Sunday, 1 February 2015


How Creativity, Animation and Stories define us.

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Ed Catmull (Co-Founder of Pixar Animation, and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios), Nick Park (Oscar Winning Writer, Director and Animator with Aardman Animation) and Jonathan Gottschall (A world expert in storytelling and Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College). We discuss the fundamental role of storytelling in human existence, and learn the secrets of creativity, animation and great stories.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, February 2015

For a significant part of human history, it was thought that a sharp line existed with us (as humans) on one side, and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other. In truth however, there is very little that separates us from the other species with whom we share this planet.

We are part of the continuum of evolution,” notes the leading primatologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, “and [we] are not the only beings on the Earth with personalities, minds, thoughts and feelings.” Dr. Goodall has spent the vast majority of her life studying primates in their natural habitats to learn more about them and- in turn- ourselves, and when I asked her about what is it that makes us human, she paused and gave a rather beautiful response. “For me, our sophisticated way of communicating- with words- is that crucial difference. It meant that for the first time, we could teach another about something that wasn’t present… whereas young chimps just learn by observing. We can read books about the distant past, and plan the distant future. Chimps can only plan the immediate future. As far as we know, they don’t have any concept of a distant future to plan for.” (Thought Economics, June 2013)

This capability to communicate is hooked on the fact that we are hard wired to understand our existence, not in isolation as a series of causal events- but rather, in a discernable context… as a story. As Sir Ken Robinson notes, “Human beings have very powerful imaginations; and we don't live in the world in the same way that other creatures seem to. We don't live in the world quite so directly, we live in the world of ideas... we have concepts, artefacts, languages, music, images, theories, philosophies, faiths and values which we work-on, inherit, construct, challenge, change and form. We end up living in the world virtually through the ideas that we conceive.” (Thought Economics, October 2014)

Each of the 100 billion humans who lived and died before us, and the 7 billion who exist now, carry a unique biography. Each of us was born into a line stretching back thousands of years, will lead lives that nobody has ever lived before, and will die an uncommon death. Humanity relies completely on storytelling as the primary architecture by which we make sense of our lives and communicate our culture, heritage, news, values and knowledge between people, generations and even through time. Stories engulf our lives in a way so primal and profound, that only perhaps the most skilled meditators have been able to quieten their conscious minds sufficiently to experience existence outside their narratives.

With that in mind, understanding storytelling is a crucial part of understanding ourselves.

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Ed Catmull (Co-Founder of Pixar Animation, and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios), Nick Park (Oscar Winning Writer, Director and Animator with Aardman Animation) and Jonathan Gottschall (A world expert in storytelling and Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College). We discuss the fundamental role of storytelling in human existence, and learn the secrets of creativity, animation and great stories.

Ed Catmull, Ph.D, is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Previously, Catmull was Vice President of the computer division of Lucasfilm Ltd., where he managed development in the areas of computer graphics, video editing, video games and digital audio.

Catmull has been honored with five Academy Awards, including a Technical Achievement Award, two Scientific and Engineering Awards, and one Academy Award of Merit for his work. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Catmull with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics for the motion picture industry.

He also received the ACM SIGGRAPH Steven A. Coons Award for his lifetime contributions in the computer graphics field, and the animation industry's Ub Iwerks Award for technical advancements in the art or industry of animation. Catmull is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Visual Effects Society, and the University of California President's Board on Science and Innovation. Catmull was honored with the Randy Pausch Prize from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in 2008, and was selected as the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society's 2008 Computer Entrepreneur Award.

Catmull has a bachelor's degree in computer science and physics and a doctorate in computer science from the University of Utah. In 2005, the University of Utah presented him with an Honorary Doctoral Degree in engineering.

English animator Nick Park is the creator of the Academy Award-winning Wallace and Gromit Claymation films.

Park began using his mom's 8-millimeter camera and pieces from her dressmaking kit to create stop-motion films, and at age 13 he finished his first short, Walter the Rat. At 15, he submitted another creation, Archie's Concrete Nightmare, to the BBC's Young Animator's Film Competition; the piece didn't win, but it aired on BBC2.

Park studied art at Sheffield City Polytechnic before moving on to the National Film and Television School, where he began work on his first 35-millimeter Claymation film. A Grand Day Out tells the tale of a middle-aged man named Wallace, who builds a homemade rocket and takes his quietly frustrated but faithful dog Gromit into space to procure some moon cheese. The unfinished product caught the attention of Aardman Animations Ltd. founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton, who hired Park in 1985.

At Aardman, Nick Park initially contributed to commercials and music videos, including Peter Gabriel's award-winning "Sledgehammer," while finishing A Grand Day Out. Additionally, he began work on Creature Comforts, a five-minute piece in which zoo animals offer a range of opinions on life in confinement. Both were completed in 1989 and nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 1991 Academy Awards, with Creature Comforts claiming the prize.

Park followed with two more Wallace and Gromit shorts, The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which further refined the characteristics of the well-meaning but shortsighted inventor and his silent canine compatriot. Both were well-received and garnered Academy Awards.

Having secured Hollywood's attention, Park and Lord co-directed Chicken Run (2001), a feature-length animation film distributed by DreamWorks Studios. A feature-length Wallace and Gromit adventure co-directed by Park and Steve Box, The Curse of the Ware-Rabbit (2005) also fared well for Aardman and DreamWorks, but the two studios soon ended their association due to creative differences.

A fire at an Aardman Animations warehouse destroyed several original Wallace and Gromit sets and storyboards in October 2005, a misfortune that was offset by an Academy Award win for Ware-Rabbit a few months later. In 2007, Park oversaw production of Shaun the Sheep, a television series based on a character from A Close Shave. The fourth Wallace and Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, earned Park another Oscar nomination in 2010.

Known worldwide by fans of all ages, Wallace and Gromit have become cultural icons in their creator's home country. In 2009, London's Science Museum opened the "Wallace & Gromit Present: A World of Cracking Ideas" exhibition, where fans could inspect the duo's famed offbeat inventions. In conjunction with the exhibition, a contest was created for kids to submit their own weird and wonderful creations.

In 2013, Park presided over the opening of the Thrill-O-Matic, a Wallace and Gromit ride, at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach theme park.

Jonathan Gottschall is Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His research at the intersection of science and art has frequently been covered in outlets like The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, Science, and NPR. His blog, The Storytelling Animal, is featured at Psychology Today. The Storytelling Animal was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.

Q: What is creativity?

[Ed Catmull] I think of creativity very broadly, for me it’s about solving problems. A lot of people put creativity into the narrow bucket of artistic expression; including film-making, creative writing, music and so on- but there are many who understand that if you look at science and engineering, there are a lot of very interesting problems that require creativity and you see a great outpouring of new ideas.

Fundamentally, where creativity is concerned, people are trying to express an idea or solve a problem. This applies in business, the arts, or even solving family or societal problems.

Creativity has a spectrum: if you compared segments such as the arts, business and so on, you find things in common, and differences. If you look at the arts as an example, there are people who stir us and make us think about things differently or see things in a different way- but you also find people in the arts who do derivative work. You might ask what the difference is between someone who creates art that stirs us, and someone who creates derivative work- and it’s pretty hard to define, but you do know it. In business you also find people who think in a process-oriented way, replicating what is known to work externally or internally. On the other hand, you find businesses that challenge themselves in what’s happening both within and without and creatively change the world. We always have this mix in each area, but people tend to categorise creativity by discipline rather than by the individuals within those disciplines.

One of the surprises to me was when I began diving deeply into what happened at Toyota many years ago. I was looking at this firm because in the early days of PIXAR we were a manufacturing company! What I realised was, that in studying other manufacturing companies, in particular Toyota, I could see that their mechanism for distributing responsibility and pushing it far down the organisation turned them into a creative enterprise! This is the opposite of what most people think, which is that the purpose of manufacturing is to reliably produce the same thing over and over again. In one sense, this is one of the goals- but in order to achieve that goal, the group of people doing it had to be very creative in order to solve the problems that came up. To me it was a great revelation to find creativity in the midst of something that was not thought of as being creative.

[Nick Park] Creativity makes us human, it defines our humanity… that freedom and ability we have to contemplate our existence, make changes to it, and leave it different to how we find it.

I believe that everyone is creative in some way or another whether that be using words, music or using one’s hands to paint, or whether it be changing the environment, or making the world more beautiful in some way.

