How do the Internet and TV unwittingly conspire to oppress our freedom of thought? In case you missed it, The Register last week published an interview with one the most daring and unusual documentary-makers of our time, Adam Curtis. If you have seen his (somewhat stealthy) BBC productions, The Power of Nightmares, or more recently, The Trap, then you'll know what to expect.
[Inexplicably neither of these documentaries is easily found on DVD, but The Power is available at the Internet Archive here.]
The interview is a wide-ranging critique of Internet culture. Curtis makes a case that -- far from setting us free -- the Internet and television reduce choice, replace debate with noise, and entrench divisions between people. His argument can be seen as a natural extension of the basic premise of The Trap. In that film, Curtis used his trademark montage of historical video footage to articulate how the development of game theory in the 1950s ended up influencing cold war dynamics, popular and applied psychology, party politics and social policy for decades to come, culminating with Tony Blair's targets-enslaved civil service in the UK, and with the Bush administration's disastrous de-Baathification programme in Iraq. A stretch? Perhaps, but rarely has one's mind been so persuasively pulled in a new direction.
But while his earlier The Power of Nightmares described the common philosophical underpinnings of the neo-cons and radical Islamists to show how both feed on fear and are hence essentially co-dependent, The Trap postulates that what we think of as freedom of thought is in fact the tyranny of groupthink. In this interview, he looks at the effect of blogging and user-generated content (UGC) on traditional media:
I've talked to news editors in America. What they are most frightened of is an assault by the bloggers. They come from the left and the right. They're terrified if they stray one way they'll get monstered by bloggers on the right, if they stray the other way they'll get monstered by bloggers from the left. So they nervously try and creep along, like a big animal in Toy Story - hoping not to disturb the demons that are out there.
It leads to a sort of nervousness. The moment a media system becomes infected by nervousness it starts to decline.
Big media responds to this newfound insecurity by incorporating UGC into their newsflow, asking readers to submit videos and contribute to blogs. This reaction further fragments the newsflow and makes the media more toothless, less analytical and less authoritative. The resulting avalanche of unfiltered, uninformed reporting is more about talking than listening, and less about debate than the taking of positions. The shouting gets louder, positions fragment and harden and before you know it you have a 'Balkanisation of opinions' rather than a new, enlightened forum for debate.
[Balkanisation] gives people security. So over here is the part of the internet - and therefore of the world - where there are people who think the invasion of Iraq was all about oil. Over are people who think it's all about stopping Muslim hordes taking over our culture. And over here, it's the neo-conservative lot who think it's all about ideas.
Do you remember that book about intelligent buildings, how buildings work out how to stand up? That's what's happening now. They're working out how to hold each other up. So you get a Balkanisation where there is no movement forward - everyone just publishes their position, stands up, and that's it. Everything is so static.
Rather than lead us into a new era of independent thought, the Internet is largely about teaching us how to conform more effectively, how to feel better about ourselves. Think about collaborative filtering, the technique by which Amazon tells you which books you'd like based on what others are reading. Look at the sharing of blogrolls, the proliferation of Facebook groups, news ranked by popularity not relevance, the addiction to social networking and its basis of finding 'people like you'. These Internet-driven social phenomena derive from our search for an affirmation of our likes and our views, rather than a search for truth or adventure.
Our fragmentation into well-conformed, definable, targetable groups is great for advertisers, but is it good for human freedom?
I disagree with Curtis' statement that "it's a time of great technical innovation but it's a time of artistic stagnation." He bemoans the lack of imaginative new art forms driven by the Internet's many possibilities. It is clearly still early days and YouTube is indeed short on artistic merit, but we are seeing new art forms emerge thanks to an ability to reach the masses through the new medium. Take the graffiti artist Banksy for example, whose rapid rise to global fame would not have been possible if his tongue-in-cheek protests and installations had not been distributed via blogs and videos.
Likewise, traditional art forms -- rock music in particular -- are getting a democratising boost through ubiquitous new distribution channels like MySpace. Are video mashups a new art form? Why not? We wouldn't argue with the statement that the first DJ's to scratch records in the 1970s gave birth to a new medium. Are short films made for mobile consumption (even if produced for commecial gain), like When Evil Calls not a new art form? Even add-ons to commercial productions -- like Good Morning Agrestic, a cheeky Internet extension to the popular US show Weeds -- can expose new creative ideas from their creators, beyond the traditional boundaries of television.
Perhaps the biggest effect has been on art that protests, critiques, satirises -- the kind of art with a well-defined message. Viral distribution among those who share the same views -- the flipside of the Balkanisation argument above -- is also a great means for sharing a creative, untested idea and encouraging budding new artists.