Adam Curtis on the struggle to tell the story on (and of) the web – Notes from The Story – Pt 2

* * Update: the audio for this talk is live at the Storythings blog * *

We’re not progressing through the day in chronological order, but now we have discussed the talk that was practically of use to me as a writer, let’s move on to the one which was both exciting but also so intellectually challenging I felt exhausted afterwards.

Adam Curtis is someone I previously knew mostly from The Power of Nightmares, a documentary that probed how fear and specifically terrorist threats are useful to those in power. After hearing him talk at The Story, I just want to hear more.

The caveat for these notes is that I may have at times missed the point, or got the wrong end of the stick, but here’s what I heard:

Can you use the web to tell stories?

  • Adam began by saying that many at the BBC were beginning to doubt that the web was something you could use to tell stories effectively.
  • He seemed to feel that we hadn’t reached a point where we understood the web well enough to talk about it, to tell stories about it and with it.
  • The web manifests the emotional realism that defines our culture. Emotional realism is about thinking that what you feel about things is the most real, most important thing.
  • The web is associative – you go where you like, where your fancy takes you. Narrative needs constraints, for you to be able to hold the attention of the person hearing the story.
  • So far story-telling on the web has not lived up to initial hopes for its potential, it has been whimsical at best…
  • It comes down to a fact that we have not come to terms with the power structures of our time and how they are manifest in the web (see below) – stories about these things give rise to great art, e.g. Tolstoy writing about the relationship between individuals and historical forces.

The web is useful for sharing long-form content, by-passing media formats we no longer trust

  • Adam showed a video clip from a news piece of an Afghani BBC journalist interviewing a member of the Taliban, a soundbite about the arrival of British troops.
  • He then gave us context – there were five Taliban who were all local farmers previously. The journalist was a metropolitan poet, who was new to the job, and both scared of the Taliban and feeling socially and intellectually superior to them. They’d not been interviewed before, he’d not interviewed many people in this situation before – the Taliban marched past the camera in a circle, changing the positions of their weapons each time, presumably to give the impression that there were many more of them.
  • the longer, raw version of the video was played and it felt altogether more bathetic, scary, odd, almost funny at times. It reminded me of Four Lions, especially the marching Taliban and the awkward responses from the interviewee that wouldn’t have made the final news report.
  • Emotional realism meant we valued this longer clip with all the disjointed human detail more than the news report. We, the journalists, everyone knew that the narrative from the politicians and the news organisations didn’t make sense. Why were we fighting there? It didn’t really add up. We all accept that its false and begin to look elsewhere for meaning.
  • “The fact that it doesn’t make sense any more makes it feel more real.”

What history feels like as it happens

  • Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
  • When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.

Follow the power

  • Adam railed against cyber-utopians – who doesn’t? – presenting the web as a free space, separate from the hierarchies and constraints of the “real world”.
  • The web is in fact “plugged in – literally – to the power hierarchy of the real world”.
  • If you understand how modern power flows through the web and shapes your experience of it, your emotions, then you are seeing it as it really is…
  • There’s no innocence or freedom online, the web is a cultural expression of our age of emotional realism.
  • Adam talked about Soviet Realist art, which looked nice to people at the time, but now we understand and see as representing the brutality of that power hierarchy in Soviet Russia. Some day, perhaps people will look at our online world and see it in a similar way, as “a cultural expression of the dominant power structures of our time” (perhaps about the tyranny of individualism, self-obsession, greed prevalent in our culture).


Image: Little did they know they would be seen as artistic expressions of the regime’s brutality…

Adam was making lots of different points, related to one another, but it was hard to follow a central argument through his talk (not that it was any less thrilling for that). But he seemed to draw some of the strands of thought together in his conclusion, which went roughly like this:

  • The strength of the idea that we can’t make sense of the world is one that suits those in power.
  • There is a power framework around the web which shapes it.
  • If we can develop a framework, articulate it and talk about it – a big theory – then we can move on from the light, whimsical storytelling that we’ve seen so far on the web.
  • Stories are complicated – we shouldn’t shy away from trying to tell this one…

: : If you are interested in ideas about how power works, I think that Dan McQuillan is a good person to follow, read more of – he discusses the idea of power literacy and how important that is in affecting change in society. Dan – shout if I’m wrong on that…
: : To read more about Adam Curtis’s thinking and work, his BBC blog Adam Curtis_The Medium and the Message is the best place to start…

Antony Mayfield
I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com. Google


  1. Thanks for posting this; is a great write-up. Adam Curtis’ work is consistently challenging.

    I have too much to say about power apropos the web to coherently express here but these two posts from 2009 are relevant:

    Panopticon singularity by me
    Musings on Bruno Latour by Chloe

    Her observation that the web isn’t social, because it is neither subject nor object set me to thinking about the way certain people are attempting to define what the web ‘is’ from a particular ideological standpoint that best expresses their own desire for power. Problem is I don’t see that these people even grasp they are doing this or that this trick of perspective might be open to interpretation.

