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"Progress" Without People
MIT Professor Noam Chomsky makes the point that if you serve power, power
rewards you with respectability. If you work to undermine power, whether
by political analysis or moral critique, you are "reviled, imprisoned,
driven into the desert."
"It's as close to a historical truism as you can find," Chomsky says.
Let's test Chomsky's theory of power and respectability with the case of
Noble is a historian of corporate control over our lives and institutions
-- from technology to universities.
Forces of Production (Knopf, 1984), for example, is a detailed history of
the automation of the metalworking industry. In that book, Noble shows how
technology, in its design and deployment, reflects class and power
relations between workers and owners.
Noble started out his academic career in 1978 at MIT. His first book,
America by Design (Knopf, 1977), focused on the rise of the science-based
industries, the electrical and chemical industry, and how universities
essentially became corporate research centers for these new industries.
Noble believed that corporations should be kept off of university
campuses. In the late 1970s, he wrote a series of articles for the Nation
magazine, including two classics, "Ivory Tower Goes Plastic" and "Business
Goes Back to College."
Then in the early 1980s, Noble wrote a series of articles in praise of
Luddism for the now defunct journal Democracy. (That series has since been
pulled together in book form (Progress Without People, Between the Lines
Press, Toronto, 1995).
In addition, while at MIT, he teamed up with Ralph Nader and Al Meyerhoff
and started an organization called the National Coalition for Universities
in the Public Interest.
MIT, a model of education in the corporate interest, was not pleased. In
1983, MIT fired Noble.
"It was a political firing," Noble told us. "I sued MIT in 1986." After
five years of litigation, Noble forced MIT to make public the documents
shedding light on the firing.
"I got all of the documents and turned them over to the American
Historical Association, which then reviewed them for a year and then
condemned MIT for the firing," Noble said.
Next stop: Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian wanted Noble to be a
curator for an exhibit on automated technology. Noble went to Washington
for two years and produced an exhibit highly critical of technology. He
includes a hammer used by the Luddites in the 1800s to smash machines in
England. George Lucas donates robots R2D2 and C3PO from the first Star
Wars movie. Noble calls the exhibit "Automation Madness: Boys and Their
Toys," in which he documents a history of resistance to automation
beginning in the 1800s. Not what the Smithsonian had in mind. They too
Most people think that the Smithsonian is a public institution. It started
out that way, but has slowly been taken over by big corporate interests.
When Noble arrived at the Smithsonian in 1983, he figured he would have a
budget to work on projects. No such luck.
"What I had to do was go out and hustle -- to the National Association of
Manufacturers, to the Chamber of Commerce, to various companies, to get
money to put on exhibits," Noble said. "At that time, the fundraiser for
the National Museum of American History was the wife of the president of
the National Association of Manufacturers."
Noble then spent five years at Drexel -- protected with tenure -- and then
headed North to the University of York at Toronto, where he is also
protected by tenure.
Noble doesn't use e-mail or the Internet, but last year after The Nation
magazine turned down an article he wrote called "Digital Diploma Mills,"
he published it and two subsequent pieces on the Internet
<communication.ucsd.edu/dl>. The articles describe how corporations are
using digital technologies to gain control over university course content.
He believes that the Internet can be a useful way to disseminate
information, but not to teach students.
"You can't educate over the Internet, because education is an
interpersonal process," he says.
And he laughs when asked whether the Internet will level the playing field
between activists and their corporate adversaries.
"Have you noticed that -- any leveling the playing field?" he asked
incredulously "Wake me when it is over. It is a joke."
"The key thing about organizing is trust," he says. "You have to have
relations with people, especially if you are asking people to put
themselves on the line in any way. There is no real way of establishing
that over the Internet."
Whether Noble continues to get into trouble with the masters of the
Internet or universities, depends on whether he changes course mid-life
and decides he wants some respect from the powers that be.
Looks like Chomsky is right again.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
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