Turn off the technology! says filmmaker

A provocative British intellectual argues that technology is making us slaves. Independent thought, he says, is being destroyed by our love of machines.

We all love our gadgets. Whether it's a mobile phone, games console, MP3 player or humble television, we seem always to be plugged into something or glued to a screen, either at work, at school or in our time off.

But a new series of short films wants us to question this obsession. We have become accustomed to instantly and easily accessing the words, music, games – even the people – that we want. We feel 'connected' to our nearest and dearest and to people on the other side of the world. Has this opened up a world of free choices, or is it making us passive, or even slaves to technology?

The popular uprisings in the Middle East have shown how social media like Facebook and Twitter can help an entire population throw off dictatorship and lay the groundwork for a new, free society. Ordinary people, fired up by political anger, were made powerful through their use of the internet to organise revolutions.

But Adam Curtis, the documentary maker whose series about technology begins next week on the BBC, says that in the developed, democratic world the effects of all this tweeting, Facebooking, blogging and internet surfing are very different.

Our online activity encourages us to be self-centred, he argues. We create a virtual image to impress others and obsess about our own emotions, likes and dislikes.

'This is the driving belief of our time: that "me", and what I feel minute by minute, is the natural centre of the world.'

Instead, he says, we should be analysing the bigger picture and exercising our political muscles.

Curtis, a former politics tutor at Oxford University who likes to provoke debate with his work, says we immerse ourselves in technology, and this blinds us to the nature of the society in which we live and how it operates: he calls us 'disempowered slaves locked to a giant machine.'

Keeping us amused
'On Facebook and Twitter you are performing to attract people,' Curtis explains. 'You are dancing emotionally on a platform created by a large corporation.'

In Ancient Rome, the rulers kept the masses amused, satisfied and peaceful with 'bread and circuses'. In the 19th Century Karl Marx complained that religion, 'the opiate of the masses' sapped political anger and action.

Adam Curtis believes we are being tamed in a similar way. But why should we resist what we enjoy?

You Decide

  1. Do you use technology too much? Is there such a thing as 'too much'?
  2. Karl Marx, the philosopher behind Communism, said 'Religion is the opiate (the drug) of the people'. Is technology a modern drug keeping us in line?

Activities

  1. Keep a technology diary for a week: what does it tell you about your habits and those of your friends and family? Healthy or not?
  2. Write an article comparing how people use technology in The UK or USA and in a country like Egypt or Syria (use the links below): do you agree with Adam Curtis that one is frivolous and one serious?

Some People Say...

“If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.' Frank Lloyd Wright”

What do you think?

Q & A

This techno-fear sounds a bit paranoid. Or old-fashioned.
Perhaps. But it's a good idea, and a long and valuable tradition, for philosophical types to take a critical look at the culture in which we live, and ask big questions about its values and direction.
And he disapproves of our love of gadgets?
Yes, because it makes us too 'happy' – in the sense of being contented and therefore less likely to object to things, change society or take action. He thinks we should be willing to disrupt things with our questions rather than maintain a harmonious obedience.
Sounds like hard work!
That's right. But true freedom is always difficult: the poet John Milton called this dilemma 'bondage with ease or strenuous liberty'.