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 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.

11 thoughts on “ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, part 1: A review

  1. It was disappointing, but mainly because so many alternate theories exist about this recent period of history and they generally hold more water than the one Curtis put forward last night.

    Having said that, I do remember the early 90s fad for reading “Atlas Shrugged” and the rise and rise of libertarianism on internet newsgroups and bulletin boards. The assumption that the endpoint of capitalism was a technological utopia was accepted as a given among many of those working in tech across the US. Those same libertarians went on to vote Nader in 2000.

    Also, I do think he got his basic theory right. Information Technology did facilitate the creation of a new corporate elite who do not serve citizens of nations, but serve themselves. That can’t be denied.

  2. Adam Curtis neglected to mention that the free market ideas espoused by Ayn Rand were incompatible with the Federal Reserve system (of which Alan Greenspan was the head) in which the government controls interest rates and the money supply by fiat. This omission is either stupid or, more likely, dishonest.

  3. What was most frustrating about this was that it was both one-sided (as you point out, ignoring the counter-cultural aspect of Silicon Vally so well documented by Douglas Rushkoff’s “Cyberia”) and also unoriginal. Basically, this was just a mix of Naomi Klein on the economy and the likes of Herb Schiller and Neil Postman’s cyber-pessimism. Apart from the mention of the 2008 crash, this could have been made 10 years ago (in fact, that would have put more focus on the dot-bomb).

  4. Curtis has to be watched as a one-sided discussion, even where I don’t agree I find him challenging and thought provoking. Personally I enjoyed All Watched Over and didn’t at all find it a disappointment. In reading you post and the above comments I’m reminded of similar criticisms by others of The Century Of The Self, The Power of Nightmares, and The Trap.

    As for the revealed political message in part 3 of The Trap. I thought that message to be the underlying subtext in almost all of Curtis’s work, back to Pandora’s Box (although I’ll have to watch that again to be sure either way).

    Anyway, I’ve just watched All Watched Over again courtesy of BBC Iplayer. I think the criticism regards Rand and Silicon Valley is reasonable, but perhaps this issue can be viewed in another way: In the Power of Nightmares parallels were drawn between the US Neocon movement and Islamic Radicalism. However it may have been more correct to specify the Straussian ‘wing’ of the Neocon movement, as not all contemporary Neocons could be lumped in with the Straussians e.g. Fukuyama. Likewise is it not still correct to identify an element of the Silicoc Valley culture that was inspired by Rand?

    As for why computing systems became attractive to banks… Leaving aside speed and cost issues, I suspect that in part 2 more will be said that at least alludes to the principles behind automated trading and the supposed Invisible Hand.

    Donnacha De Long.
    I agree that all of Curtis’s films can be accused of being unoriginal to a degree – elements of his arguments are found elsewhere. However he does come at things from his own angle with his own agenda (the failure of political power). It should be borne in mind that many in the TV audience won’t be aware of the other sources that influence him.

    Thanks for an interesting post and interesting comments.

  5. I don’t possess any particular knowledge of ‘cybernetic banking’ or deep knowledge of Greenspan era Fed Reserve policies, but I will say this was the freshest documentary I’ve seen on the foreign policy-finance-technology nexus ever. Moreover, while I agree that this wasn’t what some of us have come to expect AC to deliver, this is Part 1 of 3 and my understanding is that Part 3 is still being put together “in light of recent events”. That’s why I’ll reserve formal judgement and look at AWOBMLG from a strictly narrative angle…

    Adam Curtis is (and always has been) a maverick film maker – something more akin to agit-prop artist than a doco journalist. I believe his idiosyncratic strategy is a genuine attempt to free the viewer from the bondage of dull content which invariably seems designed to drive viewers away to gameshows and Ross Kemp action-hero claptrap. Curtis uses fast edits, fantastic sound design and oblique montages of archive footage (all toned down considerably in AWOBMLG) to cut through the precepts of traditional documentary film. In short his stylistic approach makes up for the inevitable gaps, glitches and idiosyncrasies of his ‘subjective matrix’.

    Our turbo-charged techno/cultural times often elude the best of our thinkers, and with subject matter like this the old formulae of dissecting and discussing events of recent past are fraught with theoretical hype and tautological traps. In a world coming apart at the seems – evidenced by the ongoing ‘failure of political power’ Chris R mentioned – I’ll take ‘what’ over the ‘how’ any day.

    one more point: nobody has mentioned ‘It Felt Like a KIss’, his brilliant site specific installation – go check it out fellas : )

  6. “A few silicon valley entrepreneurs admired Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and they like made computers, and banks like used computers, yeah?, and the banks messed up while they were using computers, yeah?, so therefore the financial crisis was caused by silicon valley disciples of Ayn Rand, oh and also by Alan Greenspan who was like best friends with Rand, and was in control of the Federal Reserve, so he presumably tried to implement Randian concepts while in power, yeah?, and that like allowed the financial sector to coast towards disaster, irrevocable catastrophic disaster that is worse than anything else in history and any possible alternative, yeah?, and even right now our thoughts are being commodified by the silicon valley Randian oligarchs, yeah?”

    Tenuous, to say the least. The only saving grace for this shambolic ‘explanation’ of events is that Curtis shied away from stating some conclusions explicitly. For instance we know (if we do our research) that Rand’s economic views were completely at odds with ‘elites’ manipulating government and fiscal policy, and of course the very existence of IMF, Fed and bailouts, and although the documentary didn’t mention this, it didn’t explicitly state otherwise, in fact you could interpret Greenspan’s ‘change of heart’ about the American economy in the 90s as being an abandonment of any Randian ideas he still held. But the documentary doesn’t explicitly say this, either. Perhaps Curtis wants to talk to us about how elites superciliously adopt a philosophy/ideology to give their actions credibility, but beneath the surface they have no genuine interest in upholding those values. Or perhaps its about how following a set of principles to the bitter end can lead to unforseen difficulties (eg. Rand’s love life, in parallel to the financial crisis), but if that’s the case then he failed to consider that one failure is not total failure, or that disaster could be precipitated by people abandoning their principles, rather than actually sticking to them. Or maybe it’s about how principled people in general can damage society. Who knows, really.

  7. Thanks for this review- just found it after posting my own take on part 2.

    This is the first stuff I’ve seen from Adam Curtis. I was struck by the ambition and style of his filmmaking. Much of the content in part 1 was interesting (for someone who’d only heard about Ayn Rand before in passing), and it was interestingly presented too. As to the how and why of the connections between the various themes… it was all very tenuous, certainly a big stretch, but I assumed that was just the ‘Curtis style’. If the elements were taken in isolation, I couldn’t find much objectionable.

    I’d be interested to know what you made of part 2. Perhaps more focused and coherent, but as his thinking becomes more explicit the more I wonder where he’s heading with it. I think he has some serious misunderstandings about the ‘wrongness’ of ecosystems, if nothing else.

    Not having seen his previous work, I can’t say how this compares— but it’s certainly cleverly made and thought provoking stuff, which elevates it above the usual crop of TV docs.

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