Adam Curtis is a filmmaker who intrigues and frustrates. His Century of the Self and Power of Nightmares peeled back the layers on Freud and modern capitalism, and the rise of neoconservatism and fundamentalist Islam, respectively, in a new and interesting light. Curtis may not be right, he may not even be telling the whole story, but he offers an angle, a way of skewering and unruffling our preconceptions. However, with his 2007 The Trap, he started falling off his usual run of form. It offered a frustrating take on the modern take on liberty, from positive to negative, and the perniciousness of game theory, behavioral economic models and performance targets – connections a little too technical and forensic to explain just with mashup of videos and laconic voiceover. A waffly final third culminated in a call to arms for positive liberty, at odds with his usual dispassionate tone of voice.
Four years on, we have his new series, ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, and the chance to see whether The Trap was an aberration from true form. Like its predecessor, Curtis delves into the technical not just the historical. His basic thesis (I’m summing up) is as follows: the selfish Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand inspired a generation of Silicon Valley geeks to create computer systems with the aim of removing the shackles of government to create a utopia of free individuals; these same system are then used by the creators of the New Economy (led by another Rand acolyte, Alan Greenspan) to create a new economic miracle controlled by the banks, Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve. But instead of creating a utopia they created chaos – the machines they had such faith in failed, and despite producing an economic crisis in Asia in 1997, we kept faith in them to create an even larger worldwide crisis a decade later, from which we can see no way out of.
The problem with this is that it’s seeing too many links where there aren’t any. Not every Silicon Valley company was inspired by Rand (Curtis named one or two examples at best, neither of who leading lights on the scene), and the area’s philosophy owes arguably more to the countercultural movement and political climate of California than Rand’s self-indulgent miserabilism. It’s certainly a long way away from the conservative, East Coast, market fundamentalist philosophy of Greenspan, Robert Rubin and indeed the entire neoconservative/Chicago School generation of politicians, economists and bankers who eventually assumed political control. Cyberlibertarianism envisions a future of individuals networked together, free of hierarchy or even the state; market fundamentalism celebrates harnessing the aggregate of individuals’ behaviour for greater prosperity and stability. In short, one coast’s philosophy created John Perry Barlow, the other Alan Greenspan.
Curtis’s other flaw is to confuse “machines” with what machines actually run. A computer is just a unit for processing numbers in any number of ways. They are just boxes, glorified calculators. It’s the software we run on them that makes them do “evil” and this software is made by human beings. Having spent so long talking about a generation brainwashed by Rand, Curtis now attributes all the evils to the machines. But who programmed them? Who first thought of using them for automated trading, just-in-time manufacturing, supply chain management and all the things that are now taken for granted in the New Economy? For a storyteller who loves to peel apart the unknown and the people behind history, Curtis instead frustratingly wastes his time on peripheral figures such as Ayn Rand (who died a recluse in 1982) and Bill Clinton (distracted by the Lewinsky affair and powerless to stop the SE Asia crisis), rather than the people who built and shaped the information economy.
The result is a mess, with Curtis making oversimplified and hurried connections between various subplots. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story to be told amongst this clutch of different tales. How did a bunch of so-called geeks and slackers, growing from the midst of the counterculture, create a multibillion dollar paragon of capitalism? How did the conservative, sleepy institutions of Wall Street become seduced by the wonders of technology and grow hypertrophically on computer models, automated trading and complex financial instruments? In short, how did Barlow and Greenspan’s generations become allies, intertwined and taking on each other’s aspects and practices? And finally, how have we become so dependent on these systems, making them become so ubiquitous and invisible, that we didn’t notice things were going badly wrong until it was too late?
If you think this sounds familiar, it’s because Curtis used this intertwined-dichotomy style of filmmaking so well with The Power of Nightmares: the story of how the ideological descendants of Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb ended up as putative enemies, yet neither could live without the other, and both were grounded in the same similar grievances with individualism and liberalism. It’s odd that Curtis was able to portray the balance of similarities and differences in that film, yet with AWOBMOLG he struggles to make sense of it all, and ends up merely telling the “what” rather than the “how”, giving us numerous red herrings in the process.
It’s easy (but patronising) to say that’s because “technology is hard” and it’s difficult to comprehend it and history together rather than history alone. But Curtis is not a stupid man. It’s perhaps more charitable to say it’s easy that when it comes to relatively-uncharted history of the information age, there is simple so much more information and so many possible narratives, it’s easier to see pattens where there are none than not. But, this was just part one, and maybe parts two and three are better, and a lot more coherent.
In the meantime let this not detract from Curtis’s earlier works – if you haven’t seen them, The Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self are both available from archive.org. His KABUL: CITY NUMBER ONE blog is a collection of blogging and archive clips about the Afghan capital, and well worth reading. And I retain a soft spot for It Felt Like A Kiss, an avant-garde experimental attempt at storytelling based on 20th century history commissioned by the Manchester International Festival. AWOBMOLG was disappointing but don’t let it put you off entirely.