Creativity makes you very powerful, and being a storyteller is a very powerful position. A friend of mine told me that the ability to move people is a great power, perhaps one of the greatest you could have.

[Jonathan Gottschall] Creativity is hard to define, and probably harder to teach.. The last book I remember reading about the subject was Jonah Lehrer’s now infamous ‘Imagine,’ and the advice on how you become more creative struck me as obvious or vague with little gems like, “hey, go take a warm shower and may be an idea will come to you…” I’ve sometimes suspected that the buzzwords of creativity and innovation, amount to little more than a way of selling business books and TED talks.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any shortcuts to becoming more creative. You find something you really care about. You immerse yourself in it. You work like hell. If you do that—and if you get lucky—you might turn up something new.

Q: What is the role of storytelling in human culture?

[Ed Catmull] Storytelling is our fundamental way of communicating with each other, and informing each other. If we start from the beginning, one of the most rewarding things for the child and the adult is having the child on your lap whilst you tell them stories or read to them from a book. You are not only telling a story, but forging an emotional bond in doing that. Then you go to school and receive another form of storytelling, where you’re told the stories of our past, our history and our culture; what happened with our presidents, kings, revolutions and heroes… Whatever those stories are, they are always simplifications of what happened… We can never live through the events of the past, the only things we have left are the stories… The art-form of storytelling is trying to figure out how you capture the essence- to inform someone about what’s important in what happened, but they can never live it themselves. This is an on-going process.

If you look at the world of animation, we went through something in developing this art-form and we tell new people what happened. When we tell them what happened, it becomes a mythology; we lived through it, they cant. All they can have are the stories.

As we move forward into the future, people aren’t trying to relive the stories of what happened in the past, they’re creating their own. We want people to think about creating their own stories and live their own experiences, but at the same time pass on the essence of what happened to other people in other places.

[Nick Park] Storytelling seems so important to humans. Every culture revisits stories throughout their lives- from children hearing the same stories over and over again, to people sitting around the campfire sharing tales and experiences.

There seems to be something very primal and basic about storytelling that involves us re-affirming who we are, our world, how we understand it, and the forces that are shaping it from within and outside. Someone once told me that stories are the rooms in which we grow up; and as children- that’s how we explore the world! You can encounter allsorts of evil and other things- stories help equip you for the world!

Humans seem to have this ability to contemplate our world and our existence. We tell stories that speak of truths about this existence, that are not necessarily there in a physical or immediate way.

[Jonathan Gottschall] People sometimes look for a role that storytelling plays in society, but I object to that. Story is not a single-purpose tool like a hammer or a screwdriver. It is a multipurpose tool, somewhat like a Swiss Army Knife.

In a very basic evolutionary sense, it’s quite weird that we tell stories at all. We spend an enormous amount of energy and time telling stories without any obvious biological benefit. Why do we spend such huge chunks of our lives inside all types of story worlds? What are the possible benefits that offset the costs?

For a long time, anthropologists have argued that story acts as a social glue; it binds a society together around a common culture, core values, and collective identity. That can be hard to see in our big, modern societies but if you go back and look at the traditional tales of small-scale tribal societies, it’s pretty obvious. And even today with our fractured media world, we are spending a lot of our lives absorbed in the same stories. You might read Harry Potter at a different time than me, but we’re both reading it. You might binge-watch something on Netflix at a different time than me, but we’re both being subjected to the same stories. And stories almost always portray a basic human morality. They are set up so that they affirm the prosocial values of the protagonists, and condemn the greed and selfishness of antagonists. And studies show that the values we read about in stories sink in. They shape how we look at the world.

So we love stories. We are enormously fascinated by the fake struggles of fake people. But the love is mixed with a little Puritanism: If it feels so good, it can’t be entirely good for us. So, for centuries we’ve worried not only that stories waste our time but, worse, that they promote laziness and moral corruption. I think this worry is misplaced. My book argues that stories—from conventional fiction to daydreams—are an essential and wholesome nutrient for the human imagination. Stories help us rehearse for the big dilemmas of life, bring order to the chaos of life experience, and help unite communities around common values. We shouldn’t feel guilty about our time in storyland.

Q: Is storytelling learned or instinctual?

[Jonathan Gottschall] Story is absolutely instinctual. There are aspects that are learned, and an awful lot of learning goes into becoming a master storyteller- but the hunger for story is instinctive, and the structures of storytelling seem to be instinctive also.

Stories are universal. As far as we know, there has never been a society without storytelling in the history of the world. Furthermore we are hard pressed to identify societies where stories are significantly different from our own. If you travel to the Africa or the Arctic Circle or to any far-flung place you will find that their stories are , more or less, exactly like ours. They translate easily- we can enjoy their tales, and they can enjoy ours. It’s just not plausible that all these people around the world happened- by chance- to develop the same forms and structures of stories.

The other line of evidence that’s even more powerful is children’s storytelling. Kids come into the world wired for story. We don’t have to bribe or teach them to do it. You take small children, put them into a room, and they’ll spontaneously create stories. This isn’t a Western thing. It’s a people thing. Children’s make believe is universal.

Q: What makes a great story?

[Ed Catmull] Most of us recognise that there are some films, for example, that have impacted world culture. Into this you could put Toy Story, Star Wars, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King and more.

When you have a story that touches culture so strongly, you will always have people that say that they want to replicate it in some way. The safe way to do that is, “I will do something like what they did because if they touched world culture and copy what they did, then I will touch world culture too…” It doesn’t work that way!

To touch world culture, you have to tell something new and take a different kind of risk. Stories are the communication of our emotions to other people, we are drawing on the life experiences of the storytellers who- in turn- are trying to put those life-experiences into their stories. Rather than copying the generic form of a story, they are trying to do something else. How do you do that? One of the ways is to draw on your experiences, and of those around you. What we did at PIXAR, to avoid the trap of repeating what someone else did, was to go out into the world and go somewhere where you would learn something you wouldn’t otherwise know. In Finding Nemo for instance, the filmmakers went to Australia and went diving down in the reefs! With Ratatouille, they went into the 3* Michelin restaurants in Paris… into the kitchens… to see what really happens. What happens in that kitchen is not the same thing that happens in your home kitchen, or the same thing that you see on the Cooking Channel! When making Ratatouille, we got an insight into what takes place in those kitchens (which we could only have made by being there) and we put those insights into the movie. Since most people have never been inside the kitchen of a real high-end restaurant, they wouldn’t know whether what they are being shown is correct or incorrect- how would they know? Yet- we put it in there, and the audience senses that it’s real. It’s not explicit… but they sense that it’s real, and they know they got something they didn’t see before, it touches them and gives them something new.

[Nick Park] We like to keep coming back to stories for some reason. The scriptwriting guru Robert McKee says that classic stories are those you can come back to again and again, they don’t fade with time and hold power across generations. They speak of some truths that are universal, and perhaps humour is a big part of that. Homer (not Simpson!) eluded to the fact that things are funny because they’re true; and that’s quite a profound statement. It doesn’t matter how abstract, absurd or ridiculous what we’re seeing is- we ultimately recognise something within it that makes us laugh.

Great stories can also be quite an extreme form of our own lives in caricature, yet recognisable. Stories cannot exist without this simple truth. You don’t always inject that truth deliberately, but it has to be there.

There’s a striving for authenticity underneath storytelling. That’s what makes clay so attractive to me, it’s a real material. What’s been important in creating the stories and characters is that there’s been some kind of struggle going on… creativity usually needs time and a struggle, and that’s what makes it hard- what means everyone isn’t doing it- but that’s what makes things that are unique and special.

Great stories often come from a creative struggle and a long incubation period.

There’s a lot of interest in the literal effort that goes into animation; with people talking about the millions of drawings and frames, models and movements- but it’s the story that matters- that’s the thing we want people to relate to. We want people to relate to the characters, be gripped, compelled and engaged.

There’s something about the technique in which animation is made, which also has a lot to add to that. I’m a great admirer of CGI, and especially PIXAR. I love their work and learn a lot from it all the time. For me however, a lot of our story is born of the technique. Gromit for example, was born out of the clay technique. I don’t know if I would have arrived at Grommit, or the same Grommit if I was working on a screen. I was actually planning to have him as a much more lively and exuberant dog to start with, but the difficulties of the technique made him the way he is- I found it so hard to move him, and to re-sculpt every frame, that I started to just move his eyebrows- I found that gave me so much! It was a great economy, but it was wonderful. Moving his brow made him an introvert, a very feeling and put-upon dog that had very strong feelings and emotion- this contrasted well with Wallace who was already the extrovert. The intensity of Wallace made Grommit suddenly feel very human and misunderstood… this wasn’t by design, I found it in the clay.

