Adam Curtis: The TV elite has lost the plot
The stupidity of crowds
Beeb Week Adam Curtis is one of the jewels in the BBC's crown - as well as one of its fiercest critics.
His documentaries are rich, complex histories of ideas that have surprised BBC executives with their popularity amongst younger viewers: his montage technique and visual jokes reward repeated viewings.
The Century of the Self told the story of how Freud's nephew invented modern public relations [pt3]. The Power Of Nightmares [video] described how the myth of the al-Qaeda "network" had to be invented so a terror trial could be heard under America's RICO laws. The Trap [pts1&2] describes how reductionist and paranoid logic of game theory influenced psychology, biology and eventually social policy.
(Curtis is also an advisor to Popbitch)
Over two interviews with us, Curtis lays into a TV class that has lost its confidence, run out of ideas, and fallen back on "user generated content" as a salvation.
He explains how bloggers are bullies, warns of the snake oil salesmen of the internet's "new democracy", and suggests how to repair a BBC in crisis.
[There's a short excerpt from the first interview in MP3 format here, and we'll air a follow-up later in the week. This one isn't broadcast quality, but it's such a fine rant, it's too good not share.]
- Adam Curtis - Part One: Click the player or Download MP3
Implicit behind a lot of this stuff, like being asked to do blogging, is that we're getting a more representative view of the public.
That's a great paradox. It's a wider thing than the internet, but the internet sums it up. It's that on the surface it says that "the internet is a new form of democracy". So what you're seeing is a new pluralism, a new collage, a new mosaic of all sorts of different ideas that's genuinely representative.
But if you analyse what happens, it simplifies things.
First of all, the people who do blogging, for example, are self-selecting. Quite frankly it's quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies. The internet has removed a lot of constraints on them. You know what they're like: they're deeply emotional, they're bullies, and they often don't get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information - they do little research of their own.
What then happens is this idea of the 'hive mind', instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, leads to a growing simplicity.
The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.
The Century Of The Self (2002)
So you end up with a rigid, simplified view of the world, which is negotiated by mainstream media in response to the bullying extremities.
Far from being "the wisdom of crowds", it's the stupidity of crowds. Collectively what we are doing is creating a more simplified world.
So it's more homogeneous?
Yes, it is.
I've talked to news editors in America. What they are most frightened of is an assault by the bloggers. They come from the left and the right. They're terrified if they stray one way they'll get monstered by bloggers on the right, if they stray the other way they'll get monstered by bloggers from the left. So they nervously try and creep along, like a big animal in Toy Story - hoping not to disturb the demons that are out there.
It leads to a sort of nervousness. The moment a media system becomes infected by nervousness it starts to decline.
Isn't that a specifically American problem? I remember the first time I walked into a newspaper office there, I saw all these desks are creaking under their trophies. Each journalist has about twenty awards on his or her desk - that's just armour plating for their egos.
Well, there are two things you are dealing with here.
What it reflects is a much wider insecurity amongst the media class. The media class grew up during a period of certainty which was the Cold War. All those famous reporters bestrode the world and told us what because everything was simple. We knew who was wrong and who was right.
But now they don't know anything. They know nothing!
It started with the Berlin Wall. None of those guys predicted the Berlin Wall would come down. Ever since then it's been quite clear that most mainstream news journalism has absolutely no idea about what's really going on. It reports the "factlets" really well, but when it tries to join up the dots, it often leads you into a strange either fantasy world, or simplified world.
But above all they know that they don't really know. And what that leads to is a terrible sense of insecurity.
So what happens? The internet comes along, and the utopians of the internet portray this as a new form of populist democracy. And those media barons who know they don't know what's going on, see in this a wonderful salvation. Because they can then say, "Ah, we'll let the people tell you what's going on".
I see it in my own organisation [BBC Current Affairs]. Those people who run the current affairs organisation embrace this with a, "Ah... oh my god, at last, we're off the hook! User generated content!"
And suddenly you get the world reported in even more fragmented terms - and people have no idea what's going on.
“Far from being ‘the wisdom of crowds’, it’s the stupidity of crowds.”
