Tom Hodgkinson gets the lowdown on politics in the digital age from TV’s greatest documentary journalist.
From The Century of the Self to Hypernormalisation, the journalist Adam Curtis has consistently exposed stories and truths that lay hidden to others. On his BBC blogs he tells brilliantly researched features on, for example, the history of think tanks and their relationship with battery farming and Google. Always entertaining and always a provocative, original voice, he refuses to spout liberal platitudes and makes up his own mind. This bold voice has found him millions of fans across the world, and he is finding a new audience among the teens and twentysomethings.
We recorded two interviews and what follows is edited highlights from our discussions. We start by discussing the so-called power of the tech titans. Adam argues that a simple way to take away their power would be to stop believing in their magic.
Adam Curtis: When we say: “Facebook is a dark, manipulative force”, it makes the people in charge seem extremely powerful. The truth is that people within the advertising and marketing industry are extremely suspicious about whether online advertising has any effect at all. The Internet has been captured by four giant corporations who don’t produce anything, contribute nothing to the wealth of the country, and hoard their billions of dollars in order to pounce on anything that appears to be a competitor and buy it out immediately. They will get you and I to do the work for them – which is putting the data in – then they send out what they con other people into believing are targeted ads. But actually, the problem with their advertising is that it is – like all geek stuff – literal. It has no imagination to it whatsoever. It sees that you bought a ticket to Budapest, so you’re going to get more tickets to Budapest. It’s a scam.
In a way, the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica thing played into their hands because it made it even more mystifying. I’ve always thought John Le Carré did spies a great service because he made it seem as if there were endless depths of mystery and darkness when in fact, if you’ve ever researched the spies, they are a) boring and b) useless. I mean really, really useless. I researched MI5 once and they hardly ever manage to capture any traitors … it’s usually someone else who points them in the right direction. And in a way I think that’s true of this. The tech companies are powerful in the sense that they’ve got hold of the Internet, which people like me think could be a really powerful thing for changing the world and disseminating new ideas, and they’ve got it in this rigid headlock. To do that, they’ve conned everyone into thinking that their advertising is worth it. And in the process, they’re destroying journalism.
Tom Hodgkinson: Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are surely clever and manipulative though?
AC: I’m sure some really bad stuff went on. There’s no question about that. But where’s the evidence that it actually swayed elections? What we lost in the hysteria about it all, is the sense of: why did people really vote for Brexit and Trump? I maintain that all the evidence points to the fact that there is real anger and a sense of isolation in Britain and America. The results re ected that. For 20 years, they’ve been offered no choice between the political parties. They’ve been given this enormous button that says “Fuck off” and they’ve pressed it. That’s a rational thing to do.
The problem with the professional classes is that they don’t know how to deal with that. Instead they turn to these other reasons, which of course are there. But it’s like they’re looking at a little part of something much, much bigger, which involves having to make political choices about what might have gone wrong in your society. Everyone goes: “Oh that’s magical!” about the Internet, but so what? That’s actually just so banal. People go: “Oh it’s terrible, they’re manipulating us!” or: “They know so much about me!” Well, what do they know about you? Your shopping? That’s it? What they don’t know, actually, are all the things that you’ve forgotten which are your real intelligence, and that world that you live in your head, day by day – which is rich and extraordinary.
TH: That’s a lovely thought. So we should really be saying they’re stupid and they’re boring?
AC: Yes, and all they really know about you is your shopping.
The full interview appears in Idler 61, available to buy in selected Smiths, indie bookshops or direct from us.