Really thought-provoking — Adam Curtis on SBS last night

In my post Facebook does it for me again… I wrote:

…tonight I will be intrigued and/or annoyed by All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace on SBS1 at 8.30. There’s some good discussion on the comment thread there.

And I have been more intrigued than annoyed, but I am still processing how much of what Curtis suggests I really accept. Quite a bit eventually, I suspect. Certainly that first episode made very clear, simply by showing the person herself quite extensively, that Ayn Rand was barking mad.


Last night’s episode challenged quite a few things I (and possibly you) take for granted, and on many of these things was very convincing. For example, why did hippydom and all those communes fail, which they did, and achieve very little in the long run?


Another blogger has reflected on last night’s episode, having also seen it last night on SBS: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts): plausible premise founders on lack of definitions and historical perspective.

Adam Curtis’s “The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts” looks at how rival theories dreamt up by a botanist / socialist and a military man in South Africa in the 1920s came to influence concepts of the self-organising system in systems engineering, environmental studies and studies of human behaviour which fed into popular culture. The idea of self-organising systems posits that individuals are equal players in a system where they co-operate to achieve equilibrium and balance and that this balance is a good thing. There are no hierarchies or notions of coalitions and alliances that compete for power. The idea became popular in new fields of science such as cybernetics and migrated to studies of nature where biologists and ecologists alike believed that natural systems “strove” for stability and after disasters or other disturbances could restore themselves to their original balance. The idea also became popular among hippie counter-cultures in the West in the 1960s and many young people established communes in which they all expected to live as equals in harmony.

Curtis’s documentary shows that the concept of the self-organising system, rooted in idealistic socialist concepts of British botanist Arthur Tansley on the one hand and in Field Marshal Jan Smuts’s fantasy of a steady-state British empire in which everyone and everything knows its place in a stable hierarchy on the other, will ultimately fail in real situations. In the 1970s, biologists and ecologists discovered that natural ecosystems don’t have an in-built stability. Human societies that try to abolish hierarchies and alliances  and which sweep away old political and social institutions can become authoritarian and bullying, as students of the English Civil War in the 1640s, the French Revolution in the 1790s and the Russian Revolution in 1917 and their respective aftermaths will know. Yet the fantasy of spontaneous, self-directed reform movements erupting from youth remains attractive…

What Curtis missed out here too which I consider important is that the concept of self-organising systems where everyone is an individual separate from and equal to others has encouraged the development of atomistic societies where everyone is not only a separate and equal individual but an isolated one as well. Informal networks that arise in such societies are often fragile and break down easily if they lack support from governments. People lose the ability to work co-operatively, to bargain and negotiate with others, and the sense of community may be missing. In such societies, people are no longer fully rounded individuals but are merely consumers or ciphers: they have become machines.

I am still thinking but am so pleased this is being shown.


Interview with Adam Curtis.

See also Cybernetic utopianism and political failure, Marx and Machines of Loving Grace – thoughts on Adam Curtis’ film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – by Adam Curtis.

The title comes from Richard Brautigan: first published in 1967, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a collection of thirty two poems, was Brautigan’s third collection of poetry; his fifth poetry book publication.

San Francisco

This poem was found written on a paper bag by Richard Brautigan in a laundromat in San Francisco. The author is unknown.

By accident, you put
Your money in my
Machine (#4)
By accident, I put
My money in another
Machine (#6)
On purpose, I put
Your clothes in the
Empty machine full
Of water and no
Clothes
It was lonely.

Note: I have replaced the first YouTube as the one I had there earlier alters the Curtis documentary.