In a way you can understand why it's happening. It's a loss of confidence in a class that was once supreme, and it's a terrible cocktail. They were brought up to believe they were strong and powerful - but now no one cares, it leads to this terrible arrogance and nervousness. They see User Generated Content as the way out.
But these people are paid a large amount of money, actually, to be clever and to tell us about the world - and they're failing. It's not their fault, but they are failing at it.
What I noticed about blogging was that it was full of people who'd missed out on the dot com bubble the first time round - and a lot of them were advertising or marketing consultants.
What blogging lacks is an enthusiasm about finding out about the world.
It's more about therapy, getting something off your chest. There's no curiosity.
There's no curiosity. What it actually has is the desire to bully, and to shape the world to do things you want it to do.
“The media class don’t know anything. And they know they don’t know…”
And it atomises the consensus...
That phrase of yours is quite right, it is Balkanisation. It gives people security. So over here is the part of the internet - and therefore of the world - where there are people who think the invasion of Iraq was all about oil. Over are people who think it's all about stopping Muslim hordes taking over our culture. And over here, it's the neo-conservative lot who think it's all about ideas.
Do you remember that book about intelligent buildings, how buildings work out how to stand up? That's what's happening now. They're working out how to hold each other up. So you get a Balkanisation where there is no movement forward - everyone just publishes their position, stands up, and that's it. Everything is so static.
But wouldn't you say society is always competing groups, people are always jostling for power?
Yes, but they have an idea of where the world is going to, and they have an optimistic idea.
What marks out all these groups is that they're fundamentally negative - they're looking for something to criticise. They don't have a political ideal - and they don't know what's going on. So they retreat into a simplified and often very dated view of the world.
Which is fine, because actually you're right, most people throughout history have a simplified view of the world. What a journalist's job is to try and do, is go a tiny bit further than that, and actually try and open people's minds up, and ask, "Have you thought of looking at it this way?" That's its job.
What's happening on the internet is that people are retreating into their citadels where they will not have that. And if you try and do it, they don't like it. Because you're joining up the dots in a way that isn't the way they joined up the dots.
What really happens now, is that they're so entrenched in their self-referential groups, anyone who joins up the dots any other way is a bad person.
I've noticed in the reaction to The Trap - the attacks specifically avoid the ideas you're raising. Were you expecting that?
No, I was expecting more people to argue with me. To say "you're wrong" - to raise an argument. What you get is - anyone who joins up the dots in a way that doesn't fit with the received wisdom of particular groups is accused of being a conspiracy theorist.
If you look at The Trap, there is no conspiracy - the word doesn't enter into it. It's a straight history of ideas which have shaped psychology, politics, culture and science over the past 30 or 40 years. It fits them together. These ideas have been out there - they influenced Mrs Thatcher, they influenced Richard Dawkins, and many of them can be traced to the Cold War.
Now someone would argue this is a new form of censorship. Systems that purport to be open and free - systems of political management, and the internet - are becoming ways of shutting debate down. Of simplifying - not of controlling, that's the thing - a new simplified sense of order.
The Trap (2007)
In an age where people don't know what's what, we sort of agree with that. We look for order and want that. And our politicians can't give it to us - our media elites can't give it to us because they don't know what's what anymore. So far from creating a new richness and openness, we all work together to create a new system of agreed order, because we want it.
It's not that we're not bad people, that's what happens in an age of populism, a populist democracy.
The elites have given up, so no one's telling you what's what any more, we don't want that any longer - so we're beginning to work together sooner and actually, that's exactly what I was being accused of.
So what we're living through is a period of intense conformity. It is the great paradox of the age.
This was pointed out to me once by a man who ran a focus group, and it's the reason I made The Trap.
He said, "Everyone out there" - and we're looking through the mirror - "thinks they are an individual. But actually more and more people are exactly the same. Not only in how they dress, but how they feel about themselves and about each other." They talk in the same language.
“We should be saying to people ‘I’m going to take you out of yourself and show you something you haven’t thought of, which is either awesome, or incredible, or will inspire you’”
And I researched it, and it's true - he's completely right. We live in an age where we think we're completely individualistic, but actually, we're more conformist than we have been since the 1960s.
And the media has a big part to play in this...
Yes but no.
