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Beware snake oil cultural commentary
Pushing back on a popular documentary
There is a particularly chilling sequence in Adam Curtis's documentary series 'The Century of the Self'.
Curtis has been explaining how the focus group came to be invented, deploying insights from the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis, so that government and corporations could understand people's inner desires - the better to control them and increase the sales of consumer goods and services.
Using focus groups of 'housewives' the manufacturer of an instant cake mix discovers that disappointing sales of the product are the result of guilt. Their cake is too easy to produce, which makes 'housewives' feel like they are cheating their husbands.
The solution to this is to introduce an extra step - the addition of an egg, which the 'housewife' must do herself.
You've guessed - sales then rocket.
This is the film's first real money shot.1
People are incredibly stupid and therefore easy to manipulate, is the message.
I love Adam Curtis's work. His idiosyncratic style of stitching archive footage into a pacy sinister mosaic, with his own dispassionately portentous voiceover, is dramatic, entertaining and intellectually compelling. I've watched Hypernormalisation three times and tried to get other people to watch it. He is always onto something.
At one time I would have absorbed, without question, everything that The Century of the Self has to say about the irrationality and manipulability of people.
But this time I watched with a certain wariness.
This is part of the practice described last time, which is to beware of the totalising explanation for complex things.
Were those women who started to buy the instant cake mix when the packet mentioned a real egg too really so pathetic? Or was it just more rational and reasonable to prefer a cake mix to which they would add a fresh ingredient than Curtis allows for?
The Century of the Self goes big on the idea that we have been turned into materialistic drones, mindlessly (or, at least, subconsciously) responding to psychoanalytic techniques adopted by a mix of well-intentioned and nefarious actors, while never actually explaining the mechanism by which this was achieved.
Curtis says, at the beginning of episode three
"This is a series about how Sigmund Freud's ideas about the unconscious mind have been used by those in power to control the masses..."
The evidence offered for this is that people bought things that were made available, with no reference to how - say - technological advances may have contributed to the creation of the kind of products that people might just rationally want, to improve their comfort and convenience.
He talks about Edward Bernays, the 'father' of public relations and recounts how Bernays manipulated public opinion - famously getting more women to smoke cigarettes. There's a juicy mention of some Freudian stuff about cigarettes being analogous to penises and an account of how he made sure that some 'influencers' of the time were photographed smoking, so that women would have some 'role models' showing them that it was OK to light up.
I was outraged, long ago, when I first read about this 'Torches of Freedom' stunt. It just seemed so evil. But watching The Century of the Self it just seems obvious that lots more women taking up smoking once it was portrayed as 'cool' seems likely to be a manifestation of 'Mimetic desire' rather than a subconscious desire to have a dick (or put one in your mouth several times a day).
You're a woman who sees men enjoying something that's frowned on if you do it. Then some 'high class' women are suddenly all over the papers doing it. So you decide to do it too. There is nothing irrational about that.
Time and again, straight-up obvious and normal things are attributed to dark arts, in this film. It's seductive, I guess, because we all love a good villain behind the scenes. Especially the more paranoid among us.
Bernays had a great contacts book, full of journalists in the burgeoning mass media, and a solid instinct for what makes a story. He gave them these stories and we weren't very media-sceptical in those days, so a lot of the stories went unchallenged.
Curtis tells the story of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala and how a democratically elected leftist, who wanted his country to share in the profits of banana production, was deposed in a secretly organised CIA-sponsored coup. Bernays made up stories about how a communist takeover of a country on America's doorstep was averted.
The story here is of a straight-up lie and the incuriosity of journalists exploited by an unscrupulous man with a great contacts book. But, by this point, you've been so beguiled by the stuff about psychoanalytical insights being used to manipulate the subconscious that it's easy to miss what's really being described. There's no mystery here. It's just basic malfeasance.
Of course governments want to control their populations but intent is not impact and Curtis only describes intent. The rest - how people became more materialistic (hardly surprising, in a world with more wealth and material goods to spend it on) - is just assumed to have been a result of psychological manipulation.
There's a host of supporting interviews with people who have the clear incentive of self-promotion to support the thesis that we are slaves to irrational subconscious desires which are straightforwardly tapped into en masse. Because that’s how they make their living. Market researchers, political operatives, psychoanalysts. Of course they're going to claim world-shaping superpowers. Who would hire them, otherwise?
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A few years ago I was among the bien pensants who were alarmed by a new supervillain in this genre - an easily hated guy called Alexander Nix. He headed Cambridge Analytica. This company thrived on a reputation for being able to 'micro-target' voters, to get into the heads of very specific segments of a population and manipulate them with spurious information. Psychological targeting. The very concept is enough to send chills down your spine.
What's most interesting now about Cambridge Analytica is how its triumph in falsely persuading people that it really had mastered the dark arts of psychological targeting ended up freaking everyone out so much that the business couldn’t survive the backlash. It was so good at scaring people with manifestly untrue claims that the ensuing moral panic was too much and the company dissolved.
The irony is that they were mostly just very good at lying - not least about their own capabilities.
This desire we have for villains that we can blame for making (always) other people do or think things of which we disapprove seems to help us to process things and place ourselves more comfortably in relation to the action. That's why a story like that told by The Century of the Self elicits the kind of responses you can see in the YouTube comments responding to the film.
"For years I've been recommending this to anyone who questions the world we live in today. This documentary explains it all."
"The number 1 documentary to understand the world we live in today and the engineering of public consent through creating false needs and false narratives. I've been recommending this for decades and now it's more important than ever..."