Economy can be a huge strength to storytelling. It’s not about being elaborate and expensive, less can be a lot more.

[Jonathan Gottschall] Story has a universal grammar, without which you have almost no chance of making a story great, and without which you simply cannot rivet people’s attention, rouse them passionately, and change how they look at the world. The structure is extremely simple.

A story always has some form of character. The character has some type of problem, predicament or trouble in their life that they want to solve. Stories around the world have a problem-solution structure.

You’ll find some counter-examples to this pattern, but you will find these to be primarily in the realm of 20th century experimental fiction where- on purpose- writers try to break the rules. Those are fascinating artistic experiments, but they universally fail to attract big audiences. Rather, they’re designed for an elite or academic audience.

If you want to really absorb human attention on a grand scale, you have to stay within the grammar.

But the grammar isn’t enough of course. A great story has a lot more to it. When that little kid comes into the world, they already know the basic grammar: batman is in trouble, the baby is in trouble, how are we going to save them? Great storytellers use the basic grammar, but they also employ a great deal of subtle art and craft.

Q: Is there a biological component to our love of stories?

[Jonathan Gottschall] Biology is deeply involved in our processes of storytelling and story enjoyment. There are tendencies within the brain that create a story-hunger. The brain needs stories to make sense of the chaos that is continually pouring through your senses. The brain filters and sorts this information, hunting for story-patterns. The downside of this is that the human mind seems unable to tolerate a vacuum of story. Stories create meaning and they are comforting. So if the brain can’t find a meaningful story to account for some phenomenon it tends to simply make them up. You see this in a lot of psychological research. You also see it in conspiracy theories and perhaps religion.

There is a peculiarity about the way story is processed by the brain that can account for its power. You can slide a person into an FMRI machine that watches the brain while the brain watches story, that can read the brain while the brain reads a story. And if you do that you’ll find something interesting--the brain looks less like a spectator on the action, than a participant. So if Clint Eastwood is angry on screen, your brain looks angry too; if the scene is sad, your brain will look sad too. Not like you are sitting back passively and watching someone else get angry or sad, but that you are actually experiencing the emotions yourself.

So stories are so powerful for us, at least in part, because at a neurological level whatever is happening on the page or stage isn’t just happening to them, it is happening to US as well. “We” know the film is fake, but that doesn’t stop unconscious parts of the brain from processing it as real.

Q: Can stories impact and change society?

[Jonathan Gottschall] When I go into my introductory literature classroom, I sometimes point out how strange it is that we spend such a large part of our lives telling and absorbing stories. Why do we care so much about the fake struggles of fake people? I ask my students for an explanation and eventually one raises a hand and says, “escapism.” They look at story as a kind of mental vacation. They go into storyland, they have a nice time, but then they walk away unchanged. Research suggests this is wrong. It suggests that we are moulded strongly by the stories consumed in our lives. Stories wash over our lives, shaping us in the way that flowing water shapes a landscape.

Studies repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story.

For instance, if psychologists get a bunch of people in the lab and just tell them all the reasons it is wrong to discriminate against homosexuals, they don’t make a lot of progress. People who feel differently, dig in their heels, they get critical and skeptical, and they don’t walk out of the lab with more tolerant views.

But if we watch a show like Will and Grace—or modern family, or glee, or Six Feet Under, and so on--that treats Homosexuality in a non-judgmental ways, lab studies suggest that our own views are likely to move in the same direction.

And if a lot of us begin empathizing with likeable gay characters—on shows like Ellen, Modern Family, The L-Word, Glee, Six Feet Under, and so on—you get a driver of massive social change. American attitudes have liberalized with dizzying speed over he last 15 years or so, and many social scientists give TV a lot of the credit. Social scientists have a theory to explain this rapid pace of change: They call it “The Will and Grace effect.

By the way, the psychologists even have a theory for why this works. The best predictor of whether or not you’ll have liberal attitudes toward homosexuality is whether or not you know one, and that you know that you know one. Whether you have a friend or a family member who is gay. This is a better predictor than education level, or religious affiliation, or whether you are democrat or republican. But here’s the cool part: it doesn’t seem to matter if the people you know are real or not. Fake gay friends like Will and Jack seem to do the job.

Q: What makes a great animation?

[Nick Park] People often look at animation and say, “wow, you can be so creative… that’s the freedom of animation!” In a way, they’re right… but… freedom can be a great set-up to fail. If you have too much budget, you can end up with enough rope to hang yourself! Discipline is very good for creativity.

We fight this constantly on projects- how do we find solutions by being creative rather than using another helicopter shot, or blowing something up. We want to film creative solutions that are more to do with the edit and story, and less to do with special effects.

An example for me was when we created the penguin, Feathers McGraw in ‘The Wrong Trousers.’ He was such a simple thing, and I had a wonderful reaction. My colleague Steve Box animated him for me, and we very much talked about making sure that we didn’t make him some funny Disney-style penguin with Donald Duck actions as he waddled along. He’s almost not a penguin, he’s a milk-bottle floating along; and this brought the sinister aspect to the character. He turns in basic ways and gives solitary blinks. This gave the character a lot of power rather than doing an elaborate animation.

Q: Why has animation grown to become such a popular art form?

[Ed Catmull] Reality can never be expressed in a complete and true story; it’s always going to be too complicated. The story we can tell, whether it’s live action or animation, is an abstraction. With animation, you easily accept the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t reality. With live action, people sometimes think they’re seeing reality – but with animation we don’t have that delusion, and that allows the animator and storyteller to focus on the essence of what they’re trying to tell, and in doing so- we connect with people. From the viewer’s perspective, this allows them to accept the rules of the world they’re being immersed in and to feel the emotions that come from that; and this happens regardless of whether it’s hand-drawn animation, puppets, paper cut-outs or full CG. We just accept it as a different world, accept the rules of the world, and explore how to connect with it. Animation gives a great freedom to the storyteller.

Q: What is the role of anthropomorphism in animation?

[Ed Catmull] If you look back at the earliest days of animation, it tended to be very much gag-oriented. People were enthralled by funny and silly things that were happening on screen. You had plants dancing, boats tooting around… that wasn’t anthropomorphic, but they had a sort-of life to them. Then Walt Disney put together a group that went to the next stage; they wanted the audience to believe what that character was thinking.

As a species, we think at a different level than other creatures; we recognise of course that pets and animals think, but there’s something different about our thinking. In recognising thought processes in something like a lamp, and believing that the lamp is thinking, something in us connects with them. We can call it anthropomorphism, but in reality we are trying- in an abstract way- to touch some of our deepest emotions and sensibilities.

Interestingly, we have had numerous cases where animation seems to have touched people who have specific brain processing problems and issues where they almost can’t understand other people, because there’s something about the presence of a real person that makes them cower. Animation gives them a safe space; something about it draws them out. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

[Nick Park] There has been a great tradition in animation to use anthropomorphism, and animators are able to bring animals and objects to life.

We accept something from an animal where we feel for them more because they’re helpless, vulnerable, cute or powerless – or they express some focussed aspect of ourselves. When I did Creature Comforts back in 1989, it was fundamentally just human beings talking- that was what we did first, interview people talking… then we added the animals. Until that point, the founders of Aardman had done similar things with human beings, and I took it into the animal kingdom. Grommit isn’t really a dog, he’s a person!

What I love about PIXAR is that they’re animals are a certain degree of anthropomorphism… lets take Nemo- he’s very human in aspects of his speech and emotion, but he’s very much a fish too! Let’s compare that with Sharks Tale where the characters are very much more humans dressed as fish….

The balance with anthropomorphism is how much reality and how much fantasy you choose to use!

[Jonathan Gottschall] Good question. I’ve never considered it before. But here’s what I would say. Anthropomorphised stories seem- in the main- to be targeted at children; just take a look at films from Disney Pixar or at folk tales from around the world.

In Brian Boyd’s On The Origins of Stories he noted something simple yet powerful. He said that the first job of a storyteller is to rivet our attention. If the storyteller cannot grip the attention of an audience, then what’s the point? Without attention, Boyd says, art dies.

