Against the machine: Thoughts on Curtis’ machine trilogy



All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 1): “Love and Power”



All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 2): “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”



All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 3): “The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”

I just finished watching Adam Curtis‘ epic polemic against the danger and abuse of machine metaphors in our society, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (all three episodes are posted above). I’ve been a fan of his quirky documentaries: “Century of the Self” and “The Power of Nightmares” are a grave attacks against the cult of marketing and mass manipulation. This current effort is more complex and nuanced. He documents the folly of different groups extrapolating computer metaphors in order to explain nature and human society. He shows the tremendous irresponsibility of Western powers who have used ecological “holism” to justify imperial ambitions, and fears that environmental movements and social media advocates run the risk of similar metaphor abuse.

Curtis attacks the idea of holism as anti-individual. I don’t think it’s fair, but because it has often been misplaced, to him any invocation of a holistic view of humans is anathema. I find the critique a little too harsh and generalized, although I appreciate some of his attacks. In particular I like his polemic against biology based on theories of the selfish gene. Curtis correctly points out it is a machine metaphor applied to cell biology. There also is a blistering attack against using computer networks to drive the global economy, which again is justified. Finally, he does a good job of showing that these ideas are often subservient to neocolonial ambitions. Fair enough.

It’s hard to tell what exactly what Curtis wants to do with this project. It seems like he is defending Enlightenment principles of the individual against emerging cultural views of interconnectivity. Curtis offers a choice of one against the other, as opposed to trying to find a balance between the two. Moreover, he critiques quite heavily the liberal project of democracy in Africa without acknowledging its roots in Enlightenment concepts of the individual.

Curtis criticizes ecological models based on systems theory as a false solution for global ecology. In response he seems to argue for political and social change–conscious human interventions to solve problems–but then criticizes the revolutions that arose in Eastern Europe because they self-organized with the aid of computers. He argues that those revolutions failed, and in fact have created situations far worse than before. There is some nostalgia, I believe, for good old fashion ideology.

Curtis’ contrarian perspective comes at an interesting time. The Arab awakening, global climate chaos and crashing economies seem to be outgrowths and responses to the Enlightenment project. Are computer networks the engine of change? Or is it that networks have been abused by old thinking and misapplied metaphors? The past colonizes the present. And designs the future.

Curtis casts a wide net, associating Ayn Rand with computer network technology, neoliberal economics, ecology, biology and colonialism. Are these interconnections real? By his own logic, is such a grand conspiracy the result of the kind systems thinking he rails against? I believe much of what Curtis offers is necessary and good for discussion. It certainly slaughters a lot of sacred cows, even though the approach is one of scorched earth. It would be interesting to see Curtis debate Yochai Benkler, who takes an opposite view of networks.

Aesthetically I like the style of his films: the odd mix of kooky ephemeral films juxtaposed to eclectic and often unusual choices in music make his rants a fun romp. One thing is for sure, these documentaries are far from boring.

  • I had similar thoughts upon watching it. I really like his style, and it’s good that he’s bringing all these ideas into discussion, and a lot of his specific points are valid… but his general polemic seems antiquated and forgetful of the immense problems of the individualism he promotes (such as the basic fact that global capitalist ideology arose out of the Enlightenment’s Cartesian self…)

    I’ve only watched Episodes 1 and 2 so far though.

  • Antonio

    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one reacting this way. The documentary is begging for a much larger discussion. I hope you watch the second two episodes. The last one is pretty intense.

  • heyol

    the 3rd episode has vanished

  • heyol
  • Antonio

    Thanks for the updated link!