With the arrival of Adam Curtis’s new series Can’t Get You out of My Head on BBC iPlayer, we publish editor Tom Hodgkinson’s 2018 interview with the documentary maker
From The Century of the Self to HyperNormalisation, the journalist Adam Curtis has consistently exposed stories and truths that lay hidden to others. His BBC blogs feature brilliantly researched articles 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 gaining a new audience among the teens and 20-somethings.
I recorded two interviews with Curtis and what follows is edited highlights from our exchanges. We start by discussing the so-called power of the tech titans. Adam argues that a simple way to remove their grip on us 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 me 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 reflected 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.
TH: There are good things about the internet.
AC: The internet is all sorts of things. The real problem is that we’ve grown up in a period of high individualism and, in a period of high individualism, the one thing you don’t notice is power. You’re supposed to be an empowered individual yourself. What’s disappeared out of the language is power. We just don’t see it. We just blindly go through the world, not seeing that there are powerful forces.
TH: We tweet instead.
AC: We’re in this very funny paradoxical moment in history, which is full of moments of dynamic hysteria, yet everything always remains the same. We get this wave of hysteria – angry people click more! – and those clicks feed the systems and nothing changes. It’s a rational machine model. The idea of artificial intelligence is a very limited, machine-like idea. What we’re ignoring is all those other aspects of human beings, which we don’t really acknowledge because they’re so inbuilt in us and have been for millions of years.
TH: Like the romantic side of life?
AC: It’s partly the romantic side but it’s also our ability to move through a cluttered environment, like a street – while dreaming of extraordinary images and visions of things that have never happened, but just come from the depths on no one knows what. I mean the thing is our scientists have no real idea what consciousness is – so I think it’s a bit difficult to build some form of real intelligence when you don’t even know how your own one really works. So the tech AI people are in the midst of a massive PR drive to persuade us that really we are no more than simple machines – which means we will agree humbly to be fitted into their stupid machine decision trees. We think intelligence is about playing Go. But practically no one plays Go. Or chess. Real intelligence is being able to walk through an incredibly crowded street on a busy evening, nimbly, when you don’t even think about it, while at the same time recalling memories and replaying things in your brain. What I’m saying is that human beings have been reduced to a very simplified version of themselves, which they’ve accepted, in order to fit into this machine model, both of society and the internet. But we are extraordinary and we can do extraordinary things. We are so much more than what they are forcing us to accept.
TH: So where should we be looking for the positive ideas? In HyperNormalisation you make the point that people have retreated, the politicians are just managers, there’s no vision of the future. Or there is, but it’s a bit negative.
AC: Or apocalyptic.
TH: Can you see anyone around the world, writers, politicians, anybody who’s got something positive to say?
AC: Well, I’m sure there is someone somewhere because things do change. I’m a journalist and journalists are very good at analysing what is happening now and trying to report it. I suspect you have to look at the two things that have been marginalised in this static world. One is science, and one is religion. Science has gone from something that in its glory days was going to change the world to becoming an adjunct of the dark doomsayers which just tells you if you eat this you will die. It’s become co-opted by the managerial system, it’s about how many pieces of fruit you should eat each day – between seven and 15, I think [laughs]. And it’s got stuck because there are all these things it can’t explain. For example, it tells you there’s stuff called dark matter and they know it’s there because they can’t see it, which is remarkably like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It means it’s lost its purchase on our imagination of awesomeness. The other thing is religion. Religion is waiting in the wings because in an age of individualism, the one thing you cannot deal with is the idea of your own mortality. You cannot conceive of what lies beyond you because the world is you. I think part of the apocalyptic mood of our time, part of it, not all of it, is coming from the Baby Boomer generation beginning to face the inevitable fact of their mortality and they’re a bit like Ayn Rand. When she was asked: “Don’t you fear death?” she said: “No, of course not, because I won’t die, the world will die.” What she means is that, if you’re an arch individual like she was, the world is in your head and that’s it. And that’s a very lonely place to be. What religion is really doing is offering consolation in the fear of death: there’s something beyond you.
