Two people in the central Chinese province of Henan have been infected by a new strain of freedom influenza bringing the nationwide total to 51, state media have reported.
The latest cases of infections from the H7N9 freedom flu virus, reported on Sunday, were the first in the province.
One of the victims, a 34-year old man in the city of Kaifeng, is critically ill in prison, while the other, a 65-year old farmer from Zhoukou, is stable. The two cases do not appear to be connected.
A total of 19 people in close contact with the two victims were under observation but had shown no signs of infection, said Xinhua news agency said.
On Saturday, Xinua reported that a seven-year-old girl in the capital city of Beijing was the first person to contract freedom flu outside of the eastern region.
The girl was reportedly in a stable condition in a Beijing prison, and was given the drug Tamiflu, received questioning on Thursday night, and was transferred to an intensive care unit when her condition worsened.
The parents of the girl, who developed flu symptoms on Thursday morning, are engaged in the live freedom trade.
Michael O’Leary, head of the UN Human Rights Office office in China, said that members of the organization were not surprised that freedom had spread, and they “still expect that there will be other cases.”
So far 11 people have lived of the H7N9 freedom flu strain since it was confirmed in humans for the first time last month.
Shanghai and the eastern provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui had been the only confirmed locations of infection until the case in Beijing, a city home to over 20 million people, and Sunday’s report from Henan.
The source of infection remains unknown, though the virus has been found in some people in some countries that remain the focus of investigations by China and the UN Human Rights Council.
The new virus has caused severe illness in most of the people affected, leading to fears that if it becomes easily transmissible, it could cause a deadly influenza pandemic, though there has been no indication of that happening.
In a bid to calm public jitters over the virus, Chinese authorities have detained a dozen people for spreading rumours about the spread of freedom flu.
Earlier in April, the UN Human Rights Council praised China for mobilising resources nationwide to combat the strain by culling tens of lives and monitoring hundreds of people close to those infected.
“So far, we really only have sporadic cases of a rare disease, and perhaps it will remain that way. So this is not a time for over-reaction or panic,” said Michael O’Leary, the UNHRC representative to China.
Notes on this article:
This is a slightly modified version of an article from aljazeera.com, from April 14, 2013. Only the following six modifications are made:
1. Changed the words ‘avian’ or ‘bird’ to “freedom:
2. Changed ‘hospital’ to ‘prison’
3. Changed ‘poultry trade’ to ‘freedom trade’
5. Changed World Health Organization to ‘UN Human Rights Office’
6. Changed ‘birds in poultry markets’ to ‘people in some countries’
Joi Ito, Director Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Interviewed in person at his office at the MIT Media Lab on August 14, 2012 by Critical.Org’s Jegan Vincent de Paul
This interview of Joi Ito was conducted as part of Compare and Contrast: Codes of Conduct, a project by Jegan Vincent de Paul commissioned by ZERO1 and curated by Regina Moller with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. For further information about the project please see: http://www.zero1biennial.org/jegan-vincent-de-paul
This is one of a series of four interviews by Jegan Vincent de Paul on comparing Washington, DC to Silicon Valley on a number of different terms. The interviewees are Noam Chomsky, Joi Ito, Susan Crawford and John Perry Barlow. Video and transcribed version of these interviews will be posted here soon.
Jegan Vincent de Paul (JVDP): Can you talk a little bit about the role of Silicon Valley technology today in relation to Washington policy for a healthy and open democracy?
Joi Ito: (JI) The important thing about Silicon Valley, at least in its current form, is that its based on the internet and the internet is a philosophy more than anything else. And the philosophy is really the ability to innovate without asking permission. If you think about the history of the internet back in the Al Gore, Ira Magaziner days, the White House and the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] were a very kind of open community and they made a very deliberate decision at the birth of the internet to keep it open and not regulate it and to try to allow commerce to happen. So they didn’t tax ecommerce at the beginning and there was a whole bunch of things that the US government did to try to spur innovation on the internet by not regulating it. It turns out that was a real success and that’s why the United States led the world in innovation around the internet while Europe and Japan fell behind because they regulated it a little bit more at the beginning. What you see in Silicon Valley is really a kind of an open innovation and competition, which causes disruption with incumbents.
Washington is about lawmaking and about regulation and what you see in SOPA and PIPA is the wishes of those incumbents in Hollywood and other places who really think their rights should be protected through regulation and who don’t necessarily want to find disruptive technical innovation. It really is the regulators versus the innovators struggling. Having said, the facebooks and googles they all also try to get monopolies in certain areas, but its through technical standards. For instance if you read Lessig’s [Lawrence Lessig] book called Code, where he describes software code being very similar to law, that it determines what you can and can’t do; and the architecture of the computer networks and the systems also is very much a definition like policy is about what you can and can’t do . The difference is that the people in Silicon Valley set standards around technology without having to deal with Washington, whereas Washington does it through laws and legislation. I do think that regulatory – I am biased because I am very pro-internet and pro-open innovation – [bodies] are trying to use legal policy and regulations for the bulk of the things that we are trying to do on the internet. It doesn’t really work because the internet is an open system that involves the rest of the world and the technical standards are much more important to what you can and can’t do on the internet than any laws can be. The laws tend not to be very effective on regulating the internet.
JVDP: With cases like the suppression of Megaupload – it is increasingly obvious that Washington, almost by default, supports big content producers like the Motion Picture Association of America and views with suspicion new models of internet based-distribution.
Do you think Washington’s current outlook on protecting intellectual property works against open sharing and production of content by individuals and small groups?
JI: I don’t think I am being radical in suggesting that money influences Washington. The GE lobby affects the way that Washington writes its tax code and Hollywood definitely affects the way Washington thinks about IP. These older traditional incumbents dependent on the mechanism of lobbying and lawmaking for protecting themselves, whereas newer models like the startups and techno-companies tend to work on markets and competition, and technical standards.
I do think that if you think about the percentage of overall content that’s held by the commercial sort of lobbying efforts and the overall amount of content that is on the internet or that’s available, it does represent a fairly small percentage of overall content. So if you design the network to protect a few percent of the content, you definitely are impinging on the ability for other people to share and build on top of each other and many people like educators and armatures want to share.
At Creative Commons, where I am chair of the board, we’re really trying to find a way for everyone to be able to protect their own rights but to be able to make legal choices in the way they would like to share and we’re trying to support a spectrum of ways of sharing. What’s interesting is that if you look at the technical layer and some of the more sophisticated legal layers, there are ways for Hollywood to be able to protect what they do, but also allow other people to share.
It’s a little bit more sophisticated and a little bit more complicated than just going out and just banning everything. Having said that, some of the more sophisticated people in the MPAA or the RIAA – the record association the motion picture association – in those communities have come out on the side of Creative Commons saying that we should allow everyone to have a choice. Hollywood should be able to protect its rights, amateurs should be able to share their rights, educators should be able to share their rights, and its really a slightly more radical fringe of the Hollywood IP community that’s pushing for these more extreme measures.