So it seems to me that one common strategy for riveting children’s attention is to anthropomorphise animals, plants, and inanimate objects in order to grab attention and to signal the magical nature of the story-world they’re entering into. Some stories for adults also anthropomorphize, but they’re few and far between in comparison to those aimed at children.

Q: How has technology impacted animation?

[Ed Catmull] If I go back to the earliest days of animation when film was just invented, it was a new technology- although, we don’t think of it in those terms now. When the technology was new, it stimulated people to try to use this technology to tell stories. Until that time, storytelling was verbal, books, plays and so forth. The technology of film broadened the base of storytelling and brought more people to it. I don’t think many people understood the interplay of technology and art, but instead focussed on the final output. Over time, people remembered the art- but down-played the technology. Over time, technology ceases to look new and becomes an artefact of the past. When computer graphics arrived, it injected into the art form of new technology which then stimulated more people.

The number of animated films produced now is much higher than 30 years ago, and more people have access to it. One of our goals is to ensure that we don’t forget that it is this combination of art and technology and that it is an on-going stimulating relationship. We don’t want to forget this as people have in the past. As computers get faster and more accessible, you open the door for more people to use it; you now see more pieces, such as the funny little vignettes produced on YouTube. If you look at feature-length films; they’re more widely available for sure, but I wouldn’t call it ‘democratisation’ as they still cost many millions of dollars to make. But the trend will continue as costs go down and more people are enabled to tell stories.

At the same time, the new technology is enabling a lot of stuff that isn’t very good … but in this process, you will also find gems, because people who don’t ordinarily have access now do so. We will have surprising new storytelling in the future; but we can’t foresee what that is. When you enable more people have access to storytelling technology, you are giving yourself more opportunities to be surprised.

The internet has clearly altered the mechanism by which stories get out into the world. This has pros and cons. It enables a large number of people to distribute their work in various forms, and also enables a large number of people to sift through work and recommend it to others. At the same time, the mass of the content being generated is so large, that you lose a shared cultural experience. It used to be that movie-houses and radio became a nationwide shared experience. Television then became a shared experience due to a limited number of channels… now we have this technical evolution where there’s a diminishing of that, with a few long-form programmes coming out with cultural impact. Rather than watching certain channels for example, people may watch a particular series such as Sherlock Holmes – and I wish we had more content like that! My daughter and I watch Dr. Who all the time, it’s watched a lot here in the USA and for those who are watching it, it’s a shared experience. But it is shared with a smaller percentage of the population than when I was young.

The Internet gives you different types of experiences, but I wish more people could share them.

[Nick Park] I wouldn’t want to sound like a stick-in-the-mud as technology is part of the artform now. We use technology, we make armatures for our puppets- we use video to record and playback, but we want to retain a hands-on quality.

CGI doesn’t help or hinder, it’s a choice… The challenge is different… Technology enables the animator to manipulate the character in the most human way they can. What I like about clay animation is that it’s very direct. When we know that we simply can’t do something using clay- for example, fire or a waterfall- we may use CGI. I like the charm that comes from reality- from fingerprints, from clay, from people actually manipulating things.

However… CGI is great for certain subjects. Let’s take the film Frozen for example. The way the ice crystals were, or the snow… or the building of the tower… the dress of the girl – and how realistic everything was. It was so amazing- but it’s not in my aesthetic- that’s not my personal artistic style.

[Jonathan Gottschall] Today, we often hear a doom and gloom narrative suggesting that that twitter or facebook or whatever are ruining story. But I don’t think the digital revolution or social media are killing storytelling—quite the opposite. First, many people use their social networking accounts as storytelling platforms: Facebook, for example, is a way for many people to tell their continuously updated life story. Even many twitter users tell serial stories, and the site is—in large part—a way for people to promote and share links to longer form storytelling.

The larger point, for me, is that I think story is utterly unkillable. People are storytelling animals, and that won’t change until human nature does. In the future, story may evolve in new directions (in my book, I talk about the emerging form of video game storytelling). But in a thousand years the basic structure of story will be exactly like it is today. What’s happening right now is NOT that modern technology is crowding out storytelling, it’s that most of us are using new technology to cram more story into our lives than ever before.

Q: How can people benefit from applying creativity into their lives?

[Ed Catmull] Most of us want and have a deep feeling of needing safety. The easiest way to see and get safety is to repeat the things that you believe worked in the past, and believe that others are doing; and that applies at a personal level or business level. If something is known to work, you tend to want to copy it and it feels safer.

What differentiates the creative person, is that they are willing to abandon certain elements of the past and do something they haven’t done before. This is tricky as you can’t abandon everything, and you don’t really know what to abandon; you are going into unknown territory. The differentiator is: do you have the ability to let go of certain things with the belief that if the new thing you try doesn’t work, then you can always go back to the thing that worked. A lot of people can’t do that, and it’s an emotional need for safety that keeps them from venturing into doing something that may not work. By definition, if you’re going off into a new area, then a certain percentage of things you try won’t work and furthermore, you don’t know how big the problem will be if you try something new! It could be rather minor, or very major. The mind-set of the creative is that they will still continue to do it!

Q: What would be your piece of advice to the next generation to put creativity into their lives?

[Ed Catmull] I’ve thought a lot about this; and it’s a hard thing to describe. People want to go to the safe side… they want to repeat what works without understanding that rut they are in. Even for people who venture into the unknown and do something original, a large proportion of those people, having experienced something new, then fall back into repeating what they did in the past.

People should adopt a fearlessness where they are trying new things, but then accept that by doing this- a certain percentage of things will fail. Failure is not a necessary evil, but rather- it is a positive part of on-going progress. If you don’t have some failures continually, it is a signal that you have retreated into the conservative past.

Most people still interpret failure as an unfortunate thing to get to success, but this isn’t actually what it means. What failure really means is that you are trying to live life, and the fact that you fail means that you are trying. As soon as you try to avoid failure, you are facing the wrong direction.

[Nick Park] Yes, do it!! [laughs]

The way younger generations are naturally comfortable with technology is great- but they have to realise that technology is a tool. David Hockney was using an iPad last time I saw him on TV, he commented that the Paintbrush itself was technology!

An interesting parallel; I’m writing a new script for a feature film at the moment. It’s been a good 2-3 years in writing, and I’ve read so much about screen-writing techniques and theory- but ultimately the war is between you and a blank piece of paper. It relies on you for good ideas, and to work those ideas up. You can use those techniques and tools to help you stay on course and to challenge you, but tools will never be a substitute- they won’t help you to write a great script- you need creativity and good ideas.

Technology could become a substitute for creativity if we’re not careful. Let’s not forget that you can be incredibly creative with a pinhole camera or a pencil and a piece of paper. Having technology won’t make you more creative….

Creativity comes through practice, learning and doing it!

[Jonathan Gottschall] You don’t need to tell people to go have sex, to eat, or to breathe. If people can do these things, they will – they don’t need your encouragement. People are going to consume stories, and they will consume them heavily.

Stories are a very good thing. They are one of the things that make life most worth living. But you can have too much of a good thing. Compare story to food. A tendency to overeat served our ancestors well when food shortages were a predictable part of life. But now that we modern desk jockeys are awash in low-cost grease and corn syrup, overeating is more likely to fatten us up and kill us young. Likewise, it could be that an intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors, but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs, and iPads make story omnipresent—and when we have, in romance novels and TV shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, something like the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies.

So people need to learn to regulate their story diets. Flipping on the TV to channel surf is like standing in front of an open refrigerator and boredly stuffing food in your mouth. Instead, plan out a Netflix strategy. Plan out a novel strategy (I like to work my way through good internet lists of classic thrillers, sci-fi stories, mysteries, and canonical classics). Try not to consume in a haphazard way but to do so more thoughtfully.


A characteristic of humanity is our unwavering sense of growth. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “…We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level- in other words, not to discount perspective- would be lunacy… we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, a well as with our own.” (An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)

Lewis was here talking of literature, but where we consider this [literature] as a metaphor for storytelling, the depth of his analysis can be seen. “[Literature] admits us to experiences other than our own…” he writes, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk to an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is a prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough… Literary experience heals the would, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

This urge to transcend flows from without and within ourselves. Maya Angelou told me “We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone- because we have the impulse to explain who we are. Not just how tall we are, or thin… but who we are internally… perhaps even spiritually. There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know.” (Thought Economics, October 2012)

Whether we look at the domains of art, the humanities or science, we see storytelling as their basis- a foundation on which things can be built. In each of these intellectual territories, the works that stand tall- sculptures, essays, theories, films and more- do so because they speak authentically, and with certain essential truths that we can each resonate with intuitively and naturally. As a Jewish teaching describes “Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the doors and was readily welcomed into the villagers’ houses. They invited her to eat at their tables and warm herself by their fires.