  2. Thanks, Mark.

    Really like that you’re saying people aren’t necessarily aware of what they are doing in trying to cast the web as a social place in your post, Adam Curtis said that too, and also that he wasn’t making a value judgement on the status quo or capitalism, per se, just trying to get some kind of objective view of the world as it really is…

    As I said, I just about managed to cling on to Adam’s train of thought at The Story, but I’m afraid I didn’t manage to repeat that feat when it came to your and Chloe’s line of argument.

    I’d life to pick the conversation up in person, perhaps, but do you think you could explain it here or on your blog in layman’s terms? There were a few too many intellectual shibboleths for me to pick my way through some of it.

    Once we get on to object/subject and some other ideas, there’s a fair bit of background/prior knowledge that’s needed to make sense of it. Similarly, could you be clearer about who certain people are?

  3. Sure, I should have been more specific. In my post I quote a chap who in a broadly pretty good piece talks about Enlightenment values, social control, etc. but then says he’s concerned about the collection of personal data today as being less about ‘customer empowerment’ and more about manipulating behaviour to grow market share. My point was that he is trapped by a viewpoint that sees only a power relation of supplier and consumer, two very specific roles that I do not personally identify with the definitions of that are implied in his post. This is a form of reductionism that is seen across a swathe of marketing sites, such as econsultancy, et. al. that aren’t about framing a broader philosophical debate, yet where judgements are made that have real implications for our view of the individual’s role in society mediated by the web. One could argue that these sites are not the appropriate forum for such consideration but, and I believe dangerously, the people framing these viewpoints can’t even consider that an alternate debate might exist.

    I think you are teasing me in respect to saying Adam Curtis wasn’t making a value judgement about capitalism when you know that I am, something worth calling me out on if I appear to be claiming to make a balanced argument!

    The capitalist experiment is not an end point, though our society seems to treat it as though it is. This is a fallacy and limits our perspective. Similarly we also treat the web as a ‘thing’, e.g. referring to the web ‘being social’ when, as Chloe points out, it cannot be because it has no subjective experience of its own (but might one day…!). One may argue this is pedantry, but through language we define our shared perception of the concept, e.g. the notion of the web as a ‘place’ and therefore limited by all our previous associations with what a physical place ‘means’.

  4. Well, Adam claimed he wasn’t necessarily making a value judgement, and I’m not sure he needs to. The revelation, or the implication, of how different things are to the way we think they are when it comes to the web is disruptive and challenging enough for starters. I think he *is* implicitly making one, but that’s a point of view.

    I kind of get the point that the web can’t be social, but then I think of it was a place, as a mass of connections, as a platform, and in all of those things, since it is connecting people it can be social.

    Thanks for coming back with more thoughts – they really are challenging me and I’m enjoying the conversation.

  5. @Baron – the video is explained in the these two bullet points:

    * Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
    * When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.

  6. Antony

    I too was fascinated by the talk that Adam Curtis gave at The Story, and I do wish that he had elaborated more about his point regarding ‘long form content’.

    As I had written a pretty disparaging blog piece on the subject of event hashtagging (yes I know I should get out more) before the event, I was fascinated by the fact that if one followed #thestory2011, the one remark that the ‘twittersphere’ leapt on from his talk was (and I paraphrase) ‘television has reached a dead end and become irrelevant’. It was tweeted, and retweeted, and retweeted, so that it eventually took over the comment stream.

    Yet I remember this as one of Curtis few glib, throwaway remarks. It also struck me as a very good example of people doing exactly what he was railing against, namely the editing, cutting and pasting of a ‘soundbite’ of 140 characters which did not represent the main thrust of his talk at all.

    Curtis has not written up his presentation as a blog post, which I think is a shame. Much is being made at the moment of the death of the blog, with it being replaced by people desperately pursuing online social validation through short form such as twitter.

    If he took the time to write up his ‘long form’ argument, Curtis might draw attention to this depressing phenomenon. Of how the desire to share lucid, cogent argument through writing is in danger from the throwaway soundbite platforms.


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