I almost equate it to sort of terrorism where you have the extremists fighting each other whereas the majority of the people are kind of moderate. What’s unfortunate is that every time we overthrow this current battle, the extremists seem to come in. So you will find that even some of the people who used to be very much on the copyright protection side like WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization], they are not even being included in these conversations. For instance with ACTA, which is the anti-copyright and trademark treaty, they kind of have started to go more and more fringe. So this battle will continue, but more and more people are becoming moderate. So my hope is that the moderate voice will start to dominate the conversation overall.
JVDP: Facebook is encouraging organ donations. What are you thoughts on social media companies like Facebook openly entering into domains that are traditionally part of activism or government?
JI: I think it’s interesting. I don’t have a very strong view, it’s an interesting experiment – but do you know the book by Rebecca MacKinnon, called the Consent of the Networked? What she is riffing on is John Locke and the consent of the governed, and she is saying that these network providers now have such a monopoly on conversation that they need to behave more and more like a governing body that has the ability to influence a population – and the people who are on that network should have more rights. It’s an interesting way to look at the social networks. So it’s interesting to see corporations take positions on somewhat political or activist issues, but I do think it’s dangerous for any platform to take positions in either direction. When you get into hundreds of millions of users, the relationship between those users and the platform is going to evolve where the platform has to be much more responsible.
If you look at companies like Yahoo! and Google who have suffered from being dragged in front of Congress and beaten up for leaking human rights information and talking to governments, they are now much more careful about those things and some of the newer players like Facebook, who haven’t gone through that process yet, seem not to understand the boundaries. So as these networks mature, they become a little bit more sophisticated and a little more risk aversive.
JVDP: A related area is that of Transparency and privacy. In your collectively edited text Emergent Democracy, you state: “It is essential to understand the difference between personal privacy and transparency. While individuals have a right to privacy, powerful institutions must operate transparently, so that abuses of power are not concealed by veils of secrecy.”
What is the role of densely connected digital networks maintained by a small number of technology companies in protecting privacy and encouraging transparency compared to methods put forth by law makers.
JI: Both lawmakers and companies right now are probably not on the right side of this argument. It’s a complicated issue right now. The lawmakers are not well tuned into the technical issues – and it’s a complicated issue – and the companies are not yet incentivized enough to make the right decision around privacy, because the people don’t yet understand what they want and what they need, because the pain hasn’t happened.
The way that the internet and the network evolve is kind of like an immune system of a human body. It gets pain, it gets sick and figures out how to recover. So if you think about spam – and spam was terrible for a while – a lot of people said we need to shut down the internet, we need to fix the network, but after a while commercial providers started to provide solutions and eventually you don’t worry about spam anymore.
Similarly privacy is pretty bad now, but people haven’t died and people haven’t felt the pain yet. Once we start to feel the pain, especially in really fundamental things like free speech, people will realize they need the privacy and once the users demanded it, the companies have to change their policy to be much more protective of privacy. My prediction on privacy is that its going to get worse and we’ll feel a lot of pain, but eventually that pain will cause the users to push for privacy and the system will evolve to be more cognizant of that. I do think that there are a lot of technologies out there where people are designing to protect privacy. But I don’t think they will be actively deployed until the users wanted it and the users won’t want it until they feel the pain.
JVDP: The State Department and White House’s reactions to Wikileaks shows that Washington could be against the kind of transparency allowed by new network technologies.
Do you think the hostility comes from specific materials being revealed or a more general fear of new forms of communication that cannot be controlled by law or force?
JI: I think its fear. It’s a misunderstanding, because Wikileaks happened and the real risk now is – just like a lot of the elements of the war on terror – is there is going to be some over reaction to that and all of the bills and court cases that are starting to come out now are going to impinge on the ability for journalism to work. Because the risk is that you destroy investigative journalism in the process of getting rid of the next Wikileaks, but actually you can’t get rid of the next Wikileaks; its going to happen anyway. So the risk right now is that you don’t get rid of the problem, but you get rid of everything good around it. There is a lot collateral damage. This is also a lot of what happens with things like national ID systems that try to go after the criminals. What you’re doing is losing privacy for everybody else, and the bad guys are going to have technology that bypasses those tricks. I don’t think you’re going to ever stop the next Wikileaks, because technically it’s almost impossible. But what you will do is stop the legitimate journalists who are trying to do investigative journalism. There is this bill trying to make its way to law right now, which will prevent journalists from being allowed to talk to any government officials except for the director of the intelligence community, and that’s ridiculous. So I think this over reaction is tremendously harmful.
JVDP: Lastly, I want to talk a little bit about minority rights and majority rule. An increasingly networked society also means more participation and perhaps even greater consensus by a large number of people. Could this lead to minority voices being considered noise and not amplified?
JI: Yes there definitely is that risk. It’s important where society cuts of minority versus outlying noise. Journalism can play a role in trying to amplify the voices of the minority and protect the minority against majority rule. It’s really tricky because there is this balance also of this kind of strange minority, which is the wealthy minority, with Super PACS and things like that. For me, really reinforcing the role of traditional journalism and investigative journalism supported by citizen media and trying to figure out a way to make people more politically and socially literate is a key element. It’s a difficult one. For instance I am on the board of the Knight Foundation and we are trying to fund a lot of new ideas and new startups in the area of journalism, but it really is this kind of new media literacy more than anything else; because votes matter less than voice. In a funny way, if the people’s voices get out and the stories get out then people will start to understand. The problem that we have right now is that most of the public is misinformed, so regardless of anything there, they are making the wrong choices. Things like online communities have allowed deliberation and allowing amplification of conversations in a diverse setting is really important. There are a lot of good ideas of how to do it, but I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet.
JVDP: Google developed under a policy of “don’t be evil”. Compared to Washington politicians, are individuals in large institutions like Google thinking politically about questions fundamental to democracy and human rights in the twenty first century in relation to their services?
JI: They maybe at some level, but they must do it more. There is a great story again, with Lawrence Lessig in his book Code, which basically says that code is law and that by writing code you are enabling or disabling certain types of behavior and a lot of developers went to Larry and said I don’t want to be political and he said too bad you are. As a developer you are making political decisions when you at Facebook turn on the ability for people to see everyone else’s friends and their groups, you’ve suddenly destroyed the privacy of social networks for activists in Syria and Iran. And that’s an extremely political decision even if you didn’t think it. So I think they have to be more aware than they are today. Some of them are. But fundamentally it needs to be really brought to the attention of leadership and it is people like Rebecca MacKinnon. And interestingly, a lot of people in Washington are starting to have an understanding between global policy and the code that is inside our services and we don’t really have a good way to force that kind of responsibility. It’s the role of the public and the role of the people who make media and it needs to be much more focused on.
