HyperNormalisation is the new film by documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. It is the story of the last 40 years and how politics have failed to deal with the modern world, both real and cyber, and how the left have capitulated against the swarm that is capitalism and neo-liberalism. It also about how science fiction has shaped the 21st century as ideas from American and Soviet science fiction have been adopted by major world powers to ensure people are constantly confused and unable to present an attack against right wing politics or present a workable alternative.
It sounds extraordinarily dense. In places it is, but this is probably Curtis’s most straightforward work in some time as there’s a clear line of narrative from the death of politics as we think it still to be (big ideas, politicians with big, brave ideas changing things for the better even against public opinion) to where we are now with politicians acting as managers as banks and corporations actually run things in a system of free market economics. So Curtis plots a path from the broken New York of the the 1970’s, explaining how Donald Trump took advantage of the city’s bankruptcy, through to Patti Smith, Lybia and Syria, while skimming 911, the War on Terror, Tony Blair, the failure of the Occupy movement, Brexit and back to Trump running for president today.
But there’s two bits of SF that are crucial to this. One is the works of William Gibson, the writer of books like Neuromancer and creator of the term cyberspace.The other is a work of Soviet SF called Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky which was later filmed as Stalker. In both the book (which I’ve not read) and the film (which is excellent) there are ”Zones’, sites where reality is always shifting and where people known as ‘Stalkers’ can flit between our world and the Zones. The Stalker in the story was a once idealistic man who lost his faith in the system which has seen him move between the world we know and the world of the Zones where reality is fluid.
The ideas in Roadside Picnic/Stalker were adapted by the government of Vladimir Putin to be used in politics, so Curtis reveals how Putin would fund pro and anti government groups as well as things like anti-Nazi and neo-Nazi groups which meant nobody in Russia knows who is really who, or where the truth is as everything is fluid. Reality is always changing. The left wing/liberal radicals of the 1970’s and 80’s rather than take this on either walked away into Cyberspace or were the roots of the Occupy movement who singularly failed to achieve anything important as by now most people were living in echo chambers as their lives were controlled by algorithms on social media.
The entire thesis of HyperNormalisation is utterly terrifying. Politics has failed, so Prime Ministers and Presidents are now just managers, opposition parties are helping manage expectations and any real radical ideas are doomed to fail when they fall into echo chambers created by the very tools which helped them grow in the first place. Meanwhile the forces of neoliberalism are in control but that things like Brexit and Trump are supposed revolts against the system that’s grown up over the last 40 years but aren’t. Politicians can lie, so take say Boris Johnson. Nothing he says is real. We have no idea what his real position is on anything but he’s created enough confusion to help him achieve his goals yet what exactly are his goals? See also Trump or Farage or any number of politicians who simply cannot be trusted.
Truth is therefore not relevant anymore. We live in a Zone where reality is always shifting, always bending yet the radicals, the liberals and the left can’t fight it because they’re lost in the internet being exposed to only those views that agree with there own so any resistance is futile. We have essentially been assimilated by the Borg.
The world is a big complex thing. Big ideas are complex. Take leaving the EU, that is amazingly complex, but that was reduced to a lie on the side of a bus.
Yet algorithms can’t judge for the utterly unexpected as this clip from the film shows.
Brexit wasn’t supposed to happen. It did. Now we’re seeing people who spent months arguing against it cross into the Zone to support it. We have Theresa May who is going for the hardest Brexit possible yet she was supposed to be in favour of staying. The post-truth world means for one to succeed they have to shed all principles and be open to be assimilated by the new reality. The rest of us arguing against these people struggle because we cling onto principles and ideas while inhabiting echo chambers in our safe spaces meaning we can never know how the other side thinks. All truth is lies. All lies are truth.
We are all trapped in management theory, which is essentially being trapped into a meaningless system we all know is false, meaningless and leads to nothing but we stick to it because it gives us money to do our real job which is to spend that money to keep the economy running, and therefore the entire system working. Supposed radicals rather than imagine a new system, or propose new ideas have become part of that system as much as say, Donald Trump. Yet the veneer of difference; the tattoos, beards, craft beers, Great British Bake Off, is creating a twee playground for people who in past generations would be radicals have retreated into a safe world of hashtags.
Curtis’s vision is grim. It is also massive. I’m only really touching on part of what’s discussed, but for me personally the idea that a Soviet piece of science fiction may well be the thing that shaped the modern world is amazing to think of. What however isn’t taken account of is what’s unleashed by those random events nobody can predict, so Brexit and the increasingly far right politics coming out of it, or Trump’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric in the US. The system is massive and finely tuned, yet it isn’t left wing radicals that’s broken it, it’s the right that’s destroyed it because make no mistake, the system for the UK is now broken and we’re not going to leave til 2019 at least.
HyperNormalisation is a challenging work that’s apart from being Curtis’s most linear work, is also his most accessible in some time. This is a film telling the story of the last 40 years up to a point where things are on the verge of either being sheered up for generations to come, or for the system to collapse in a way that is going to unleash hell for those of us at the eye of the storm. It’s available on iPlayer but I do wish this was on terrestrial TV as it deserves a mainstream audience which helps prove a point that society and culture is retreating into echo chambers and any challenging views are sidelined. It’s nearly three hours of your life. It isn’t a wasted three hours, and in fact probably deserves at least another viewing to take it all in as there’s going to be things I’ve missed, but this is the most important bit of television you’re likely to see this year.