February 10th, 2014

Adam Curtis: Pop Culture’s Edgiest Truth-Teller

“Although we don’t realize it, the way we see everything in the
world today is through the eyes of the computers.” — Adam Curtis



I discovered documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis a couple of years ago when my friend, the writer John Calendo, forwarded me a link to Curtis’ 2011 film All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace with an ammendment: “This is weird, so you’ll like it.”

On the surface (not a good place to go for a description of Curtis’ work) this looked to be a documentary about how computers and people have come to co-exist. But no. This was a bold salvo that cracked open the notion of how computers have colonized the world by playing off of our inability to tolerate uncertainty and the unknown. Computers promise systems and control and people like control.

Remember in Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001, when HAL is slowly disassembled by Dave and the computer keeps moaning: “Stop. Don’t do that Dave. I can feel myself fading.” Well, that was a fine bit of prescience that Curtis’ film indirectly explores. Computers and feelings. Feelings as visions. Visions as the future. A ridiculous confluence? Not really when you consider the power of identification and what identification can wreak when wedded to machines.

Revisit the devastating economic crash that destroyed East Asia in 1997 or the ‘recovery’ we are still stuck in after the global economic meltdown of 2008 — all directly related to the manipulation of the markets via computers. Or doubly unimaginable, revisit the utopian visions of the counterculture movement in the 60s. Those dreamscapes of returning to the organic rhythms and glorious symmetry of nature.

Those were computer-based ideals that took hold like a fever as techno models more and more came to be considered the perfect matrix to build a new world upon. They do not exist in nature, as Curtis shows. Nature leans towards the chaotic. But not so, when framed in a computer-based template.

Even the title to Curtis’s film is taken from the hippie poet Richard Brautigan, who wandered through early 60s Haight-Ashbury, distributing xeroxed copies of his idyl to whomever would have them. Man and machine cohabiting in constant bliss. It seems a crazy conceit of the counterculture ethos, but, again, as Curtis shows, this concept was based on computer systems as matrixes for creating a better society.

His documentary, All Watched Over disconcertingly opens with Pizzicato Five‘s pop song Baby Love Child bouncing through the soundtrack while images of people jacked into computer screens stream by. The rapt computer users remind me of those “dairying ants” that milk aphids for honeydew, a juice that’s excreted from the aphid’s ass. Meaning, there is a constant, never-broken attention loop projected into the computer screen, as if nourishing forces are flowing from the screen’s glow, into its viewers’ brain-holes. It is weird.

And then, boom, a disruptive cut, a studio tech’s blaring announcement amidst the disintegrating soundtrack and we’ve jumped back 55 years to a Mike Wallace interview with the doyen of capitalism, Ayn Rand — her dark, darting bird eyes scanning the studio furtively.

From that moment forward — and it took me days to play this out — I diligently found and watched every Curtis documentary that had been conveniently posted online.

Curtis’ perceptions aren’t glamorous or titillating in a traditional way. Though I enjoy his skillful, playful presentation of facts — his editing style being a mashup of PBS’s Ken Burns and a mid-career David Lynch. His aim involves taking labyrinthine themes and delving into them with all the fervor of an anteater discovering a new Tower of Babel. And the cross-connections he exposes — the synchronic goo that joins seemingly disparate elements of reality together — feels like delineating a fever dream as you tease out each wiggling thread.

Critics react to Curtis’ bombast and his driving method of displaying bleak truths (after you’ve been finessed and opened-up by the creepy charm of his visuals and Outer Limits-like audio) as something akin to the methods of a conspiracy theorist. But this is the way of our reactionary world and how distanced we’ve become from the analytic approach. Illuminate unsavory truths and you’re smeared as radical or unhinged. So, this is always a good sign that you’re onto something worthwhile: The creator’s been crowned crazy.

If you have not become wise to the set-up (which, in a nutshell, involves everyone being distracted into a stupor, via Reddit and Facebook, tabloid vagaries, monster sporting spectaculars and the quaint but antiquated belief [hope] in a bipartisan political system that cares about people when that prospect always remains just that: Never arriving, always promised) then you should start to wake up because it’s kinda fucked up.

When scientists tell us that our oceans will be emptied of fish by 2048, you’ve got to scratch your head (or ass) and realize that we are living, screamingly so, right at the heart of that classic Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

In the following interview — which starts off annoyingly scattershot — Curtis explains why it is so difficult for us to galvanize. No one can suss out what in the fuck is happening, and yet we’re drowning in information, which, again, is the nature of computer living, computer dreaming.

Computers offer two options: 1 or zero. That’s it. There’s just you, alone (the 1) with the nothing (the zero), so you keep going back to the delivery system that promises all of this startling connectivity and camaraderie, but it’s still 1 and zero, 1 and zero, translated: Get me the fuck out of here.

More self-sequestered ingestion of information is not going to do it for us. It can’t, no solid, feeling-infused narrative is possible from bits and bytes. The heart doesn’t understand that angular language — a human being, his or her presence — is required to make communion with other human beings.

