As A New Media Critic, Adam Curtis Makes A Great Documentarian

“First of all, the people who do blogging, for example, are self-selecting. Quite frankly it’s quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies. The internet has removed a lot of constraints on them. You know what they’re like: they’re deeply emotional, they’re bullies, and they often don’t get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information – they do little research of their own.

What then happens is this idea of the ‘hive mind’, instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, leads to a growing simplicity.

The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.” – Adam Curtis

It’s a testament to how much I admire the work of BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis that I do not turn my back on it for his being so shockingly wrong about something so important.

Curtis, a contemporary of the immensely important and beloved band Gang of Four hails from Leeds and was friends with the band in its earliest days.  As such, he had a head start as an ally of RW370 without my even considering his film work.  But it is these that inspire awe.  His documentaries for BBC Century Of The Self and The Trap are among the most important of the last decade. They have a frighteningly keen insight into the little-discussed ways the 20th century’s most revolutionary ideas in psychology, marketing and politics have enabled the dominant political and commerical institutions of our time. Curtis adroitly chronicles distortions imparted by the institutionalizing process upon the culture as well as the original ideas themselves. Century is especially brilliant, illustrating the hidden history of the development and imposition of the templates from which all of today’s political marketing is drawn.

That’s the Curtis I know. Today, I read a new and different Adam Curtis from an interview in 2007, and I’m sorry to say don’t like this one much and hope he’s come around since.  This Adam Curtis is a new media bigot who portrays bloggers as “bullies” and parasites who are”self-selected” and have “a lack of enthusiasm about finding out about the world”.

Some things about Curtis’s extended complaint about the writers who make up the new media landscape are fairly sound: he finds a tendency for bloggers to simplify their subjects to the point of creating journalistically useless content, and he has found that bloggers have undue influence in mainstream news media. Many bloggers, he effectively says, are committed more to heat than light. Fair enough, as such superficial and universal conclusions go.  I have a hard time finding anything in these complaints that doesn’t apply to mainstream media equally.

To characterize influential bloggers as “self-selected” is one of the more embarrassing canards a clueless baby boomer can level at new media. I hope I am not the one to tell him that the internet, distinctly unlike the model of, say, Mr. Curtis’s television network employer, treats the issue of selection as a plain matter of direct democracy, using clicks as votes.

Curtis doesn’t understand that an influential blog is not that way because one person decided it to be so. Nobody who ever read a traffic statistics report for a blog would ever hold that notion for long. A blog’s influence is manifest solely in the consumption of its content – the relevant selection is that done by its audience, not its publisher. Compare this with any TV network’s programming decision process and see which is the more unilateral and arbitrary. Traffic reports aren’t guesses, and linkback traffic – the signal to the blogosphere at large of what the real headcount is at a blog – isn’t falsifiable to any meaningful extent. Curtis is so far off about the fundamental online power relationships, it’s embarrassing.

Nor does it help when he goes on to excoriate the mainstream media for not knowing enough (or anything) about the things they report upon. It’s not that he’s wrong about TV news – mainstream TV has never made much money at reportage and in fact stands to lose its corporate owners far more money than it could ever make if it was to become competent at it. But again Curtis’s warped new media landscape places TV news’s routine derogation of its duty not in the domain of its corporate ownership but inexplicably on “bullies” – bloggers, who “from one [ideological] side act to try to force mainstream media one way, [while] the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.”

This is an unfortunate breakdown in understanding. Were it true that mainstream media takes its cues from its position relative to bloggers instead of its corporate owners, navigating a path between the extremes wouldn’t require much steering – polar extremes by definition have maximum space between them. The problem isn’t in finding a center, the problem is in commercial pressure of reaching for maximum audience.  This is absolutely done by reaching for the extremes of the spectrum. Could it be that Curtis has not listened to enough US right wing talk radio – as utterly mainstream a product as exists – or explored its decades of commercial history to understand that saying insane things that sound plausible to economic victims is not a fringe strategy, but is in fact wildly popular and profitable?

Audience, Mr. Curtis. Ignore it at all of our peril. As you so clearly showed in Century Of The Self, the self-image of people was the first thing sold to them en masse. Why throw away this magnificent truth when the medium is a web browser?

[UPDATE: Happily, since 2007, Adam Curtis has indeed straightened out his new media perspective and has joined the self-selected bullies with a great new online property, to which I gleefully link here and at the sidebar.   Thanks to other Curtis fans for the gentle boot in the arse.]

5 Responses to “As A New Media Critic, Adam Curtis Makes A Great Documentarian”

  1. 1 Another Curtis fan
    June 4, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Urm, you’re a bit out of date – Curtis now has a blog: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis

  2. June 4, 2010 at 8:26 am

    He figured it out, then! Joined the bullies in the hive mind, did he! Terrific!

    Thanks for the tip!


  3. July 7, 2010 at 4:47 am

    Interesting article. I’m a big Curtis fan and enjoy criticism of his viewpoints as I do think that he is often putting his ideas up for such criticism.

    One point in your piece intrigued me. I took his point that “bloggers are self selected” to mean that some people start blogging and some don’t and, therefore, the blogosphere represents the intellectual totality of those people only, which may or may not be representative of the wider population. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with it, but thought it was a different way to read it. I agree that once created, it is for an audience to decide on the “success” of a blog, but felt that Curtis was referring to the original act of starting a blog. At that time, no such democratic process has taken place.

    Maybe a trivial point but would be interested in your thoughts.



    • July 7, 2010 at 6:55 am

      Hi Dom,

      Sure, one could fairly take Curtis’s complaint about the self-selection of bloggers in that limited way. I think I didn’t because it was coming from the voice of the guy who had (for example) compellingly linked Edward Bernays with the 60s, microcomputing and Reaganism. I’m used to – look forward to – his thinking in chains, and so did not bracket link number one.

      How do you like Adam’s blog? I think it’s pretty great.


  4. July 7, 2010 at 7:46 am

    Fair point. Taken like that, it is a very weak starting point. He normally does better than that, doesn’t he?

    Love his blog and have now signed up to yours.

    cheers D

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