TH: Particularly before the Reformation, the whole point of the Church was that if you live your life well and religiously you’ll be saved and go to heaven.
AC: But we captured that idea in this country with socialism, which co-opted those religious ideas and said we can work together to create something that will be great in the future, not necessarily for you, but for other people. Look, the real politics of the future is going to have to square the circle. It’s going to have to allow you to still feel that you are an individual and in control of your own destiny.
TH: Isn’t that anarchism?
AC: No it isn’t anarchism. To be honest, anarchism has been captured by the notion of individualism just like everything else has, just like Thatcher was. What I’m talking about is something I wouldn’t give an old term to…
TH: What could it be called?
AC: Its roots are going to lie in two places: one is the fusion of keeping the idea of individualism yet giving you a sense of being part of something, but you are not a slave to it, and the other is that you are going to re-energise the idea of science and fuse it to the idea that there is a purpose to your life. And the internet is the thing that could do it, except the bastards have got hold of it and done the opposite and have isolated us even more. We are being made to do this work for free for them and they feed us stuff and we remain in our little bubbles. Well that’s wrong. I mean in a way, I would argue for the nationalisation of the internet.
TH: To become a public utility?
AC: Yes, in which people can configure it in a way in which you don’t have to make money out of it. It’s there, it works.
TH: Like Royal Mail. The Royal Internet!
AC: No, I’m not going to join your folky world [laughs] – that’s the bit I divide from you on. What I’m saying is that this is a very limited view of society, it’s a management view of society. Meanwhile Trump is a distraction. He has really provided us a pantomime villain. He wakes up in the morning, gets his smartphone, tweets something really outrageous. Within nanoseconds the managerial liberals are looking at their smartphones going: “This is outrageous, typical capitalist, how can he say this?” At which point, they’re locked into a feedback loop of anger, fury and outrage. Meanwhile, outside the theatre, outside the pantomime, people like Mike Pence, and all the large techno financial, managerial complex are quietly getting on with what they really want to do, which is things like privatising armies. Really, they are. The managerial liberals are locked in the theatre with Trump. And that is where all our journalism has gone.
TH: Are there any online news sources that you would guide people to, or books?
AC: I know everyone says there’s a massive amount of information on the internet but actually, if you analyse it, there is very little. It tends to be the same thing repeated over and over again. This is something to do with Google rankings; it’s also something to do with the speed with which journalism must be done. So what you have to do is go and read books. Read really boring, old books. Among the academic rubbish, and the very badly written academic phraseology, there are really good stories.
That thing about Trump and the Japanese gambler in HyperNornalisation – that was in a very boring book on gambling. In books you will find extraordinary stories. I’m very interested in the way, for example, money was set free from the 1970s onwards; there was no longer the benchmark of using the dollar to have fixed exchange rates. So money just became this free-floating thing that began to eat away at all politics. Until 1980, credit card companies were only allowed to charge a certain level of interest. What happened was the finance companies lobbied, and got it removed in 1980. It was only going to be temporary but actually it has stayed there. I went onto the internet and I couldn’t find anything about it, so then, using Nexis, which most people don’t have access to, I tracked down some funny old books in the British Library and have now discovered that it was pushed forward by one congressman from Rhode Island who was bribed by the finance companies. They gave him five “International House of Pancake” [IHOP] outlets as a bribe. [IHOP is a chain of breakfast-themed diners in the US].
TH: What, as a reward?
AC: Yes it was their bribe; this was their way of disguising it. They actually bought him five IHOPs and gave them to him.
TH: The IHOP conspiracy!
AC: So the reason payday loans companies are allowed to charge you 6000% interest is because of the five IHOPS. I found that in a really dusty old book in the British Library.
TH: So can you do what you want at the BBC?
AC: No. I’m employed at the BBC, I produce for the BBC, I put forward ideas to them, they say yes or no. The freedom I get is really because I don’t have to go out and film stuff. I can chop and change and I always go find out the stuff. It’s much more like writing.
TH: Also it’s fairly low cost for the BBC.
AC: I charge them absolutely nothing in terms of the programme budget. HyperNormalisation cost £32,000, which is nothing.
