Adam Curtis: The TV elite has lost the plot

The stupidity of crowds


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.


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