THE RISE OF THE MACHINES AND THE DREAM OF A STABLE WORLD WITH NOVELISTS, ANIMALS, THE WORLD WIDE WEB, PRESIDENTS, LOVE, CYBERNETIC PROPHETS, A BALANCED ECOSYSTEM AND A SAFE PAIR OF HANDS.
Good news fellow travelers, Adam Curtis is back with a new documentary series called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, it's title was borrowed from a poem by Richard Brautigan, it looks to be typical of his style and quality. Apparently the "vertigo-inducing intellectual leaps, choppy archive material and disorienting music" will be included in the package. The central focus of the documentary is the way computers have not liberated us, contrary to popular belief and instead we have lost our vision in a disillusioned age of managerial post-politics. Engrained in computer systems are notions of a perfect balance in ecosystems, ideas which go back to the hippies but have made the leap to Silicon Valley and then onwards to Wall Street. With some contributions from Ayn Rand and Richard Dawkins along the way of course, we know Enron couldn't have done without the selfish gene and free-market fundamentalism.
The pseudo-spiritualism of hippie counter-culture in the 1960s with it's communal living, free love, experimental psychedelia and emphasis on the balance of nature's ecosystems have had a great deal of impact over the trajectory of recent decades. It was a cultural revolution of sorts, the individualism of which has since been harnessed by the system. Some of the hippies went on to be major figures in Silicon Valley, the ideas of a natural equilibrium have been built into technology. Now we have social networks as the sign that we are all free and connected, even in love. The idea of a economic equilibrium is appealing to radical free-marketeers like Ayn Rand with her devotee the Chairman of the FED Alan Greenspan. Once we have made the links between hippies turned soft-ware capitalists, Objectivism and the economy we can easily greet Richard Dawkins with his ideas about the selfish gene. But these are just my thoughts on some of the issues Curtis looks at.
WE LIVE IN A DREAM WORLD CREATED BY THE MACHINES WHERE WE ARE ALL CONNECTED AND WE ARE ALL FREE. EVEN IN LOVE. BUT THE MACHINES BROUGHT WITH THEM ANOTHER IDEA, THAT WE ARE ALL COMPONENTS IN SYSTEMS – NODES IN A GLOBAL NETWORK. WE DREAMED THE SYSTEMS COULD STABILISE THEMSELVES, THROUGH FEEDBACK, AND CREATE A PERFECT BALANCE IN NATURE’S ECOSYSTEMS. AND IN HUMAN SOCIETY. AND IN CAPITALISM. WITHOUT POLITICS AND THE OLD HIERARCHIES OF POWER. BUT POWER HASN’T GONE AWAY. IT NEVER DOES.
Adam Curtis was "inspired" to make this documentary when he watched amateur footage of a mass experiment that took place in 1991 and was hosted by Loren Carpenter. Hundreds of people were given a paddle and told nothing, but when a big screen in front of them projected a game of Pong all of them began to participate. The people had to operate it together, spontaneously and without any preparation, in the end they succeeded in playing a game of Pong. Loren Carpenter saw the experiment as freedom and order manifested. For Curtis the people were not free at all, in the self-organising systems we are expected to be "happy components" in a machine and our only duty is to stabilise the machine. We are all just cogs in the machine, each important in a way though as a mass the individual cogs are irrelevant and only matter in relation to the machine working smoothly.
Katharine Viner was right to emphasise the focus on power in the documentaries Curtis has churned out over the last 20 years. With Pandora's Box (1992) it was the use of science to control society and shape human beings. Similarly The Mayfair Set was about the collapse of political rise and rise of corporate power. The Century of the Self looked at the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis and the appropriation of Freud's theories by the public relations industry to market goods to consumers. My favourite is The Power of Nightmares in which politicised fear is explored as the only way for politicians to mobilise people in a disillusioned age. Now Curtis has moved onto machines and the way that the idea of a self-regulating ecosystem in nature has been torn from the thoughts of hippies and has become engrained in technology. The idea of a natural equilibrium eliminates the reason for the state and automatically writes-off all possibility of state-intervention. In this sense, the commune is a model for social networking as it is self-regulating and non-hierarchical.
Adam Curtis has also worked with Charlie Brooker in the past and has recently written for The Guardian in the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden. He argued that the death of bin Laden may herald the end of a grand narrative which has served American politicians, Western journalists and Islamists well in making sense of the world. It is only a question of what kind of narrative will open up to make sense of the world now, Curtis speculates that it may be the rise of China which will give America a reason to reassert itself in the world. This could be true as there has already been a great deal of emphasis on American decline and Chinese ascension in the mainstream discourse. Donald Trump made a big deal about imposing a tariff of 25% on imports from China. He might be right unless the Obama administration finds a way to maintain the current narrative of terror. As I am a fan of Curtis I will be making a post for each episode of his new series and I strongly recommend his work to all reading this article.