Adam Curtis: The Rise of the Machines
Cybernetics, ecosystems and pop
Interview Adam Curtis' new series begins tonight on BBC TV, and I've had a unique insight into its creation. Like all Curtis work it continues some of his long-standing fascinations - and adds some new ones.
As Associate Producer I helped explore these ideas with Curtis over the past three years, particularly the ideas of web utopianism and ecology - which he explores in the second and third programmes.
After a gentle start looking at Ayn Rand and her disciple Alan Greenspan, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace moves into areas that might make some people feel uncomfortable - as it should do. For two of the programmes tackle "what it means to be a human" - particularly with popular ideas of humans as a node in a networked system, or as a robot for genes.
It's probably the most ambitious, complex and challenging piece of journalism Curtis has attempted - in other hands it could be very heavy going. For example, the third film tells the story of the biologists Bill Hamilton and George Price, and the populariser of their "gene centric" view of evolution, influenced by Game Theory and Richard Dawkins. If that isn't enough, it also tells, in parallel, a history of the Congo and Rwanda to the present day - with the stories intersecting at various points.
Another film raises many of the creepy aspects of the web, and techno utopianism, that long-time Reg readers will be familiar with. Curtis was wary of making a film that's part of a backlash against the web utopianism. But he points out, instead of liberating us, the web has the opposite effect: established authority emerges stronger than before.
So the sound in the background you hear is of a few sacred cows being slaughtered. We spoke to him as he braced for the backlash.
Adam Curtis: I've always wanted to make a film about managerialism. It's impossible, because with managers nothing really happens. What I'm dealing with here is the ideology behind managerialism. Behind all this, behind the flipchart, is the idea that you're nodes in a system, and 'our job' is to keep things stable.
Basically I've touched on technocratic ideas of organisation, and machine ideas of organisation a lot before, but never really done them big. Ever since the 1990s we've had this idea of connectivity - we're all connected. You meet in all sorts of areas. You meet it in talks about the global economy, we're all connected in a global world. You meet it in talks about nature - we're all interconnected in our world. And you meet it in utopian theories about the web.
These were really new ways of organising the world without power. There weren't any hierarchies in nature, everyone was a little node connected in an ecosystem. We wouldn't run it, we all ran it together, helped by computers.
I was suspicious of it because I hadn't noticed power had disappeared. The real bastions of power are as they were, and are more concentrated. So I decided to trace those ideas back to their source. It leads you back to an absolutely fascinating area, which you can loosely call cybernetics, and also information theory.
What links them all is a machine idea of organisation of order, based on information flowing around systems. It really began to come together post-war years with computers - you could organise these systems mathematically and predict [their behaviour].
So I've traced how fundamentally, an idea like that, which is fine as an engineering concept, and then a computer information concept, and an ordering principle - are then taken up by powerful people, by technocrats, and by us as models for wider ideas about how to organise society.
That's the story I try and tell - when you try and apply systems ideas in a wider area you can't deal with power. They get distorted, used and abused, they bring a naivety about human society which the powerful in the world find quite useful to extend their power a bit.
Another bloody revolution?
The Reg: Anyone looking at the Twitter revolutions will see how much they look like Flash Mobs - people came together rapidly, but dispersed rapidly too.
AC: I'm criticising the naivety of cyber utopianism - and the way they can use and distort the networks.
That's not to deny the bravery of hundreds of thousands of people. It was the first time journalists noticed the internet was being used to organise. You can't deny Twitter and Facebook can help organise people. What it can't do is then offer an alternative ideology - the dream of another kind of world. And it can't stand up to people in power.
In the second film, Curtis describes how the hippies, influenced by cybernetic prophets such as Bucky Fuller, headed for the communes. But in the communes, the bullies took over.
AC: In the communes powerful people take control and use it and abuse it quite ruthlessly, which is why most communes fell apart. And in the early internet revolutions such as Georgia they failed - they've gone backwards, those societies.
Machines cannot put forward another vision of society and because self-organising networks can't deal with vested interests, deal with power.
While cybernetics became a popular management philosophy in the United States and the West, the Soviets were always deeply suspicious of it. In the West, cybernetics influenced ideas about man and nature.
In the film called The Monkey In The Machine - and the Machine In The Monkey Curtis tells the story of the "gene eyed view of humanity" - which he says destroyed the Enlightenment idea that we're above and apart from nature.
AC: Yes, in all my series it's diminishing the idea that humans have the capacity to bend the world to our will. The Enlightenment idea is that's what marks us off from the rest of the world.
This idea drove progressive politics from the mid-19th century - I think it's wonderful. It's led to wonderful things. But from there we've retreated into this systems idea instead.
We actually invent nature. Every generation invents it and projects its fantasies on to it. The Enlightenment idea was that you could take chaos and bend it to your will. Now we have a pessimistic idea of nature, that it must be held stable.
Ecologists once warned that ecosystems are fundmentally stable, says Curtis. Now they don't think so, and see them as chaotic. But the idea of humans ruining ecosystems escaped into the popular consciousness.
Another extreme view of biology also became massively popular, and also led to pessimism, Curtis argues.
AC: What Dawkins says is that we are just machines - our function is just machines whose role is to allow embedded systems to carry on over time. And what these systems are doing is playing mathematical games of strategy against each other, hoping to survive. So we become soft, fleshy machines to carry these codes.
I think that's another example of a system that diminishes us. We've embraced it quite happily, because it offers us a retreat from trying to change the world. Whatever we do, liberals, the right, corporations, in recent history it seems to lead to unforseen consequences. We throw up our hands and go, "Oh dear!".
But surely a reason to retreat from what he calls politics is that the great state programs of the 1960s - bureuacratic and centrally planned - didn't really work out? The Left now defines itself by its enthusiasm for the State Doing Something - yet even Marx predicted the state would eventually "wither away".
AC: People became disenchanted with politics in the 1970s - because it hadn't worked, and it had led to deep economic crisis, and global chaos. That's when people turned to this idea that we are part of a global system. It seemed like a non-political way of ordering the world.
The fact is that the Left, who might bemoan this, don't have any ideas. And I think what they hide behind their criticism of managerialism, is that they have no ideas. We don't have any optimistic ideas for the future. It's up for the Left to come up with some.
Kick out the pessimism that cybernetics' bastard offspring, managerialism, has created, says Curtis. With large parts of the state and big corporations devoted to cybernetic bureaucracies monitor our behaviour online, hopefully this particular series will strike a topical chord.
And I think you'll enjoy it. ®
Where to find the new series
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace begins tonight (Monday) 23 May on BBC2, with a film called "Love and Power". Part 2, "The Use and Abuse of Vegetative Concepts" airs on the 30th, and looks at ecosystems and the internet. The third and final part, "The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey", goes out the following week and tells the story of Hamilton, Price and genes, and Rwanda and the Congo.