Conversation with Adam Curtis

Jon Ronson interviewed Adam Curtis over email. Good stuff.

On social networks as echo chambers (a common lament about the internet):

But I do really agree with you about Twitter domestically. Twitter – and other social media – passes lots of information around. But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in that particular network will like and approve of. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information.

So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get into the system. They tend to get squeezed out.

I think the thing that proves my point dramatically are the waves of shaming that wash through social media – the thing you have spotted and describe so well in your book. It's what happens when someone says something, or does something, that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system. The other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilising fragment and regain stability.


I have this perverse theory that, in about ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s. Like a John Carpenter film – where, among the ruins, there are fierce warrior gangs, all with their own complex codes and rules – and all shouting at each other. And everyone else will have fled to the suburbs of the internet, where you can move on and change the world. I think those suburbs are going to be the exciting, dynamic future of the internet. But to build them I think it will be necessary to leave the warrior trolls behind. And to move beyond the tech-utopianism that simply says that passing information around a network is a new form of democracy. That is naive, because it ignores the realities of power.

On the failings of modern journalism:

The thing that fascinates me about modern journalism is that people started turning away from it before the rise of the internet. Or, at least, in my experience that's what happened. Which has made me a bit distrustful of all that "blame the internet" rhetoric about the death of newspapers.

I think there was a much deeper reason. It's that journalists began to find the changes that were happening in the world very difficult to describe in ways that grabbed their readers' imagination.

It's intimately related to what has happened to politics, because journalism and politics are so inextricably linked. I describe in the film how, as politicians were faced with growing chaos and complexity from the 1980s onwards, they handed power to other institutions. Above all to finance, but also to computer and managerial systems.

But the politicians still wanted to change the world – and retain their status. So in response they reinvented other parts of the world they thought they could control into incredibly simplistic fables of good versus evil. I think Tony Blair is the clearest example of this – a man who handed power in domestic policy making over to focus groups, and then decided to go and invade Iraq.

And I think this process led journalism to face the same problem. They discovered that the new motors of power – finance and the technical systems that run it, algorithms that try and read the past to manage the future, managerial systems based on risk and "measured outcomes" – are not just obscure and boring. They are almost impossible to turn into gripping narratives. I mean, I find them a nightmare to make films about, because there is nothing visual, just people in modern offices doing keystrokes on computers.

Where I'm often most frustrated with modern journalism is in its coverage of areas it does not understand well, technology being one of them. I'm not saying you have to be a programmer to be a tech journalist or a filmmaker to be a movie critic, but not having domain knowledge limits the scope of your critique. One more layman's point of view isn't all that useful at the margins, and as with things like the last financial crisis, the lack of understanding from the financial press removed what we think of as one of the watchdogs of democracy, the fourth estate.

The one saving grace of the internet is that many technology domain experts can chime in. Still, for many reasons, most do not. They may be too busy, or they may bite their tongue for competitive or political reasons (technology is a heavily connected industry).

Given technology's growing political, economic, and cultural power, a vigilant and independent check is needed. A Gawker or Valleywag picks off just the most egregious and obvious of moral failings, but much of that is distraction from far more complex and significant issues.