All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, by Adam Curtis, BBC2

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, by Adam Curtis, BBC2

Adam Curtis’ challenge to domination by computer systems asks questions the mainstream media – and the Left – typically avoid.

Machine (De)Code. Television review – Tom Jennings
Another of this renegade documentarian’s giddy excursions through modern history and culture renders strange and sinister what otherwise appear as consensual prevailing wisdoms – again stitched together with rich collaged detournements of television current affairs and advertising archive imagery. Previous unique disconcerting dissections of commonplace conceptual hegemonies dominating political discourse include The Century of the Self (2002; on the deployment of Freudian psychology in PR and advertising mystifications of human need and desire), The Power of Nightmares (reviewed in Freedom, 13th November 2004; paralleling War on Terror and jihadist worldviews), and The Trap (Freedom, 19th May 2007; deconstructing neoliberal governmentality’s control-freak disciplining of individualised populations with fragmented measurement). His new trilogy, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace (BBC2, May-June), excavates curious cases of iconoclastic innovations in systems theory and philosophy which may seem embarrassingly uncool now but, so the story goes, paved the way not only for the contemporary stranglehold of ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalist governance via worldwide webs of IT algorithms increasingly mediating social, economic and political structures, but also its inevitable, inexorable attendant fuckups.
A somewhat arbitrary starting point is the psychotic individualism popularised by novelist Ayn Rand in the 1950s. Her purportedly ‘rational’ Objectivism stripped social immersion from cold heroic egos whose rabid pursuit of selfish ends somehow facilitates gratification for all without coercion. Fans included disillusioned hippies, Silicon Valley hucksters and Ivy League intellectuals like Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan – such vain dreams of designing communities, technics and economies with hard-wired self-correcting stability appealing to swathes of upwardly-mobile graduates obligingly blind to the dirty businesses of real history. That banishing complexity from mathematical models translates into programmes destined to collapse under the weight of their contradictions soon banjaxed utopian communes impotent to counter tyrannies of structurelessness, whereas it took decades for casino capitalism’s ‘perfect markets’ rolled out across the globe to implode – and the internet’s commodification of narcissism still hinders awareness of the catastrophic vulnerability of virtual production and coordination. Meanwhile, trends in other fields wove the entire biosphere into the grandiose technocratic feedback loop courtesy of deterministic religions of homeostatic ecology and, from banalised neuroscience and evolutionary theory, feeble-minded ‘selfish gene’ science-fictions even sadder and stupider than Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. And each turn of the managerial screw further ossifies corporate control and extracts obscene superprofits while governments blame, bludgeon and fleece the poor for failing to deserve digital utopia. Yet escalating disasters prompt merely cynical resignation, reactionary regression, and political activism reduced to aimless mass whingeing, with neither concrete tactics nor coherent strategy beyond fetishising and fiddling with organisational niceties and other devils in the world-system’s details.
Curtis’ wildly overambitious narrative can’t, however, explain the reciprocal interactions among discourses, institutional relationships, technologies, markets and media – let alone variations across and within national and international contexts and contrasting civic and private spheres. The lack of a sense of real-world agency is clearest in the regular voiceover recourse to simplistic clichés of what ‘we’ believe – neither distinguishing superficial public opinion recitation from motivated assertion, nor acknowledging vast discrepancies according to biography and demography. Even lazier is a hyperbolic emphasis on the supposedly epochal significance of idiosyncratic proponents, manifestations or articulations of ideas whose frailties are then gleefully exposed. More thoroughly nuanced genealogical interpretation would root emergent patterns further back, progressing from accidental collisions of particular agglomerations of vested interests at specific times and places, which then bias subsequent events sufficiently to become entrenched even if accompanying high-faluting theoretical contortions soon go the way of all cerebral and visceral flesh. Without fine-grained attention to grubby material circumstance, the opposite transpires – an inane idealism with the course of world history determined by thought processes among flawed geniuses, statesmen and entrepreneurs, in a kind of Da Vinci Code open conspiracy coincidentally concentrating wealth and hierarchy.
Moreover the influential notions pinpointed have actually been commonplace, in various guises, over centuries – though dismissed as trivial, marginal, fanciful or downright dangerous when not proposed from within legitimised structures, recuperable iuto acceptable doctrine, dovetailing with pragmatic application, and flattering privilege. Nevertheless, extremely pertinent critiques with arguably far-reaching implications for resistance to the status quo are identified in All Watched Over. So although illusions of stable self-regulating networks have ancient provenance, the baleful juggernaut built from current cybernetic fusions of biotechnology and political economy won’t be stopped by moral posturing mimicking its circuitry. Questions of the political utility of science and rationality, and derivative techniques of social organisation, thus can’t be avoided – the series’ targets exemplifying discursive mission-creep, where provisional ensembles of concepts promise a tentative handle on reality where certain operations have reasonably predictable results. Yet beyond highly circumscibed conditions mayhem frequently ensues, and even within them unforeseen consequences should encourage humility about claims of truth – and not just when hindsight nails yesterday’s knowledge as nonsense. But careers in expertise – or viable egalitarian communities – are scarcely persuasively founded on honest admissions of ignorance.
Therefore it’s worth debunking ‘facts’ held to be self-evident yet ignored when inconvenient and unceremoniously dumped when demonstrably toxic to elite agendas. However, no meaningful alternative is offered to satisfy those whose livelihoods and selfhoods are intimately implicated in serving the smooth functioning of today’s society. Viewers are left bewildered and bereft, familiar comforting nostrums revealed as hollow contingent blips on much wider spectra of possibilities, hitherto unimagined or scrupulously suppressed in favour of sophisticated mysticisms with sundry squalid devices acting as deus ex machina – directly encouraging passivity and covertly infecting attempts to supersede present ills. So much for ‘progress’, when gods, masters and more congenially modern heroes and villains of civilisation and barbarism jostle with contemporary impersonal universals of science, management and markets, all masquerading as guarantors of natural order and animating its loyally blinkered, even radical, oppositions. But while his neo-surrealist filmic methodology decisively perverts such fantasies, Curtis finally explicitly wagers on the conflictual politics of struggle harbouring the potential to transcend latterday compulsively conformist closed circuits – despite his high-liberal predispositions precluding any glimpse of collective subjectivities to prosecute it. That’s up to us, then – providing ‘we’ can sidestep the pathetic pitfalls he deliriously delineates.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 16, August 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk