In a world where money talks, we’re often faced with a harsh choice – compromise on a point of principle or find ourselves out of work. One way or another, many of us have been there. To keep body and soul together, one version of ourselves colludes with the prevailing powers while another indignantly resists.
In 1955, Chomsky found himself in just such a situation. He had a PhD in linguistics but was unable to get a job at Harvard. So he went to see Jerome Wiesner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Wiesner was a self-described ‘military technologist’ who had helped set up the Sandia nuclear weapons laboratory and was now the director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. He was impressed with Chomsky and gave him a job, but the young recruit had few illusions about where he now worked. As he has confirmed in various interviews, MIT was ‘90 per cent Pentagon funded’, ‘almost everybody’ was involved in defence research, and he himself ‘was in a military lab’.
Chomsky was in no position to change any of this, but he could still avoid direct work on military technology. He refused to get security clearance and made no attempt to understand electronic devices, describing himself as a ‘technophobe’ who couldn’t handle anything more complicated than a tape recorder.
Of course, Chomsky had to do some work to keep his job. The solution he found was to confine himself to certain alleged yet previously unsuspected grammatical principles underlying every language in the world. If he succeeded, this would be an achievement on the scale of James Watson and Francis Crick’s stunning discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. It was this search for an invariant underlying pattern – which Chomsky termed Universal Grammar – that sustained his MIT career for more than six decades.
For anyone familiar with Chomsky’s powerful anti-militarist writings, it’s astonishing to imagine that the US Department of Defense once considered his linguistic theories as a means to enhance their computerised systems of weapons command and control. Their dream was that commanders could type instructions in ordinary English instead of having to master specialised computer languages. Astonishing, certainly, but such hopes are made quite clear by US Air Force scientists from the period.
Take, for example, Colonel Edmund Gaines. In 1971, Gaines referred to the kind of language research that Chomsky had pioneered in these words:
We sponsored linguistic research in order to learn how to build command and control systems that could understand English queries directly.
That same year, Colonel Anthony Debons wrote:
Much of the research conducted at MIT by Chomsky and his colleagues [has] direct application to the efforts undertaken by military scientists to develop … languages for computer operations in military command and control systems.
Lieutenant Jay Keyser was a linguist recruited by Chomsky to MIT who later became Chomsky’s close friend and his ‘boss’ as head of MIT’s linguistics department. In articles from 1963 and 1965, Keyser highlighted various problems with the artificial languages then being used in the military’s command and control systems. He recommended instead an ‘English control language’, based on Chomsky’s ideas, that would enable commanders to use ordinary English when communicating with their weapons systems. [Continue reading…]