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.]

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.

Adam Curtis: The Century Of The Self (2002) "There Is A Policeman In All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed"

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!


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