Last week, Nathan Jurgenson linked to an interview with Noam Chomsky, where Chomsky argued that social media is superficial:

Jeff Jetton: Do you think people are becoming more comfortable communicating through a device rather than face to face or verbally?

Noam Chomsky: My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.

Jeff Jetton: What do you think are the implication for human behavior?

Noam Chomsky: It think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent. One other effect is there’s much less reading. I can see it even with my students, but also with my children and grandchildren, they just don’t read much.

Jeff Jetton: Because there’re so many distractions, or…?

Noam Chomsky: Well you know it’s tempting…there’s a kind of stimulus hunger that’s cultivated by the rapidity and the graphic character and, for the boys at least, the violence, of this imaginary universe they’re involved in. Video games for example. I have a daughter who lives near here. She comes over Sunday evening often for dinner. She brings her son, a high school student. And of course he hasn’t done any homework all weekend, naturally, so he has to do all his homework Sunday night. What he calls doing homework is going into the living room while we’re eating, sitting with his computer and with his headphones blaring something, talking to about ten friends on whatever you do it on on your computer, and occasionally doing some homework.

Jeff Jetton: How do you know what he’s doing?

Noam Chomsky: I watch him.

Jurgenson offered an epistemological critique of Chomsky, arguing that Chomsky’s dismissal of social media as superficial fits a long-standing pattern of affluent white academics maintaining their privileged position in society by rejecting media that is accessible to non-experts.  Jurgenson pointedly asks “who benefits when what you call “normal” human relationships get to be considered more “deep” and meaningful?”  Chomsky is seemingly ignorant to the use of Twitter and other networks in shaping the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement; or the fact that young people are voraciously sharing and consuming important news stories through these same networks; or that Blacks and Hispanics were early adopters of smartphones; or that gay men have been pioneers in geo-locative communication. In many cases, historically-disadvantaged groups have used social media technology to find opportunities previously foreclosed to them.  For these folks, social media is hardly trivial.

Noam Chomsky Toronto 2011

Jurgenson’s post generated much discussion, perhaps due to Chomsky’s iconic status amongst America’s left-wing.  And, while I, too, must profess a personal indebtedness to Chomsky for serving, in my youth, as an introduction to cogent political thinking outside of the mainstream, my admiration for the man in no way diminishes the fact that his framing of this issue is woefully out-of-date.  Interestingly, most negative reactions to Jurgenson’s post argue that Jurgenson’s critique was a cheap shot, attacking an off-the-cuff remark that was never meant for rigorous debate.  It is this claim that I wish to dispel.  Chomsky’s comment is, in fact, a logical extension of  his well-known and long-defended perspective on media consumption—developed, most notably, in Manufacturing Consent (the book co-authored by Edward S. Herman that also inspired a documentary of the same name).

Chomsky—in his politics as in his linguistics—is a rigid structural determinist.  This means that he tends to give priority to the forces of order, structure, and control.  Ironically, for such a well-regarded social activist, this leaves very little room for people to engage in resistance or to appropriate the means of communication (at least without wholesale revolutionary change). Chomsky’s grim view of broadcast media is, arguably, a simplification of Adorno and Horkheimer’s gravely pessimistic treatise on the culture industry—still read by most undergraduate social science majors.  Chomsky makes what is, basically, an epistemological claim: those in the ownership class will inevitably use the means of communication at their disposal to produce an ideology that reinforces their own privileged position in the world.  The financial/political elite are best able to pursuit their own interests when the masses are distracted and passified.

Unlike many commentators, Chomsky does not view communication technologies as politically neutral.  Rather, Chomsky argues that certain characteristics of various media either promote or inhibit critical discussion.  For example, Chomsky attacks concision in television and radio interviews as a structural constraint that prevents discourse from veering off of well-established scripts.  You can get a good taste of his position in a clip from the documentary starting at 1:30 here:

While this pessimism was, perhaps, well-founded in the era of top-down broadcast media (i.e., national newspaper, radio, and television), Chomsky’s mistake is in his failure to recognize that social media marks a significant shift away from the passivity of mass consumption and towards a paradigm of mass participation.  Social media’s characteristic rapidity—which Chomsky ties to shallowness—is also what facilitates its interactivity.   And it is, in fact, the participation and interaction engendered by social media that differentiates it from broadcast media.  The old media-manipulation frame is simply inadequate to capture all the activity occurring through these new means of communication.  To be clear, this is not an endorsement of cyber-Utopian celebrationism.  Of course, social media has its own issues (e.g., the tendency of the Web’s infrastructure to lead us to information that confirms what we already believe—an effect described by Eli Pariser as the “filter bubble”), but we need new theory that better captures the nuances of this new techno-social formation.  Thus, it is a perfectly legitimate practice to criticize Chomsky and any other public intellectual who (implicitly or explicitly) takes the position that social media is merely an extension of the logic of broadcast media.