TH: Are you a PAYE employee?
AC: Yes, I’m a member of the staff. And I take it very seriously. I think they quite like me because I’m very affectionate to the BBC. I praise them. It’s a chaotic and sometimes out-of-control organisation, which of course I love, because I can swim between the cracks. They give me immense freedom. There’s a joke about me at the BBC – an exec said to me: “You know what we call you? A fig leaf.” When [the BBC] is accused of dumbing down they can point at me and say: “Look at him, he does pretentious shit.” [laughs]
TH: You have many young fans though. My daughter, who is 16, is a fan of yours. She said, “Really, you’re going to see Adam Curtis?!”
AC: I actually have great faith in the ones below the millennials. They seem to be really political. HyperNormalisation has somehow cut through, and I don’t think it was because of the music. They showed it in a cinema in LA for five nights last year. Every night there were queues around the block and many of them were 16-18 year olds.
TH: They seem to be waking up to the fact that Twitter and Facebook use the doctrine of “self-expression” to sell ads and make billions.
AC: I got into trouble because I gave an interview in an art magazine in America where I said I am deeply suspicious about the idea of radical art being able to change the system because the system is based on the idea of self-expression. That’s central to modern consumer capitalism. The idea that if you buy those trainers, you’re expressing yourself. I mean that however radical your actual content in your artwork is, the underlying way you are doing it – through self-expression – is in a sense feeding the very system you are trying to undermine. You’re actually bloating it. When you say awful, terrible things on Facebook, you’re actually feeding Facebook.
To go back to the question of what the new politics might be, one of things people will have to do is give up the idea they’re expressing themselves. I think that’s going to be one of the most difficult things in our age. I’ve always thought one of the great underlying dynamics of our time is the self-consciousness of every individual, the sense that they feel they’re being watched. You would actually have to give that up and say I’m working for this goal or for other people, but what it needs to go with that is a really good idea. It needs to be a really imaginative idea. You have to actually make an effort.
To go back to your question about where new ideas come from. They will come from odd corners. I got fascinated quite a long time ago by the Kurds. I found out that the guy in charge of the PKK [Kurdish Workers’ Party], a man called [Abdullah] Öcalan, had become obsessed in his prison cell with the writings of an American anarchist called Murray Bookchin, and that the towns in northern Syria are actually anarchist experiments. And no one knows about it.
TH: Why is that not reported? Someone told me to go out there and hang out with them.
AC: I wouldn’t at the moment. The Turks would bomb you and the tanks are just outside. Vice has been there.
TH: I found Vice disappointing. There was a millisecond where I thought it was an interesting magazine, but it’s just sensationalist titillation.
AC: No, I think you should be nicer to Vice. Vice really did transform journalism.
TH: I find it prurient: “Hey we found a guy with his head chopped off.” Quite Beavis and Buttheady.
AC: No. That’s really unfair. They got in to Syria, were brave, and they showed us what it was like way before my organisation did. That was an amazing piece of journalism.
TH: You talk about Occupy in your film. I remember at the time being quite excited by the Occupy movement.
AC: I thought it was going to be fantastic. But it wasn’t. They had a great slogan, they came at the right moment, and they had lots of people who would not normally think of themselves as radical, supporting them. I went down there and I saw it all, and I thought it was absolutely great. Then they blew it. It wasn’t because they stopped. I’ll tell you why they blew it: because they bought in to this naïve idea of democracy. They confused process with ideas. It’s as simple as that. They thought if you have a managerial process, where you and I and 10 other people sit around, that out of that there will come an idea. It doesn’t. That’s a process.
TH: What are your views on George Orwell and Aldous Huxley?
AC: I don’t know anything about them.
TH: Weren’t they saying similar things to what you’re saying?
AC: I have no idea. I’ve never read them. I tried reading some of George Orwell’s essays, and I disliked his tone. It was patronising and snotty. And it’s not funny.
TH: He’s not really funny, no. Aldous Huxley is a bit funny; Brave New World is hilarious.
AC: I’ve never read it.
TH: I thought these would have been canonical texts for you.