So a new form of journalism — (as Curtis defines it) — a manner of delivery that will return the human factor into the equation — is yet to arrive. Think about what happened during the spurt of what was the Occupy movement, as Curtis notes:

“We are in a genuinely new world at the moment and no one knows its dimensions and they have to come up with something. The Occupy movement absolutely astonished me. They had a brilliant slogan the 99 and 1 per cent — that was the first time I thought someone’s got it, but then they completely blew it. I went to their meetings and they have been completely captivated by this pseudo-managerial theory of a new kind of democracy where there are no leaders and everyone sits around gesticulating if they disagree. It was one of the most absurd ideas in modern politics.”

He is describing more fallout from computer-hypnotization: The idea that a new kind of democracy can occur where there are no leaders, where buttons are pushed indicating ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ — the Facebook style of yammering in a newsfeed as it scrolls by, down and off your screen, while you wait for the next tidbit of distraction. Some snippet of information that is never the whole narrative, just something to like, ignore or share a link to.

I don’t believe reality is so complicated we can not decipher a way through. It behooves those who want people confused to make the reporting of conditions confusing, so there are no facts, no news presented — just someone’s opinion about what’s made available as news.

This is another facet of the interesting times that we live in; everyone has become an expert or a philosopher and free-thinking and deduction is sacrificed for kinship and factions. See Dave Eggers‘s The Circle .

These ‘interesting times’ are the same scenario that Gurdjieff portrayed in his monumental mythopoetic work Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson; while surveying earth from a spaceship hovering its periphery, the protagonist describes what he sees below — creatures whose “instinctive sense of reality” had evaporated. Greed, ambition, vanity, envy, self-love and pride had created a condition where everything had turned upside-down.

And what of humankind’s proudest evolutionary development? The mind. It had been transformed into “mills for grinding out nonsense.” Too, earthlings, he noted, lied all of the time without knowing it, to the point where any kind of truth made them crazy, riled and indignant. And what they deemed ‘education’ was teaching children to be fake and deceitful.

But most dangerous was the absence of what Gurdjieff called “organic shame and objective conscience.”

We can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong — and simply call ‘right’ whatever supports our interests and the interests of whatever faction or group we’ve become wed to.

This is the clusterfucked core within the Chinese curse. Where ‘interesting times’ is a euphemism for a failed social contract, and worse — a spiritual bankruptcy that depends on science to shore up its waning ethics, as if that enterprise was ever capable of such a feat.

So yes, our big failure needs a much simpler narrative to help us make sense of the general condition. Why our denial remains paramount is a question only an anthropologist 500 years in the future might explain, with all of the aftereffects to study and deduce — but in the interim there is Adam Curtis.

Get to know his work and then share your thoughts below; I’d like to hear if this post created an impact. Let’s hear your vision, your suggestions and solutions.

All of Curtis’ work is currently up on the fabulous site Thought Maybe.

Photograph of Curtis by New Statesman.

11 Responses to 'Adam Curtis: Pop Culture’s Edgiest Truth-Teller'
Filed Under: Kulture
  1. B. remarks:

    We’re screwed!

    February 11th, 2014 at 12:37 am
  2. B. remarks:

    Earth School. It’ll never be perfect but that’s it’s purpose.

    February 11th, 2014 at 12:49 am
  3. John Browne remarks:

    Does anyone suppose that one of the major subconscious attractions to the wired world of diversions could be that, deep down, we acknowledge how badly we have screwed up-as a ‘dominant culture’- with regard to the Natural World? The ‘addiction’ to OIL (= Power) isn’t going to end nicely, for Us or the Planet… and the manipulation of “science” in the pursuit of “profits” will be troubling us (but not ‘us’, alone) into our future.
    I was part of a group that worked on the “consensus” principle for 6 years; and, while it kinda-sorta ‘worked’, it was infuriating at times. If I had to do it again, my own push would be for a rule of “consensus minus one” is “good enough”. I totally embrace, sympathize with, and support *Occupy, though… and, even when people are forced to “reinvent the Wheel”, when they do, it’s THEIR Wheel… and they understand it, in a way that those being handed a thing/principle, gratis, will rarely fully appreciate.
    When I decided to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”, it led AWAY from the City and into rural life. It also resulted in removing the wires from my rental (in a fit of pique) which kept me off the grid for the next 12 years. I consider that time my “intentional” public education (as contrasted with my life from 6 to 18). It was spotty, but there were the occasional moments of enlightenment among the ‘acquaintance’ with the niceties of embracing food. shelter and clothing on more personal terms than any I had envisaged before the undertaking began. Chaos = eternity… and, alone or together, we will make our way through it. ^..^

    February 11th, 2014 at 12:51 am
  4. John Browne remarks:

    After watching the above show, I have to question the premise that the 9/11 attacks by “political Islam” were driven by the fact of an America that was captivated with Rand’s “objectivism”, that was wreaking havoc at the expense of the Arab world. Was that the case with the other “Empires” of the last 5,000 years? Even simply going back to the beginnings of the Industrial Age and the subsequent colonialism of the rest of the world by the European powers, how are “we” anything more than the latest to pick up the ball that they set in motion, and run with it?
    The show IS fascinating, if simplistic… and maybe people are so relatively uncomplicated that great sweeping conclusions can be drawn about “us- as The Collective”. I mean, if astrology and the I Ching (& Alvin Toffler) are still useful predictors, why look any farther? ^..^

    February 11th, 2014 at 2:29 am
  5. leilaaesh remarks:

    Those “dark, darting bird eyes scanning the studio furtively” stood out for me too.

