Want to be Evil? Be Dull
Here’s an interesting exchange between filmmaker Adam Curtis and journalist Jon Ronson, about information and culture. They have some insightful observations about how social media promotes conformity and impotence, because it is dominated by people who use their networks to reinforce each other’s preconceptions, and to shame others into conformity. And then pair talk about how the nature of power in the world has become too complicated for journalists to explain. Excerpt:
Adam Curtis: [Journalists] discovered that the new motors of power – finance and the technical systems that run it, algorithms that try and read the past to manage the future, managerial systems based on risk and “measured outcomes” – are not just obscure and boring. They are almost impossible to turn into gripping narratives. I mean, I find them a nightmare to make films about, because there is nothing visual, just people in modern offices doing keystrokes on computers.
Jon Ronson: Right. I write about this in The Psychopath Test. In 2006 I tried to write a book about the credit industry, but I abandoned the idea three months later for that same reason. It made me realise that if you have the ambition to become a Bond-style arch villain, the first thing you should do is learn to be boring. Don’t act like Blofeld – monocled and ostentatious. We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.
Adam Curtis: So large parts of journalism did exactly what Tony Blair did. On the one hand they went down the focus group road, which is what is now called consumer-journalism. On the other, they simplified the world into a black-and-white picture of terrible dangers that threaten their readers. Frightening warlords and people-traffickers, paedophiles prowling the internet, terrorist masterminds in caves, and killer foods.
I’ve told the story here in the past about how back in the 1990s, a friend who began her journalism career covering politics moved on to financial journalism, based in New York. She worked the international currency market beat. She said it was a real education for her. Previously she thought that the real power in the world existed in Washington and in other political capitals. But she learned instead that the global currency market is far more consequential to the fate of nations and their peoples. All of this is obscured, she said, because it’s very, very boring.
Curtis’s new film, Bitter Lake, can be seen on the BBC’s iPlayer. According to his description of it on his blog, it sounds fascinating. Excerpts from that blog post:
Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events.
But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis – leaving us bewildered and disorientated.
And journalism – that used to tell a grand, unfurling narrative – now also just relays disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information.
Events come and go like waves of a fever. We – and the journalists – live in a state of continual delirium, constantly waiting for the next news event to loom out of the fog – and then disappear again, unexplained.
And the formats – in news and documentaries – have become so rigid and repetitive that the audiences never really look at them.
In the face of this people retreat from journalism and politics. They turn away into their own worlds, and the stories they and their friends tell each other.
I think this is wrong, sad, and bad for democracy – because it means the politicians become more and more unaccountable.
I have made a film that tries to respond to this in two ways.
It tells a big story about why the stories we are told today have stopped making sense.
(By the way, click on that link, and it will take you to the BBC iPlayer.)
I’m going to try to watch the film over the next few days, but that line about politicians once having the “confidence” to tell us stories that make sense of events raises a red flag. What if the narrative frame did not help us understand events, but rather gave those events a coherence that they didn’t really possess? Somebody was complaining the other day in my earshot about how you just don’t know what to believe anymore in the news, because of media bias, conflicting narratives, and all that. They were pining away for the days of Walter Cronkite, when, I suppose you might say, there were few big media outlets, and we all had the “confidence” to believe that when they said “that’s the way it is,” we believed them.
But perhaps I’m misreading him. Curtis goes on:
The film is called Bitter Lake. It is a bit of an epic – it’s two hours twenty minutes long.
It tells a big historical narrative that interweaves America, Britain, Russia and Saudi Arabia. It shows how politicians in the west lost confidence – and began to simplify the stories they told. It explains why this happened – because they increasingly gave their power away to other forces, above all global finance.
But there is one other country at the centre of the film.
This is because Afghanistan is the place that has repeatedly confronted politicians, as their power declines, with the terrible truth – that they cannot understand what is going on any longer. Let alone control it.
The film shows in detail how all the foreigners who went to Afghanistan created an almost totally fictional version of the country in their minds.
They couldn’t see the complex reality that was in front of them – because the stories they had been told about the world had become so simplified that they lacked the perceptual apparatus to see reality any longer.
So, look, if you want to see Bitter Lake, click here.
(Via The Browser.)