Have computers taken away our power? | The Guardian
In his films, Adam Curtis draws on recent attempts to overthrow power in autocratic countries, describing the spontaneous revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan as a “triumph of the visions of computer utopians of the 1960s, with their vision of computers allowing individuals to create new, non-hierarchical societies” just like in that mass game of Pong. “The internet played a key role in guiding revolutions that had no guiding ideology, except a desire for self-determination and freedom.” But the desire for freedom itself was not enough, he says. “In all those revolutions, that sense of freedom lasted only for a moment. The people were brilliant at overturning the power but then what? Democracy needs proper politics, but people have given up on saying that they’re going to change the world.” The Arab uprisings began after he finished making the films, but he sees these in the same way. “It’s as if these people assembled spontaneously on Twitter and they just want freedom. But what kind of society do they want?”
He does not deny that Twitter and Facebook had some impact at least organisationally. But he has strong views on social networking for anything beyond straightforward organisation; he considers the sharing of emotions online to be the “Soviet realism of the age”.
He quotes Carmen Hermosillo, a West Coast geek and early adopter of online chatrooms who in 1994 argued that, although the internet is a wonderful thing, your emotions become commodified. “It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality,” she wrote. “This is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions their guts online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.” Says Curtis, “On Facebook and Twitter, you are performing to attract people you are dancing emotionally, on a platform created by a large corporation. People’s feelings bounce back and forth happy Stakhanovites, ignoring and denying the system of power. It’s like Stalin’s socialist realism. Both Twitter and socialist realism are innocent expressions of the ideology of the time, which don’t pull back and show the wider thing they are part of. We look back on socialist realism not as innocent but as a dramatic expression of power; it expresses the superiority of the state, which was the guiding belief at the time. I think sometime in the future people will look back at the millions and millions of descriptions of personal feelings on the internet and see them in similar ways. This is the driving belief of our time: that ‘me’ and what I feel minute by minute is the natural centre of the world. Far from revealing that this is an ideology and that there are other ways of looking at human society what Twitter and Facebook do is reinforce the feeling that this is the natural way to be.”
Curtis doesn’t tweet or Facebook send him to the gulag! but he has an excellent blog, “which isn’t about me or my feelings, because I don’t think I’m as interesting as the stories I’m telling”.
Where will the next big idea come from? He wonders about China. “Is it a stable system? Or a mercantilist economy that’s gone too far?” Or closer to home. “If things go really bad, they change. If things get really bad, they say, can we have a dramatically different, better kind of society?”
Since the modern world is all about me, me, me, here’s a confession: Curtis’s ideas have made me run for my life. In 2009, in the course of It Felt Like A Kiss, the sublime theatre event Curtis put on with Punchdrunk about the birth of hyper-consumerism, I was separated from the audience and sent down a long, dark corridor, which I took to represent the apotheosis of individualism. I remember thinking, I must run because my life depends on it I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t help myself. It was terrifying. The ideas in All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace are similarly mesmerising and disturbing, but they’re also a provocation: have we really given up on the hope of changing the world in our lifetimes? Or is that in itself an idea worth fighting for?