A F a l l F r o m G r a c e :
A Review of the BBC's 2011 All Watched Over by Machines of
Loving Grace by Adam Curtis
“This is a story about the rise of machines”. The introduction to each of the three parts of Adam Curtis' 2011 documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, seems straightforward enough. But far from being that simple, there are addendums and caveats to each of the three times this phrase is stated at the beginning of each part. On the surface, this documentary is exactly what it states; but in more subtle ways, it is also a story about the failure of machines and the failure of rational models when exclusively applied to just about anything that lives – both organically and metaphorically – on the planet Earth. Most importantly, it is a story about how all this ties together to cause the market crash of 2008.
The documentary is split into three parts. In a motif that he carries through in each of the three installments, the innocent opening statement is accompanied by the song “Baby Love Child” by Pizzicato Five, a love song that is cuter than it is sensical. This cutesy background music is accompanied by numerous random images that are related to the topic in various ways – some more obvious than others – and are cycled through fairly quickly – the only context given is that of the opening subtitled statements.
The first part, Love and Power, could alternatively have been titled, somewhat cheekily, something along the lines of How Ayn Rand Single Handedly Dismantled the World Economy. The opening phrase, mentioned above, is followed in this section with “... and how they made us believe we could create a stable world that would last forever. It is a strange story,” the subtitles continue, “and it begins with a strange woman in the 1950s in New York.” That strange woman, is, of course, Ayn Rand. Curtis introduces her using black and white footage from a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, in which she appears awkward and uncomfortable. She fidgets often and her gaze is constantly shifting; she gives the impression of a trapped animal attempting to assess her escape options.
It is not hard to see that Curtis is setting Rand up as an antagonist, and he is consistent with this trend, spending much of the first installment building her up as a sort of brilliant philosopher-villain, with a cult of followers whom she manipulates for her own benefit – which makes perfect sense in the context of her objectivist philosophy, the idea of rational self interest as the path to success and happiness. “What does it matter that we're alone? Who do we need? Why do we need anyone?” asks Barbara Branden, one of the followers from Rand's inner circle in the 1950s, in interview footage with Curtis. “We have ourselves.” The subtle irony of this statement – at least the way Curtis sets it up – is that Rand surrounded herself with a close inner circle who seemingly idolized and adored her. Enough so that even Barbara gave the go-ahead for Rand to carry on an affair with her husband, Nathaniel – Rand's excuse being that she and Nathaniel were the smartest ones in the group, and so it was only rational that they be together. In this way, Curtis sets up Rand as an ego-maniac with great charisma and an interesting connection to the American economy.
A young Alan Greenspan, who later goes on to become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is saved from an existential crisis by Rand, and he becomes a loyal devotee. When he goes on to advise President Bill Clinton on national money matters, he stays true to his Randian roots and expounds the virtues of the free market – that left to its own devices, people acting in rational self interest, will create a market that works towards efficiency and capital growth in the most efficient and rational ways. In short, it will take care of itself if the government would give it a chance. Deregulation is the answer. This, he claims, led to the runaway trading and laissez-faire business practices that eventually devastated South Korea and other Eastern countries that the American markets had infiltrated, and subsequently crashed the American housing market and eventually sent the entire economy spiralling into ruin.
That Ayn Rand had such a major influence on the American economic collapse may be a radical accusation, but the way Curtis tells the economic history of the twentieth century, it's hard to deny the influence Rand's philosophies had on the state of economic affairs in the United States, and consequently, the rest of the world.
Following that first installment came The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts. In this part, he begins once again with “[t]his is a story about the rise of machines,” followed this time by, “and our belief in the balance of nature, how the idea of the ecosystem was invented, how it inspired us, and how it wasn't even true.” In this section of the series, we learn about the role that ecology, hippies, and the Internet had in the market crash.
In this section of the documentary, Curtis employs the key example for his overarching argument: the ecosystem. The idea of the ecosystem, that is. Curtis explains that the this new ideology of a lack of need for authoritarian influence to create a stable and functional system influenced how people understood the natural world, and, combined with an impending global environmental crisis and a burgeoning field of cybernetics and systems theory, informed the development of the idea of the ecosystem. The ecosystem, he explains, is a myth born of computer models and cybernetics, a field that grew out of the Second World War (Galison, 1994) and has previously been tied to economics in other ways (Mirowski, 1999). To create workable models, the “systems” had to be simplified, and in their simplification, worked perfectly to describe the “balance of nature”: the way in which ecosystems would work towards a state of equilibrium and balance. Later studies disproved this mode of thinking by showing how, when real and extensive data was input into the models, only chaos resulted. I argue that, if Curtis had to choose one example to discuss his point, the ecosystem would be the prime candidate. A belief in the rational model and a self-stabilizing system that in reality results only in chaos. This is the parallel to the economic history that Curtis lays out throughout the three parts of All Watched Over.