We have a big part to play in this. In an age where there are no leaders that inspire us, or take us beyond ourselves, we seek that order. It's a nice, happy, contented world. But actually it's a static world, because it doesn't lead anywhere. And that was the feeling I was trying to tap into in The Trap. Which is, yes, it's a sort of system of order - but actually, it's got stuck. And I think people are beginning to feel that...
But you won't move out of that until someone comes along and says, "Have you thought of it this way?" - and that's what we should be doing in television.
The glory of TV
We should be saying to people "I'm going to take you out of yourself and show you something you haven't thought of, which is either awesome, or incredible, or will inspire you". But we don't. We've instead an equivalent of a Victorian book of etiquette. We've simply reinforced those simple definitions of what is ordered and disordered.
We say, "Your child is too fat, and this is the order". Or, "You feel that way, well that's disordered, I would do this".
And it's not imposed - we all want it - but it leads to a static world. That's what I was trying to say.
It's interesting how people are responding to this infinite abundance of information, and they seem to respond by going to what's familiar and what looks ordered. And the groupthink you get on the internet that you see in these 'blogrolls' is a very seductive world. All the reference points you need are there, people are familiar and known, and people fall into this rabbit hole. I guess it's not surprising - when there are suddenly a million routes home, you choose the one most familiar to you. It's an off-the-shelf belief system.
At a time when there isn't anything to give you confidence beyond yourself - you live in the "empire of the self" - then it is inevitable that you will seek those like you, because it will give you a sense of collective purpose. It will give you a sense of collective security.
And that's exactly what the internet is about - "If you like this book, others before you have bought these books..." And it works to create those little circles. All those little radio stations which tell you, "If you played this, other people have played this..."
The Trap (2007)
On the internet, you're constantly monitoring other people's choices to see what those people who you think are like you do, and they say, "OK I'll do that to be like that". And what that leads to, again, is Balkanisation.
And it's what advertisers rather like, because it gives them a definition.
Where does this rhetoric come from - that we're being empowered, or there's some kind of revolution taking place, where real power is being destroyed or inverted?
I think that genuinely came from a utopian ideal at the beginning of the internet - that this really could be the people's channel. And once something gets enmeshed in the currents of power it never turns out the way you expect. So it's interesting to chart how that happens, and that's exactly what has happened with the internet.
The utopian idealists have kept the rhetoric, but it is actually rapidly becoming something else - which is a simplifying system of social order. Not control, order. That is what it is all about.
Groups of people seek those who are like themselves, work together to actively make that ideal. And those grouplets then work together themselves to create a stable and harmonious system. You could argue that's a utopian ideal - it suits the particular economic system, it suits the idea of us as producers not consumers - and this technology is helping shape it.
But it's a very static world and I sense people are frustrated by that - it's so unprogressive. So... unpopulistic.
It's very bland as well - who on earth wants to be a node in the hive mind?
OK, I agree with that. But if you accept you do want to be a part of the hive mind - then hives in the past have done incredible things. They went to the moon! Groups have done incredible things. What's strange about this is that we have a group system here, but it's doing anything. It's not changing the world. It's not taking the place of old views. It's stopped.
We have a simulation - a simulation of a "group".
We have the equivalent of a collective mind... and it worries about whether we have a compulsive disorder. Or which percentage of them are theoretically obese!
I mean, cry me a river about those poor people with obsessive compulsive disorders! That is such a low horizon of what human beings can achieve.
And above all, what I ache for is a world where people really dream of incredible things, and above people who are in charge of the media, people who paid a lot of money, actually use their imagination and intelligence to take me places and tell me things I don't know.
People just want something good to watch, and be stimulated by. Not talked down to.
But the idea as well that intrigues me is that we're being "oppressed by gatekeepers"! Give me a break - it's almost autistic. One good example is the BBC's Digital Assassin Day last summer. They tried to get all the bloggers to tell them what they thought they should be doing, it was all about a new democracy and "user generated content". But in the end, four times as many BBC people were involved in staging this than members of the public who eventually showed up. That tells me people at the BBC are far more neurotic about this than they need to be. Why do they think they need to do that?
No, but you see the reason for that is it isn't their fault. They have come into a world where they don't know what's going on. It's lack of confidence.
