from Can't Get You Out of My Head


Adam Curtis


Spring 2022

Volume 1, Issue 1



stub ver:01.01 2022-01-05

In the past, the shock of catastrophes has often led to a radical reorganization of societies. And it may be that, even in the grim uncertainty of these days, that that same impulse to imagine other kinds of future will emerge.

One possible future is that individualism will disappear, and with it the very idea of individual freedom. As has already begun in China, data will be gathered and used on a massive scale to predict and manage all human behavior, in the way that the psychologist B.F. Skinner predicted. He said that individualism would be just a brief moment in history before science would find a way to manage and control everyone. "You would," said Skinner, create a world "that is beyond human freedom and dignity."

Skinner believes that the experimental analysis of behavior suggests that man's environment performs many of the functions once attributed to his inner feelings. A man feels free if he believes he is free, and he will believe his is free if he is conditioned by positive reinforcement to think so. His only hope is that he will come under the control of a natural and social environment which will enable him to pursue happiness successfully.

Another possibility is that the future will be like the past. Many people are hoping that with the election of Joe Biden in America, it will be possible to return to an old stability... where individualism can continue to be managed by a benign elite. But although Donald Trump is gone and the Brexit deal done, what they both revealed was that undeneath Western societies, there are enormous pressures building up that will not go away... while protests have broken out again in Russia. After the arrest of Alexei Navalny, tens of thousands came out onto the streets, demanding an end to the corrupt regime led by Vladimir Putin.

The reality is that all of these societies—not just America and Britain, but China and Russia, too—are exhausted, empty of any new ideas. All of them has corruption which is burrowed deep in their institutions, corruption that the politicians seem powerless to stop... while China, which many believe is a model for the future, is underneath a society not only riddled with corruption, but its growth is declining far more than the official figures reveal, while its population is rapidly ageing. Far from being an alternative future, China may well be yet another old, decaying society that relies on a powerful surveillance system to maintain its power because it to has no other vision of the future.

The third possibility is to try to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures, ones that have never existed before. But to do that, we as individuals will have to regain the confidnece that we have lost in this frightened and uncertain time. But already the psychological theories that tell us that we are weak and manipulable are cracking... and more and more people are beginning to realise that the fragmented emotions of anxiety and suspicion that they feel inside them may really be just the raw material for the technological corporations to feed off. It may be that we are really far stronger than we think.

The one thing that is certain is that the world of the future will be different, and that the people in that future will feel and think differently too. If we can regain our confidence, we will find that we have the power to influence how that future turns out. And as a first step, we have to start imagining what kind of future it is we want to build.

The anthropologist and activist David Graeber, who died last year, described the forgotten idea that is waiting to be rediscovered and how thrilling it could be. "The ultimate hidden truth of the world," he wrote, "is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently."

— Adam Curtis, "Can't Get You Out of My Head" (2021)


This quote is from the documentary "Can't Get You Out of My Head" ©BBC 2021 is used under Fair Use. All rights and credit belong directly to its rightful owners. No copyright infringment is intended. Imagine a fearsomely comprehensive groveling disclaimer. Now fear comprehensively.


Cite this work as:

Curtis, Adam, "Epigraph", Yellow Brick Letters, 2022.

BibTeX citation:

  author  = {Curtis, Adam},
  title   = {Epigraph; Adam Curtis, Can't Get You Out of My Head},
  journal = {Yellow Brick Letters},
  volume  = {1},
  issue   = {1},
  year    = {2021},
  url     = {https://chenla.org/2021/},
  issn    = {2789-9012}