Avatar, Noam Chomsky Style

81-year-old MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky is an unlikely visitor to an online virtual world.  In a live broadcast this week streamed to the web from Muse Isle in Second Life, Professor Chomsky’s toonish but somewhat life-like avatar spoke on a variety of topics, including biofuels, alternative energy, language and freedom, and the democratizing power of the Internet.

Professor Chomsky appeared on the weekly Metanomics event series hosted by Cornell professor Robert Bloomfield. Bloomfield, who is also director of Cornell’s business simulation lab, takes virtual worlds seriously.  Metanomics, broadcasted live from inside Second Life, explores the business and policy aspects of new technology.  Bloomfield interviews guests and takes up questions from backchat (IM streams that are visible to multiple second life and web users). Treet.tv video streams the show on the Metanomics website, where the episodes are also archived. People who cannot join “in-world” can participate in the backchat from the site.

Chomsky’s Second Life appearance was videoconferenced to a group of educators and students at El Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo (INTEC) and sponsored by la Comisión Asesora de Ciencia y Tecnología del Poder Ejecutivo (CIACT) and el Programa Second Life de la Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (FUNGLODE).  The Chomsky event was heavily attended by Second Life standards, and the Muse Isle virtual location was completely full.   Because a given Second Life simulator can only accommodate so many avatars at one time, my avatar was directed from Muse Isle to Chilbo – one of a number of “event partners” – where I was able to view and hear Professor Chomsky with about 10 other avatars.

Chomsky, of course, is one of the fathers of modern linguistics and a major analytic philosopher. A long-time activist and political dissident, he is a fierce advocate for freedom of expression and refers to himself a “libertarian socialist.”  Beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War, and later in response to the Gulf War and Iraq, Chomsky has been a prominent critic of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He continues to speak out on issues such as the Kurdish problem.

Second Life, in spite of restrictions on certain types of activities (gambling, banking, avatar sex in certain locations) by creator Linden Lab, is overall a fascinating experiment in personal freedom that includes its own in-world economy and mostly unregulated trade.  As a fertile ground for free market business simulations, it’s not completely surprising that Professor Chomsky – known as one to embrace both new technologies and youth culture – would join Professor Bloomfield for a Metanomics event.  Here is the treet.tv video of the event:



Biofuels – Chomsky pointed out that corn-based production is not the best approach because of the food crisis. He also suggested that there are “substantial energy inputs” to produce biofuels. “Mechanized agriculture has many benefits,” he continued, “but biofuel estimates ignore the downside of hydrocarbon inputs.”  Bloomfield asked, “As a student of foreign relations, I was wondering if you will guess how this will play out.”  Chomsky replied that there’s “some reduction in enthusiasm already.” “We’re heading for disaster – racing to the precipice and taking the brakes off,” he commented.  He pointed out that the U.S. Congress has passed legislation baring environmental programs from raising taxes, noting that Spain, German, and China are already well ahead of the U.S. in alternative energy/transportation programs.  “Investors in the U.S. are investing in China more than the U.S,” he said.  “The CEO of a corporation must act in order to maximize gain, otherwise you’re out.  In any market system this is what you’ll find.”

Alternative energy – questioned by the audience in the Dominican Republic, Chomsky stated that the long-term approach to energy must be solar, and that the U.S. should be investing more to improve solar technology. Bloomfield asked about cost benefit analysis – referring to a memo about moving pollution-producing industries to the poorest countries – and the role of economics in foreign energy policy.  Chomsky pointed out that while “there’s nothing wrong with cost-benefit analysis,” that it’s difficult to determine the measurement of what is a cost and what is a benefit: “How do you value a human life?  Is it what the person will produce in a lifetime?”

Language and freedom – Chomsky commented that even though his career started with linguistics, the rest of his life has been political all the way back to his childhood.  “At core of language is a creative capacity,” he said.  “You can innovate indefinitely – new expressions never used before in history.”  He said the connection to freedom is pretty straightforward – at core of human nature is the “instinct for freedom.”  “The core human value is liberty.”

The democratizing power of the Internet – Chomsky responded that activist organizations now rely on the Internet “extensively.”  He described the downside of this involvement with technology – with so many technical papers available online – as the need “to have a framework for what you’re looking for.”

MixedRealities points out that Metanomics is a great example of how to immerse a global audience using web chat, virtual chat, video, and blog texts providing context, transcripts, virtual community meetings, and interaction in the physical world.  While virtual world technology may still be somewhat primitive and toonish as of 2010, the Chomsky event shows that perhaps Professor Bloomfield is right – virtual worlds seriously.





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