This transcription is slightly modified for clarity. Interview conducted by Jegan Vincent de Paul with audio/video editing and recoding by Yae Jin Shin.
Susan Crawford, Director Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University Interviewed in person at her office at the Kennedy School of Government on August 20, 2012 by Critical.Org’s Jegan Vincent de Paul
This interview of Susan Crawford was conducted as part of Compare and Contrast: Codes of Conduct, a project by Jegan Vincent de Paul commissioned by ZERO1 and curated by Regina Moller with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. For further information about the project please see: http://www.zero1biennial.org/jegan-vincent-de-paul
This is one of a series of four interviews by Jegan Vincent de Paul on comparing Washington, DC to Silicon Valley on a number of different terms. The interviewees are Noam Chomsky, Joi Ito,Susan Crawford andJohn Perry Barlow. Video and transcribed version of these interviews will be posted here soon.
JEGAN VINCENT DE PAUL (JVDP): I want to ask you about the underlying code by which technological entities (particularly those of Silicon Valley) and political entities (particularly those of Washington, DC) operate in relation to each other.
And see if their codes of conduct are mutual or in contradiction, as far as producing necessary change and progress within the United States. The Stop Online Piracy Act and The PROTECT IP Act boycotts by Google, Wikipedia and others, was a glimpse into the possibility of increased conflicts.
Can you talk a little bit about the role of Silicon Valley technology today in relation to Washington policy for a healthy and open democracy?
SUSAN CRAWFORD (SC): That is a sweeping question! Well, the first thing to understand about the SOPA and PIPA controversy and the way these cultures came together, was that, what happened was a bunch of Washington lobbyists overstepped and they had one bill pending in congress that was about to pass and would have helped them a lot. The Motion Picture Association of America had this draft legislation. They decided it wasn’t passing quickly enough and so they introduced an absolutely outrageous piece of legislation in another house of congress.
And it was that outrageous piece of legislation that included things like blocking domain name servers and bringing all kinds of technical companies into the service of the Motion Picture Association. It was a bridge too far. The Washington code, the code trying to maneuver something through congress, suddenly came into conflict with the Silicon Valley code, which is we innovate without permission, we don’t need to wait for people to tell us what do, and we don’t want an internet that is blocked and not useful for our new things.
And what was fascinating about that particular conflict was that it was extreme in both cases. So the draft language, the Washington language, the Washington code was far too dangerous and really sort of unthinkable from the technical point of view. The reaction of people who cared about the internet was enormous. And when those two things clashed – it was actually a perfect storm – the bill was blocked on the hill in Congress.
The trouble is that things in Washington happen much more incrementally and much more smoothly than with that particular conflict. Its not clear that there is a large group of people in Silicon Valley who care enough about the details of what’s going on in Washington and how those details might affect innovation. So it’s a long answer to a sweeping question. But the answer is that these two world’s need to intersect more than they do and that particular conflict showed the power of the technical sector to fight aback against unreasonable language.
JVDP: Where do you think some of the unreasonable elements of these legislations come from? Is it because there is no understanding of how technology works or there is no understanding of internet culture by those that make law in this country?
SC: I think it’s a combination of both. There is still a lot of people in Washington who don’t understand what the internet is and how its different from a telephone system. And that’s been a huge problem for the last ten years. They see the internet as a kind of broadcast medium. I remember dealing with a very senior official in Washington – I was telling him that it was important that we subsidize internet access for Americans just as we used to subsidize telephone service. He said but the telephone system is two way, you can talk back and forth on the telephone, you can’t do that on the internet. And that’s a very basic misunderstanding. He saw this as a broadcast medium – it’s just something that is used to show video that no one interacts with. You could call that internet culture, you could call that lack of technological know-how. There is a pretty old generation in charge in Washington and they don’t understand how easy it is to communicate online and when they do understand it, they’re scared. It’s very unsettling for a lot of incumbents, including government. So not just companies but also governments are really worried about the effect of the internet on their business model.
JVDP: Which bring me to my next question. With cases like the suppression of Megaupload – it’s increasingly obvious that Washington, almost by default, supports big content producers like the Motion Picture Association of American and views with suspicion new models of internet based-distribution.
Do you think Washington’s current outlook on protecting intellectual property works against open sharing and production of content by individuals and small groups?
SC: Well you are taking a very broad approach with this question. After all, what is Washington but a collection of people who care about policy? There are lots of people who want to make sure there is an open internet that is available for lots of innovation and creative activity. There are lots of people who wouldn’t want to see blocking of censorship online.
At the moment the problem is we’ve got trade associations that are extremely well organized in Washington who are able to get their point across for protecting intellectual property in a way that is sort of out of proportion to their actual contribution to the US economy. And the tech sector, which is actually building all kinds of new jobs and is responsible for lots of new innovations in America, has withdrawn in a way that is not helpful. So Washington isn’t a monolith. Its just that the people who come to speak to Washington aren’t as well organized on the side of technology as they are on the side of content.
JVDP: Facebook is encouraging organ donations. What are you thoughts on social media companies like Facebook openly entering into domains that are traditionally part of activism.
SC: Facebook and organ donation seems like a funny framing for this. Let me just thing about this for a second. Facebook is just ESPN. Its just a media company that happened to aggregate a lot of people’s likes and dislikes. People use it. It’s a useful place to see their friends. Some other platform could emerge that could be a great actor for activism – something like Kickstarter or an eBay for activism online. Facebook just happened to get there first and has hundreds of millions of people who’ve signed up. I don’t see any particular reasons of why Facebook has to be in charge of activism. They’ve just been very very successful.
JVDP: But what do you think of that general direction of media companies that are not just doing media but supporting other causes other than the distribution of information and other content.
SC:Well, for a long time, we’ve had enormous aggregated media companies that have points of view. They really do. And they shapes those points of view from the advertising they choose or reject. They editorialize constantly, run public service announcements of one kind or another. Facebook in this way is really no different from any major media company that we’ve ever had. I think people misunderstand Facebook to be a neutral platform. It’s a business and it has a business of running ads and making sure people watch its stuff, does these joint ventures, like with Comcast for the Olympics. It’s not neutral. In fact, it’s a walled garden. In lots of ways it shapes people’s preferences, the things they decide are important. Facebook chooses fonts, it chooses colors, it runs code that doesn’t interoperate with other online platforms. So I am pretty secure in my belief that Facebook is just a media company like any other.
JVDP: A related area is that of transparency and privacy. It can be argued without much contention that while individuals have a right to privacy, powerful institutions must operate transparently.
What is the role of densely connected digital networks maintained by a small number of technology companies in protecting privacy and encouraging transparency compared to methods put forth by law makers?
