Wednesday, 10 August 2011

I Like to Think of a Cybernetic Ecology...

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Part One: Love and Power
Written and Directed by Adam Curtis
Further production details on imdb

dramatically assembled sensationalist documentary dancing on the edge of plausibility.educational;subversive;intriguing.

The first in this triptych of documentaries by Adam Curtis purportedly about “The rise of the machines and the dream of a stable world,” Love and Power focusses on political, economic and violent events in recent history. Under the assumption that Curtis' Good BBC Documentary is well researched, accurate, with minimal agenda and not in the least bit paranoid, this seems an incredibly educational and enlightening 60 minutes. 

In the history of events it covers its interest flits between the micro and the macro – from the individuals concerned, the details of their lives and relationships to world changing economic situations and global events. On the micro side, and the empathic entry point into potentially dry subject matter is our self defined 'hero' Ayn Rand. Rand started what seems aptly defined as a cult which, now faded into obscurity, influenced a generation of young Americans. We focus on the particular influence of a subculture of young professionals, mostly based around Silicon Valley, some of whom went on the assume nationwide positions of influence in the USA.

Rand's philosophy, 'Objectivism,' involved a 'new code of morality' in which 'man's highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness... each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self interest.' Living as such, guided only by selfish desires, they too would become 'heroic figures.' Her followers were inspired – they could live selfishly, but with a faith in humanity that all would be well for larger society – the true American Dream.

With this introduction, our interest is piqued, we see 'the dream of a stable world,' but how does this relate to 'the rise of the machines?' Just as this relevance is in question the documentary seamlessly moves onto more technical talk. It examines Loren Carpenter's Pong experiment which used technology to demonstrate how people, aided by machines, can form a self-organising system – one that functions as a whole without any top down organisation; it seems machines can bring us stability; the climate is set for the rise.

Big words are thrown around – Freedom; Utopia; Anarchy. The narration and soundtrack (which draws heavily from Clint Mansell's excellent Moon score) raises levels of excitement and intensity. By consistently returning to the story of Ayn Rand and her 'Collective' spliced with significant historical events Curtis builds her up to seem incredibly influential. We focus on the SE Asian property bubble of the early 90s and its subsequent burst in the crisis of 1997. Rand is quickly linked to Alan Greenspan, the head of the US Federal Reserve in those vital years preceding the crisis.  Despite his own concerns he advised the then President Clinton to let the 'new economy' - the economy dependant on machines - grow. The computers would control the risk and the allow the market to self stabilise. To the uplifting strains of the Kills' Monkey 23 we watch the pre crisis boom. This was the rise the rise of the machines – the world had changed and the markets were booming forever.

It is now that it gets really exciting, really topical. The Asian financial crisis of the 90sis paralleled to the current global financial crisis. Is Rand at least partly to blame for the former? Is Monica Lewinsky?? Are there similar culprits for the latter? Is it a helpless cycle no one knows how to prevent, and one which the Powers That Be are happy, or helpless to see continue? Love and Power can be seen as an explanation of current events, with their roots so long ago, with the 'Collective' and the flawed nature of modern finance with machines at its heart. Conversely it could be seen as sensationalist reporting - Rand is the MacGuffin which draws us in while Curtis cashes in on all the anti banking sentiment in popular culture and society as a whole, perhaps piling more fuel on this particular fire.

The wonderfully dystopian title All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace draws from a Richard Bratigan poem of the same name. The sentiment of the poem “I like to think... of a cybernetic ecology, free of our labours... all watched over by machines of loving grace” may be intended as a utopian vision, definitely shared by Greenspan and the others of the Logical Positivists and the Collective, and so much of our society that is so willing to put our fate in the hands of machines. However this documentary definitely falls on the dystopian interpretation. Society's willingness to put its faith in machines even while we watch forlornly as the cycles of destruction repeat. And what solace or solution does Curtis' All Watched Over offer? Nothing. For part one anyway.

While sometimes dancing on the edge of plausibility, if one is prepared to suspend one's disbelief or resign oneself to further research, the documentary feels wonderfully subversive, educational, touching on so many topics you want to hear more about. It is enjoyable to watch, dramatically assembled with it's eclectic soundtrack and neatly edited oh so fashionable archive footage. I'll definitely be looking out for parts 2 and 3.

No comments:

Post a Comment

scribble scribble scribble