Reading time : 12 minutes
Translation by AB – April 19, 2020
And maybe, it will turn out that our lives to which we are reconciled, will seem after a while, strange, uncomfortable, unintelligent, not innocent enough, perhaps even sinful …
Anton Chekhov – Three Sisters
Adam Curtis is a British documentary filmmaker1 who notably produced in 1992-1993 the series entitled “Pandora’s box“, dealing with the “dangers of technocratic and political rationality“. Asked recently by The Economist about his latest documentary, “HyperNormalisation”, broadcasted by the BBC in 20162, he develops a vision of the state of the world from a distant but deeply useful position.
To the question “how would you describe the current world?” “, Most (Western?) people would probably answer: unfair, disturbing, even scandalous … But Adam Curtis takes us on a less emotional ground: what if this world was not strange at first? What if we lean on this feeling of strangeness to understand it better?
There is a sense of everything being slightly unreal; that you fight a war that seems to cost you nothing and it has no consequences at home; that money seems to grow on trees; that goods come from China and don’t seem to cost you anything; that phones make you feel liberated but that maybe they’re manipulating you but you’re not quite sure. It’s all slightly odd and slightly corrupt.
We could add countless examples to this list: “alternative facts”, “bullshit jobs” by David Graeber3, the multiplication of stratospheric revenues and fortunes4, Snapchat dysmorphia5 etc. This state of affairs is not new and globalization is usually pleaded at the macrosocial level and individualism at the microsocial level. But we seem to have reached a level of strangeness which calls for other explanations, in particular concerning the role played by digital since the end of the 1990s. Let us try to better qualify this role with Adam Curtis.
The term “HyperNormalisation” was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Berkeley, to refer to the last years of Soviet socialism. At that time, all of Soviet society, from top to bottom, knew that the system was failing, but no one could think of any alternative. The system was thus an illusion (“fake”) accepted by all and became by force a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: this fantasy, being the only possible system, was therefore fostered.
Adam Curtis parallels our current system, saturated with loopholes and strangeness, but to which no one seems able to offer a credible alternative. Hypocrisy reaches new heights:
Those in charge know that we know that they don’t know what’s going on.
We will speak of “HyperNormality” and will describe as “HyperNormal” this system which has become in a way “zombie” (“Non-modern” zombies).
Adam Curtis distinguishes himself from other exegetes by the narrative and “showing” nature of his work: “HyperNormalisation” is more like frantic and chaotic browsing on Internet than a real structured documentary. The process, however, makes it possible to get rid of, say, philosophical explanations and premature prophecies, which pose a very serious methodological challenge: to provide a rational explanation of the present world (by refusing to observe the symptom of strangeness) and to envisage a possible future from our historical moment is to contribute, in a rather subtle way, to HyperNormalisation.
Let us then try a hypothesis in the face of the bizarre: HyperNormality results from a crisis of complexity. In a word: the world has become too complex not to saturate with dysfunctions, side effects (strangeness), which can only be the subject of symptomatic treatments: reduce inequalities, legislate against fake news, put “bullshit jobs” behind deficient robots, etc. No one is able to consider an alternative to this system. Fictions are then set up in which we can only believe.
What is the role of digital technology and its avatars in this situation? Is it just an epiphenomenon? Is it a key cog in systemic dysfunction? Or is digital THE cause of this strange world?
Adam Curtis has an opinion on the matter. After recalling our quest for individualism (which today translates into the all-round “personalization” of goods and services), he points to where this has led us:
I think the old mass democracies sort of died in the early 90s and have been replaced by a system that manages us as individuals. Because the fundamental problem is that politicians can’t manage individuals, they need us to join parties and support them and let them represent us as a group identified with them.
Let’s continue and follow Adam Curtis (we underline – additions in square brackets):
What modern management systems worked out, especially when computer networks came into being, was that you could actually manage people as groups by using data to understand how they were behaving in the mass [ big data, statistics ], but you could create a system that allowed them to keep on thinking that they were individuals.
This is the genius of what happened with computer networks. Using feedback loops, pattern matching and pattern recognition, those systems can understand us quite simply. That we are far more similar to each other than we might think […] We’re not actually that individualistic. We’re very similar to each other and computers know that dirty secret.
Many symptoms of strangeness result from this simple fact that, by the miracle of digital, we all play a character. We think (more or less sincerely) about us wrong things. These fictions obviously accumulate up to the decision centers. The irony of HyperNormality is that nobody is completely fooled by these algorithmic manipulations: we know that we are made to trust that we and our desires are thus; Tired and defeated by the ambient complexity, we end up believing it or becoming indifferent.
And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
Georges Orwell – 1984
Adam Curtis continues with probably the most important idea relating to HyperNormal systems (we underline):
Its [ the individualistic fiction ] downside is that it’s a static world. […] It constantly monitors what you did yesterday and the day before, and the day before that […] by looking at patterns and then saying: “If you liked that, you’ll like this”. […] This system constantly playing back to you the ghosts of your own behaviour. […] It can never imagine something new. It can’t imagine a future that hasn’t already existed.
The best feeling of this static world is given to us by art, this very activity of repetition breaking. Let’s recall Google’s “Deep Dream” experience in 2015, a neural network capable of making this kind of thing from known works and photographs:
And closer to us, in 2018, the “first work created by an AI” recently sold by Christie’s in New York:
Aren’t these attempts strange? We can still think that these are not pieces of art, since these productions are made automatically from existing patterns recombined by algorithms. Cécile Guilbert, from the French newspaper La Croix, is indignant6 :
Poverty that brings in money? Alas, yes, and it is here that we have the right to cry in front of the brutality and unconsciousness of the “market” as stupidly predictable as the artificial intelligence promoted by technoprophets for goofs.
The words of his indignation are reminiscent of the bewildered words of American journalist Dan Rather when confronted with the first “alternative facts” of President Donald Trump? There are no concepts yet to grasp the strangeness when it manifests itself. And Cécile Guilbert points out an indication of HyperNormality, the passage from still-fiction to near-reality:
There are two points of revolt in this affair, which we would like to be able to say that it is reduced to a stunt of publicity, com’ and money without a future. First of all, the hallucinating sum at which this scribble printed on canvas was sold: €432,500, or 45 times its initial estimate! Then the filthy blindness of the media, all obediences and media combined, who reported on this miraculous event by asking only two kinds of questions regarding the status of this neo-work: First, what about copyright? Second: what about entering the museum?
This is HyperNormality in all its glory: people do not question the fact but blindly assign it the criteria of the “Normality”
The ghosts of our own behaviors rehashed by algorithms look so much like these pictures: strangely familiar, strangely hollow, neither true nor false.
If the role of politics (in the broad sense of what leads and directs the community) remains to indicate a desirable future and to propose actions to get there, then we see that in our Western societies this role is evaporating. One of the reasons, difficult to perceive on our time scale, could be that the “future” is now described in (Bayesian) projections of algorithms that are gradually saturating our economic and social systems (Return to Babylon). The world is no longer politically open but numerically sterilized: it is a question of adjusting our present policies so that risks no longer appear in the algorithmic projections. These projections are not subject to any emotional control (desire, will, hope…) and can therefore only be interpreted as contingent risks of changes in a world that is still relatively stable. let’s listen again to Adam Curtis:
The mantra of this technocratic system of management is the word “risk”, which if you do a word analysis, didn’t really exist in political coverage until the mid 80s. It comes from finance, but as economics colonized the whole of politics, that word spread everywhere, and everything becomes about risk-analysis and how to stop bad things happening in the future.
Politics would henceforth be reduced to “risk management” and only the technos remain to offer us visions: going to Mars, connecting all the citizens of the world or reading thoughts. But:
What I suspect is that it’s beginning to crack and that what people are waiting for are some big stories. Nationalism is the easiest story to go for. […] You know very well that in 200 years the world won’t look much like the world we’re living in now. But those who run the world now don’t want you to think that. They want you to think that this is going to go on forever because that’s the philosophy of the managerial system. […] There’s a sense of repetition and that repetition works very well for some people but not for others.