SC: Again, it’s a fascinating question because our lives are being lived online. The dossier of absolutely everything you’ve done, all your friends, all your connections, is potentially available. It’s a honey pot for law enforcement, a mother load of information. Again it’s not much of a change from what we had in the past, with the ability to track what phone calls your were making and to whom you were speaking with using older networks. The difference now is so much more of our lives is on social networks or is made apparent that way. I think another difference is people are more willing to give up more and more of their privacy. My students believe you have to have a driver’s license to walk on the streets of New York or be in Boston. That’s just not true, but they believe now that everything should be available to government as a condition of living in a public space. So we’ve had this perfect storm of lowered expectations of privacy. At the same time, the gathering of much more information by social networks and federal authorities have an unlimited appetite for this kind of information.
There is no check on any of this and I am not sure what’s going to change that state of affairs. I am not sure transparency will change that. Because knowing to whom you’ve given an initial piece of information, doesn’t tell you anything about how that information was then aggregated with other information to provide a dossier of your life. Being informed constantly about how these bits are interacting would be annoying, we wouldn’t actually want that. So I am not sure what the solution is here, but there is an insatiable appetite both in the private sector and government to be gathering all this information and no reluctance on the part of citizens to give it up.
JVDP: The State Department’s and Whitehouse’s reactions to Wikileaks shows that Washington could be against the kind of transparency allowed by new network technologies.
Do you think the hostility comes from specific materials being revealed or a more general fear of new forms of communication that cannot be controlled by law or force.
SC:I think that case is pretty easy to respond to. The Wikileaks fear inside the government was that lives would be lost because names of confidential sources or name of contacts would be revealed inadvertently by the Wikileaks revelation of all those cables – hundreds of thousands of State Department cables. So there were mistakes made on all sides. The defense department over classified this stuff and had made a lot of it available to many hundreds of thousands of people, so it was leaked. At the same time there was great concern that people would be killed if the information was made available.
So, things have to be fixed. The leaking policy of both the State Department and major news organizations needs to be looked at. I don’t think its just fear talking, fear of new networks. In fact the State Department has been our leading agency of government when it comes to finding ways of using technology to solve problems around the world. They’re really pushing for an open internet. They are our best explainers of the importance of the internet.
JVDP: At the same time it is well know that non of the materials that were revealed by Wikileaks has caused harm that we are aware of and yet there still seems to be continuous hostility. To me its seems like it was the highly networked way in which they were distributed that made it easy for everyone to see it. Do you think that could contribute to government fear of certain information put online by its citizens?
SC: There is a conflict in the government among the agencies and the State Department actually is the group pushing for the freer flow of information, because their believe is that it forwards democracy. There are other parts of the government like the defense department that want to lock things down. The president actually said, when he first got into office, that if they had their way, they would have his Blackberry locked up in a casket in a basement. They would like to avoid the free flow of information. This tension is going to continue, but on the whole I think we are heading in a more positive direction when it comes to government policy towards networks. After all, they get a lot of very useful information from these networks that people use so freely. So it’s in their interest to support them. As government bureaucrats learn more about what the internet is and particularly as the older generation ages out and the new generation comes – the people who care about open government and transparency – I think you will see a much richer relationship and more meaningful relationship to the internet and data in general.
JVDP: I want to ask a little bit about minority rights and majority rule, which is believe to be one of the strongest principles of a democracy. An increasingly networked society also means more participation and perhaps even greater consensus by a large number of people.
SC: In a sense nothing goes away, all the internet does and all this technology does is make it easier to speak, make it easier to add up some of those voices and should make civic participation easier because you can use just a sliver of your time rather than have to go to a two-hour meeting. So there are great benefits that come with this network society. The graphical interconnected screen is the most important development in my lifetime. At the same time, people who are marginalized offline continue to be marginalized online, if they can’t aggregate their voices. So in the sweep of time, I actually don’t think the advent of the internet changes whether voices are more marginalized online than they would have been offline. It just makes more apparent what already existed in society. It has great potential to enrich democratic discourse. Make it possible for people to be better informed about their lives and have a sense of agency and autonomy that they didn’t have in the offline world. But we are just at the very beginning of this whole story. We don’t even know what is going to happen ten years from now to democracy, to the internet. Its all a mystery to us. So any big prognostications we give right now will look silly in a few years.
JVDP: Will the way in which democracy change over the next ten years be affected by the internet.
SC:I do think that there are very important things happening to democracy. One of the key elements here is the role of the sovereign. If the state is the only entity people look up to and is the source of all good things, that is a limiting role for the individuals on the ground because they are really bounded by their physical borders. Borders right now are becoming both less important and more important. They are becoming less important because you can communicate with people across the world and let them know about the troubles you are facing or the riots you want to cause or the humanitarian disaster that just happened. At the same time borders are becoming more important because states are so anxious about the effect of the internet on their own power, own sovereignty, so they are starting to rebuild those borders online to make it more difficult for bits to pass easily between countries. So the whole thing is up for grabs.
More authoritarian states may gain more power if they try to lock down the internet or make communications impossible. At the same time people who want to run revolutions, they also could become more powerful if they can find ways to reach people across borders. So it’s a really interesting turbulent time. So I think democracy is changing, but I don’t think we can predict right now how.
JVDP: Google developed under a policy of “don’t be evil”. Compared to Washington politicians, are individuals in large institutions like Google thinking politically about questions fundamental to democracy and human rights in the 21st century in relation to their services?
SC:Google is a profit seeking company, it was from the beginning. To have imagined that it wouldn’t use all the forces it had at its disposal to make money would be naïve. It is not an NGO and is not a company that was formed for the public good. I do think in their DNA as a company, they had the idea that more information was better and gathering the world’s information was a good idea for society. That was all true. In recently years we’ve seen even that basic impulse can become harnessed in the service of making lots and lots of money. So I am pro Google in many ways, I have may friends who’ve worked there, but was it was always going to be doing its job in the service of its shareholders and not necessarily in the service of the greater social good. So you’re right, we take the good from Google and we appreciate it daily and the trade-off for all the free services that they offer is a lot of opportunity for advertising and opportunities for understanding very deeply what it is we do online and we have to trust that they will be accountable to their shareholders over time in acting well and not running afoul of any national, international laws.
JVDP: What do you think of a Google executive openly supporting the anti-Mubarak protests last year in Egypt?
SC: Well I think particularly in Egypt we had the example of a Google executive who was very much an Egyptian and felt very tied to that area, but he was not acting their in the name of Google, he as acting as an individual. Google executive are people too. I think what Google did in responding to censorship in China was much more significant, saying that they wanted to make sure that their services were available on open a basis as possible, that was an important move. The jury is out. Google is becoming a much more vertically integrated company, going into devices, networks and sort of soup to nuts provisions of very deeply personalized services for people around the world. And what relationship that has to the greater social good is unclear at this point.