    The Sabian for her North Node is “Two Heads Looking Out and Beyond the Shadows,” suiting her Groundhog Day, Imbolc, weather divining day of birth. Maybe she was ahead of her time in the sense that as such an intense Aquarian, she still had to communicate within the traditional world of publishing. Though her water signs have me thinking her Aquarian bucket was indeed a water bucket rather than the bucket of energy waves that so many Aquarians carry now, and that it was held by a lone Venus in that last degree of Pisces, the last degree of the the zodiac cycle, without significant aspect to the traditional seven.

    What a timely post with Mercury Rx scrubbing over the Aquarian/Pisces cusp these next weeks. I’ve never been drawn to her philosophy, but now I’m wondering if I missed something of a High Priestess trying to communicate old world wisdom to a new age, one that works better in opposition to the lessons of Leo: the first friend to befriend is your own heart.

    February 11th, 2014 at 2:04 pm
  6. Caleb Harper remarks:

    The truth is hastily revealed, though I feel it absolutely necessary. The way we interact via facebook and various other networking tools (including this e-mail) is frantically overwhelming. That is why I left Facebook. I was incapable of processing so many people that soon thereafter reading a post, it was dismissed from my memory. That, to me, was the very antithesis of productivity. More than half of computer users have not the slightest clue about the binary system, which is pathetic. Then again, I doubt people realize the acronym, RAM, stands for random access memory, or that the power symbol is the combination of a zero and one. As for the internet, a majority of the data is probably porn and terrible photographs of copious amounts of food on a plate.

    I know there are great and marvelous websites and data available to the masses. Though it seems Netflix, Wikipedia, and Facebook define the internet. Oh, and googling.

    Fantastic article. I miss the days of no internet and cell phones.

    February 11th, 2014 at 2:37 pm
  7. frederick_a_woodruff remarks:

    Some really cogent insights being shared here. Thank you Caleb, Leilaaesh, and John Browne.

    February 11th, 2014 at 6:19 pm
  8. frederick_a_woodruff remarks:

    I never bothered to look at Ayn Rand’s horoscope — and found your notes insightful — knowing that she was an Aquarian explains a life built entirely upon a set of edicts, and how those inspired (or deluded) scores of wannabe figureheads, gurus and hedge fund managers. Unlike Leo, Aquarian individuality is impressed emphatically into the culture he or she is a MEMBER of, vs. the Leonian ‘private universe’ style of uniqueness.

    It’s astounding that Atlas Shrugged is the second largest selling book after the Bible. Given it’s the size of two bricks, I wonder how many have actually READ it vs. those who pick it up because of the nimbus of ‘specialness’ that encases it? But this says something important, which I believe Curtis unveils in this documentary.

    I don’t think you missed much with Rand; her philosophy was a product of the times — but it’s destructive application — which is at the heart of capitalism — is timeless.

    February 11th, 2014 at 6:23 pm
  9. frederick_a_woodruff remarks:

    Not to send your further down the rabbit hole as a way of avoiding your question John, I’d recommend you watch The Power of Nightmares and see how that might address some of your 9/11 questions.

    As I note often, astrology is a poor predicative tool — and even the I Ching is based more in a ‘of the moment’ reading — generating a symbol that matches a phase of a cycle; astrology, in a more complex way does the same, but as reality is ever-fresh, despite the sense that we’ve ‘been here before’ — it, like nature, remains the proverbial ‘wild card.’

    February 11th, 2014 at 6:26 pm
  10. frederick_a_woodruff remarks:

    That’s the big blind spot, the central riddle to be solve re enough people trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’. A mass movement is needed, but this would be comprised of individuals who, found a way to get on the same page so their numbers can match the numbers (and $) that counter their efforts. As it goes now the one with the most money wins, and that is just fucked up and wrong. But a fact.

    Thanks for some great insights John (and insights into personal history). Enjoyed reading your posts.

    February 11th, 2014 at 6:30 pm
  11. third house remarks:

    Coupled with the field guide for business, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, it is easy to see where our captains of industry have developed into something special. Much like the old Dobermans in the sixties who got nasty from too much in-breeding and unethical trainers.

    February 12th, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Leave a Reply

Where is my comment? Some comments are held for moderation -- comments with links, for instance -- do not appear immediately.