Storytelling is ‘that’ which makes us human, and our relentless pursuit of the story of our species means that each of us is now able to start our own narrative, once upon a time, at the beginning of the universe, when we existed together- forward through the branches of individual existence, and onwards to the time the universe will end, bringing us together again.

The End.

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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Understanding Democracy

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who (with over 150 books published) is regarded as "one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today" and Glenn Greenwald (Multi Award Winning Journalist, Constitutional Lawyer and Author). We discuss the state and future of democracy around the world together with the role that government, corporations and the media play in shaping our lives. We also look at the global war on terror, globalisation, and how the world will look in the next quarter century.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, Originally Published April 2011 - Updated January 2015

In March 1949, Dr. Quincy Wright (1890-1970) of the University of Chicago presented a paper for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) entitled "Philosophical Enquiry Into Current Ideological Conflicts; The Meaning of Democracy". Dr. Wright states, "Like all social and political terms which serve at the same time as slogans for movements and as symbols for conceptions, the word democracy has in fact varied in meaning according to time, place, and circumstances. This variability is, in fact, a condition of most forms of popular discourse. They are continually acquiring new meanings as can be seen by studying any historical dictionary." He continues by citing examples of this variability. "Democracy..." he writes, "has always suggested a wide popular participation in the support, conduct and benefits of government, but the conception has taken colour from the conditions and opinions which advocates of democracy have at particular times and places found in opposition to their aims. Thus, in a struggle against an unpopular rule of a monarch or oligarchy, democracy has referred to government by the many, rather than the few; in a struggle against social privilege, class or race discrimination, and economic inequality, democracy has referred to equality in social position and economic welfare; in a struggle against government monopoly of economic initiative, public opinion and political association, democracy has referred to freedom of enterprise, communication, opinion and association; in a struggle against corrupt and arbitrary manipulations of opinion, democracy has referred to procedures for regulating elections and party action in order to assure freedom of opinion, wide participation and fair representation; in a struggle against excesses of majorities and oppression of minorities, democracy has referred to the rule of law and protection of fundamental human rights; in a struggle for freedom of dependent or oppressed peoples, democracy has referred to home rule, self government, and self determination of distinctive groups; in a struggle for influence of suppressed groups or classes, democracy has referred to consent of the governed, non-discrimination and procedures for consultation among all interested groups in policy formation."

Humanity is a plurality made-up of many different individuals forming highly interconnected communities of mutual interest and co-operation (families, political groups, cities, countries, and so forth) and it is the individuals within the groups rather than the group 'in general' who, ultimately, exert power. "Democracy is [therefore] a compromise designed to balance interests among members of a community." (Han Zhen, Democracy as a Way to Social Compromise, 2006). As our society has grown from small villages of (at most) few hundred people to a vast interconnected global economy of six billion, the complexity of the compromise along with the incredibly varied interests of group members has introduced profound challenges to democracy itself. These challenges (often left unaddressed) leave our society in a near-permanent state of visible conflict (albeit with varying intensity) across all dimensions of struggle (akin to those outlined by Wright, above).

Against this backdrop of social, economic and political conflict, what is the future of democracy?

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who (with over 150 books published) is regarded as "one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today" and Glenn Greenwald (Multi Award Winning Journalist, Constitutional Lawyer and Author). We discuss the state and future of democracy around the world together with the role that government, corporations and the media play in shaping our lives. We also look at the global war on terror, globalisation, and how the world will look in the next quarter century.

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He received his early education at Oak Lane Country Day School and Central High School, Philadelphia. He continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. Respected and honoured numerous times in the academic arena, he has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of London and the University of Chicago, as well as having been invited to lecture all over the world. In 1967, he delivered the Beckman Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1969, he presented the John Locke Lectures at the University of Oxford and Sherman Memorial Lectures at the University of London.

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most recent book, No Place to Hide, is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at The Guardian and Salon. He was the debut winner, along with Amy Goodman, of the Park Center I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism in 2008, and also received the 2010 Online Journalism Award for his investigative work on the abusive detention conditions of Chelsea Manning. For his 2013 NSA reporting, he received the George Polk award for National Security Reporting; the Gannett Foundation award for investigative journalism and the Gannett Foundation watchdog journalism award; the Esso Premio for Excellence in Investigative Reporting in Brazil (he was the first non-Brazilian to win), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Along with Laura Poitras, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the top 100 Global Thinkers for 2013. The NSA reporting he led for The Guardian was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Looking at the UK, USA & Europe

Q: To what extent are our societies free and democratic?

[Noam Chomsky] These Societies are quite free by historical standards. They are democratic in the sense that they have formal elections that aren't stolen, and so on. They're undemocratic to the extent that forces other than popular will have an overwhelming affect on who can participate in electoral outcomes. The United States is the most extreme in this respect. Right now in the United States, elections are essentially bought. You can't run an election unless you have a huge amount of capital- which means overwhelmingly, although not one hundred percent, that capital was sought from strong corporate backing. For example, in the 2008 election- what carried Obama across the finish line first at the end was a very substantial amount of support from financial institutions which are now the core of the economy. The coming elections are supposed to be a two-billion-dollar election, and there's only one place to go for that kind of money.

There used to be a system of chairs of committees in congress, who were there through seniority and so on. By now, it is generally required that funding go to the party committee- which means those are also, in large part, bought. This means that popular opinion is very much marginalised. You can see this very clearly on issue after issue. So the huge issue right now, domestically, is the deficit. Well... People have ideas about how to get rid of the deficit. For example- most of the deficit is the result of a highly dysfunctional healthcare system which has about twice the per-capita cost of other countries and by no means better outcomes- in fact, rather poorer outcomes. The population has long favoured moving toward some kind of national healthcare system- which would be much less expensive and (judging by the outcomes) no worse, maybe better. That would, in fact, eliminate the deficit! That's not even considered!

[Glenn Greenwald] The extent to which our society is free and democratic is all relative, the question is- relative to what?

There are clearly a lot of ways in which the range of acceptable ideas within society is narrowed, and the political choices we have are seriously constrained. In a lot of senses we have the appearance of freedom and democracy, and much less so a reality. You can have societies in which people can go to a ballot box once every 3-5 years and pick who their leaders are going to be, but that doesn’t mean you have freedom or democracy in any meaningful sense; and that’s generally how I would describe most western countries.

Q: What really drives our foreign policy? and how does that impact us, as citizens?

[Noam Chomsky] Foreign policy in the UK and Europe tends to follow the United States, not entirely- but the US does remain the prime driver in foreign policy. It's not a secret what foreign policy is driven by. For example, Bill Clinton was quite explicit about it. His position, expressed clearly in congress, was that the US has the right to carry out a unilateral military action, sometimes supported by a (so-called) coalition of the willing in order to secure resources and markets and it must have military forces forward deployed- meaning foreign bases in Europe and elsewhere- in order to shape events in our interest. Our interest does not mean the American people, but rather the interests of those who design policy- primarily the corporate sector.

Foreign Policy can be undertaken in ways which are expected to harm security. In fact, that's not at all uncommon. If you follow the Chilcot enquiry- the head of MI5 testified- merely extending what was already known- but she testified that both the United States and Britain recognise that Saddam Hussein was not a threat and that the invasion would very likely increase the threat of terror. And, in fact, it did! About seven-fold in the first year according to quasi-governmental statistics. So an invasion was undertaken which would harm the citizens of the invading countries, as indeed it did. At first, of course, the reasons were presented with the usual boiler-plate which is informative presentation which goes along with every act of force citing democracy and all-sorts of wonderful things. When it was becoming clear that the war-ends could not be easily achieved, towards the end of the invasion- certain policies were stated clearly. In November 2007 the Bush administration issued a declaration of principles stating that any agreement with Iraq would have to ensure the unlimited ability of US forces to operate there- essentially permanent military bases- and such an agreement would also secure the privileging of US investors in the energy systems. In 2008 Bush re-iterated and, in fact, strengthened this in a message to congress where he said that he would ignore any legislation that limits US capacity to use force in Iraq or that interferes with US control over Iraqi oil. That was stated very clearly and explicitly. In fact, the US had to back down from this goal as a result of Iraqi resistance; but the goals themselves were clear and explicit and had nothing to do with the security of Americans. The same is true elsewhere, so one leading specialist on Pakistan recently reviewed US policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan revealing once again that these policies are significantly increasing the threat of terror and in fact possibly nuclear terror. He concluded that American and British soldiers are dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world less secure for Americans and British. That's not so unusual. Security is not, typically, a very top priority of states. There are other interests.

