In February 2007, Blather.net issued a challenge to the 9/11 Truth Movement. We said: “It’s time to up the game. Time to get better. Time to write better blogs, make better movies and ask better questions. We’re sorry, but Loose Change and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are just not doing that right now.” But now, it seems, somebody has upped the game: one Peter Joseph. His film, ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’, is an altogether different prospect.
The Call to Adventure
Peter Joseph’s two-hour labour of love ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ is a compelling, engaging and highly effective prayer: a hymn for the Dubyatube generation. Splicing together hundreds of videos, audio files, historical footnotes and citing and quoting sources from an impressively broad spectrum (from Roman Historians to Carl Sagan) ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ is a look at what can only be called ‘the greatest conspiracy theory of all’ – tracking a clear path from the rise of monotheism (based on a bastardised form of sun worship) to the events of September 11th 2001. Yep. You read that right.
It’s an excitable re-working of our mainstream media – the detritus of our audio-visual culture mashed together. It is also, from my narrow little ‘reality tunnel’, frequently ‘incorrect’.
Refusal of the Call
But before we dive back into the 9/11 issues, I’d like to suggest that we look at ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ a slightly different way- through the lens of Andrew Keen’s theories about the evolution of knowledge and education in light of the revolution in human information-sharing facilitated by what has come to be called ‘web.2.0‘.
I recently attended the Educa Online conference in Berlin. The most talked about event was Andrew Keen. Keen is the author of the controversial book ‘The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Truth‘ which argues that contrary to the popular lionisation of ‘Web 2.0’ and its revolution in education and knowledge sharing, the growth of organisations like Google and Wikipedia (to just mention the two companies that Keen most vociferously attacked) is actually destroying the integrity of ‘expertise’.
The Crossing of the First Threshold
Speaking personally, I’m not sure what Keen was doing there – to me it seemed akin to organising a conference for the world’s most prominent vegetarians and then asking a butcher to give the key note speech. That said, Keen did succeed in doing one thing – getting people talking. Donald Clark gave a stinging rebuttal.
During his talk, Keen was at great pains to state ‘I am not a luddite’. And he’s quite right – he didn’t seem a luddite. He seemed something else entirely: a snob. His argument seemed devoid of any substantive reference, research or data. And I don’t know why, but I couldn’t help thinking that his ceaseless mockery of Google’s usage of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ was borne not of academic insight but rather irritation that he hadn’t think of it himself.
The Belly of the Whale
Anyway, of interest to those curious about the 9/11 Truth movement, is the point that Keen seemed to have a singular obsession with the ‘truth’. When watching ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ keep a tally of how many times you hear an insistent reference to ‘the truth’. Keen’s claims centered around how organisations such as Wikipedia are distorting the truth and undermining expertise in its effort to arrive at an acceptable entry on every subject.
If the 20th century taught us anything, it revealed to us (in every area of human endeavour) that there is no such thing as ‘the truth’. From art, to literature to quantum physics, we have moved from a top-down, 19th century Anglo-Prussian model of a despotic ‘educator’ informing his students what the ‘truth’ is, to a world of facilitated learning and open discussion of divergent ideas and differing beliefs. We hope. Unfortunately, this revolution (in desire if not in reality) in human thinking seems to have evaded Keen completely.
The Road of Trials
What Keen has fundamentally managed to miss, is the simple fact that the human species has evolved beyond the narrow educational models born during the Industrial Revolution. John Taylor Gatto has provided compelling evidence to suggest that the same families which appear so frequently in the roll-call of infamy in ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ lobbied the U.S. government to create an education system which produced huge numbers of workers who would cheerfully sumbit themselves to the will of major corporations. The problem is that we no longer live in that world. We live in a knowledge economy – where an educational system based on the agrarian calendar, with an emphasis on rote memorisation of ‘facts’ in order to pass exams with binary answers, has rendered an entire generation of human beings pathetically ill-equipped to compete in a global knowledge economy.
