“A Little Less Wes Anderson, a Little More Tolstoy”

Adam Curtis on stories, power and the internet — from The Story Conference 2011

In the run up to this year’s The Story conference on Feb 17th,we’re publishing a few transcripts of our favourite talks from the last 8 years of the event.

In 2011 Adam Curtis talked about how digital networks affect the relationship between reality, stories and power, themes that were central to his next TV documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.

This is a lightly edited verbatim transcript, so closely follows his live delivery at the conference, rather than being rewritten as an essay. From the perspective of 2016, it feels incredible prescient about how the internet encourages forms of emotional storytelling that obscure underlying power networks.

The Story 2017 conference is on 19th February 2017, at Conway Hall in London. You can buy tickets now via Eventbrite.

I want to talk about whether you really can use the Internet to tell stories in a new way. I mean, is it possible to use its structures to actually create different kinds of stories?

A few years ago there was a great deal of hope, a lot of it in the BBC, but a lot of it elsewhere, that the Internet and its structure would open up the possibility of creating new kinds of stories. New kinds of narrative structures. That’s still around, and I suspect there are quite a few people who are keen on that here.

But, where I work, especially at the BBC, there’s a growing scepticism about that. That the Internet’s brilliant at all sorts of things, but it hasn’t delivered stories told in a new, involving way. So, I just want to look at this area and examine some of the things I’ve thought about and tried to do.

About eighteen months ago, I began to put up chunks of video and film on the web, from the BBC archives. My basic aim was to give the background and explain the context of events that are happening now. But it also allowed me to experiment. It gave me the freedom to do it, which you don’t get on television.

The one thing I found is that people really like it when you run something long. Instead of the rigid form of news, you just simply let people watch an event, as it was recorded, so they get a sense of the experience of the whole thing.

Recently, I got my hands on the unedited rushes of everything the BBC has shot in Afghanistan over the last 30 years. It fills, I think, about twenty terabytes now. It’s just drive upon drive of unedited stuff. Here’s file AFG0099, video recorded outside Lashkar Gah in Helmand, spring 2006. It’s an interview with a local Taliban commander. The Taliban had been rampaging around, burning schools. Here’s a short clip, as it would be used in a news report.

[video clip not available online]

That’s how things are fitted into the big story in normal reporting. Now, I want to show you part of that interview again, but at greater length, and just before I do it, I want to explain the complicated background to that one simple image you’re seeing up there.

The interviewee is a guy called Sawad Rouhani. He’d just started at the BBC in Kabul. Rouhani was a poet as well. He came from Lashkar Gah in Helmand and he’d been sent back down from Kabul to do the interview. Rouhani didn’t really know what to do because it was one of his early assignments.

The Taliban suggested that he and the commander stand over by the wall, while the rest of them — there were only five of the Taliban — walk round and round the camera, changing the positions of their weapons each time. Now, Rouhani, I’m told, was frightened that they might kill him and you can see his nervousness in his face. But he also felt superior to them because all the Taliban of the group were locals, but they were beneath him socially, and in his questions, Rouhani is being quite sarcastic in a dry way, in the way he asked questions to them.

They’re also, you should know, standing in the ruins of a model village, built by Americans and the engineers in the 1950’s. It was part of a giant utopian project that the American government tried to completely reshape the whole of Helmand in the 1950s. You should also know that, less than eighteen months after this moment was recorded, Rouhani was going to be killed in a really horrible way. Not by the Taliban, but allegedly by our allies. On the orders of people at the top of the local administration because he wanted to report on the opium struggle. The smuggling. Let’s have a look at the longer clip.

[video clip not available online]

You just watch, and it’s much more fascinating than news. I think the reason that people are increasingly fascinated by the details of experience, by the fragments just like that, is that we don’t trust the official story and the reporting of it any longer.

I include the BBC in that. In Afghanistan, for example, we know that it doesn’t really add up, the big story. It makes no sense. Why are our soldiers really dying in a distant land like that?

But, it’s not just Afghanistan, it’s true of the big story about the economic crisis, about the banks, about why food prices are suddenly spiking at the moment, commodity prices, the reporting of politics. We get a sense that the big story, as we are told, just doesn’t add up and the people reporting it know it doesn’t really add up. So we turn away from the old forms of reporting. The old stories. Then, what we start to look for are alternative ways to understand the world.

