All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is a three part BBC documentary series by filmmaker Adam Curtis, well known for other documentaries including The Trap and The Power of Nightmares. The first episode aired on Monday 23rd May 2011 at 9pm on BBC2.
It claims that computers have failed to liberate us and instead have "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us".
The title is the same as a 1967 poem and collection of poems by Richard Brautigan.
Episode 1: Love and Power
In this episode Curtis tracks the effects of Ayn Rands ideas on American financial markets particularly via the influence on Alan Greenspan.Ayn Rand was born in Russia and moved to America in 1928 and worked for Cecil B. DeMille and realised some of the plot for what became The Fountainhead from this period. Later she moved to New York and set up a reading group called The Collective. On advice from a friend Greenspan (then a logical positivist) joined The Collective.Although critically savaged Rands Objectivist ideas were popular and came to heavily infiltrate California particularly Silicon Valley. The computer utopian belief (Californian Ideology) that computer networks could measure control and self-stabilise societies without hierarchical political control and that people could become Randian heroes only working for their own happiness became more widespread.Rand entered into a affair with Nathaniel Branden another married person in The Collective based purely on logic albeit with the approval of his wife. After several years the affair ended violently and was revealed to rest of The Collective which broke up. Rand ended up alone in her New York apartment although Greenspan continued to visit.Greenspan entered government in the 70s and became Chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1992 he visited the newly elected Bill Clinton. He persuaded him to let the markets grow cut taxes and to let the markets stabilise themselves with computer technology to create the New Economy. This involved using computer models to predict risks and hedge against them in accordance with the Californian Ideology. However by 1996 the production figures had failed to increase but profits were nevertheless increasing and Greenspan suggested that it wasnt working. After political attacks from all side Greenspan changed his mind and decided that perhaps the New Economy was real but that it couldnt be measured using normal economic measures and so the apparent boom continued.In 1997 Carmen Hermosillo published a widely influential essay online Pandoras Vox: on Community in Cyberspace and it began to be realised that the result of computer networks had led to not a reduction in hierarchy but actually a commodification of personality and a complex transfer of power and information to companies.Although the Asian miracle had led to long-term growth in South Korea and other countries Joseph Stiglitz began warning that the withdrawing of foreign financial investment from the Far Eastern economies could cause devastation there. However he was unable to warn the president being blocked by Robert Rubin who feared damage to financial interests.The 1997 Asian financial crisis began as the property bubble in the Far East began to burst in Thailand causing large financial losses in those countries that greatly affected foreign investors. While Bill Clinton was preoccupied with the Monica Lewinski scandal Robert Rubin took control of foreign policy and forced loans onto the affected countries. However after each country agreed to IMF bailout loans foreign investors immediately withdrew their money leaving the tax payers with enormous debts and triggering massive economic disasters.After his handling of the economic effects of 9/11 Alan Greenspan became more important and in the wake of Enron he cut interest rates to stimulate the economy. Unusually this failed to cause inflation. It seemed that the New Economy was working to stabilise the economy.However in reality to avoid a repeat of the earlier collapse Chinas Politburo had decided to manage Americas economy via similar techniques to those used by America on the other Far Eastern countries by keeping Chinas exchange rate artificially low they sold cheap goods to America and with the proceeds had bought American bonds. The money flooding into America permitted massive loans to be available to those that would previously be considered too risky. The belief in America was that computers could stabilise and hedge the lending of the money. This permitted lending beyond the point that was actually sustainable. The high level of loan defaulting led ultimately to the 2008 collapse due to a similar housing bubble that the Far Eastern countries had previously faced.Curtis ends the piece by pointing out that not only had the idea of market stability failed to be borne out in practice but that the Californian Ideology had also been unable to stabilise it indeed the ideology has not led to people being Randian heroes but in fact trapped them into a rigid system of control from which they are unable to escape.