[Glenn Greenwald] One of the most amazing and illuminating exchanges over the past couple of years was an incident in the House of Commons in the UK where George Galloway stood up and questioned Prime Minister, David Cameron about British policies in Syria, and the people with whom the UK has aligned itself. David Cameron’s response- in essence- was that he wasn’t surprised to hear that question because this particular member always found ways to ingratiate themselves with the world’s dictators.

If you look at the foreign policy of the UK, and specifically the allies of Cameron; you see these trips he makes, and the praise he heaps on people who are the worst dictators of the Arab world.

In each countries foreign policy, there is a very overt form of loving dictators whilst spewing the rhetoric of freedom. It’s more disguised and subtle at home, but it’s very much the same dynamic.

Q: To what extent is the media influenced by corporate and government objectives?

[Noam Chomsky] There are cases where direct government and corporate interference takes place, but I don't think that's the major issue concerning corporate and government influence over the media. Using the United States as an example, the media are major corporations- so it's not a question of corporate influence, they are corporations who are closely linked to government. There's a constant flow of people from the corporate sector to government, the interactions are very close. The framework of selection of what to report, how to report it and so on is shaped overwhelmingly by the shared interests of elite sectors in the business world, government and so forth. In fact it's not very different in the Universities, and you can see it day by day. Just take the no-fly zone in Libya. In Libya, the intervention- whether one approves of it or not- is being carried out by the three traditional imperial powers, the US, Britain and France. There is marginal participation by several other NATO countries, but the major countries are simply refusing to be involved, and many are just opposed to it. The BRICS for example, are opposed and Turkey doesn't want to get involved and so on. Well the three, this imperial triumvirate, quite heavily in their propaganda discussed an Arab league request for a no-fly zone. The Arab league statement was rather tepid and was qualified shortly after but there was, in fact, a call for a no fly zone. At the same time, the Arab league called for a no-fly zone over Gaza. In the United States that literally was not reported. While some small newspapers may have discussed it, there was no majors- no New York Times, Washington Post, none of the major media reported it. In fact, in the entire Anglo-American press the only apparent story was in the Financial Times. Well, that's a no-fly zone over Gaza.. which doesn't fit US objectives and therefore it wasn't news. At the same time, the no-fly zone over Libya did fit the objectives of the imperial triumvirate and so that was major news. And this is standard, it happens all the time.

One of the very striking examples which tells you something about the general intellectual culture, had to do with Wiki Leaks. The exposure that received by far the most attention in terms of headlines and euphoric commentary was that the Arabs support US policy on Iran, hostility towards Iran. That was all over the place and was quite interesting because what it was, in fact, referring to was Arab dictators. What about Arab public opinion? Well.. that was also studied and was studied by the most prestigious US polling institutions and released by prestigious institutions like Brookings. These studies are not reported! In the United States, literally not reported- I believe there was one report in England. These reports rank Egypt as the most important country in the region, and within Egypt over ninety percent of the population regard the United States as the most major threat. Eighty percent think the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons. Only a small number, maybe ten percent, regard Iran as a threat. Those figures are rather similar throughout the region. But, for policy makers that doesn't matter- as long as the dictators support us? what else matters.

This takes us back to our first question looking at the attitude towards democracy. The attitude is that the population doesn't matter, as long as it's under control; and you can see that. Incidentally, this is quite an old issue. If we had serious reporting on these issues, it would not only report Arab public opinion, but would report that the policy of ignoring Arab public opinion has been around for some time. Back in the 1950's President Eisenhower was concerned about what he called the 'campaign of hatred' in the Arab world; not by governments, but by people. In the same year, the national security council released a study concluding that there is a perception among the people of the Arab world that the United States supports harsh and brutal dictatorships, blocks democracy and development, and we do so because we want to maintain control over their energy supplies. It went onto conclude that the perception (of foreign policy objectives) is more or less accurate, and as long as the dictators support us- then who cares that there's a campaign of hatred? as long as we can control the population... That has remained a consistent policy, very dramatically so today- and as you can see by the reaction to these exposures and unreported crucial data- that's become a generally accepted attitude among educated sectors.

[Glenn Greenwald] One of the most significant trends in the past several decades of mass media has been the fact that media outlets have become large corporations themselves, functioning with the same dynamics that every other large corporation would that may sell arms, insurance policy and investment funds.

The finer attributes of large corporations; to be as uncontroversial as possible, to affirm orthodoxy as much as you possibly can to avoid upsetting those who wield power over your business… those are rational powers to adopt if you’re running a business, as they will maximise your profits. Unfortunately, that’s the same dynamic that drives corporate media outlets. It’s not just about maximising profits, but making sure that these corporations- that have so many other interests besides their media outlets- end up not suffering for them as a result of what their journalists are producing. This has produced a very pro-orthodoxy, pro-power posture in media outlets. Maybe that’s OK when you have a company selling insurance policies, but when you’re trying to engage in journalism? Nothing could be more harmful.

Q: What is the role of press freedom as it relates to the justice system and wider democracy?

[Glenn Greenwald] The theory of why the free press is protected in the US constitution is one that I believe in. The founders of the United States were mostly preoccupied with the notion of how you create a centralised government without imbuing it with the kinds of authoritarian power that they had waged wars to raise themselves from. The only answer they could come up with was to create a whole bunch of checks on those kinds of power, things that would push back and be adversarial to it, and be designed to work against it.

One of the instruments for providing some limits on political power was a free-press. This did not mean people who got a degree in journalism and went to work for a media corporation, but rather anyone citizen who does journalism! Any citizen with a printing press! This was protected on the grounds that it pushed back against power. If all media was going to do was just amplify the claims of people in power, you wouldn’t need to protect the free press; for one, it wouldn’t have any value, and for another it would never be targeted with repression.

The only way that free-press can be valuable is if it serves as an adversarial force against those who wield the greatest power. That’s what journalism is all about.

Q: What is the reality of the level of capability of government and state monitoring of our communications?

[Glenn Greenwald] The capabilities that governments have to monitor communication are genuinely limitless. Whenever people ask me what the most shocking or significant revelation was from the Snowden archive, I always say the same thing. It wasn’t any specific story, but rather all these documents that describe what their [government] aspirations were as a spying agency. The thing that shocked me, even though I have been working on surveillance for a long time was that they literally had a stated goal of converting the internet into a limitless realm of monitoring and surveillance. That’s a motto that appears over and over again in these documents, they literally want a scenario where there are no communications that take place electronically between human beings that are beyond their surveillance and monitoring reach. In essence, they want to eliminate privacy in the digital age.

There are steps that can be taken to protect your communications, but by and large there are no limits on what government surveillance systems are capable of monitoring.

Q: To what extent is government monitoring of communications necessary?

[Glenn Greenwald] The crucial difference is between targeted surveillance and mass surveillance. I don’t think there is anyone in this debate who believes that it is inherently illegitimate for the state to ever target someone for surveillance. The difference is between targeting individuals where it is believed that they are engaged in some form of wrong-doing versus indiscriminately putting entire populations of hundreds of millions of people under a surveillance microscope despite any evidence of wrong-doing of any kind.

It’s because the US government and their allies are engaged in mass surveillance rather than targeted surveillance that there has been an Edward Snowden, and there has been a debate at all. If it were just them monitoring suspected members of Al Qaeda or people who are likely to engage in terrorist attacks, their would have been no whistleblowing or debate.

Q: Can you balance the need for state security and privacy?

[Glenn Greenwald] It’s always difficult to find the exact perfect balance between security and privacy. It’s difficult to assess what the government needs to prove in order to target someone with the legitimate extent of surveillance- but you could certainly much more reasonably proximate what is a legitimate and reasonable balancing point, even if it’s imperfect.

The current surveillance posture of the US has no balance. They want to collect everything because they can; it’s the opposite of a balanced mind-set, and that’s what makes it so pernicious.

Q: Has the Internet enabled our freedom of speech and democratic liberty?