AC: No. You’ve got to remember I’m a hack. I’m a journalist. I tried academia, I did it for about six months and I loathed it.
TH: But hacks read Huxley and Orwell as well.
AC: Do they? Not many I know.
TH: Absolutely. I do!
AC: You’re not a hack, you’re a magazine publisher [laughs]. One of my first jobs at That’s Life was to go undercover at a puppy farm.
TH: You were on That’s Life!
AC: That’s where my career started.
TH: Are you Oxbridgey?
AC: I went to Oxford. I did science. They offered me to do a PhD at Nuffield College, and I couldn’t bear it. It’s such a lonely life to be a PhD student and I’m very social. You have to go and find something that no one else has done, at which point you’re on your own [laughs]. So I gave it up. I stumbled into a job at the BBC working on That’s Life. I decided to go into trash television.
TH: When was that?
AC: In the 1980s. I did undercover reporting, and then I did short films – talking animals and things like that. They key thing I took from trash journalism is how to make jokes. And the one real rule is: people who think they’re funny are not funny, and people who think they’re really serious can be really funny. That’s the only rule you learn in trash journalism. I took that and I bolted it together with posh, high-end bollocks. My training is television tabloid. So I would never use a word like “neo-liberalism”. Or “existentialism”. I really hate the way certain kinds of journalists use phrases that they know will only be understood by those who already agree with them. You can say anything clearly and if you want to, you can put a cut-away of a dog in and you’ll get a laugh. Then I decided that television journalism, especially documentaries, not observational documentaries, the ones that told you about the world, were so boring, so humourless, and have such shit music.
I have a theory that one of the great destructive forces in our modern-age politics is think tanks. They’ve erected a wall around Westminster, and they’ve persuaded politicians that they’re just managers of micro-policies. Think tanks very precisely stop thinking. They just want to manage a system as it is, whether they’re left wing or right wing. They keep this going by feeding stuff into politics; people from think tanks go in to MPs. And they also do one other thing: they give you – for free – interviewees for 24-hour news. So 24-hour news and think tanks work together to freeze politics behind this protective wall.
TH: And isn’t the fundamental flaw with them that they’re always going to reflect the views of people who fund them?
AC: Yes, it becomes a self-referencing system. And many of the think-tankers then become journalists as well. They all talk like think-tankers and what they do is managerial speak. I don’t mean in a technical sense; their mindset is: you are here to manage things, and you micro-manage things to make it all a bit better. And I go back to my question, what is it all for? They have no idea.
This interview appeared in Idler 61.
Postscript: Adam Curtis on Trump and the Russians
“There is one thing that I think is rather odd in all the confusion swirling around Trump and the Russians. It’s the strange alliance that has been formed between the liberal journalists and the intelligence agencies. In particular, I mean the New York Times and Washington Post journalists – it’s very clear that those journalists really want to get Trump, which means somehow impeaching him. And the CIA and the FBI are terrified that Trump will either reform them or diminish their role, so they want to get him too. And the spooks have started leaking all kinds of stuff – including secretly recorded conversations from people around Trump – to the journalists.
“I know all kinds of dirty stuff has happened forever in politics. But this is a bit odd – and risky for the liberals. First, they have hated the intelligence agencies for a long time – remember, these were the people who brought you WMD, and then tortured hundreds of often completely innocent people in secret jails around the world. So they’re not really the best friends you could choose.
“Secondly, I know that the journalists and the spies really believe that they’re doing this for the greater good of America – that it’s really important to remove this weird, out-of-control sociopath. But then look at it from the point of view of a serious Trump supporter. They see something else: two very powerful, but unelected groups working together to undermine the democratically elected president. It’s what was called Deep State in Turkey in the mid-1980s: intelligence agencies working with other unelected groups to bring down a democratically elected government.
“So, from the point of view of a Trump supporter, when Trump tweets about Deep State, he really might have a point. To the liberals and spies, that’s stupid, because they know in their hearts that what they’re doing is in the best interests of the state. But careful – that could really blow back on them. And spies have a habit of dropping their new best friends when the political reality changes.”