Episode 2: Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts
This episode investigates how machine ideas such as cybernetics and systems theory were applied to natural ecosystems and how this relates to the false idea that there is a balance of nature. Cybernetics has been applied to to human beings to attempt to build societies without central control self organising networks built of people based on a fantasy view of nature.Arthur Tansley had a dream where he shot his wife. He wanted to know what it meant so he studied Sigmund Freud. However one part of Freuds theory was that the human brain was an electrical machine. Tansley became convinced that as the brain was interconnected so was the whole of the natural world in networks he called ecosystems which he believed were inherently self-stable and self correcting and which regulated nature as if it were a machine.Jay Forrester was an early pioneer in cybernetic systems who believed that brains cities and even societies live in networks of feedback loops that control them and he thought that computers could determine the effects of the feedback loops. Cybernetics therefore viewed humans as nodes in networks as machines.The ecology movement adopted this idea also and viewed the natural world as systems as it explained how the natural system could stabilise the natural world via natural feedback loops.Norbert Wiener laid out the position that humans machines and ecology are simply nodes in a network in his book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine and this book became the bible of cybernetics.Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum were brothers. Howard collected data from ecological systems and built electronic networks to simulate them. His brother Eugene then took these ideas to make them the heart of ecology and the hypothesis then became a certainty. However they had distorted the idea and simplified the data to an extraordinary degree. That ecology was balanced became an unexamined and unscientific assumption.Buckminster FullerMeanwhile in the 1960s Buckminster Fuller invented a radically new kind of structure the geodesic dome which emulated ecosystems by being made of highly connected relatively weak parts. His other system based ideas inspired the Counterculture movement and set up communes of people considering themselves as nodes in a network without hierarchy and applied feedback to try to control and stabilise their societies and used his domes as habitats. These societies mostly broke up within 3 years.Also in the 1960s Steward Brand filmed a demonstration of a networked computer system with a graphics display mouse and keyboard that he believed would save the world by empowering people in a similar way to the communes to be free as individuals.In 1967 Richard Brautigan published the poetry work All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which called for a cybernetic ecological utopia consisting of a fusion of computers and mammals living in perfect harmony and stability.By the 1970s new problems such as overpopulation limited natural resources and pollution that couldnt be solved by normal hierarchical systems had arrived. Jay Forrester stated that he knew how to solve this and applied systems theory to the problem and drew a cybernetic system diagram for the world. This was turned into a computer model which predicted population collapse. This became the basis of the model that was used by the Club of Rome and the findings from this were published in The Limits to Growth. Forrester then argued for zero growth to maintain a steady state stable equilibrium within the capacity of the Earth.Jan SmutsHowever this was opposed by many people within the environmental movement since the model didnt allow for people to change their values to stabilise the world and also they argued that the model tried to maintain and enforce the current political hierarchy. Arthur Tansley who had invented the term ecosystem had once accused Field Marshall Jan Smuts of the abuse of vegetational concepts. Smuts had invented a philosophy called holism where everyone had a rightful place which was to be managed by white races. The 70s protestors claimed that the same conceptual abuse of the supposed natural order was occurring that it was really being used for political control.At the time there was a general belief in the stability of natural systems. However cracks started to appear when a study was made of predator-prey relationship of wolf and elks. It was found that wild population swings had occurred over centuries. Other studies then found huge variations and a significant lack of homeostasis in natural systems. George Van Dyne then tried to build a computer model to try to simulate a complete ecosystem based on extensive real-world data so as to show how the stability of natural systems actually worked. To his surprise the computer model did not stabilize like the Odums electical model had. The reason for this lack of stabilization was that he had used extensive data which more accurately reflected reality whereas the Odums and other previous ecologists had "ruthlessly simplified nature." The scientific idea had thus been shown to fail but the popular idea remained and even grew as it apparently offered the possibility of a new egalitarian world order.In 2003 a wave of spontaneous revolutions swept through Asia and Europe. Without any central control at all nobody seemed to be in charge except possibly the internet and no overall aims except self-determination and freedom were apparent. This seemed to justify the beliefs of the Computer utopians.However the freedom from these revolutions in fact lasted for only a short time. Curtis compared them with the hippie communes all of which had broken up within three years as the powerful members of the group began to bully the weaker ones the weaker members were unable to band together in their own defence because power structures had been prohibited by the communes rules.Adam Curtis closes the piece by stating that it has become apparent that while the self organising network is good at organising change it is much less good at what comes next networks leave people helpless in the face of people already in power in the world.
Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey
This programme looked into the selfish gene theory which holds that humans are machines controlled by genes which was invented by William Hamilton. Adam Curtis also covered the source of ethnic conflict that was created by Belgian colonialisms artificial creation of a racial divide and the ensuing slaughter that occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which is a source of raw material for computers and cell phones.William Hamilton went to Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while the Second Congo War was raging. He went there to collect Chimpanzee faeces to test his theory that HIV was due to a medical mistake. Unfortunately he caught malaria for which he took aspirin which caused a haemorrhage and he died. However his selfish gene theory lived on.In 1960 Congo had become independent from Belgium but governance promptly collapsed and towns became battle grounds as soldiers fought for control of the mines. America and the Belgians organised a coup and the elected leader was assassinated creating chaos. The Western mining operations were largely unaffected however.Bill Hamilton was a solitary man and he saw everything through the lens of Darwins theory of evolution. When he wanted to know why some ants and humans gave up their life for others he went to Waterloo station and stared at humans for hours and looked for patterns. In 1963 he realised that most of the behaviours of humans was due to genes and looking at the humans from the genes point of view. Humans were machines that were only important for carrying genes and that it made sense for a gene to sacrifice a human if it meant that another copy of the gene elsewhere would prosper.In the 1930s Armand Denis made films that told the world about Africa. However his documentary gave fanciful stories about Rwandas Tutsis being a noble ruling elite originally from Egypt whereas the Hutus were a peasant race. In reality they were racially the same. The Belgian rulers had ruthlessly exploited the myth. But when it came to create independence liberal Belgians felt guilty and decided that the Hutus should overthrow the Tutsi rule. This lead to a blood bath as the Tutsis were then seen as aliens and they were slaughtered.In 1967 American George R. Price went to London after reading Hamiltons little known papers and discovering that he was already familiar with the equations that they were the equations of computers. He was able to show that the equations explained murder warfare suicide goodness spite since these behaviours could help the genes. John Von Neumann had invented self-reproducing machines but Price was able to show that the self-reproducing machines were already in existence that humans were the machines.This had a bad effect on Price and Price began to believe that these equations had been given to him by God even though the equations disproved the existence of God.In Congo a civil war was ongoing and Dian Fossey who was researching gorillas was captured. She escaped and created a new camp high up on a mountain in Rwanda where she continued to study gorillas. She tried to completely protect the gorillas who were very susceptible to human diseases and with the best of intentions terrorised the local people and thus became hated.In 1973 after converting to extreme Christianity as a last chance to disprove the selfish gene theories gloomy conclusions Price decides to start helping poor and homeless people all his possessions in acts of pure altruism influenced and inspired by Christian religion.In the Congo President Mobutu changed the Congos name to Zaire and looted millions of dollars and let mines and industries collapse killed his opponents and stopped a liberal democracy from forming.While this was happening at Fosseys camp Digit her favourite gorilla had been killed and later she was too.Prices attempt to disprove Hamiltons theory has utterly failed and he comes to believe he is being followed by the hound of heaven. He finally reveals in his suicide note that these acts of altruism brought more harm than good to the lives of homeless people.Richard Dawkins took the equations and popularised them and explains that humans are simply machines controlled by the selfish genes and in a sense reinventing the immortal soul but as computer code in the form of the genes.In 1994 the ruling Hutu government set out to eradicate the Tutsi minority. This was explained as incomprehensible ancient rivalry by the Western press. In reality it was due to the Belgian myth created during the colonial rule. Western agencies got involved and the Tutsi fought back creating chaos. Many flooded across the border into Zaire and the Tutsi invaded the refuge camps to get revenge. Mobutu fell from power. Troops arrived from many countries allegedly to help but in reality to gain access to the countrys natural resources used to produce consumer goods for the west. 4.5 million people died.Hamilton by this point was well-honoured. However by now he supported eugenics. He heard a story that HIV had been created from an accident with a polio vaccine which it was thought could have been infected with a chimp virus. This supported his idea that modern medicine could be negative as he thought medicine opposed the logic of the genes. So he travelled to eastern Congo to look for the virus through the midst of the murder and chaos. He died and later research disproved the idea that HIV had come from a medical accident.Curtis ends the piece by saying that Hamiltons ideas that humans are computers controlled by the genes have been accepted. But he asks whether we have accepted a fatalistic philosophy that humans are helpless computers to explain and excuse the fact that as in the Congo we are unable to improve and change the world.