In 1967, the American novelist and poet Richard Brautigan published a poem titled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (first video below). This is also the perfectly chosen title of this three-part documentary from 2011 by the establishment contrarian Adam Curtis. Whilst calling him this, I remind you that his films are produced for the BBC and that his work is the subjective artistic view of one and not the bedrock truth. But it definitely is a catchy way to make one think.
In the series, Curtis argues that computers have failed to liberate humanity, and instead have “distorted and simplified our view of the world around us.”
The eponymous poem by Richard Brautigan (1967):
1. “Love and Power”
Part 1 “begins with a strange woman in the 1950’s in New York,” connects Ayn Rand with Alan Greenspan and Silicon Valley, tracing the failures of her personal life and lack of acceptance in her philosophies, comparing to their massive influence decades later among people in power over the global economy. Rand rejected altruism and supported rational egoism, so surprisingly there’s no relation to the RAND Corporation discussed in The Trap, which worked on game theory, positing human behavior as perfectly selfish.
2. “The Use And Abuse Of Vegetational Concepts”
Part 2 is about natural ecosystems, and the myth that they remain perfectly in balance – Curtis says more recent, complex models show them to be in constant flux. Loved the ecology discussions, the scientific project that attempted to precisely measure every detail of a particular field. This is shown alongside early communes (humans trying to live in perfect balance without power structures) and recent national revolts (glorious-looking uprisings by “the people” against authoritarian power, only to see it replaced by new authoritarian power a year later).
3. “The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”
Part 3 discusses the social tendency to view people as individually unimportant parts of a large, self-balancing system. We get stories of a game-theory biologist and his colleagues who theorized that all behavior of living creatures is a result of the needs of their genes – more depowering thoughts. We close in Africa where another animal behaviorist, Dian Fossey, was working, showing how false theories on human behavior and evolution combined with the desires of technology companies led to disaster for the people of Congo/Zaire and Rwanda.