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15 February 2021

Adam Curtis: “Big Tech and Big Data have been completely useless in this crisis”

The film-maker’s new series Can’t Get You Out of My Head explores why the age of individualism has left us uncertain, anxious and distrustful. 

By Gavin Jacobson

How should we understand the silencing of the modern mind? No ideology or tradition of thought has emerged to contest the social and political arrangements that define the democracies of the north Atlantic. Having abandoned statist commitments and witnessed the collapse of communist regimes in 1989, progressives look in vain for a politics beyond the defence of a mummified social democracy. Surrendering to the inevitability of neoliberalism, they stand on the stage of history as the executors of their conservative rivals, content to master their irrelevance rather than overcome it. As the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger puts it, “the world suffers under a dictatorship of no alternatives”.

The commanding belief of humanity is individualism, the idea that the individual – their thoughts, actions and feelings – is superior to the societies in which they live. But rather than godlike creatures, able to transcend and remake the very orders they themselves create, individuals have become Francis Fukuyama’s “men without chests” – pathetic souls, alone and anxious at the End of History, aspiring to nothing except material plenty and disabused of all hope of transforming the world. 

That, at least, is one of the dominant themes in Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, the new documentary films by the British journalist Adam Curtis. The six-part series lands at a time when writers, historians and sociologists have used emotions to try to understand our present discontents: Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger (2017), Will Davies’s Nervous States (2018), and Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan’s Angrynomics (2020). “What really started me off on this latest series,” Curtis told me over video call from his home in London, “was that I became extremely puzzled by all those people who hated Donald Trump and Brexit but were unable to develop any alternative vision of how to solve the issues that gave rise to them.” 

The series premiered on 11 February on BBC iPlayer and bears Curtis’s signature methods: whiplash digressions, menacing atmospherics and arpeggiated scores, and the near-psychedelic compilation of archival footage. Then there is Curtis’s narration – in all its patrician economy and assertion. “We are living through strange days,” he begins. “Across Britain, Europe and America, societies have become split and polarised, not just in politics, but across the whole culture”.

Curtis’s detractors will surely make the same criticisms of Can’t Get You Out of My Head as they have done of his other films, not least the sweeping conjectures and quantum leap connections (who else other than Curtis would have the gumption to link the personal stories of Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, the British model Sandra Paul and the gangster-revolutionary Michael de Freitas? Or connect the anti-conspiracy-theorists-turned-conspiracy-theorists Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill to the late rapper Tupac Shakur?) But there is no doubt that this latest series is his most ambitious attempt to explain what has gone wrong with the world. It is a compelling, often difficult and sometimes funny work of intellectual history that, in its Weberian sensibilities (Curtis is an admirer of the 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber), takes ideas seriously and what happens when those ideas get mixed up with power. “Mine is a sociological approach,” Curtis explained, “I like reclaiming the idea of sociology, even though it’s the most unfashionable science there is.”

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Curtis was born in Dartford, Kent, in 1955. His father came from a line of working-class socialists, while his mother’s family “were fundamentally aristocrats”. His father’s politics had little impact on Curtis, who said that he “found the socialist tradition a bit rigid”. But it did give him “a strong belief in progress – I’m a progressive in that sense and that is my only real politics. I quickly learnt as I grew up that having a politics was silly because the world was becoming too complex to have a fixed set of responses to anything. I was part of that generation that didn’t talk to each other in terms of politics, we talked to each other in terms of the music we liked. The idea of talking about politics seemed to me pointless. It wasn’t how I connected with other people.”

The formative moment for Curtis was when he was 13 years old and found a copy of John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy (1937) on his father’s bookshelf. “Everything I do comes from that book,” Curtis said. “Dos Passos tells epic stories through individual characters, but he also has short essays about real people in power and sections called the ‘Camera Eye’, which is just raw experience with no meaning. He has other sections where he just has cut-up phrases from newspaper headlines – that’s where I got it all from.” 

The other inspiration for Curtis was trash pop culture. After dropping out of his PhD at Oxford University in the late 1970s, where he was researching, as he put it, “how politics got taken over by economics” – an exemplary Curtisian phrase – he joined the BBC and began working on Esther Rantzen’s consumer affairs show That’s Life! Curtis described how he “loved” making films about talking dogs and singing animals. “It was such great fun! And I realised that most television journalism was really dull and that the people who tended to make it had no interest in modern culture – none of them were really interested in music, for example. So I simply took trash television and music that I liked and bolted it together with high-end content. That’s what I do, and try and make it something you can dive into in the way that we dive into music.”

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The experience of working in trash culture explains a feature of Curtis’s work that is often missed by his admirers and critics: its silliness. Curtis speaks with an air of playful mischievousness that is harder to detect in his films; but it is there, such as the sequence in Can’t Get You Our of My Head that shows footage of hardened jihadis launching rockets to the sound of Chris de Burgh’s 1986 hit “Lady in Red”. 

“If you get a little bit famous you tend to be analysed by people who don’t have a sense of humour and miss out on the trash silliness of what I’m up to. Sometimes I put things in the films for no reason other than to just have fun,” Curtis said. 