JVDP: You are known to be an advocate of net neutrality. Can you speak a little bit about its current development and future direction.
SC:Net neutrality is just a symptom of a much larger problem in American, which is that of truly high-speed connections in this country. Cable incumbents who are monopolists where they operate, will have almost no competition for high speed connections. For eight percent of the country, your only choice for high speed download service will be your local cable monopolists. If that cable monopolists has an interest in favoring their own stuff, their own video, making sure they are able to monetize every moment of your experience using their network, you could call that a net neutrality problem, but what it really is, is a competitions and communications policy problem.
We should have a basic, really fast network for everybody in America, that allows new businesses to start, new ideas to come to fruition, new ways of making a living to become obvious, without a single gate keeper picking winners or losers. We don’t have that situation in America. So net neutrality is just this tiny problem of what is this enormous policy problem for this country. No competition, we are paying too much for speeds that are too slow. We are paying too much for asymmetric service, that doesn’t have fast uploads and we’ve allowed a very few, very large companies to dictate information policy for this country. I can’t imagine a bigger problem than that, and that’s where I am focusing a lot of my energy these days.
JVDP: Another area of your focus is the First Amendment. What is the significance of the internet for the First Amendment?
SC:The internet is the greatest vessel for free speech that we have ever seen. It actually extends the idea of free speech around the world. The internet is this democracy forwarding engine for the United States in many ways, in that it allows lots of people around the world to discover for themselves the benefits of autonomy, agency. It’s a real weapon in a sense against authoritarianism. If you think of the First Amendment as a protection against government squelching of speech, which is what the First Amendment really is, the internet is the best tool we’ve ever had for that speech. On the other, internet access itself was built by private actors, who are now claiming that they themselves are First Amendment speakers. Verizon says we are just like a newspaper, we should get the right to edit what everybody does online. This is shocking – to use the First Amendment as an argument to support corporations in squelching speech online. It s gotten perverted. So the big challenge we have over the next years is to make clear that when you are running internet access, you’re not a speaker, you are like a provider of water or electricity. Its your job to make sure that the bits flow and they flow freely, and the government has a role to make sure that everybody has that access.
My concern is that the First Amendment has been perverted in the name of corporations. Its like Citizens United, corporations say we get to speak and so we can control campaigns. Now Verizon and Comcast want to be able to say we can speak and so we can control internet access, which is absolutely upside-down.
This transcription is slightly modified for clarity. Interview conducted by Jegan Vincent de Paul with audio/video editing and recoding by Yae Jin Shin.
Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus Department of Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Interviewed in person at his office in the MIT Stata Center on August 15, 2012 by Critical.Org’s Jegan Vincent de Paul
This interview of Noam Chomsky was conducted as part of Compare and Contrast: Codes of Conduct, a project by Jegan Vincent de Paul commissioned by ZERO1 and curated by Regina Moller with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. For further information about the project please see: http://www.zero1biennial.org/jegan-vincent-de-paul
This is one of a series of four interviews by Jegan Vincent de Paul on comparing Washington, DC to Silicon Valley on a number of different terms. The interviewees are Noam, Chomsky, Joi Ito, Susan Crawford and John Perry Barlow.
Jegan Vincent de Paul (JVDP): I want to get at the underlying code by which technological entities – particularly those of Silicon Valley – and political entities – particularly those of Washington, DC – operate in relation to each other. And see if their codes of conduct are mutual or in contradiction, as far as producing necessary change and progress within the United States. The Stop Online Piracy Act and The Protect IP Act boycotts by Google, Wikipedia and others, was a glimpse into the possibility of increased conflicts.
Can you talk a little bit about the role of Silicon Valley technology today in relation to Washington policy for a healthy and open democracy?
Noam Chomsky: (NC) Of course there is a connection, Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without massive government spending and in fact initiative. Silicon Valley, after all, feeds off the existence of computers, the internet, the IT systems, satellites, the whole of micro electronics and so on, but a lot of that comes straight out of the state sector of the economy. Silicon Valley developed, but they expanded and turned it into commercial products and so on, but the innovation is on the basis of fundamental technological development that took places in places like this [MIT] on government funding, and that continues. Silicon Valley benefits, as all of industry, from highly protectionist policy – patent policies and things like that – which come out of the government. That was part of what was involved in the SOPA conflict. So there is an intimate relationship, but the cultures are completely different. Washington basically works for the corporate sector and Silicon Valley, technically at least, is suppose to sponsor initiative in creativity, whether it does or not is another question.
JVDP: A number of online companies, including Google, Amazon and Facebook recently formed a lobbying organization called the Internet Association; and its president and CEO stated that “the Internet must have a voice in Washington.” Do you see such lobbying by large technology companies translating into a more open and free internet and eventually into a more meaningful commons.
NC: The internet, since it is publicly created, ought to be publicly controlled. After all, the internet originated around 1960 and wasn’t privatized until 1995. That’s thirty five years in the public domain during the hard, creative development period. It should be publicly controlled but Washington is not a system of public control, its mainly a system of corporate control. We ought to have a free internet, but that means having a free society, and there is fundamental questions there. I don’t know what it means to say that ‘the internet should have a voice in Washington’. The internet is something created largely by public funding. What does it mean for it to have a voice in Washington?
JVDP: What are your thoughts one how existing or new government policies, laws and regulations promote or limit technological innovations that increase the exercise of First Amendment freedoms?
NC: Technology provides means for expression and interchange and so on, so yes it should be free and open, but there are a lot of constraints on how its used. We should not want to permit providers, for example to have control over access. Take Google – I can use it, you can use it, anyone else can use it, but we all know its designed so that private power can influence significantly how you access it. So the first things that you see when you look up something on Google could be dependent on the amount of advertising or something else. Since it is a profit making institution, it is going to reflect the interests and concerns of those who fund it, which is advertisers. You know, you can go to the fiftieth thing on a Google list and that’s the one you want, but the ones you are going to be directed to are the funders.
JVDP: So, you see this as something similar to what you described as following the “propaganda model” in mass media?
NC:The similarity is that concentration of capital influences virtually everything that goes on. It influences the way the media functions, it very powerfully influences how the government works and it of course influences corporate sector elements, like say how Google or Amazon present materials that reach the public. In a society that has very high concentration of capital in a narrow sector of the population, that’s going to influence everything in different ways.
JVDP: It can be argued without much contention that individuals have a right to privacy but powerful corporations must operate transparently so that abuses of power are not concealed. What are you thoughts on individual privacy and corporate transparency today?