The skills that are needed to succeed in today’s world go far beyond Keen’s narrow definition of ‘the truth’. We need an education system which encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This system is starting to emerge – through the web. It’s been predicted through the work of James Paul Gee, articulated by Steven Johnson and academically explained by Gatto. And now, finally we have the technology to allow it to flourish. Jay Cross is fond of pointing out that around 85% of workplace learning is informal. Keen would have us continue to spend 100% of our educational budget on the 15% of learning that clearly isn’t working.
The skills we require are not testable. They cannot be measured against a barometer of ‘the truth’. Being a doctor, a policeman or a soldier is not solely about citing facts and quoting ‘the truth’. These jobs are also ways of being, doing, thinking and acting. There is no empirical standard by which to measure these cognitive skills or test them. But we can facilitate mechanisms that allow for the acquisition of experiences. And that’s what the web (whether it be through wikis, blogs or yes, say it loud, multiplayer games) does brilliantly.
The Meeting with the Goddess
In ‘e-mail to the Universe‘ (another prayer to and for the terminally Neo con-weary), Robert Anton Wilson draws our attention to the binary nature of most western thought. Joseph Campbell does the same in his studies of comparative religion. Black and white. Good and Evil. Blue and Red lightsabres. With us or against us. This narrow, Euclidean/Aristotelian thought is a hall-mark of the posturing and philosophy not just of the Neo-cons but also of those who they claim are ceaselessly plotting to destroy America and the free world. It’s also worryingly in keeping with the thought-processes demonstrated by Andrew Keen.
Donald Clark made the point that Keen was dangerously fascistic – and he was. His insistence on the value of ‘expertise’ smacked of just the narrow-minded, ignorant, backward-looking idiocy that facilitates fundamentalist thinking – where narratives of a singular ‘truth’ can accommodate a world-view where it’s perfectly okay to demand a woman’s decapitation because she gave a teddy bear the wrong name.
Wilson further noted that one of the most wonderful aspects of the web was the fact that you always get multiple definitions of any one thing when you Google it – forcing people to recognise each other’s ‘reality tunnels’ and, we hope, over the course of time, forcing us to admit that others can beg to differ.
Woman as the Temptress
More than anything else Keen reminded me of Richard Dawkins: an intelligent, articulate man with noteworthy things to say but who does so in such a heavy-handed, right-wing manner that he fails to get his point across and only succeeds in enraging people.
And yet, all of this said, having now sat through Peter Joseph’s conspiracy-opus for the second time in three days, I found my thoughts returning to Keen and his concerns of expertise. But before diving into the specifics of how Keen’s thoughts apply to 9/11, I’d like to just make a few comments about ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’.
Atonement with the Father
Looking at ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ purely as a piece of film making, credit should be given where credit is due. It’s beautifully made. The editing, pacing, presentation, voice overs, choice of music, narration and tone are all spot on. And, going back to the rather tenuous link with e-learning that I established earlier on, it’s one of the best pieces of ‘instructional design’ that I’ve ever seen – the sequencing of complex streams of information, the presentation of references, the flow of citations and the basic graphic design is sublimely executed.
Irrespective of the assertions of the content, ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ is a joy to watch. Keep an eye out for the excellent sections on the creation of the Federal Reserve, The Council of Nicea and above all the hair-raising sequence which mashes together Sidney Lumet’s ‘Network‘, Peter Gabriel’s’ ‘Passion’ and finally reveals itself into an epilogue quoting Carl Sagan and Bill Hicks’ ‘It’s just a ride’ speech. Gob-smacking stuff.
The Ultimate Boon
But, I hear my cynical movie-loving friends, a well-made turd is still a well-made turd, eh? And quite right they are – a Michael Bay movie may look beautiful but let’s face it, ‘The Island’ was one of the worst movies ever made. I’m not saying ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ is a turd. It’s not. But I do have serious problems with many of its central assertions – principally the ‘evidence’ for what happened on the morning of September 11th, 2001.