"Wow, just wow, to see the whole plan happening now (2022) laid out like this in one documentary that explains so much."
In a nod to their mythical quality, David Karpf, Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, calls the modern versions of these supposed master manipulators 'Digital Wizards'. It's apt, because it captures the fictional lens through which we can easily default to seeing them.
"There is something fundamentally comforting and appealing about the digital wizards. It tells us that there are experts, somewhere, who have everything under control. You can expose those experts. You can hire those experts. You can glean business insights from those experts. Through the right graduate program, perhaps you can even become one yourself. It is a story that fits neatly within a Silicon Valley pitch deck, a TED talk, a graduate school brochure, or a journalistic feature story on the latest digital revolution reshaping our society."
David Karpf - On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths
Just as standard conspiracy theories may be partly motivated by the comfort of believing that stochastic horrors like 911 must include insider conniving, or that the CIA is stopping the release of papers relating to the assassination of JFK because they killed him, or that Covid-19 was released into the world intentionally, it's 'fundamentally comforting and appealing' to think that there are clear-cut reasons for everything that troubles us. That some conniving bastards are behind it all. The alternative is accepting that shit just happens, often because of incompetence. That's just a bit depressing.
Again and again The Century of the Self claims that psychoanalysts told governments and corporations to do things that people then followed. A major strand in the film is that the rise of individualism was the result of new ideas in psychotherapy, coupled with manipulation of consumers to buy things that made them feel unique and special.
The argument is then made that this resulted in reprehensible selfishness, inevitably leading to the electoral successes of Thatcher and Reagan.
Proof of the terrible consequences that flow directly from ... consults script ... Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays and various forms of psychotherapeutic schools of thought.
You have to wilfully ignore the whole of history over the past several hundred years to buy this conclusion.
Because I'm lazy, I just asked ChatGPT to help list some of the drivers of individualism.
The rise of individualism is a complex phenomenon that has been influenced by various historical, cultural, economic, and philosophical factors. While it's challenging to pinpoint a single cause, several key factors have contributed to the development and spread of individualism over time:
1. Renaissance and Humanism: The Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries) marked a period of renewed interest in human potential and achievements. Humanist thinkers emphasized the value of human reason, creativity, and individuality, leading to a shift away from the strictly religious and collective worldview of the Middle Ages.
2. Enlightenment: The Enlightenment (17th to 18th centuries) further promoted the value of reason and rationality, emphasizing the importance of individual rights, freedom, and autonomy. Thinkers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant contributed to the development of ideas that would lay the groundwork for individualistic thought.
3. Industrial Revolution: The Industrial Revolution (18th to 19th centuries) brought about significant social and economic changes. As societies transitioned from agrarian economies to industrialized ones, urbanization and economic shifts led to increased personal mobility and greater emphasis on individual initiative.
4. Capitalism and Market Economy: The rise of capitalism and market-driven economies emphasized personal initiative and entrepreneurship. Capitalism's focus on competition, innovation, and private ownership further reinforced individualistic values.
5. Political Movements and Revolutions: Various political movements, such as the American and French Revolutions, emphasized the importance of individual rights, liberty, and equality. These movements contributed to the spread of democratic ideals and the recognition of individual autonomy.
6. Secularization: As societies underwent secularization and the influence of religious institutions waned, people began to define their identities and values more independently from traditional religious norms. This shift allowed for the exploration of personal beliefs and lifestyles.
7. Technological Advancements: Advances in communication and transportation technology have made it easier for individuals to connect with others who share similar interests and values, enabling the formation of diverse and globally connected communities.
8. Philosophical and Psychological Influences: Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre explored the nature of individual existence, freedom, and responsibility. In psychology, thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers contributed to the understanding of individual psychology and self-actualization.
9. Cultural Changes: Changing norms and values within societies, such as shifts towards greater tolerance for diverse lifestyles and identities, have encouraged individuals to express themselves more authentically.
10. Education and Literacy: Increased access to education and literacy has empowered individuals to think critically, develop their own perspectives, and contribute to society in unique ways.
That's more like it, if you ask me. It's a complex array of intermingling currents and intellectual influences that bring us to this point and will continue to, beyond. Not just psychoanalytical theories deployed to control everyone.
But that's just not as sexy as the account offered by The Century of the Self, with its handful of arch villains and countless witless victims.
I guess this is why The Century of the Self continues to be cited so often in discussions about the 'state of everything'. It provides individual actors that we can point the finger at and confirms that there is no hope of overcoming the manipulations of our overlords. Porn for doomers.
None of this is to suggest that you shouldn't watch the film (or read all 54 pages of the script). It's interesting. But it is also designed to encourage a belief that conspiracy is the fundamental driver behind societal change and, as such, I think it's a bit unhealthy. It's the sort of dystopian account of things that fools you into believing that you are special because you can now see behind the Matrix.
In the end I think that it's mostly entertaining snake oil.
Where it really struck a chord with me was in highlighting how much damned money there is in influence. Some of the psychoanalysts featured became insanely rich, mixing with celebrities and generally living the high life. One of them went mad and another managed to produce patients who turned to alcohol and suicide.
It's almost as if they too were mostly offering snake oil.
See what you think.
On a vaguely related note
All of this plays into another preoccupation I have around the popularity of a certain kind of story, in which people are revealed to be fundamentally irrational and we are encouraged to be smug about reasoning beyond our intuitions when the masses simply can’t help themselves. And how, so much of the time, the supposed science behind such claims basically fails to reproduce. Jesse Singal offers a good example here.