For all these reasons, the psychosocial, cognitive regime of the eternal HyperNormal present is actually untenable. It could last as long as no structure (economic, political…) is capable of proposing a really new theory or a radically new narrative in the face of the crisis of complexity that we are going through. As in the Soviet era, we know that our political and economic elites know that we know; everyone tolerates and maintains the situation, voluntarily or not, for lack of anything better. This improbable, metastable regime has a name in physics: “supercooling”. This is the state of water remaining liquid well below its freezing point at 0 ° C and that the slightest disturbance causes it to freeze instantly.
The world of Adam Curtis thus seems to be in an improbable, strange and static state, which a shock could make “change phase”. Some essayists have developed this idea literally by applying the laws of thermodynamics to life and social structures7 :
We are currently experiencing a phase transition between one path and another, both are still present, one is declining and the other is arriving.
The problem is that the application of these laws, themselves based on statistical algorithms, invariably leads to an abrupt phase change of the structures studied (or to internal thermodynamic equilibrium, i.e. death): the conclusions of this work, which are fascinating, inevitably lead to a “collapsological” dead end.
So how do we get out, without excessive violence, of this phase of supercooling?
« Antidote to civilisational collapse »
Our strange world would be maintained by two great “bricolages”, which reinforce each other and to which, for the moment, we all agree more or less:
- Simplifying political narratives or imaginary politics (even conspiracy theories), which are often falsified, and which almost all lead to reactionary solutions, such as “comeback of x”, “back to y” or “z great again”.
- Cognitive delegation to algorithms, the only ones capable of digesting heaps of data and now making decisions in a world made for them.
So, what is this “antidote” to which the journalist from The Economist refers? Well, this very simple form of optimism proposed by Adam Curtis:
There might be stories that we haven’t even imagined yet.
To do this, we must rekindle an imagination atrophied by our perception of the future exclusively as a risk (algorithmic), and by a Technological System that has become so complex that we delegate our decisions and our brain to it.
Immanuel Kant wrote (“Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals“):
Settle, for sure and universally, what conduct will promote the happiness of a rational being is completely unsolvable. There couldn’t be an imperative that in the strict sense commanded us to do what makes for happiness, because happiness is an ideal not of reason but of imagination, depending only on empirical grounds.
This ideally perceived happiness would thus depend on an irrational capacity for imagination (both individual and collective) that the world described by Adam Curtis would atrophy. In this strange world, one need only look for the leaks and interstices that lead to it.
1. ↑ Wikipedia – Adam Curtis
2. ↑ Open Future, The Economist – December 6, 2018 – The antidote to civilisational collapse
3. ↑ Eliane Glaser / The Guardian – May 25 2018 – Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber review – the myth of capitalist efficiency
4. ↑ Etienne Combier / Les Echos – July 17, 2018 – La fortune de Jeff Bezos dépasse les 150 milliards de dollars, un record absolu (lien rompu)
5. ↑ Business Insider – February 2, 2019 – La ‘dysmorphie Snapchat’ est un nouveau phénomène inquiétant qui pousse les gens à vouloir ressembler davantage à des versions filtrées d’eux-mêmes
6. ↑ Cécile Guilbert / La Croix – November 7, 2018 – Art et intelligence artificielle
7. ↑ Thibaut Schepman questioning François Roddier for the Nouvel Obs – March 24, 2015 – « On atteint le point critique : l’effondrement de notre civilisation »
30 janvier 2019 – Persistence du cyberpunk
This article published in Slate (Pourquoi ne parvient-on pas à dépasser le cyberpunk ?) is a good extension of these reflections. Cyberpunk is the literary way of anticipating the strange world from which all true imagination seems to have disappeared.
It was science fiction perfectly adapted to the Reagan-Thatcher era. The connection to punk rock, of course, comes from there. Yet the somewhat cliché punk imperative of “Do it yourself” is, in fact, ideal for a type of fiction whose motto is to tell you that you have to survive in a world where large commercial corporations control all aspects of your daily life without your consent. Under these conditions, the best you can hope for is to build yourself an autonomous zone of freedom before you are caught up by parental authority and sent to a reform camp. So, in a way, cyberpunk is a kind of fiction that is incapable of imagining a future that is very different from its present.
And it still lasts… Even today’s science fiction seems trapped in the strange static world.