I don’t think there’s any benefit in going back into the specifics of ‘what plane did what at what time’ etc., but will, as in the piece from February 2007, refer you to the BBC documentary and Popular Mechanics podcast which both take systemic looks at the ‘evidence’ for the 9/11 conspiracy. I don’t believe the argument has been made. ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ in it’s attempt to show you the greater sweep of events that it’s maker believes led to 9/11, crams too much into too short a space – often simply parroting what the movie ‘Loose Change’ already said. Furthermore it’s choice of citations and sources are often highly questionable. I’m sorry, but Ted Gundarson, just to focus on one oft-quoted speaker, is not a reliable source. Want to know why? Watch this.
Finally, I take serious issue with the combination of ‘facts’ or ‘statements’ with carefully chosen video. The section where the movie makes the case for the 7/7 London bombings being part of the same story is disingenuous in the extreme – choosing to show the 11M Atocha train bombings without distinguishing between them. Very, very shabby.
Refusal of the Return
‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ raises questions of a nature broader than those simply dealing with 9/11 and the evolution of Gnostic Christianity. Its very existence raises questions about knowledge, power, authority, ‘the truth’, expertise and academic validity. It confuses us because it’s so frequently brilliant, and so frequently wildly wide of the mark. It challenges us to ask serious questions about the creation of history.
It’s often been observed that ‘history is written by the winners‘ – and the cynic in me suspects that this has always been true. But now, with the power of the web at our hands, we are witnessing a new history emerging – not the history of the winner, but the history of ‘the amateur’ – the history of the disenfranchised, the history of the pissed-off, twenty-something male, furious at his perceived impotence in the face of the most catastrophically inept American President ever.
The Magic Flight
In the same way that it now looks increasingly likely that Youtube will make a President out of Barack Hussein Obama (we ain’t saying that’s a bad thing), we are also witnessing the flip-side, where we can see the power of how ‘web 2.0’ can spread memes based on conjecture, hearsay, half-truth and, most crucially of all, the passion borne of one person’s singular view of history, hurled at the world through viral marketing, spread by exportable content and fueled by the rage of a nation that knows it has been lied to by its ‘democratically’ elected leaders.
Rescue from Without
‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ forces us to consider the power of the ‘amateur’. As an ‘amateur’ myself, I find myself taking joy in ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’ – in so far that it displays a singular lack of the idiocy which Keen sees when he looks at the web. What I saw was another in a long line of pieces of evidence that what Howard Bloom calls the ‘Global Brain‘ is starting to take shape. In a world where anyone with the time, passion and ingenuity to make themselves heard can do so, do we now stand on the point of asking if the very concept of ‘history’ is a redundant concept entirely?
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The web needs no censoring from the likes of Andrew Keen and the experts he would appoint to tell us what the truth is. We’re not all that dumb that we can’t tell a well-made argument from a badly-made one. Not all of us are that uneducated that we reject 100% of something because its totality doesn’t meet with our agreement. The web, like the ‘Global Brain’ that Bloom foresees, regulates itself. Yes, there are people talking shite. But they generally get taken apart after a short while. Lord knows we do.
Master of the Two Worlds
The web, rather than being a tool for furthering the ideas of hate-groups is often the mechanism by which the ignorance of organisations such as the Westboro Baptist Church are exposed in the way mainstream historians could never expose David Irving. This is because the web is, like those that use it, wired differently.
Freedom to Live
The web allows for more than one idea. It positively revels in choice. It sees the connections between things and helps us see the connections between ourselves. It banishes the fundamentalism of black and white, wrong or right divisions. It embraces complexity – the kind of complexity (even with the emotive 911 sequences and insistence on ‘the truth’) evident in ‘Zeitgeist: The Movie’. It’s a movie that contains beauty and error, knowledge and fiction, fact and faith. Just like the web. Just like us.
On the 9-11 Conspiracy Theories (February 2007)
Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero’s Journey’.
Art by Dr. Joanne. ‘Rude Awakening‘, 2005.
Update – March 12th 2008
Zeitgeist: The Movie has been updated, to now include references for speakers. Good to see this as one of my central complaints about the movie was its lack of references for on-screen voices.