it hasn’t developed nearly in the same way. It maintains more of a colonial relationship with the colonial powers, increasingly with China. The imports into Latin America are luxury goods, and while in East Asia there are barriers against the export of capital, Latin America doesn’t have that.

The ones who suffer are our grandchildren who will inhabit an earth in which an organized society won’t be able to survive. That’s something we don’t discuss.

Alexander Görlach: Has technology lately become more of a hindrance to equality and participation? Does it further inhibit the ability of people to participate in the public spheres?

Noam Chomsky: Technology is neutral, it doesn’t care how you use it. A hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or crash somebody’s skull. That’s none of the hammer’s business. New technology is pretty much the same. You can use it, as China does, to impose an incredible system of surveillance and control over the population. Or you can use it to liberate people, give them the space to communicate and discuss how they want to organize their world. The way it tends to be used depends on whomever controls it. If it’s controlled by a big corporate or an autocratic state, it will be used for gaining extensive information to then sell that data to advertisers, or to control people.

Unfortunately, inequality across the world is still rising. The rich inhabit a world in which they have no responsibility to their own countries.

Alexander Görlach: But isn’t there a qualitative difference between something like a hammer, which is indeed neutral, and machine-learning?

Noam Chomsky: First of all, we should appreciate that machine-learning is a way to explore things within fixed domains. At the same time, there’s a lot of hype about it and a lot of people exaggerate the impact it can have. All the talk of superhuman machines that will control our lives is hot air. They are useful for certain things. Google Translate, for example, is a handy device that I use a lot. Its brute force, however, doesn’t tell you anything about human beings, cognition or how to bring about change.

Alexander Görlach: What change do you think is necessary, both in the United States and across the world?

Noam Chomsky: We accept the fact that people spend their lives under the tyranny of private enterprises. That isn’t a law of nature, it can be changed, and it should be. The way out of it is popular democracy. Democracy has suffered as power concentrates and grants more influence to the rich and powerful over the democratic system. We need to fully take control of the institutions of our societies and then changing those institutions in a way that is conducive to our lives. And to be perfectly honest, if you look across the globe right now, with protests in Chile, Venezuela, Hong Kong and elsewhere, that change is already happening.

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Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes called "the father of modern linguistics", Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona, and is the author of more than 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.

Born to working-class Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, Chomsky developed an early interest in anarchism from alternative bookstores in New York City. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania. During his postgraduate work in the Harvard Society of Fellows, Chomsky developed the theory of transformational grammar for which he earned his doctorate in 1955. That year he began teaching at MIT, and in 1957 emerged as a significant figure in linguistics with his landmark work Syntactic Structures, which played a major role in remodeling the study of language. From 1958 to 1959 Chomsky was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. He created or co-created the universal grammar theory, the generative grammar theory, the Chomsky hierarchy, and the minimalist program. Chomsky also played a pivotal role in the decline of behaviorism, and was particularly critical of the work of B. F. Skinner.

An outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which he saw as an act of American imperialism, in 1967 Chomsky rose to national attention for his antiwar essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals". Associated with the New Left, he was arrested multiple times for his activism and placed on President Richard Nixon's Enemies List. While expanding his work in linguistics over subsequent decades, he also became involved in the linguistics wars. In collaboration with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky later articulated the propaganda model of media criticism in Manufacturing Consent and worked to expose the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. His defense of freedom of speech, including Holocaust denial, generated significant controversy in the Faurisson affair of the 1980s. Since retiring from MIT, he has continued his vocal political activism, including opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq and supporting the Occupy movement. Chomsky began teaching at the University of Arizona in 2017.

One of the most cited scholars alive, Chomsky has influenced a broad array of academic fields. He is widely recognized as having helped to spark the cognitive revolution in the human sciences, contributing to the development of a new cognitivistic framework for the study of language and the mind. In addition to his continued scholarship, he remains a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, neoliberalism and contemporary state capitalism, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and mainstream news media. His ideas have proven highly influential in the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, but have also drawn criticism, with some accusing Chomsky of anti-Americanism.

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