One of the things in our time is that we think the experience, the fragments, the stuff, offer us clues to be able to construct a different kind of narrative that might make more sense, and that’s exciting. I think it’s the drive behind a lot of this here, why you’re here today. I think this appeals to us because of the individualism of our time, what I feel is the most important thing of our time. It’s a worm’s eye view of the world, but with the texture of experience, just watching. The fact that it makes no grander sense actually makes it feel more real because that’s how most of us live our daily lives.

If we’ve turned away from the big stories, the only thing we can latch onto now, and feel is real, is just the raw data of our own experience and the stories of our circle of friends.

I’ll return to the idea of the circle of friends because I think that’s another great ideology of our time. It comes from Richard Curtis, but I think it has spread everywhere. Every television program now finishes with the circle of friends embracing each other. This is the true realism of our time. It’s what I call an emotional realism, and the Internet has become the showcase for that emotional realism. Those detailed moments and all those feelings that go with it, but it just remains experience. Stuff.

The question is, how do you turn that into stories? How do you take a big thing like that, which you want to let run long, and still fit it into a story?

Eighteen months ago I tried an experiment in this area. I did a project with the theatre company Punchdrunk. It was called ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’. At the centre of it was a film that I made about a period, 1958 through to 1966. It was cut to music, and my aim was to try to create a feeling of what it was really like to live through a period, emotionally, and the relationship between those fragments of experience to the big stories of our time. Which we now, looking back, know, but at the time probably didn’t make much sense. I was trying to play with the perspective that we have now with archive film and music; what it must be like at that point.

Punchdrunk then constructed that world in three dimensions, in a vast building which the audience could go into and explore, and then find the film at the centre. Here’s a brief extract from that film.

The world that Punch Drunk constructed around that film was absolutely wonderful. In many ways, it was like the Internet. You could go anywhere you wanted. I’m sure many of you have been to their performances, their shows. You could explore anything. You could open everything. Even the rubbish bins and the pockets of jackets over the back of chairs had stuff, details in them. Then, you stumbled on the film in the middle of the building and you watched it and you saw how one person, me, had stitched all those fragments together into an emotional and political story. It sort of made sense.

But I discovered there was an essential problem with it. You couldn’t use this form to tell anyone anything new, and that was because of two things. One, it was an emotional experience and two, like the Internet, the audience go where they want. It’s an associative thing. That’s why people really like it. They can go and form their own experiences, go anywhere they want, and if you are trying to tell anyone anything new in that, it’s fundamentally got to be an emotional thing because they’re driven by associative emotional drives.

So, for a while, I decided that the terrible truth was you can’t make stories on the Internet. That it is just something else. It’s a hangover from a late 19th century idea that you have to go with strict narratives, and maybe we have got to that place that the great socialists of the 19th century believed in. Just a playpen where everyone can be free, and we don’t move it forward any further, it’s just there.

I think that’s naive, because it ignores power, but that’s one possibility. There is another possibility, that we haven’t even started yet, and we’re being very lazy about it. We’re not really getting to grips with this thing, and the reason is that the Internet is a far more complicated thing than we realise. I don’t mean the argument about whether it’s a good or a bad thing. That’s a very tired and stupid discussion. What I mean is a lot of the digital utopians took us up the wrong road in the 1990’s and still today, in the way they led us to believe that the web is an innocent world.

Innocent in the sense that it was removed from the old elite structures and the hierarchies of power in the world. That it was somehow a fresh world where together we are all connected like equal nodes in a network and together we will create a new kind of democracy.

That was so naive. I think, dangerously naive.

The Internet is plugged in, literally, to the architecture of power in this world and power is exercised in all sorts of ways, new ways and old ways, through its networks. The networks you play on.

I don’t mean that it’s evil, I’m not saying that at all. What I mean is that, if you can link that extraordinary theatre of individual feeling and emotions, which is the Internet today, and all those experience and emotions that flow through the Internet every second, with an understanding of modern power and how it flows through the same wires and tubes. If you can put those together, and also make people realise how that power, as it flows through the tubes and networks of the Internet, shapes your feelings.