He explained that his use of cheek and flippancy might also be due to social class. “I’m a boy from the suburbs and grew up with a certain intellectual confidence but not that much social confidence, so you tend to have a distance on the world and can spot humour and silliness…I can’t explain why, and I know that’s what my audience is: clever people from the suburbs who are intellectually confident but don’t take things too seriously because that way lies pomposity. Whereas the people who read the London Review of Books – and I’m being reverse-snobbish here – don’t get the silliness.”

***

It was in the early 1990s, when he was making Pandora’s Box, a documentary about the danger of technocracy, that Curtis started to hone his visual style. But this happened more by accident than by design. “I sold the BBC bosses the idea of me doing a six-part series on how we lived through an age in which science promised all sorts of things and why things had gone wrong. When I came to do it I realised that it was almost impossible to illustrate – men talking about economics is just so boring, and I thought I was going to be sacked. So in desperation, I went down to the BBC archives, found a load of footage and just started cutting it into the film in this random way. That’s not to say that I didn’t know about collage – I was aware that artists like David Bowie had done cut-up lyrics. But it really was born out of desperation; I had no preconceived ideas.”

Pandora’s Box was produced at the same time that Curtis’s friend and collaborator Robert Del Naja was bringing sampling into the musical mainstream with Massive Attack. “You can look back,” Curtis said, “and see yourself as a sort of creature of history – that at this moment people like me and him were beginning to go back and rework the past, which makes you wonder whether we’re part of the problem. I make pretentious films arguing that we’re stuck in the past and can’t imagine the future…well quite frankly, Robert and I are the agents of that!”

This notion of being trapped in the past, of living in what the American writer Ross Douthat calls “decadent societies” marked by economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural exhaustion, is a theme that runs through all of Curtis’s films. It is what makes him interested in those writers, thinkers, and economists, such as Sigmund Freud, Leo Strauss, Ayn Rand, the tech utopians of the 1990s, and Alan Greenspan, who have transformed the way we think about and organise the world. A regular charge of Curtis’s critics is that his intellectual histories rely too much on the sheer force and charisma of individuals, rather than considering the economic and material conditions in which their ideas are adopted. How, they might ask, can you explain the entire Chinese Cultural Revolution just through the personal resentments of Mao’s wife?

“When I was growing up,” Curtis said, “I disliked Marxists because they were always going on about how everything was economics.” His focus on individuals was a reaction against that. “What I got interested in was the relationship between power and ideas. So when a scientist has an idea of how to build an atomic power station and that idea then becomes mixed up with the demands of the Cold War, that original scientific thought mutates and they end up building something else – I just think that’s really interesting. This interplay between power and ideas is at the centre of everything. What I’m trying to reassert in these latest films is that forgotten idea that a lot of what you feel comes from where you are in society, in the structure of power.”

Another “lurking thought” behind Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis said, was not only the question of why people could no longer imagine a world beyond capitalism, but why liberals had found political solace “in weird conspiracy theories about Cambridge Analytica and Vladimir Putin” as the dark puppet masters behind Brexit and the election of Trump. This idea then broadened out, he explained, “because I’ve long wanted to do a thing about China’s relationship with the West, and I realised that those in power in Russia and China also have no idea about the future and aren’t as powerful as we think. Even in China, there is growing resentment of the elites and it’s not as stable and secure a country as it seems. I wanted to explore that and decided that I really liked the idea of doing a multi-part story like a 19th-century novel”.

Just like the great 19th-century novelists such as Dostoevsky, Curtis is deeply concerned with how we came to hold such a pessimistic view of human nature. “The vision of our time is that individualism would create strong and empowered individuals. But at the same time, many of the human sciences that studied people started to eat away at the idea of the confident self. If you look at the work of modern behavioural psychologists, they increasingly argued that human beings are flawed creatures in their conscious self – there are all sorts of other things going on inside their heads which they aren’t fully in control of.

When I made Pandora’s Box I was looking at how science possessed an optimistic view of the world. After that, in the 1990s, what happened was that science began to portray a pessimistic view of the world and a pessimistic view in human nature. What I’m asking in these films is why in the great age of individualism, which promised empowered individuals, have we ended up with entire societies that are uncertain, anxious and distrustful – not just of those in power, not just not just of each other, but of themselves? That is the fundamental thing that is stopping us from having the confidence to imagine different kinds of worlds.”

But in the absence of self-generating ideas for an alternative future, many are hoping that the Covid-19 crisis will trigger a reckoning with how we live today. Curtis described this time of lockdown as “uncertain” and proof that “men simply retreat into graphs when they don’t know what’s going on”. He has been struck by what he regards as the failure of Big Tech. 

There was an idea at the start of the pandemic that “Big Tech and Big Data would redeem themselves and become almost heroic. But if you actually analyse it, Big Tech and Big Data have been completely useless. What has been useful is old-fashioned science that deals in causation, not patterns and correlations and all the things Big Data do; just simple cause and effect and in seven or eight months they have invented vaccines which will save millions of people. I like that!” Unlike Will Davies, who predicts that we might be approaching an age of digital dystopias, the pandemic has convinced Curtis “that the obsession with tech and Big Data might be on the way out – I’m convinced it’s on the way out.”

Curtis is optimistic that we still have the potential to change the world. The epigraph to Can’t Get You Out of My Head is from the anthropologist and activist David Graeber, who died last September. “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently”. But if, as Curtis concludes in the series, the pandemic could lead to a new world, that forces us to ask the eternal question: how can we weaken our dependence on crisis in order to bring about change?