[Glenn Greenwald] The Internet has been vital in rejuvenating the idea of free speech, the free press, and democratising political and media discourse. That’s long been the promise; as heralded by fans of the Internet, and I think it’s finally starting to come to fruition.

For one thing, in order to reach a large audience a decade ago- you had to work for a large media outlet such as the New York Times, NBC news or one of the big British newspapers- and you’d have to submit yourself to all of their editorial strictures and methods for doing journalism. Now? There are all kinds of people who have built very large readerships by starting a blog! That’s how I began journalism! Even now, there are people with thousands of followers they reach, even without having worked at a large media agency- that has really enabled people outside the corporate structure to have a serious influence on how we think about things.

Q: What are the greatest threats that exist to our democratic freedom of expression?

[Glenn Greenwald] The existence of mass surveillance is- itself- a huge threat to the values the Internet enables. The history of communication and media technology shows that whenever something is created that threatens to change the concentration and distribution of power; that the people who wield power try to subvert it, and try to annexe it for their own use. This is exactly what Internet surveillance is doing. One of the pre-requisites to being able to speak freely and use the Internet to engage in activism is the idea that you can do so with privacy and anonymity. The idea that you can express ideas without feeling like you’re being judged for them is important.

Studies show that when human beings are being watched, they become much more conformist and their behavioural traits narrow significantly. There’s a huge tension between the open thought the Internet enables, and how mass surveillance creates self-censorship.

Q: What is the true nature of information subversion seen by governments and corporate institutions?

[Noam Chomsky] I should say that, by now, there are thousands of pages of detailed documentation on this topic. Without going too far afield, let's look at the topics we just mentioned. Is it important for us to know that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken with the expectation that it would increase terror? was undertaken with the intention of ensuring US corporations have privileged access over Iraqi oil? and it would be a permanent US military base? I think it would have been important for the public to know that. I think it would be important for the public to know now that Arab public opinion is so hostile to western (specifically US) power- that it regards the US as a prime threat, and thinks the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons. Is it important for people in the United States and Britain to know that? I would think so! We can go on with case after case. Is it important for Americans, for example, to know that if we had a healthcare system similar to other industrial societies the deficit would be erased and we wouldn't have to go after teacher's pensions and Medicare payments for the elderly and so forth? Yeah, I think that would be important to know. I think, in fact, that ought to be blaring headlines!

All this information can be found out if you do a research project- but it doesn't even enter the public eye.

Q: What influence do large corporations exert in society?

[Noam Chomsky] Corporations play an overwhelming role in society. I don't think that fact is even contentious. Similar observations have been made as far back as Adam Smith who pointed out that in Britain the principal architects of policy were merchants and manufacturers, the people who own society- and they ensure that their interests are served however grievous the impact on the people of England. This is far more true today, with much higher concentrations of power- we are not just manufacturers, we have financial institutions and multinational corporations. They have an enormous influence, and the influence can not only be harmful, but in many cases lethal.

Taking the United States as an example- the corporate sector has been carrying out major propaganda campaigns to try to convince the population that there is no threat from global warming. This, in effect, has led to the majority of people now agreeing it is not a real issue. Business funding has also been the primary instrument in bringing a new group of cadres to congress- figures who are virtually all climate change deniers. These individuals are about to enact legislation to cut-back funding for the international organisation (the IPCC) and the capacity of the environmental protection agency who may not even be able to monitor the effect of greenhouse gases or carry out any other actions which could reduce the impact of global warming which is a very serious threat! This has been done by the corporate executives who are carrying out these propaganda campaigns and funding political figures who are undercutting such efforts. They understand as well as anyone else that global warming is a very serious threat, but there is an institutional role that enters here. If you are the CEO of a corporation, your task is to maximise short-term profit. That's much more true now than it ever has been in the past. We are in a new stage of state-capitalism in which the future just doesn't matter very much, even the survival of the firm doesn't matter very much. What matters increasingly is short term profit and if a CEO doesn't pursue that, he will be replaced with someone who will do it. This is institutional effect, not individual effect, and has extraordinary implications on society. It may, in fact, destroy our very existence.

[Glenn Greenwald] There is an artificial division when we talk about the government versus large corporations such as Google. Aside from the fact that they work together on all kinds of common-objectives and goals- such as the PRISM programme and so on.

In Western democracies, money plays a huge influence in political outcomes. In some ways, the government becomes a tool for those who wield the greatest economic power. It’s not as though there’s a separate thing called the Government, and this other thing called Google – but rather that they’ve become one. You have all this mass surveillance on the part of the government, but similarly Google, Facebook and a whole bunch of other corporations act the same way and carry it out.

Q: To what extent does a class-system still exist in western societies?

[Noam Chomsky] The business-classes are constantly fighting a bitter class war, and they are aware of it. If you read the business press they mourn about the hazard facing industrialists and the rising political power of the masses- and the need to fight the everlasting battle for the minds of men, and so forth... and they act on it! They are constantly carrying out major campaigns to ensure the concentration of power in the hands of the corporate sector will increase. In the last thirty years or so, there have been changes in the nature of the economy- shifting from capitalist to state-capitalist. A lot of the dynamism in an economy comes from the state; computers, the internet, the IT revolution and so on. The applications come from the private sector, but not the basic research and development. That has remained true, across the board. Over the past thirty years, there has been a significant change- a move towards "financialisation" of the economy. Financial institutions now have a far higher share of the profit in the economy than forty years ago. Another shift has been towards the outsourcing of production which, in effect, places working people throughout the world in competition- with obvious consequences. Well those changes have set in motion a vicious cycle in which wealth is more and more concentrated within an extremely small population. In the United States, the primary factor of inequality is the extreme concentration of wealth within a fraction of one percent of the population comprising CEO's, hedge fund managers and so on. As that concentration of wealth increases, it carries with it a concentration of political power since wealth has an enormous effect on the political system- and the political power in turn leads to legislation, which enhances the concentration of wealth. Fiscal policies, deregulation, rules of corporate governance and so on. This cycle exists all through the world, but is very striking in the United States. Within the last generation, for one thing, we have seen repeated financial crises which simply didn't occur in the fifties and sixties when new-deal regulations were still in place and the financial system was much more restricted. Increasing financial crises are not a problem for the big banks and investment firms because they can rely on the nanny state to bail them out. If we had a capitalist system, financial crises would be serious but they would be overcome simply by bankruptcy of the culprits, so Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup simply wouldn't exist- they would have gone bankrupt a long time ago! But since we don't have a capitalist system, they have been rescued by the taxpayer repeatedly. In fact, they are given what amounts to a government insurance policy called "too big to fail" and the credit-ranking agencies take that into account. When they determine the credit-level of Goldman Sachs, they take into account that if they partake in a lot of risky transactions, and hence make a lot of profit and the system collapses, there will be a bailout- that increases the firms credit-ranking and means that can get cheaper loans and so on. Meanwhile, for the general population of the past generation or so- for the overwhelming majority, incomes have pretty much stagnated while working hours have increased and benefits have declined leaving a very angry, frustrated and confused population that is pretty much divorced from political decisions. Decisions which are extremely in the hands of an extremely narrow concentration of power- and the media go along with it, as they are essentially part of the system. There is some sniping around the periphery, this is a free society after all- but the overwhelming thrust tends to support the system. These are very anti-democratic tendencies, and also quite dangerous.

Looking at Conflict:

Q: What is your view on the 'global-war-on-terror'?

[Noam Chomsky] One problem is that it doesn't exist. You don't fight a war on terror by carrying out actions which you anticipate will increase terror. The invasion of Iraq, again, was undertaken with the expectation that it would increase terror- and in fact it did. That is not a war on terror. There shouldn't be a war on terror, but rather an effort to undercut terror. The ways to do this are well-understood. Britain is a perfectly good example. Take, for example, IRA terror which was pretty serious! As long as Britain responded using violence, that increased and escalated the cycle of terror. Finally- partly through United States influence, and partly from internal pressure- they responded by paying some attention to the legitimate grievances that existed in the background of the terrorist actions. Well, that led to a decline in terror. By now, Northern Ireland- while not utopia- is certainly not how it was even fifteen years ago. That's the way you deal with terror! Look at its roots, sources and do something about them.

[Glenn Greenwald] The War on Terror has spiralled so far out of control, so far beyond what it claims to be; from the question from what even is terrorism and who is actually doing it, to the way that there’s an enormous gap between the policies that are justifying the means versus the reality.

