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View from Brussels: We’re all embubbled

The BBC's HyperNormalisation is a documentary for our times. The thesis argued is that since the 1970s, politicians, latterly abetted by technologists, have obscured the complexity of the world by creating simple narratives for the public to digest, which ultimately leaves us democratically disenfranchised.

So the British are having another nationwide vote, the third in three years. What are the odds that there will be any discussion of the real problems facing the world – overpopulation, the future of work in the digital era, climate change and the potential of technology to make things better rather than worse – and what can be done about them? I predict this: not great.

I’ve just watched an interesting documentary called HyperNormalisation which I planned to write about before hearing the election announcement but which actually curiously relates exactly to Theresa May’s decision to call a general election. 

Adam Curtis is the BBC’s favourite outside-the-box filmmaker and he’s been given a run of the BBC’s news and documentary archives stretching back 60 years, stored in analogue form in an anonymous warehouse in west London. Curtis has had a retired TV colleague go through the material, which he apparently spends hours every day doing, and he’s found a rich trove of revealing material among the thousands of hours of footage that have ended up on the BBC news cutting-room floor in years past. And what politicians really do between takes is something that is more revealing than the footage when they know they’re on air. So in a previous documentary of Curtis’s, there is a remarkable shot of the architect of the Iraq war, Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, licking his comb before adjusting his hair. It’s a sardonic visual commentary on the neocon’s salesmanship of a sleazy war.

Curtis then has a an interesting game in juxtaposition both of ideas and politics and sociology, and of these revealing discarded scenes, linked together in a seamless and dazzling voiceover narrative of how the world works which makes you feel that you’ve understood things. He’s practically launched a whole genre and Errol Morris, America’s most famous documentary film maker, says on Twitter: “When I grow up I want to be Adam Curtis.”

Curtis’s theory is this that in the mid-1980s politicians gave up trying to manage the world in its sheer complexity, especially after the banks started to get ever more powerful and made decisions in a way that could not be put under accountability and left the political process powerless.

Instead, politicians became experts at managing people’s perceptions of politicians’ control, selling fancy narratives that kept politicians in their careers and the public in a sense of satisfied illusion that the world was as should be. The word HyperNormalisation comes from a 2006 political history book about the last decade of the Soviet Union where, it is argued, politicians and public had a complicit pact to believe there was no alternative to the status quo of a failing economic and political system. Thirty years later, has the West too reached that point?

In Curtis’s reading, in the West, the left, which was so full of optimism in the 1960s, believing it could change the world, had by the 1980s retreated into private narcissistic activities or personal improvement which they sold to the public, like former political radical Jane Fonda, who abandoned revolution for personal fitness videos for the masses. The politicians meanwhile sold a series of wars to the public as a means of projecting control and giving the public a sense of being the good guys against a series of dictators who may not have been a threat to security but who “had to be” liberated by military force.

You could think of Panama’s Manuel Noriega (remember him?) Or even, arguably, Slobodan Milosevic, leader of Yugoslavia. But Curtis’s particular selected comic villain is Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who eagerly embraced the role. Reagan presented him as the fount of terrorism and general wickedness in order to enhance his own role and prestige – although Qaddafi was probably not responsible for the Lockerbie terrorist attack; Curtis has the guilty one as Assad senior. Others have called out the Palestinians. So it was a kind of symbiotic relationship between American Imperial might and the tinpot eccentric of North Africa. There were others. The American public lived through a succession of foreign policy fairytales against the media’s nominated “Hitler of the month”, while infrastructure at home crumbled and jobs leached away.

After wars on faked premises, social media became the next control mechanism:

In the early 1990s, at the beginning of the Internet era, you had these cyber libertarians who wants to create a new frontier cyberspace, uncorrupted and separate from the seedy world we actually live in. But Curtis argues that cyberspace has been ceded to corporate control which disenfranchises the individual, who asserts an illusory sense of political engagement through ‘click activism’. You press the ‘like’ button to feel good about a cause you agree with; of course nothing actually happens because engagement needs to be continuous and probably carried out through old-fashioned human group interactions. Sitting at home, clicking away, is no substitute for turning up at the town hall with your placards and making your will known. As a Swedish prime minister once said, “Don’t get mad, get organised”.  

And political change needs some form of dialogue between opponents, and you need a common forum, in which everyone agrees to participate, to make the victory of the majority legitimate.

Unfortunately we are all embubbled (great word that) by social media algorithms that ensure that the only people who see what we share are the people who already agree with us. Public waves of anger no longer change anything because on social media no one outside the group of angry folk is even aware of the issue.

While we, members of the public, live in ever more gated intellectual communities, Facebook and Google continue to monitor and collect data about us in order to make money and provide us of more of the same – reasons to be angry. At the same time – ineffective.

So maybe to maintain the illusion of control politicians no longer need to find dragons to slay abroad so much as manipulate the Facebook crowd with the largest number of adherents are by provide an echo chamber of that group’s prejudices. Someone has called Trump a “chatbot” of the angry working class. They say “I’m angry” and Trump says “I’m angry too” and Trump gets the vote. The feedback mechanism of Facebook makes us ever more angry and emotional and thereby impotent.

In a recent newspaper interview Curtis blamed engineers behind Facebook and Twitter for creating a stable system that was difficult to get out of. Engineers don’t create revolutionary tools for the people because that’s not how engineers think: engineers think in terms of stable equilibria and negative feedback. They are naturally in favour of the status quo. And so rather than cyberspace being liberating, the engineers have created a benign prison for us. I am quoting the gist of Curtis.

One might argue that Brexit shows that the people can get their will through and change things. Another view is that the referendum was like a Facebook-type vote which required no commitment from voters, and now a lot of other serious people are required to clear up the mess. Thirty years of disengagement and disenfranchisement leaves the public with no sense of proportion or moderation. In the Brexit referendum, they were given a nuclear button labelled “I am angry” and pressed it.

Plea to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn: a serious election campaign with serious ideas, perhaps including a discourse on the effects of technology on the failures of our democracy.

HyperNormalisation is available on iPlayer and YouTube.

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