Our political leaders and our media elite - I know the BBC very well - simply lack confidence.
They're very nice, and they're very intelligent people. But they lack confidence about what is really going on in the world. It's collapsed. In the face of that they are easily seduced by another idea of democracy that they can "serve the people" by doing this.
Pandora's Box (1992)
Because their remit is Public Service Broadcasting. That is the problem - in an age where there is no elite, how do you do Public Service Broadcasting?
What they need to do is take the internet, and instead of portraying it as some sort of platform in which they just show people's dogs falling down stairs, they should use this and find a way of imaginatively constructing new things out of it. It'll be complicated, because the internet is quite anti-narrative, it goes all over the shop, but I know full well someone somewhere will take that and turn it into something like a Dickens novel, and use it to take people out of themselves. And I tell you, there's no one at the BBC thinking like that. And it's about time they did. Because all they do is go on and on and on about "Platforms" and "Delivery" - as if it's just process.
It's a time of great technical invention but it's a time of [artistic] stagnation. We need to take this [innovation] and create something imaginative out of it. These people are paid a lot, they have a lot of influence, and they could do wonderful things. It's time they got on with it.
They lack the sort of 'oomph' to say, "No, our job - as you said - is not to talk down to the people but to construct something that is just awesome, that makes them look at the world in a different way".
What people suffer from is being trapped within themselves - in a world of individualism everyone is trapped within their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations. Our job as public service broadcasters is to take people beyond the limits of their own self, and until we do that we will carry on declining.
The BBC should realise that. I have an idealistic view, but if the BBC could do that, taking people beyond their own selves, it will renew itself in a way that jumps over the competition. The competition is obsessed by serving people in their little selves. And in a way, actually, Murdoch for all his power, is trapped by the self. That's his job, to feed the self.
In the BBC, it's the next step forward. It doesn't mean we go back to the 1950s and tell people how to dress, what we do is say "we can free you from yourself" - and people would love it.
But technology feeds the self - you choose what you watch, and when you watch it, and you plug those iPod buds in and blot out the world.
It's not the technology - it's the idea of the technology - that this technology is for you. What the BBC should be doing is that, it's an awesome new construct, let's find a way of taking advantage of it.
What I'm good at is collage - all I can see is in that new system there must be a new way of collaging. In a way that when cinema came along you didn't really get. When cinema came along people sat in front of a screen watching a train coming into a station. Literally, hundreds of thousands of people came to see that. Within ten years people like DW Griffiths were doing extraordinary things with editing. Now I love watching stupid stuff on YouTube, but it really is the equivalent of watching a train come into a station.
Hah. Who can get bored with your cat falling down the stairs?
People should create an imaginative world which I would want to get into. When Dickens started doing multipart novels in the 1860s, people loved it - every month there was another world to go into. What is sitting there potentially is a vast world that will take people out of themselves.
That requires the decision-makers to get over this loss of confidence. Watching George Best or a great artist they're transcended...
It's sublime. Yes, we're in the midst of a Romantic age - our obsession with nature is part of a Romantic ideal. That's the BBC's job to create a transport into the sublime. All it takes is some clever boss to let some people thought because they always exist.
It will happen because there is a sense of ennui about the internet. It's all about - oh. Is that it? Plugging the latest thing into your ear is not enough.
Media still sees itself as a comforter to the nation. The 2000 election was a huge event and it was a deep psychic disruption for Americans. The law is final and the Supreme Court - the wise men - don't cheat and bundle their guy over the line. But in that case, they did. We don't have an equivalent of that - not even regicide! Now the papers at the time - and I think Gore Vidal expressed it that the New York Times and the networks were saying - is that the nation was traumatised and needed "immediate closure". They would rather be therapists than do the basics of what they should be doing, and figuring out who got the most votes.
TV now tells you what to feel.
It doesn't tell you what to think anymore. From EastEnders to reality format shows, you're on the emotional journey of people - and through the editing, it gently suggests to you what is the agreed form of feeling. "Hugs and Kisses", I call it.
I nicked that off Mark Ravenhill who wrote a very good piece which said that if you analyse television now it's a system of guidance - it tells you who is having the Bad Feelings and who is having the Good Feelings. And the person who is having the Bad Feelings is redeemed through a "hugs and kisses" moment at the end. It really is a system not of moral guidance, but of emotional guidance.