Unfortunately, by the time studies were disproving ideas of natural equilibrium, people had taken to the idea. Admittedly, the idea of a balance of nature has a romantic and attractive appeal. And so, the commune was born. Unfortunately, these eventually went the way of the ecosystem, and as gregarious personalities bullied the meeker in an unofficial capacity, these non-hierarchical communities quickly descended into about as much chaos as the natural communities they thought they were emulating did. But, before that happened, the communes managed to seed the idea of a utopian, non-authoritative community in the minds of computer programmers who then used this ideology to invent the Internet, which consequently allowed for real-time market trading and allowed for the Randian influenced economic theories of Alan Greenspan to play themselves out in a way that would not have been possible without the instant communication the Internet allowed. Curtis' clever use of this spiral of cause-and-effect is another neat parallel with the ecological evidence that systems move towards chaos, not balance.
Finally, the documentary concludes with The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey. This time, it “is a story about the rise of machines, and why no one believes you can change the world for the better anymore, how we decided that we were machines ourselves, played video games, and helped start Africa's world war.”
Curtis begins his conclusion by explaining how the very machines he has been addressing throughout the documentary not only allowed for the economic crash, but also allowed for brutal violence as a by-product of their very production. The mineral columbite-tantalite (Coltan), which is generally mined in the Congo, is required to build the computers and consoles the West had become so reliant on. And while war was breaking out around the mines, we learn that the world-renowned geneticist Bill Hamilton was braving the violence to collect monkey feces in an effort to find evidence of some radical ideas about the origin of AIDS. He ended up contracting malaria and dying – thanks to an Aspirin. This is an example of the many bizarre and seemingly superfluous pieces of information that Curtis includes throughout the documentary. However, while they appear unnecessary, I believe that they simply reinforce Curtis' underlying argument for inherent chaos, and therefore against the model of rationality working towards stability – which he implied was problematic in the very beginning of the very first installment. The smallest and most insignificant details have surprising effects on outcomes, seems to be the message.
But before he died, he had laid the groundwork for a gene-centric understanding of humanity. He theorized that humans were like viruses, existing with the singular goal of passing on our genetic information to the next generation. His work on kin-selection was groundbreaking and offered an explanation for self-sacrifice; an explanation that rewrote sacrifice as a form of self-interest, bringing it into the realm of rationality, and slotting the behaviour into the acceptable system of checks and balances. The next character in this story is George Price, and American population geneticist with a background in computers. Upon coming across Hamilton's work, he made the connection between Hamilton's equations for genetic altruism and computer programming. He developed Hamilton's work further, to explain not just altruism genetically, but cruelty as well. If it made sense to kill yourself to protect your close genetic relatives, it also made sense to kill yourself to harm your farthest genetic relatives. Once again, the details worked towards chaos. Price believed his discovery was a gift from God, and this led him to convert to Christianity, devoting his life to live like Jesus – as altruistically as possible, regardless of the genetic relationship.
Curtis wraps up the last installment of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by stating that perhaps we have embraced the idea that we are simply machines, our genes our on-board computers, because it means we can be free of responsibility from our actions, which often have unintended consequences. By believing in the machine in ourselves, we can rationalize the chaos we see. The final scene has printed across it, “Machines without loving grace.”
I believe that throughout this documentary, Curtis is attempting to very subtly implant the idea that the chaos that happens is the real story. The rational model is an illusion, and we have fooled ourselves with it again and again, in order to live our lives blissfully unaware and free from guilt. The flip-side of that argument could be seen as why bother to fool ourselves? If everything leads to chaos anyway, we should still be able to live our lives guilt-free, because there is no way to be sure of what will happen. The models do not work, and if you can't see the consequence coming, you should not have to be blamed for it.
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is a lot more than just a story about the rise of machines. It is a story about trying to make sense of a world that often is nonsensical. It is a story about the mistakes we have made while trying to make sense of it, and the nonsense we have added to it in the process.
At its core, it is very much a story about what it means to be human.
Galison, Peter. 1994. "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and Cybernetic Vision." Critical
Mirowski, Philip. 1999. "Cyborg Agonistes: Economics Meets Operations Research in Mid-Century."
Social Studies of Science 29:685-718.