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Adam Curtis: The TV elite has lost the plot

The stupidity of crowds

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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