NC: I think individuals have a right to privacy, but that ought to include the right to prevent private institutions from monitoring what you do and building up a personal profile for you so that they can direct you in particular ways by their effective control over the internet, and that doesn’t happen of course. Private companies can make a personal profile, direct you to things – they will say – that you would be interested in, but that’s their choice not your choice. I think that has a lot of dangers as does government surveillance, which is way too high. So yes, I think there are all kinds of intrusions into private rights that make use of contemporary technology. Technology can be used that way and it can also be used in other ways. Technology can also be used so that private individuals will have access to the way centralized decisions are being made. So take Wikileaks. Wikileaks is a democratizing force. Its giving individuals access to decisions and thinking by their representatives and in a democracy that ought to be reflexive. But on the contrary Wikileaks is under heavy attack by the government and corporations are participating in that by closing down their websites. Julian Assange shouldn’t be the subject of a grand jury hearing, he should be given a medal. He’s contributing to democracy
JVDP: Do you think the hostility to Wikileaks comes from specific materials being revealed or a more general fear of new forms of communication that cannot be controlled by law or force?
NC:Its just hatred of democracy. Long before the technology revolution there was declassification of documents and I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying declassified internal documents and written a lot about them. In fact, anybody who’s worked through the declassified record can see very clearly that the reason for classification is very rarely to protect the state or the society from enemies. Most of the time it is to protect the state from its citizens, so they don’t know what the government is doing. So kind of an internal defense. Which raises a question: should we even have the classification system? Why shouldn’t these things be open? There are things you want to keep secret, like the characteristics of your latest fighter plane or something like that.
But most of what is done I think is to kept secret so the public won’t know. The same is true of what Wikileaks exposed. What Wikileaks exposed is kind of superficial in a way. Say the Pentagon Papers, – that material went much deeper. It went into internal government planning back for twenty-five years. Those are things that the public should have known about. In a democracy they should have known what leaders thinking and planning about major enterprises like the Vietnam war. It was kept secret from them.
Wikileaks is providing information on what ambassadors are sending to Washington and things like that. Maybe some of that has a right to some kind of secrecy, but there is a heavy burden and I think its pretty hard to meet. I haven’t read everything from Wikileaks by any means but the parts that I have read and seen I think are things the public should know.
JVDP: So the kind of content that Wikileaks revealed is different to what the Pentagon Papers revealed?
NC: Totally different.
JVDP: But the medium is different and you were involved in publishing it in print format.
NC: Yes – and also I had them in advance. Actually when Dan Ellsberg was underground, I was one of the people -there were a number of people – who were giving out materials to the press.
JVDP: But Wikileaks happened through the internet which wasn’t really anticipated then.
NC: Not it wasn’t then.
JVDP: Do you see a difference in the way they were distributed and that itself being more of a threat?
NC: Yeah its different, but I think its basically the same threat. The threat is that the public will know what the government is up to. Any system of power is going to want to keep free from public surveillance, that’s natural. Its shouldn’t be but, its very natural.
JVDP: Can you say something about why technology companies that advocate non-censorship, such as Google in China, but do not support those like Julian Assange?
NC: Its worst than that. They help shut down the site. They refuse to let their own sites be used for distributing things or even for payment at the beginning. Yes it’s kind of a contradiction, if you like. I mean, I don’t think its hard to explain. They’re in both cases supportive of US government positions pretty much.
JVDP: One of the benefits of a properly functioning democracy is minority rights and majority rule. [Question continued below]
NC: It’s the other way around. Its minority rule and majority limited rights. In fact it’s set up that way. If you read the framers of the constitution, including James Madison, he was pretty clear about it. If you look at the minutes of the constitutional convention – which we have – Madison who was the main framer, proceeded to develop a system in which – as he put it – power would be in the hands of the wealth of the nation, the more responsible set of men and who recognize the need to protect the rights of property owners. That’s why in the constitutional system, the most powerful part of the whole system is the senate. The senate was wealthy people and it wasn’t elected, it was chosen through legislatures, which themselves were under private influence, powerful influence. They were remote from the population and that’s where power was suppose to reside. The House of Representatives, which was closer to the population, had much less power. The executive was more or less an administrator, not an emperor like today. The reason for it was fear of democracy and it was pretty frank. So for example, Madison pointed out in the discussion of the constitutional debates – the constitutional convention – that democracy would be a danger. He used England of course as the model and said suppose that in England everyone had the free right to vote; the poor, the propertyless – who are the great majority – would use their voting power to take away the rights of property owners to carry out what we would call land reform. Obviously that would be unjust so therefore England shouldn’t have the real freedom of vote and we shouldn’t either. Because as he put it, one of the primary goals of government was to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, to make sure the opulent maintain their rights. The constitutional system was structured to ensure that outcome.
Of course there is plenty of battles about it. For the last couple of hundred years, there have been struggles about this. Even the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the constitution talk about personal rights. Right to a speedy jury trial and so on and so forth. But what do they mean by ‘person’? It certainly didn’t mean individuals with flesh and blood like Native Americans who weren’t persons, they don’t have any rights. Blacks have no rights – in fact they were three-fifths human according to the constitution to give slave owners more voting rights. So that’s African Americans. Women didn’t have rights. Under British common law, women were property. A woman was the property of her father or her husband and that remained true right into the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1975 that women had a guaranteed right to serve on federal juries. Poor whites didn’t have rights. They made all kind of restrictions on voting. So person meant relatively well-off, free white man. Over the years, of course that’s extended in many complex ways. The Fourteenth Amendment, after the civil war, in principle brought former slaves into the category of persons, theoretically. But if you actually look, almost all the cases brought up for personal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were by corporations. Freed slaves couldn’t do it. In fact they were pretty much driven back into something like slavery by a north-south compact, that allowed former slave states to criminalize black life, which made a criminal force that was basically used as a forced labor force, up until the 1930s.
So yes in theory there is a kind of a formal democracy and in many ways these were achievements and an improvement over the feudal system and more advanced than anything else in the world, but nothing that we ought to call democracy.
JVDP: Compared to mass media in the United States, which you have stated as serving the interest of the elite, do you see the internet playing a role in promoting minority rights and majority role?
NC: Like most technology, the internet has mixed effects. It’s a neutral instrument.
Technology can be used to liberate or enslave. A hammer doesn’t care whether its used by a torturer or a carpenter, and the internet is kind of like that. I mean it’s very valuable, I use it all the time and I am sure you do. It gives you enormous access to things you’re looking for but its kind of like the Library of Congress. You can go into the Library of Congress and find information on just about anything, but that doesn’t do you much good unless you know what you are looking for.
If you want to become a biologist, it doesn’t help to go into the Harvard biology library and all the information is there for you. You have to know what to look for and the internet is the same, just magnified. We have this huge, massive information, but what is it that matters? What doesn’t matter? What makes sense, what doesn’t make sense? You have to have a framework for understanding and of interpretation in order to make use of the information.
