All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Adam Curtis on How Technology Limits Us
By Maria Popova
Documentarian Adam Curtis is among our era’s most influential cultural storytellers, with a penchant for debunking the established order of beliefs and ideologies. In The Century of the Self (2002), he traces the origin of consumerism and how Freud’s theories shaped twentieth-century manipulations of public opinion, from politics to marketing; in The Power of Nightmares (2004), he explores the rise of the politics of fear; in The Trap (2007), he examines the concept and evolution of freedom and the simplistic models of human nature on which it is based. His latest BBC documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, premiered last May, mere months before the global Occupy movement erupted, and paints an infinitely intriguing, though in my view wrong on many counts, portrait of technology as a limiting, rather than liberating, cultural and political force. The title of the series comes from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, in which he envisions a world of cybernetics so advanced that the balance of nature is restored and there is no need for human labor.
Though the film has strong techno-dystopian undertones akin to the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock series of the 1970s and neglects how technology enables such powerful phenomena like networked knowledge and crowd-accelerated learning, it offers a dimensional context for many of our present political, economic, and technological givens. Coupled with Curtis’s signature immersive storytelling and exquisite use of historical materials, rare footage, and revealing soundbites, the series is an invaluable primer for much of today’s most pressing sociocultural issues.
The first part, titled Love and Power, deals with how Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism shaped the ethos of Silicon Valley in the 1990s and, eventually, the global economy as Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton set out to create the New Economy, based on the premise of a dramatic rise in productivity thanks to emerging information technology. Curtis, however, goes on to argue that instead of creating market stability, these Randian ideals constricted people into a rigid system with little hope of escape.
We are now living through a very strange moment. We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite — that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”
Part two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, explores how technology cornerstones like cybernetics and systems theory were, Curtis argues, falsely applied to natural ecosystems and used to develop unrealistic models for human beings and societies. The episode has particularly timely resonance, in light of the recent global Occupy movement, as Curtis argues that such self-organizing network models without central control might be good at organizing change, but are less effective in what comes after.
The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions showed the limitations of the self-organizing model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power. The hippies took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics. They believed that this alternative way of organizing the world was good because it was based on the underlying order of nature. But this was a fantasy. In reality, what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines. Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organizing principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age. And what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas as to what comes next. And, just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”
The final part, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, examines the selfish gene theory of evolution, developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Curtis traces how this applied to everything from the civil war in Congo and the Rwandan genocide to George Price’s quest for the origin of altruism to Dawkins’ atheist reformulation of the religious idea of the “immortal soul” as a computer code in the form of genetic patterns. Curtis concludes by asking whether, in accepting these views of humans as machines, we as a culture have disempowered the human spirit.
Hamilton’s ideas remain powerfully influential in our society — above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes. But, the question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences?… We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.”
Curiously, Brautigan’s original collection of poems, which inspired the film title, was intentionally distributed for free. The Curtis documentary, on the other hand, remains largely (legally) unavailable online and nearly impossible to legally see outside the U.K., as if a stubborn and enforced metaphor for the very thing it argues.
Published February 6, 2012