When I was in New Zealand a couple of months ago, I was reporting about mass surveillance in the run-up to that country’s elections and at first the government denied it engaged in mass surveillance even though documents proved it did; and of course they resorted to claims of ISIS and all these other terrorist groups that they had to keep people safe from. This is New Zealand! A country with a small population, at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean!

The spectre of fear mongering has become so potent, that all politicians have to do is utter the words and citizenry capitulates and acquiesces to whatever they want. The War on Terror has become a justifying mantra for Western Governments to do whatever they want.

Looking at Globalisation & Society:

Q: What are your views on globalisation and a shift of economic power to China and India?

[Noam Chomsky] First of all, we should be a little careful when discussing a "shift of economic power". It is certainly true that China and India have had very significant growth rates, but these are very poor countries. Take a look at their GDP per capita for example. According to World Bank figures (which are grossly underestimated) China has maybe five percent of the GDP per capita of the United States, India maybe two percent. These figures ought to be doubled or tripled, but even so they are a small fraction of western power. China has grown spectacularly and there's been quite significant impact on reducing poverty and so on. Nevertheless China remains, as of now, an assembly plant. If you take a look at the trade deficit of the United States with China (which is much discussed) and calculate it accurately, in terms of value-added, it turns out the trade deficit with China is over-estimated by about twenty five to thirty percent. The trade deficit with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea is underestimated by the same figure. The reason is, within the dynamic East Asian production system- the high technology parts and components come from the periphery- from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China assembles. Over time, this will change as China moves up the technology ladder, but that's how it is now. It's even more the case in India- which has hundreds of millions of people who are completely excluded from the system. Peasant suicides are increasing at roughly the same rate as the creation of billionaires. A couple of hundred million people have gained, and many more have not- and their situation has been getting worse. There are also enormous ecological problems which are not counted as costs, though they should be. What's going on there is pretty spectacular.

There is much talk of China's holding of US debt and what that implies and so on. Japan's holding of US debt is approximately the same, that does not give Japan power over the United States. There's a lot of misleading commentary about these topics.

Q: What do you think the world will look like 25 years from now?

[Noam Chomsky] Well, there are a number of things taking place. The United States after the second World War was overwhelmingly dominant, its power has been declining since and is declining right now. In part, this decline has to do with the increasing growth in Asian production- we shouldn't exaggerate but it's certainly a part of it. Another factor is the internal attack on the health of American society- the corporate onslaught that has taken place over the past generation has severely weakened American society. There is an attack on the educational system which will have severe long-term effects on economy- there is a general attack on the workforce- the vicious cycle I described is fine for a very small sector of the population, but is harmful for everyone else. The infrastructure is in very poor shape. Anyone who travels from Europe or even Asia to the United States often think they are coming to a third-world country! This is increasing. It is not a problem for the small-sector of wealth and power that off-shore's production and engages in financial manipulations- for them it doesn't really matter if the country declines. It is declining, and it is under attack internally. The United States does have a financial crisis- deficit and debt problem- that is due to two things. One, the enormously bloated military budget which is approximately the same as the rest of the world combined and secondly, a highly dysfunctional privatised unregulated healthcare system. Those two elements are being protected and that, along with the vicious cycle that I mentioned, is leading to severe internal problems which will continue the decline. In addition, the environmental problem is very serious. If the United States does not take the lead, the rest of the world is not going to do very much. If the United States undermine efforts deal with environmental problems- as is now happening- that is going to be even more serious and that's exactly what we see in front of us for the institutional reasons that I mentioned. Thirty years from now, that will be much more significant.

There is also, unfortunately, an increasing threat of nuclear war and even nuclear terror. That's why I mentioned before US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan- part of that policy increases the risk that fissile materials will fall into the hands of radical Islamists. I should say that radical Islam has been strongly supported by the United States and Britain for a long time as a barrier to secular nationalism. The US has also supported the nuclear programmes of Pakistan, India and Israel- the three non-signers of the non-proliferation-treaty. All of that is a very combustible mix.

There are also going to be increasing conflicts over resources. Resources are being pressed to the limit and with increasing growth, there will be competition- which will lead to severe resource conflict and maybe wars of some kind. They may not be military wars, but some kind of conflict. For example- if we look at the major world energy resources in the Middle-East, more are now going East than West! The United States so far is tolerating this- they want Saudi oil to go to China to undercut China's initiatives in Iran- that's part of US geopolitical strategy but that will cause conflict and is true of other resources- Iron, Copper, Lithium and so -on. This is a growing and serious problem- and gives a pretty gloomy prediction of the future unless something significant changes.


In his 2009 book "Freedom For Sale", John Kampfner discusses that by 2000, "... for the first time, democracy had acquired majority status in the world. Yet, as the writer Paul Ginsborg points out, at the very time it appeared to be dominant, liberal democracy had actually entered a profound crisis. This was not a crisis of quantity; quite the opposite. The crisis, rather, was one of quality." Kampfner continues by citing many cases of this quality-issue including the "dubious judicial legitimacy" of the 2000 US Presidential election along with the more recent manipulation of evidence leading up to the Iraq war, the humiliations of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the systematic use of torture in secret jails around the world, and more.

"In order to succeed in this moral void..." he writes, "the new authoritarians came to a pact with their peoples. The specific rules varied between countries, but the template was similar. Repression was selective, confined to those who openly challenged the status quo. The number of people who fell into that category was actually very few... The rest of the population could enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as they wished and to make and spend their money. This was the difference between public freedoms and private, or privatised, freedoms.... After all, how many members of the public, going on about their daily lives, wish to challenge the structures of power? One can more easily than one realises be lulled into thinking that one is sufficiently free".

His view of being sufficiently free brings us back to the view of democracy being a "...compromise designed to balance interests among members of a community" albeit rather than balancing interests in a true sense, democracy (as we see it) becomes a pseudo-negotiation between a ruling elite (be they political or corporate) and their peoples as to what freedoms they (the peoples) are prepared to cede in exchange for perceived comforts. This moral-equilibrium-point is further provoked into volatility by the huge inequality we see between societies with the population of one wishing for the freedoms (be they economic, social, or political) in another. In 'western' civilisation, consumerism has provided a unique substrate for this pact. As Kampfner points out, "...people in all countries found a way to disengage from the political process while living in comfort. Consumerism provided the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain."

Unlike true-dictatorships, citizens in 'the west' have a sense of debate, control and participation in the issues affecting their lives. This sense of participation is supported by the level of information citizens receive about their democracy and the opportunities they have to interact with it through voting rights, panels, protest, and many other means. If, therefore, they feel sufficiently engaged in the democratic process- why should they even question the democracy of it!

The fact is we are encountering what can only be described as a participation-fallacy. Yes, citizens have the right to elect leaders (albeit who have sufficient capital to run for election) and vote on a wide variety of issues; but if we consider the most important issues which have had the most profound influence on western society in the past decade (including wars, bank-bailouts, climate change and more) aside from the right to show public-opinion through protest, have citizens really had the opportunity to exercise public-opinion? The answer is no- and even the most cursory glance of public opinion polls and outlets will show the widespread displeasure at many decisions which, while ostensibly "taken in citizens' best interest", rarely were.

This is not a problem we can solve overnight, the status-quo has become embedded and systemic in every part of our society. For our world to truly become democratic, the process has begin with education and end with culture meaning that citizens are not only more aware of the opportunities and processes of democracy, but are also culturally driven towards a culture which Dr. Wright describes as, "...a theory, policy, procedure and art, emphasising human welfare, individual freedom, popular participation and general tolerance. It can adapt itself to many conditions, but it thrives in an atmosphere of education, toleration, peace and prosperity." The traits of "Ignorance, dogma, war and poverty.." Dr. Wright argues (traits which have almost become hallmarks of our civilisation) "are its enemies. They breed absolute and arbitrary government, uncritical and lethargic people, which are the reverse of democracy."

"People in the long run.." stated David Eisenhower, "are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it." For that to happen, though, we must realise that we (as people) are in this together and that the notions of society and self-interest are, for the most part, incompatible. By understanding that in exchange for a few notional-comforts we (actively) give-up our own freedom and the freedoms of billions of citizens around the world, we lose any perceived moral high-ground we have and any assertion of the freedom of our society.

"There is no such thing as a little freedom..." said Walter Cronkite, "either you are all free, or you are not free."

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