In response to one person asking public demand, a couple of thoughts arising from the new Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation released on iPlayer a couple of weeks ago. Yes this take is as hot as reheated rice pudding. I’m not going to bother rehearsing or critiquing the main arguments because you can get that elsewhere.

  • He doesn’t think computer geeks are what’s wrong with the world any more. This is encouraging because in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace he got wind of the fact that many of the original Californian tech types, and many of their intellectual descendants today, are Ayn Rand fans, and because this leaning doesn’t translate very well into left-liberal British political thought he never really had clean pants again after that. But prior to making HyperNormalisation someone familiar with cyber-countercultures and the works of William Gibson has taken him aside (quite conceivably William actual Gibson), and explained the alternative take in which these people are the good guys, or at least, conceive of themselves as opposed to the same bad guys as Curtis – banks, money systems, inflexible systems, dishonest government, any institution that tries to subvert your mind and behaviour to its own ends. I’m sure they might quibble about definitions of those baddie things, but it saves a lot of time that Curtis has stopped using his firepower on some of the less bad people.
  • In AWOBMOLG he was also terrified of the cyberneticists, and he is still (correctly) interested in systems as a theme of twentieth century history, and distrustful of people who use them to organise society, whether this comes in the form of Soviet planning or atheoretical banker logic. I have been thinking about systems a lot lately. It’s the archaeology theory core module, it never leaves you. The thing is, humans have been interested in systematising and categorising and trying to “run things properly” for at least ten thousand years, and what we loosely term “civilisation” was, I think, initially a function of systematising of physical space, which facilitated systematising of social norms, which were then further engrained in material culture, and so on, leading ultimately to writing, money and all the rest of it. So a yen for systematisation is not scary and new – it has always been a feature of the human mental landscape. It is, however, true that the twentieth and twenty-first century technology revolutions have given that instinct means of expression like no other century before, and it is recognition of this which is the thread running through everything Curtis does, and I think with this latest incarnation his argument is increasingly nuanced and well-made.
  • His account of the development of punkish and hippyish countercultures throws up a point I have heard expressed before and it troubles me: are art and music really a good way of expressing radical ideas or do they actually get in the way of direct action? People started retreating to squats and making great music in them because they had no choice and were being shut out of the political process in a world tooling up with hegemonic, anti-collective viciousness, not because they thought it was the best way to effect change. It’s worth thinking about whether as a result we glorify art a little too much as a radical force – are we missing less cool opportunities to effect change?
  • I’m not sure anyone really bought the Gaddafi narrative even at the time in the way that Curtis is implying, did they? My media memories of the Blair-Gaddafi handshake are all about people waking up, if they hadn’t already, to exactly what how icky and strange and unaccountable the whole thing was, rather than going along with the whole bewildering switcheroo story. The bits of original scoring composed for HyperNormalisation reminded me pleasingly of the music that accompanies the torture segment of The Ipcress File, which features an Albanian mastermind using sophisticated mind-torture and control techniques on British scientists and agents in a warehouse in central London – a perfect example in a Cold War era narrative of the kind of over-egging of national fear objects Curtis is talking about. But the point is, we’ve been here several times now.
  • I predict that Curtis’ next project will be about magic, actual magic. This whole piece is obviously about mind games, unreality, collective suspension of disbelief, the creation of fake systems and the systematic disorientation of everybody (I don’t think he actually used the term cognitive dissonance but that is what is in play, and it is actually wearing on the mind). The more original and exciting portion of the film lies towards the end, when we got to Russia, and political theatre, and real theatre. If what is happening to the world is that we’re all trapped in a theatrical performance, as Curtis suggests, then we need to start to understand how magic is done, because that is what the people putting on the show understand. Now, whether or not you buy into this depends whether or not you believe in magic. You should. Magic really is just another word for manipulation, rearranging matter or unmatter from one configuration to another. Everyone does this all the time in totally explicable ways. What we sometimes call “magic” is merely the island of such actions whose mechanisms are not legible, perhaps even to those who put them into effect. These things are even a point of pride to professional practitioners – think of the famous quote about 50% of advertising being useless. Nobody thinks advertising is actual magic, but it is really. And it translates to interpersonal level. If you’ve ever made something happen you really, really wanted to happen, and you’re not really sure how you did it and it feels a bit spooky in the gut, you probably did magic.
  • So what happens when bad people learn how to do magic and their magic can be amplified on a massive scale because of (a) the way global governance works and (b) the communications and networked technologies that support that governance? Perhaps much what Curtis is describing. Pieter Hintjens suggests a model of human social evolution as a race between psychopaths and normals – in fact he is riffing off a very well-established anthropological model of cheats and altruists. Altruists generally create fair, trusting systems and do not cheat, but because social systems rely on trust and no policing can ever be constant there will always be a minority of cheaters. The altruists get better at catching and punishing the cheats (e.g. by inventing taboos, the rule of law etc), so the cheats try to outwit the altruists again and so on, on a global scale and across thousands of years with a myriad local variations. The Hintjens model is the same but in place of the generic “cheater”, who sounds like a rational economic actor and is usually described as doing something like taking more than a fair share of grain, is a force that is for want of a better word more evil, and has fewer boundaries about destroying things and people for the hell of it. Now think about what happens when people like that discover actual magic in a technologically advanced age: this model could possibly slide into Curtis’ account of whoever is actually pulling the strings in his nightmarish conception. He doesn’t seem to have much idea about that himself yet but it feels like magic is where he will go next; maybe the point is not so much Who as How.
  • Having said all of that, all of Curtis’ films are about fear, revelation and people being duped, and we should for good practice turn his arguments on their head and ask, “Is he the one actually setting up the bogeymen here?” The rise of fascism for instance, on which note the film closes. It’s not impossible, to me, to envisage an omnisicent well-spoken documentary maker in fifty years time relating exactly such a story about us, our credulous fear that European fascism would return on the evidence of a bit of electoral success for a few blowhards making us look hysterical in retrospect. Nice idea, anyway.


  1. As always, plenty to read and think about. Haven’t yet seen beyond the first 30 mins or so – the sheer length of HN is a barrier. Definitely agree about the romanticisation of the hippy/punk moments.

    Also I do like the idea of “magic” as a future subject matter – we would all benefit from a better understanding of what it means, what it “did” and could “do” these days,… a bit of Keith Thomas, a bit of Derren Brown (and maybe Ronald “Wizard of Oz” Reagan, Karl Rove, Jose Mourinho, Ryan Coetzee… OK, rapidly landing on counter-examples there)

    That reaction was primed by a somewhat sappy article this morning on how “traditional medicine” in Guatemala is being incorporated into the their public healthcare programmes
    (http://qz.com/819271/traditional-mayan-medicine-guatemala/). In many ways really good – linking up indigenous cultural beliefs to medicine that works, noting the therapeutic value of emotional support, time with a healer, etc. But when article equated vaccination and moral support, I got a bit worried the author was teetering on the edge of swallowing the belief system itself whole.

  2. As fascinating as I thought it would be. I really like the magic angle. Thankyou.

    If there’s something about the art stuff, it’s something that I’ve felt a lot in Curtis, he’s inclined to put a lot of blame on leftists who didn’t really have much power.

    Still, he always makes me think, which is good. It’s a weird evening tonight for family reasons, so I’ll leave it there for now.

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