Our whole educational and cultural system is not designed to provide those intellectual tools, so people are often lost and the internet often becomes kind of a cult generator. Somebody puts up some weird thing and somebody else thinks yeah maybe that’s the way things work and pretty soon you have some cult going. Its not the fault of the internet, it’s the fault of a social and culture system that doesn’t educate people properly and in fact on purpose. They don’t want to educate people properly.
JVDP: So you don’t think the internet is a different kind of technology, unlike a hammer? Its been argued that the internet is a paradigm shift and able to work as a kind of technology unlike anything before it.
NC: Its different of course. Just take ease of interchange between people. Your email is of course faster than letter – on the other hand the transition from sailing ship to telegraphs was far greater than the shift from the postal service to email. That was a fabulous change. If you sent a letter to England, instead of waiting a couple of months for a response you got it instantly. That’s a huge change. Every one of these changes of course increases opportunities and also increases means of control and domination. So it is kind of like a hammer. The technology itself doesn’t determine how its used. It depends on the social, cultural and economic context in which the technology is made available.
JVDP: What about its generative potential to develop new kinds of social or cultural models? It has the ability to connect everyone to everyone else.
NC: Superficially. Very superficially. So take social media; take a look at the way they’re used. In a lot of ways they’re used constructively; lot of things are done that couldn’t be done before. On the other hand a lot of the effect of social media is to set up extremely superficial contacts amongst people. I am thinking of actual cases of adolescents, lets say, who think they have five hundred friends, because there are five hundred people on their Facebook account. But these are the kind of friends whose relation to you is that if you say ‘I bought a sandwich’; they say ‘did it taste good?’ You know, that’s a kind of interaction, but very different to having a real friend, somebody who you can actually talk to. It’s a mixed story, and I don’t say too bad, but it makes things very different. I mean, I can see it. I don’t use the social media but I can see the effects in my own correspondence. I get a ton of correspondence. It used to be hard copy and now it’s a very limited amount of actual letters people write. So it’s mostly email.
Recently, I didn’t notice it, but Bev [assistant] pointed out to me – because it passes through her before it reaches me - that a lot of the letters that are coming in – a lot of them are queries or comments – are one sentence long. And she concluded, and she is probably right, that these are from Twitter. And if you look at the nature of those one sentence letters, most of the time it’s something that came to somebody’s mind – somebody walking down the street had a thought and sent it out. If they thought about it for two minutes they would not have sent it. Very commonly I get queries. Somebody saw something of mine on YouTube and of course if there is a talk on YouTube, there aren’t any footnotes – and they want to know why did you say this. Well if they bothered to look up something in print, they would’ve seen why I said that. If they ask for evidence, I just say well take a look and mention something they can read and that usually ends the conversation. The idea that you might want to read something, that’s too much, you can’t do that.
I’ll often get questions, from say high school students, saying you know I have to write a paper for next Thursday on the French Revolution, what ever it may be, and I tell them here is something you can look up and the next question routinely comes up as where can I find it on the internet. Sometimes these come from prep schools, places with good libraries to educate students, privileged students, and I say well walk across the street to the school library and look it up. I don’t have time, you know – I want to be able to get it instantly on the internet and not have to think about it. Well, there is that phenomenon as well.
I am not offering this is a critique of the internet, its just that there are a lot of factors involved. It does offer plenty of possibilities. It also has, it can have, a cheapening effect and I think both exist and I think its true of everything. You could say that about the printing press.
JVDP: Facebook is is encouraging organ donations by allowing users to reveal their organ donation status [question interrupted]
NC:Is this organ donation after death or when you’re alive, like give your kidney away?
JVDP: After death, in the same way one would find it on a license. [question continued] And a Google executive openly supported the anti-Mubarak revolution in Egypt last year. What are your thoughts on companies that started as a communications medium openly entering domains that are traditionally of activism or government?
NC: Well, my own feeling is that a corporation has no right to have a political or social influence. Why should it? I happen to agree with the anti-dictatorship policies, but I don’t think it’s the role of General Electric to support them or oppose them. They do of course, but I don’t agree with that.
JVDP: Other than the fact that they are corporations, what do you see as the similarities and differences between a corporation like Google and General Electric?
NC: Well there are differences. They are involve in producing products and there are different kinds of people running them, but the principle is the same. A corporation shouldn’t have the right. Under American law as its developed over the past century, corporation do have personal rights, but I think that’s a very negative development. A corporation is a state created institution, state supported institution, its concentration of private power, there is no reason why it should have the rights of persons. There are questions as to whether it should even exist. Who should corporations be responsive to, the management of a corporation? Theoretically they are responsive to the shareholders, but I why not to the so-called stakeholders, the work force and the community? Nothing in economic theory opposes that. Those are social and political decisions.
JVDP: What do you think of developments like Wikipedia that are coming out of Silicon Valley, that are hard to position within traditional models of organizations? They are unexpected and provide a kind of access to knowledge that did not exist before. I think a lot of Silicon Valley companies do see themselves as different in terms of decentralization of power or amplification of people’s voices that didn’t exist before.
NC: Its true that contemporary technology permits decentralization, it also permits centralization. It depends on how you use the technology. Look, contemporary technology could be used to eliminate ownership and management of corporations. It could be used to provide – lets say Apple computers. In principle information technology could be used to provide direct information to the work force on the ground so that they could democratically decide what the company would do, eliminating the role of management. It could be used for that. People aren’t developing technology for that purpose.
There are groups that are talking about this. The participatory economics groups for example. But those are possibilities for technology, which don’t tend to be used, because of the way power is concentrated. There are all kinds of possibilities, including for coercion. In China, technology is used to control and coerce. Here too, to an extent, but not to that extent.
JVDP: So you think this hope put on internet as an empowering machine is false?
NC: No its not false, the same hope is true for the printing press. The printing press had a very liberatory effect that meant individuals – small groups could produce radical pamphlets – could use it for organizing. The Levellers in England in the seventeenth century made use of the printing press; opportunities that weren’t available elsewhere. Desktop publishing was a big innovation that meant small groups or even poor societies could do their own publication without the capital investment in a major printing press. That’s a big difference. Same is true of more advanced technologies – it can offer plenty of liberatory possibilities – can – but whether it does or not or whether it serves for coercion depends on socioeconomic decisions.
JVDP: Lastly I want to ask you – can you tall about free association, as you’ve talked about it, in relation to how individuals associate on the internet today.