You’re not innocent. You’re feelings don’t all come from inside you. Why do you all want an iPhone? It comes from outside and inside. It’s naive to think that somehow, you are a little node and the internet is an open democracy. It’s not. It’s a great and wonderful thing, but power is flowing through it and shaping you just like any other network throughout the whole of history.

It’s fascinating, but I don’t think we’ve fully understood it and taken it on board. If we do understand the relationship between power and our feelings and all the innocence on the Internet, then I think that’s where the stories are going to come from. Because the other thing to realise is that all the millions of feelings that are expressed — in all sorts of social media and all sorts of other people spilling their guts out, emotionally, online — is that they’re not innocent either. These fragments and feelings that go back and forth on the web are not innocent, because they’re also expressions of the ideology of our time.

As I said earlier on, it’s about individualism. It’s about what I feel is the most important thing in the world. The Internet is a wonderful expression of that ideology, and in that sense, it also expresses the power structure of our time.

Back in Stalin’s time, in the Soviet Union, the dominant art was called socialist realism. They were beautiful, innocent — they almost looked like Jeff Koon’s paintings — of happy peasants, happy workers meeting Stalin. Everything is perfect. Innocent images. But, we now look back on them and realise that they were idealised expressions of a dominant, ruthless power structure, and we don’t see them as innocent. They were dramatic expressions of power. I sometimes think that, in the future, people will look back on the emotional realism of the Internet and see it in similar ways — as a dramatic expression of the power structure of our age.

Because the idea that all you have is experience now and you don’t trust the big stories, we don’t believe in big stories any longer, we just connect with our friends and we share our experiences. The circle of friends again. The circle of friends is a great synergy between the Internet and television. Television is dominated by the idea of the circle of friends.

I think we will look back at it and realise we were naive, because the idea that if all you have is experience and all you have is your friends, and the big stories don’t make any sense any longer, it’s full of conspiracies — this makes us believe even more that it is impossible to make sense of the world.

That serves those in power very well. I’m not saying as a conspiracy. It’s just, in every age, technology ideas and the framework of the time fuse together and power shapes it. I’m saying that about the Internet.

Now, I’m not being depressing about it. I think that’s where the options lie. What we need to do is find a way of pulling back from the Internet and telling people stories about it and about the world it reflects. That shows people that the giant sandpit they’re playing in is surrounded by a framework, a really fascinating framework. Power is fascinating.

It’s how the world changes. You’ve got this great big framework around the Internet which is shaping and moulding all those tiny little fragments of experience.

If you go back to the great novelists of the 19th century. Tolstoy, Victor Hugo — they wrote brilliant, incredibly detailed descriptions of moments of experience. Victor Hugo’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables, the novel, is absolutely like the Internet. It is a detailed discussion of every level of a moment. It’s absolutely fascinating, but what he did, and what Tolstoy did as well, was take all that stuff and put it in a framework.

Tolstoy’s was about the relationship between the individual and the great forces of history, and Victor Hugo’s was about the relationship between the individual and the collective struggle to change the world. To transform the world. An idea that has rather disappeared these days.

They had a framework. What I think is that, if we did the same, if we somehow took that data, those long fragments and somehow found a way of fitting them together allowing people to pull back and see how they are connected with other powerful forces in the world, you’d be rather fascinated, because you’re dealing with their own experience but you’re making them look at it in a new way.

But you have to have a framework, and you have to have a big theory about where the world is going, and really, all I’m saying is, the first step is to start looking at the Internet realistically.

I get a sense the ambitions of storytelling on the Internet — which I am really in favour of, I would love to do it because I think television has become tired and rigid — has reached a dead end, in many ways.

All those details of experience are fascinating but the stories and experiments I see are whimsical, really naive. They’re the socialist realism of our time. It’s almost like, this is this happy little world. It isn’t. It’s much more complicated, but when you tell people it’s much more complicated, that’s where stories come from because it excites them.

That’s all I have to say. I’m just trying to say let’s stop being a little naive about storytelling, a little less whimsical, a little less Wes Anderson and a little more Tolstoy. Thank you.