Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

This week David talks to the celebrated film-maker Adam Curtis about his new series Can't Get You Out of My Head, which tells the history of the rise and fall of individualism. Why do so many people feel so powerless in the age of the empowered individual? How has digital technology turbo-charged our feelings of alienation? And what has all this got to do with behavioural psychology? Plus much more: Nixon, China, Dominic Cummings, complex systems, Max Weber and conspiracy theories.

Talking Points:

In his newest series, Adam identifies the 1970s as the wellspring of a global system that feels irrational and beyond political control. 

The Nixon shock—when the dollar became detached from the gold standard—was something that Nixon, at the time, saw as temporary.But as the Watergate scandal carried on, banks realized they could start trading currencies against each other. Out of this came the global financial system.The opening to China was seen as a great stroke of statesmanship.But what was happening at that time in China was the collapse of the certainty of Mao’s revolution. What emerged was a system run by Deng Xiaoping who essentially substituted money for ideology.Deng turned China into a giant production house of cheap goods. The generation that came out of WWII was terrified of big ideologies. What replaced ideology? Money.

In an age of mass democracy, where individualism reigns, states become extremely difficult to govern.

By the late 70s/early 80s, politicians started to realize that you couldn’t assemble stable groups behind you. Instead of representing the people, they tried to become managers. Adam thinks that to call this neoliberalism is to oversimplify things.Under Thatcher and Reagan, industrial policy essentially failed. The politicians gave up before we realized they had given up.

On the surface, behaviouralism seemed like a challenge to the notion of the rational, self-interested individual.

But actually, behaviouralists concluded that if people are irrational, we need to find ways to nudge them to behave in rational ways so that the system will work better. 

The Internet, as it is currently constructed, is like a modern ghost story. It’s always looking at patterns in the past.

The Internet as a feedback system can’t imagine something that hasn’t already happened. It’s a form of management that renders the world static and repeatable. 

Fake stability has led to a kind of blindness: think about the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the financial crisis, or Trump.

Again and again the people in charge fail to anticipate what’s coming.Has the ability of Big Data to predict been oversold? 

Mentioned in this Episode: 

Adam’s newest series, Can’t Get You Out of my HeadMax Weber’s ‘iron cage’DId eBay just prove that paid search ads don’t work? 

Further Learning: 

The Talking Politics Guide to... 1970s (with Helen)<a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer"...
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