Review: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Part One: Love and Power
BBC Two, Monday 23 May

“A series of films about how humans have been colonised by the machines they have built. Although we don’t realise it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers.”

Adam Curtis’s opening premise was that this was “a story about the rise of the machines” (no, not Terminator 3); how it was believed that computers and non-hierarchical networks could replace systems of political control to produce stable and self-regulating social order, a new kind of global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of the past.

What Curtis gives us is a dissection of human follies, belief systems that could be enabled by technology, how they failed and how they continue to fail…

Part one was an examination of the philosophy of Ayn Rand (author of Fountainhead, Atlas shrugged) and how her values took hold in America; the ‘virtues of selfishness,’ selfish capitalism, the death of altruism. They were seized upon by digital entrepreneurs like Mackaskey and Ellison and economists – notably Allan Greenspan.

It took us through the artificial boom created by Clinton at Greenspan’s persuasion; persuaded to give over political power to the financial elite on Wall St in pursuit of new economy, that elite used it to save themselves in the bust that followed.

Powered by new trading and banking networks, the US economy overheated in a domestic bubble, made worse by boom-and-bust overseas property bubbles in Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea. Greenspan attempted to intervene in the system he had enabled and was forced to withdraw his objections by politics. Computer networks hadn’t redistributed power, just shifted it.

In Curtis’ account of the global financial crash, the mathematical models administered by computers to mitigate the risk of complex financial instruments produced speculation no different than the South Sea Island bubble or Tulip fever. Markets are ultimately regulated by politicians influenced by commercial interests, media and voters, under rules that don’t apply to dictatorships such as China which manipulate markets according to their own agendas. The most damning criticism was for the failed IMF bailouts of Asian markets which were subverted to rescue Western investors and spread Western market economics so they could do it all over again.

The programme is not about the rise of the machines, it is social commentary. Ayn Rand was a refugee from a Soviet Russia that had destroyed God just as Rand wanted to destroy politics. Rand rationalised everything including her own emotion to produce a pure fundamentalist ideology no more workable than Marxism.

Curtis concluded we find ourselves “helpless components in a global system controlled by rigid logic  that we are powerless to challenge or to change”. The longed-for limitless freedoms of the new economy have left us in thrall to a new handful of megalithic corporations such as Apple, Google and Amazon.

Lifting it’s title form Richard Brautigan’s poetry volume All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Curtis’ essay of voice-over, archive and pop music is an accomplished lecture of old-fashioned TV documentary. Human failures were illustrated using archive interviews with the emotionally brittle Rand, and the counterpoint of Hilary Clinton doing the tour of Whitehouse against Bill Clinton working a crowd with a doe-eyed Monica Lewinsky at the fore. Sometimes jarring, sometimes eerie and unsettling, sometimes clunking and clumsy, Curtis’ film is didactic and uneven. It’s a gloomy and depressing concoction, made convincing only by Curtis’ own soothing voice-over, like Geoffrey Palmer producing a propaganda piece without the humour.  RC

Adam Curtis is a documentary film maker, whose work includes The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self, The Mayfair Set, Pandora’s Box, The Trap and The Living Dead.

Part Two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, May 30, 2011 demolishes the notion of the self-regulating ecosystem as a technologist’s fantasy.