Countering The Machines Of Loving Grace

"It's not the effect of technology on society, on economics, on religion, on war, on culture – etcetera – on art, it's that everything now is existing in technology as the new host of life. It's the price we pay for the pursuit of our technological happiness…"

Godfrey Reggio, director of Naqoyqatsi

The recent broadcast of Adam Curtis' All Watched over By Machines Of Loving Grace sought to explore how our post-digital culture has "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us". Curtis' hypothesis was sound and – more than a decade after the modern web's birth – a timely and healthy reflection on the implications of a planetary computing organism.

image from berglondon.com

Though I've been a great admirer of his previous works, notably The Power Of Nightmares, this recent piece seemed to be intellectually random at best, cutting and pasting from recent history to contrive a conspiratorial narrative that didn't really hold up to scrutiny.

Indeed, the series was widely criticised; breathtaking technique, but thin on expertise and insight. Indeed, Curtis' very methods have been cheekily parodied as The Loving Trap. Incidentally, Richard Brautigan's poem, from which Curtis' film draws its title, speculated about a post-cybernetic utopia where technology had enabled humanity to occupy a world free of labour.

What did stand out from Curtis' essay, was the notion that humanity is increasingly seen as just another component within overlapping ecospheres and 'systems'. I took this as the singular insight of the series and indeed it may have been enlightening to hear arguments that humanity is indeed exceptional and we should be comfortable with this superiority.

Where Curtis fixated on drawing an implausible line from Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan to hippy communes, Richard Dawkins, holistic ecosystems and Congolese mineral conflicts, there is actually a burgeoning body of research and expertise that provides some fascinating insights into our anxieties about post-digital life…

If Curtis' hypothesis took in even a fraction of the perspective these kinds of thinkers, the result may have been a clearer exposition of the dystopian dependencies and dangers of humanity mediated by machines.

Sadly, though All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace came across as a stylistic and masterful piece of editing and filmmaking, it masks a core of ignorance and misdirection. 

Comments

  1. I agree. I wonder why he bothered with the connections between Ayn Rand, libertarianism, neuroscience and spontaneous networks when a 30-minute segment on Hayek could have covered all those subjects and would not have relied on tenuous connections between people across space and time.
    I thought that the Facebook/Society of the Spectacle/reduction of people to images of people was an interesting line of thought that he failed to follow up on too.

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  2. It’s a shame, such a gifted filmmaker coupled with some real and interesting observations from writers such as the above could have made for a thrilling discussion.
    Sadly, I learned more about Curtis’ eclectic tastes rather than any deeper understanding of how machine culture has affected humanity.
    The hypothesis was sound, but the trajectory of ideas was incoherent.

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  3. Great post – hours of fun in the links but he did introduce me to Pizzicato 5 and I can forgive him lots for that.

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  4. Ahh yes – the addictive perils of Jpop. Once you’ve tasted Pizzicato, you’ll be sampling Fantastic Plastic Machine, Cornelius & the Sushi 3003 compilations, a slippery slope to meta-kitsch pop :$
    Like Scorsese, Curtis has great taste in music and can make mundane music into sublime juxtaposition. I just wish that flair was coupled with a hypothesis that made sense.
    Cutting and pasting archive material is easy – you can’t leap around history and fact the same way… there’s lots to criticise in the area he’s attacking, lots of interesting things to unpack, but I don’t think he got near any of them.

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  5. Totally agree Imran, I just watched the last ep and it was definitely less coherent than previous ones he’s done. It’s a shame because it’s the clarity of the grand narratives he provides (even if I don’t agree with them) which I usually find so interesting and entertaining.
    Still there’s a lot to be said for the density of jumping off points into people and ideas I hadn’t come across before. Likewise with to your list of links so thanks.

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  6. Hey Tom, I do love the ambition of his work, but in light of “Loving Grace”, I’m starting to be a more critical of his ideas – like his recent analysis of Syria and the Baath party http://imrn.me/jk4A6w – I guess I should’ve less acceptinfg of his earlier work anyway 🙂

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  7. Great take on the programmes Imran! Since i’m a small minded imbecile it’s all to easy to take flashily produced documentaries at their word 😉
    One thing that occurred while watching them was I lost sight of the digital aspect of the original concept. It seems the one common aspect to “dystopia” is man. Sometimes I wish we were really watched over by those machines of loving grace. It might stop us being such arseholes to each other.
    Oh and Curtis did put together a great soundtrack. Though I reckon he overused Burial’s “Forgive” – brilliant though it is, it was used to signal “something dying” (concept or other) a couple of times too often.

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  8. LOL, it’s ironic that Curtis’ essays on how we’re manipulated are punctuated by musical cues that signal part of his thesis 🙂
    I like the idea of benevolent “Machines Of Loving Grace” – but that’s perhaps because I’m Muslim and like the notion of a something more moral than humanity…

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  9. Pretty sure thats not strictly a muslim thing! I love the notion of something better than what we are and what we got, but I kinda view it as akin to cold fusion – love it to be true, but until proved otherwise, you’re all “Ponds and Fleischman” to me… 😉

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  10. Of course not… and not what I was implying! But I’m also pretty optimistic about humanity… you have to be, otherwise we all might as well give up now 🙂

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