By now I’ve seen every documentary Adam Curtis has put out, and his latest 6-part series is available on his own channel on YouTube. It’s of the same high standard as are his previous works. I’ll link to all of them for convenience at the bottom of the post.
Part 1: Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain.
As usual, Curtis intertwines stories, and collages archival footage, to weave an ominous historical narrative investigating how society is shaped by ideas. This almost never turns out well. What holds one’s interest is his unveiling of the sources and bold outlines of deliberate attempts to socially engineer the public, hoodwink us, manipulate us, and the inevitable backfiring of strategies designed to improve us for our own good. Every revolution of the last century, he boldly states, ultimately failed.
We are treated to several intertwining train wrecks in slow motion, traced back to their sources, and including the high speed vehicles we are currently passengers on. He follows the birth of the conspiracy theory of the Illuminati, which was conceived as a hoax in order to be so ridiculous that it would cure people of their inclination to be suckered into such beliefs, to its eventual widespread popular acceptance. We follow the rise and fall of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and how her ambitions and beliefs conflict with those of Mao. Competing notions on opposite ends of the spectrum, and across the globe, blossom and then fall out of favor.
Each episode builds on the prior, and the series enriches itself and becomes more engrossing the further you immerse yourself. Of particular interest to me were the ideas surrounding AI and the search for patterns, around which America has tried to organize itself. Through successive waves of experimentation with AI, it was discovered that computers didn’t need to think using human reason, but could discover patterns of their own using algorithms and neural networks. Facebook uses this to predict user’s consumer behavior, for instance. But it was also used in banking, and with devastating results. I could have told them that the unconscious calculations of a machine could not predict what humans, with free will, would do.
His message is unsettling. Even the leaders of countries, including Mao, Nixon, Blair, and Putin, either believed in nothing — including their own rhetoric — or eventually resorted to simply crushing their political adversaries in the name of maintaining their hold on power. Nobody really knew what they were doing, and it was either a facade, or if it seemed real at the time, turned out to have been a facade in the end.
The big nations no longer are unified by any collective beliefs or objectives. Money fills the void, and as soon as that happens, mass corruption follows. In the end, Curtis himself doesn’t have answers as to what the way forward is, but merely asserts that the individual is not as weak as people had thought — not so easy to program — and as we regain our confidence, we can then imagine a future that hasn’t been envisioned before… He concludes, “The one thing that is certain is that the world of the future will be different, and that the people in that future will feel, and think differently, too.”
Do I think and feel fundamentally differently than Shakespeare or Michelangelo? I don’t think so, unless it’s me falling short. I would hardly say my life is more exciting, rich, or complete, merely because of modern technology.
Curtis wants us to “imagine genuinely new kinds of futures: ones that have never existed before.” After about eight hours of face plants resulting from imagining bold new futures and radical new plans, I’m not sure the conclusion exactly fits. I see a bit of a different lesson, which is not yet another radical fad diet, but taking the best of what we know has worked and building on that.
In most instances the grand failures of each new paradigm were due to corruption. The Chinese had it so bad they they coined the term “ultra corruption”. There will always be the human error of weakness of character. There’s no cure for it. We are all vulnerable to corruption, and the core of that is selfishness and greed. This is the human struggle of how to be and act in the world. It’s the burden of free will and making choices. It may not matter so much what the economic system is, or what overriding beliefs: not what the game is, but who the players are.
Which society is going to succeed if those running it are corrupted, or ultra-corrupted? These days we are always looking for a scapegoat to blame our problems on. Most recently, I hesitate to mention this, but quite a lot has been made over the unconscious biases and micro-aggressions of the general population which we now feel pose the greatest threat to our future progress. How about the fully conscious, deliberate, and outrageous corruption of the ruling elite?
When I lived in China, it seemed everyone was trying to rip everyone else off. One day a colleague explained it to me. You have no choice, she said. Because everyone is cheating you, you have to cheat everyone else in order to break even. In this way corruption becomes a necessity that everyone must embrace.
This is the real enemy, and I realized this a decade ago when I lived in China, and the usual explanation of how all problems were due to the white male just didn’t compute. That’s obviously not the problem in China. And when you learn about Jiang Qing, you can see it’s not inherently male either. It’s always the problem of the mind, and everyone has one. Most of us just don’t have enough power for our own corruption to harm much more than ourselves and those immediately around us.
The first time I paid close attention to the safety drills while a passenger on a jet, I was surprised by the instruction to put your own oxygen mask on first. Wouldn’t you put it on your children, or an elder first? But the explanation was that you’d better be able to help others if you first secured your own oxygen. And so it may also be with changing the world. If the problem is corruption, lack of self control, greed, self-indulgence, cruelty, and so on, and if one is committed to fighting it, the best place to start is in oneself. If you can’t paddle your own boat across the river, how are you going to navigate the schooner across the ocean for everyone else?
I preferred the message right before his final thought. He said, “Already the psychological theories that tell us we are weak and manipulable are cracking. And more and more people are beginning to realize … it may be that we are really far stronger than we think”.
I don’t agree that some radical, never before seen solution for our societal ills and failures is going to rescue us. In his examples, revolutions tended to backsliding into some form of authoritarian regime or another. I rather think that in the same way that science builds on what has worked before, and takes lessons indiscriminately from all corners of the globe, we can also learn from everyone who lived before how to better manage ourselves and our societies, and tweak out the recipe.
Here are the rest of the episodes, which do a fantastic job of undermining any and all attempts at a singular paradigm that will fix all problems. Unless one only watched the last few minutes, it would be very difficult to process the whole series and than start pumping one’s fist in the air while shouting “revolution!”. Not revolution, but equilibrium.
Part 2: Shooting and F**king are the Same Thing
Part 3: Money Changes Everything
Part 4: But What If The People Are Stupid?
Part 5: The Lordly Ones
Part 6: Are We Pigeon? Are We Dancer?