All watched over by machines of loving grace  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Adam Curtis (of Power Of Nightmares and Century of the Self fame - and now with his own BBC blog) has a new 2 part TV series out entitled "All watched over by machines of loving grace" (named aftera poem by Richard Brautigan, which seems to have become a basis for ethical guidelines for the digital design world).

Curtis's new documentary looks at the impact of Ayn Rand's followers on our culture over the years and the results of the digital revolution that they believed would bring a techno-uoptian future into being (echoing some of the ideas examined in "From Counterculture to Cyberculture").

The Guardian has a review of the show - Adam Curtis: Have computers taken away our power? - as do Wired and Den Of Geek.

It was amateur footage of an event involving an early video game called Pong that gave Adam Curtis the idea for his new documentary series.

In 1991, a computer engineer from California called Loren Carpenter organised a mass experiment in a huge shed. Hundreds of people were each given a paddle, and told nothing. But on a big screen in front of them was projected a game of Pong – a very basic computer game, where a ball is knocked back and forth on a screen, like table tennis. Each half of the audience jointly controlled the bat on their side of the screen; they had to operate it together and, spontaneously and without discussion, they successfully played a game of Pong, whooping and cheering at their collective collaboration.

"It was like a switch went in my head," Curtis says. "Carpenter saw it as a world of freedom with order. But I suddenly saw it as the opposite – like old film of workers toiling in a factory. They weren't free – they looked like disempowered slaves locked to a giant machine screen. It was a video game, which made it fun, but it still made me wonder whether power had really gone away in these self-organising systems, or if it was just a rebranding. So we became happy components in systems – and our job is to make those systems stable."

The new series, called All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, takes complicated ideas and turns them into entertainment by the use of the vertigo-inducing intellectual leaps, choppy archive material and disorienting music with which all Curtis fans are familiar. The central idea leads Curtis on a journey, taking in the chilling ├╝ber-individualist novelist Ayn Rand, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, the "new economy", hippy communes, Silicon Valley, ecology, Richard Dawkins, the wars in Congo, the lonely suicide in a London squat of the mathematical genius who invented the selfish gene theory, and the computer model of the eating habits of the pronghorn antelope. ...

Now he has moved on to machines, but it starts with nature. "In the 1960s, an idea penetrated deep into the public imagination that nature is a self-regulating ecosystem, there is a natural order," Curtis says. "The trouble is, it's not true – as many ecologists have shown, nature is never stable, it's always changing. But the idea took root and spread wider – people started to believe there is an underlying order to the entire world, to how society is structured. Everything became part of a system, like a computer; no more hierarchies, freedom for all, no class, no nation states." What the series shows is how this idea spread into the heart of the modern world, from internet utopianism and dreams of democracy without leaders to visions of a new kind of stable global capitalism run by computers. But we have paid a price for this: without realising it we, and our leaders, have given up the old progressive dreams of changing the world and instead become like managers – seeing ourselves as components in a system, and believing our duty is to help that system balance itself. Indeed, Curtis says, "The underlying aim of the series is to make people aware that this has happened – and to try to recapture the optimistic potential of politics to change the world."

The counterculture of the 1960s, the Californian hippies, took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics and believed this alternative way of ordering the world was based on some natural order. So they formed communes that were non-hierarchical and self-regulating, disdaining politics and rejecting alliances. (Many of these hippy dropouts later took these ideas mainstream: they became the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who decided that computers could liberate everyone and save the world.) ...

At first, the vision that machines had created a new stability seemed true. On Greenspan's watch, computers allowed investment banks to produce complex mathematical models that could predict the risk of making any loan or investment. If a risk could be predicted, it could be balanced by hedging against it. Hence, stability. There would be no more boom and bust. It was the "new economy".

That stability was, of course, an illusion; it was followed by the greatest economic crash since 1929. But, as Curtis says, the price of the bailouts was paid by ordinary people, via the state, rather than by the wealthy financiers who lost all the money in the first place. That's because, despite the illusion of ordered non-hierarchy, some people have vastly more power than others, and in many cases have had it for centuries.

He draws a parallel with those 1970s communes. "The experiments with them all failed, and quickly. What tore them apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished: power. Some people were more free than others – strong personalities dominated the weak, but the rules didn't allow any organised opposition to the suppression because that would be politics." As in the commune, so in the world: "These are the limitations of the self-organising system: it cannot deal with politics and power. And now we're all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organising principle has risen up to be the ideology of our age."

If you are a component in the system, it is difficult to see how power has shifted, Curtis says. "The power of politicians has been taken by others, by financial institutions, corporations. After the crash, the elite used politicised power to rescue themselves. Politics was seen to have failed, to have been corrupt, empty." ...

Why don't we have big ideas or dreams any more? "Because now that there's nothing more important than you, how can you ever lose yourself in a grander idea? We're frightened of eccentricity, of loneliness. Individualism just wants to keep the machine stable, leads to a static world and a powerless world. Rand is individualism carried to its most extreme form, yet she's very popular, and not that far away from how a lot of people, especially the young, feel today."

All of this, Curtis says, means we're missing the bigger picture. "We never talk about power these days. We think we live in a non-hierarchical world, and we pretend not to be elitist now – which is, of course, an emotionally attractive idea, but it's just not true. And that's dangerous." ...

In his films, Curtis draws on recent attempts to overthrow power in autocratic countries, describing the spontaneous revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan as a "triumph of the visions of computer utopians of the 1960s, with their vision of computers allowing individuals to create new, non-hierarchical societies" – just like in that mass game of Pong. "The internet played a key role in guiding revolutions that had no guiding ideology, except a desire for self-determination and freedom." But the desire for freedom itself was not enough, he says. "In all those revolutions, that sense of freedom lasted only for a moment. The people were brilliant at overturning the power – but then what? Democracy needs proper politics, but people have given up on saying that they're going to change the world." The Arab uprisings began after he finished making the films, but he sees these in the same way. "It's as if these people assembled spontaneously on Twitter and they just want freedom. But what kind of society do they want?"

If you have a poke around YouTube you should be able to find the whole show...


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