Morality has been replaced by feeling.
That's what all the disorders are about. They are a way of oppressing and measuring whether what you're feeling is the correct feeling. Intellect and morality are intimately related but feeling is now predominant.
The "feeling" provides all the moral guidance they need?
It's very difficult to take people out of themselves.
Because what you're doing is reinforcing the priority of their own feelings about themselves. The thing about our age is that everyone monitors themselves. It's really fascinating. I did this with the psychological disorders in The Trap. They've become a way of policing yourself.
"Am I the right shape? Am I the right emotional construct?"
So you edge back to the right emotional shape, or the right physical shape.
And vanity in our time - is about pleasing yourself. It's about making yourself feel better about yourself. We live within our selves. We should find a way of escaping it, but the program makers don't have the imagination or the confidence.
“Cry me a river about those poor people with obsessive compulsive disorders! That is such a low horizon of what human beings can achieve.”
I think what you're good at is finding two groups of people and rooting their relationship in these different contexts. One group is people who are reductionist, and just want a simple pattern or machine view, or a diagram that explains the world: Freudians, or the sociobiologists for example. The other is people who are Hobbesian who think human nature is base, post-Fall, nasty and brutish. And you find times where the two people find a common cause.
That's a great analysis. I grew up at the time of the failure of the optimistic view of changing people. That's what marked out the 20th century - what drove it all was this idea that people can be made better, and fundamentally we can engineer it. That failed.
We now have a mirror image of that. There are people who are quite engineer-like - they're almost value-neutral. Every now and again that group meets another group who have a pessimistic view of human nature. But that group, the geeks, think "With that view, we can make the world safe".
They're almost engineers of the human soul - we can engineer a better world through pessimistic views of human nature.
I think that was true of marketers who saw in Freud's ideas a way of saying, "Look, we can shape how people fulfil their desires". That was also true of the neo-conservatives. They have a dark and pessimistic view of human beings, but they also have an optimistic view of a vision of the world which is that if we create a world that's grand enough, it will contain those dark desires and make them better. A lot of them are ex-Marxists, so it's not surprising.
Well, when you talk to the computer utopians and ask them, "Why are you so evangelical?" - to figure out what they really believe in - there's nothing there. What it really boils down to is a faith in inevitability, just like a Marxist view of history. It's technology, so don't fight it!
If you look at the Soviet Union the 1980s under Brezhnev were called the years of stagnation. I would argue that we are living through our own years of stagnation
And we just don't know it...
We just don't see it. And what I was trying to say in The Trap was very simple.
What we think of as us - as human beings, and the way society is ordered - isn't a natural order.
“My job is to describe the world, not fantasise about it.”
I'm not trying to say that it's terrible or it's wonderful. But pull back, and you'll see that just as in the Soviet Union, where you had Soviet Man, we are the equivalent of that simplified view of what humans are. It's an ideological construct. In Pandora's Box I made a program about the Soviet Union and that idea of The Plan. The Plan became mired in the technical processes, so managing that idea ended in absurdity.
I would argue that we're mired in the same thing. That, by taking an optimistic idea that takes a pessimistic view of human nature through managing it, has increasingly trapped us into a technical process where you manage the feelings of the individual. It's not bad, it's not a conspiracy - it's just an attempt to manage a system. But because it's based on a limited view of human beings, it doesn't quite work.
The behaviour of people in the NHS [in response to targets] is a very good example.
There is nothing new now. There is a new technology but we're not doing anything with it. So we're inventing new platforms with no purpose or meaning.
It will change and something new and optimistic... But you're right - it's the years of stagnation. There's opportunities but no one's grabbing them. It's an extraordinary time of relative peace and relative prosperity, but we are all terrified, anxious, nervous, and we're not making any use of this openness. And it will close down again.
A friend of mine saw the final part of The Trap and found it really depressing.
And I'm supposed to make people happy?
People look at the world and make their own minds up. Yes, it's a limited world we're living in and that's why it's called The Trap. My job is not to try and change the world but describe it.
Not as some of our journalists do, to fantasise about it. ®
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