Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Adam Curtis - Two ideas which prevent a better world

This week was the end of the latest Adam Curtis documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. I also re-watched his 2007 series, The Trap, which I remember watching back when I was at UCL during my second-year, when I think most of its meaning passed me by: this time it made much more sense.

The documentaries are powerful, complicated and contain deep philosophical and political ideas (in fact, it is to the BBC's utmost credit that they commission television like this in the age of the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent). They are also beautifully crafted films with a captivating use of music, archive footage and original interviews.

In terms of Curtis' message, there is one thing that strikes me particularly; this is that despite Curtis' overwhelmingly brutal analysis of modern society, I think he is an optimist about humanity and what we can achieve. In a way then, his films are biting critiques of the sources of power and ideology which prevent us from achieving more together and, ultimately, building a better world. The two series I've watched this week - The Trap and AWOBMOLAG - respectively explore two of these barriers to change:

1. The dominance of the negative view of liberty, which states that all governments can do is further the freedom of the individual to do precisely what they want.

In The Trap, Curtis explores how the ultimate goal of politics today is to further the simplistic vision of human freedom which equates it to the ability of individuals to do only as they please. He argues that two ideas contribute to this view of freedom. One is the economistic view of humans as entirely self-seeking, rational actors only interested in maximising their own preferences. The second view is that of Isaiah Berlin, who argued that any attempt to promote a positive view of liberty, where politics has a presence of clear purpose, is doomed to end in tyranny. Instead, all government should do is ensure that individuals are free from coercion, not emboldened with purpose.

2. The idea, promoted by the development of free markets, computer technology and the selfish gene theory, that human behaviour is determined and controlled by a natural network of systemic, machine-like forces far beyond our control.

I found the central thesis of AWOBMOLAG much less clear than The Trap. Yet in the end, Curtis brought all these themes together - from Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan to Richard Dawkins and William Hamilton - in the finale to the series, which stated that whether we are talking about markets, computers or genes, we have to come to accept a helpless vision of ourselves as part of machines beyond our control. I had a conversation with a friend recently, who compared humans to parasites, doomed to destroy the planet. This is an analogy which I think sums up the argument of Curtis in these films: that it doesn't always have to be this way, and as humans we have the power and agency to change things for the better.

I think that taken together, both of these documentaries point to one over-arching idea about the existing state of humanity: that we have effectively given up on any aspirations to change the world for the better, because it is effectively impossible, undesirable and beyond our very will. It is a harsh and unnerving view of the world, yet contains the hope and belief that it doesn't always have to be like this.

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