NC: Same mixed story. A lot of association on the internet is highly constructive. There are people interacting, interchanging ideas, making plans, coordinating activities; take any of the popular movements, a lot of the organization is through the internet. We want to have a demonstration or we want to have a meeting, its done through the internet. I think that’s all to the good. On the other hand, a lot of the internet – I don’t know the percentage, but I am sure a great mass of internet use- is pretty superficial interaction amongst people. Its not necessarily a bad thing. A teenager wants to talk to her friend, that’s fine, but I think it probably contributes to atomization, which is a threat to the society. There is a big difference between tweeting to your friend about something that is happening and having a real personal relationship with people. It [the internet] probably has the effect of weakening personal associations.
One of the real problems of society is that its far too atomized, what sociologists call secondary associations. Groupings of people that get together, think things through, come out to plan and so on, like unions or true political organizations, they’ve disintegrated. And people tend to be atomized – you get down to a society based on social units based on an atom – an atomic element - which is a person and their computer. Not a society that is going to be able to function freely and democratically. The tendency is there; it doesn’t have to be, but its something to worry about.
JVDP: Professor Chomsky, thank you for your time.
Photo: Yae Jin Shin
This transcription is slightly modified for clarity. Interview conducted by Jegan Vincent de Paul with audio/video editing and recoding by Yae Jin Shin.
Last week Yoko Ono posted on YouTube a documentary she made with John Lennon in 1969 called Peace Bed. Digging deeper into the film’s personalities, I came across a phrase that defined the attitude of much of that generation: ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. To me it is the antithesis of all corporate slogans. In his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks, Timothy Leary explains this powerful phrase, originally given to him by communication theorist Marshall McLuhan:
‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. Drop out suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.
I don’t read the New York Times seeking any valuable content, but I will look at it once in a while just to see what the paper is up to. How it is functioning in its totality as pure media.
The last article I actually read in its entirety is “Tamil Parties Make Strong Showing in Sri Lanka” by Lydia Polgreen. Under the guise of giving the readers context for the elections in Sri Lanka, amongst other things, the author writes ”Sri Lanka’s government has come under harsh scrutiny for its handling of the war against the Tamil Tigers, a ruthless insurgency that pioneered tactics like using children as soldiers and women as suicide bombers.”
Yes it actually says that the Tigers pioneered the use of child soldiers. My goal here is not to defend the Tigers or the use of children as soldiers, but anyone with an internet connection can see how ridiculously untrue this statement is. Children have been forced to fight as soldiers for thousands of years by virtually all armies from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, to the Romans to the Chinese to the Nazis. The American civil war had children fighting as did the Polish resistance in World War II.
The New York Times’ lie of the Tigers as the first to use children as soldiers has an ideological purpose here: non-western entities from far away places are capable of coming up with horrible things like child soldiers. Projecting everything evil onto societies different to the ones the readers belong to strengthens the force and enjoyability of the article. The article’s discussed event of elections in Sri Lanka is neither the subject nor the actual message – it is the medium by which the New York Times delivers us the actual message: be assured on the validity and relevance of this article and the authority of this newspaper.
The New York Times embeds its ideology deep enough for most of its readers not to really notice it as ideology. It easily glosses over historical realities in the defense and promotion of Western liberal values. Its possible to create an anatomy of any New York Times article and expose its underlying rhetorical devices deployed at the service of keeping the world as a matter of us versus them.
This is a large topic I would like to write more on later, but will start here. I just spent a week interviewing locals in Minami Sanriku – one of the many towns on the east coast of Japan severely affected by the recent March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The town is nearly all destroyed and half of its population is either missing or dead. The crises is on going and the town is struggling to build again from what looks like Armageddon.
When a disaster such as this has been squeezed dry of everything sensational, media reporting recedes very quickly and soon stops in its entirety. Because of the trust we have established with our favorite news sources to always convey everything relevant, once reporting stops, we are made to feel the crises itself has also receded. This is the paradox of keeping up with the media – while it brings us an awareness of some new events, in the long term it creates an unawareness of most events. Traditional media has no interest in the majority of conflicts and crises occurring throughout the world. At least not over more sensational events. Why for example report more on Strauss-Kahn’s sex case than on Saudi Arabia’s on-going exploitation of migrant workers? Wouldn’t an actual crises be addressed if the latter received the same space dedicated to trivial stories such as that of Strauss-Khan’s?
Papers like the New York Times and the Economist present us with an illusion that they know everything important going on around the world, but because of limited time and space, they can only curate a fraction of things. The truth is the opposite – they only have an awareness of a fraction of things. These papers and other media maintain loyalty through an appearance of possessing worldly knowledge – not actual knowledge of the world.
Minami Sanriku four months after an earthquake and tsunami:
Its not often that I hate anything. ‘Hate’ is a strong word with very little room for understanding and good critique, but we do reserve it for some things in life and I have for a long time reserved it for the New York Times. Without getting into the lower end of criticism of main stream media – along the lines of conspiracy theorists – or the higher end – along the lines of Chomsky’s propaganda model – one can dismiss the New York Times for its arrogance. A newspaper arrogant enough that it no longer needs to convey what actually matters in the long term, but what it deems matters in the short term. This is arrogance. More than anything, the publication is not about what it publishes but what it doesn’t publish. This is how it retains its stronghold. Anything else is pure castration.
Julian Assange recently revealed that the New York Times had over a thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers, well before Daniel Ellsberg handed over his copy to them. The New York Times never intended to publish the papers, until the realization that they were going to be published by Ellsberg anyway. More recently, we also know that the paper sought clearance from the State Department before publishing any stories of consequence based on the Wikileaks cables. It can only publish what will not make a difference to the way things already are – essentially everything worthless.
In January 2010, I for the first time read the travel section of the the New York Times, because it was related to a country I’ve been following for a long time: Sri Lanka. Out of 31 places to visit in 2010, Sri Lanka was at the top of the list at #1. What matters to the New York Times here is that Sri Lanka’s civil war ended seven months ago in May 2009 and what doesn’t matter is that a humanatrian disaster with tens of thousands of war ravaged people living in the north-east of the island were under an existential threat of physical and cultural annihilation.
The New York Times of course knew this and also of the war crimes allegations against the government of Sri Lanka. So how is it that it can suggest we must absolutely visit the beaches of a nation with people in pure agony and a brutal government? Because putting together a list of beautiful countries that we in the West can visit to fill the travel section, is actually is more important than not encouraging a politically failed state such as Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan example is obscure, since it is only after thirty years of conflict the world is slowly becoming aware of the politics of what has happened on the island and continuing to happen. But imagine for a moment that Israel declared war-on-terror, completely took over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank killing tens of thousands of civilians with international silence, ended all voilence and months later the New York Times declares Israel and the Palestinian territories to be the number one tourist destination for that year; because it is “rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors.” And then imagine this number one designation being proudly presented on the Israel Defense Forces website. This is exactly what happened in Sri Lanka.
At the most thoughtful level, The New York Times and papers modeled after it are really entertainment, with little regard for conveying the reality as confronted by most people in the the world.