HyperNormalisation is a 2016 BBC documentary by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. In the film, Curtis argues that since the 1970s, governments, financiers, and technological utopians have given up on the complex “real world” and built a simple “fake world” that is run by corporations and kept stable by politicians. The film was released on 16 October 2016.
The fiscal crisis in New York City and the emergence of the idea that financial systems could run society; shuttle diplomacy between then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Middle Eastern leaders in the Arab-Israeli dispute and the subsequent retreat by Hafez al-Assad of Syria; and the onset of hypernormalisation in the Soviet Union.
The Human Bomb
How, following the United States’ involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War, a vengeful al-Assad made an alliance with Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. They planned to force the US out of the Middle East by encouraging civilians to carry out suicide bombings on American targets in the region, thereby avoiding reprisals. In February 1984, the U.S. withdrew all its troops from Lebanon because, in the words of then-US Secretary of State George P. Shultz, “we became paralysed by the complexity that we faced”.
By the mid-1980s, banks and corporations were joining up through computer networks to create a hidden system of power, and technological utopians whose roots lay in the counterculture of the 1960s also saw the internet as an opportunity to make an alternative world that was free of political and legal restraints.
John Perry Barlow‘s vision of cyberspace as the 1990s equivalent of the Acid Tests. Barlow, who had been part of the LSD (also known as “acid”) counterculture in the 1960s and founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a manifesto called A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Addressed to politicians, it declared “the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose upon us”. Two computer hackers—Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak—knew that in reality corporations were using the internet to exert more control over the lives of people than governments had done in the past, and they demonstrated that hierarchies did exist online by obtaining Barlow’s credit record from TRW Inc. and posting it on the internet.
This chapter describes the Reagan administration using Muammar Gaddafi as a pawn in their public relations (PR) strategy of creating a simplified, morally unambiguous foreign policy by blaming him for the 1985 Rome and Vienna airport attacks and the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing that killed US soldiers, both of which European security services attributed to Syrian intelligence agencies. Gaddafi is described as playing along for the sake of increasing his profile in the Arab world as a revolutionary. The 1986 United States bombing of Libya, 10 days after the disco bombing, is described as an operation carried out mainly for PR reasons, because attacking Syria would have been too risky.
The Truth Is Out There
This chapter begins with a montage of unidentified flying object (UFO) sightings recorded by members of the public in the United States. It argues that the phenomenon surrounding UFOs in the 1990s was born out of a counter-intelligence operation designed to make the public believe that secret airborne high-technology weapons systems the US military tested during and after the Cold War were alien visitations. Top secret memos forged by the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations were allegedly leaked to ufologists who spread the manufactured conspiracy theory of a government cover-up to the wider public. The method, called perception management, aimed to distract people from the complexities of the real world. American politics are described as having become increasingly detached from reality. Curtis uses the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s as an example of an event that took the West by surprise because reality had become less and less important. A Jane Fonda workout video is shown to illustrate that socialists had given up trying to change the real world and were instead focusing on the self and encouraging others to do the same. The video is intercut with footage of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, being executed by firing squad and buried following the Romanian Revolution in 1989.
Ulrich Beck is identified as a left-wing German political theorist. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he saw the world as too complex to change, and Beck asserted that politicians should merely keep the West stable by predicting and avoiding risks. Curtis looks at Aladdin, a computer that manages about 7% of the world’s financial assets, analysing the past to anticipate what may happen in the future; and how anti-depressant drugs and social media both stabilise the emotions of individuals.
A Cautionary Tale
The start of this chapter is about the flaws of trying to predict the future by using data from the past. Curtis tells the story of how a card counter named Jess Marcum was recruited by Donald Trump to analyse the gambling habits of Akio Kashiwagi at his casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, in Atlantic City, after Trump had lost millions of dollars to Kashiwagi. In an effort to avert the impending bankruptcy of the casino, Marcum devised a model that predicted a way of recouping the money from Kashiwagi, who lost US$10 million. However, before he could pay, he was killed by yakuza gangsters, and the casino went bankrupt, with Trump having to sell many of his assets to the banks.
Attention turns back to the Middle East and the Lockerbie Bombing in 1988. Curtis says that immediately after the bombing, journalists and investigators blamed Syria for carrying out the attack on behalf of Iran in revenge for the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the United States Navy. It was generally accepted as true until US security agencies announced that Libya was behind the attack. Some journalists and politicians believed that the West had made the volte-face to appease Syria’s leader, whom the US and the United Kingdom required as an ally in the coming Gulf War.
He focuses on the spread of suicide bombing tactics from Shia to Sunni Islam and the targeting of civilians in Israel by Hamas during the 1990s. The resulting political paralysis led to a stalling of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. It is described as an unintended consequence of Israel’s response to the 1992 killing of an Israeli border guard.
A montage is shown of clips from pre-9/11 disaster films in which New York City landmarks are variously destroyed by alien invaders, meteorites, and a tsunami. Curtis argues that such films were characteristic of a mood of uncertainty that pervaded the United States at the end of the 20th century.
Curtis shows how Muammar Gaddafi was turned into the West’s “new best friend.”
A World Without Power
The effect of the Iraq war wreaks havoc on the American psyche and the people retreat into cyberspace. Judea Pearl creates Bayesian networks that mimic human behavior. Judea’s son, Daniel Pearl is the first American to be beheaded on a video uploaded to YouTube.
Meanwhile, social media algorithms show information that is pleasing to its users and hence doesn’t challenge previously held beliefs. Despite this, Occupy Wall Street emerges in an attempt to disrupt the system by imitating the leaderless system that the internet was once imagined to become. Using a similar method, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 commenced.
Britain, France and the U.S. turn their backs on Muammar Gaddafi once the people rise up against him. The U.S. drops bombs with drones, and then footage of Gaddafi being captured by rebels is shown.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin and his cabinet of political technologists create mass confusion. Vladislav Surkov uses ideas from art to turn Russian politics into a bewildering piece of theater. Donald Trump used the same techniques in his presidential campaign by using language from Occupy Wall Street and the extreme racist right-wing. Curtis asserts that Trump “defeated journalism” by rendering its fact-checking abilities irrelevant.
The American Left’s attempt to resist Trump on the internet had no effect. In fact, they were just feeding the social media corporations who valued their many additional clicks.
Syria’s revolution becomes more vicious and violent. The technique of suicide bombing that Curtis argues Hafez al-Assad introduced in order to unite the Middle East has instead torn it apart. Russia uses Surkov’s concept of “non-linear warfare” to keep Syria destabilized. Russia claims to leave Syria, but doesn’t.
Abu Musab al-Suri in Syria argues terrorists should not carry out large scale attacks such as Osama Bin Laden did, but should instead carry out random small-scale attacks throughout the West to create fear and chaos, that would be more difficult to retaliate against. This destabilization of the West’s psyche leads to the passing of the Brexit and the popularity of Donald Trump.
The film closes with a montage, played over a Barbara Mandrell performance.
Don’t help me set the table
Cause now there’s one less place
I won’t lay mama’s silver
For a man who won’t say grace
If home is where the heart is
Then your home’s on the street
Me, I’ll read a good book
Turn out the lights and go to sleep— “Standing Room Only” from This Is Barbara Mandrell