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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Debunking the debunking in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

The first 2 episodes of Adam Curtis' 3-part BBC2 documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace are a genuine must watch for anyone interested in technology or politics (or both!) - full series available on iPlayer until 10pm on 13th June.

I'm not going to attempt to summarise the documentary - if this type of content interests you, go watch it.

However, I take issue with the focus on "machines" offering a replacement system of organising society, and the lack of attention to the fact that "machines" also provide a tool for improved human-to-human communication, and citizen-to-state feedback.

It's the game-changing impact on how we all communicate brought by the internet that excites me.

In fact, given one of the first demonstrations by internet pioneers was video conferencing, in 1968(!), I could theorise that simply providing human-to-human communications was the main driving force behind the internet.

Director and writer Adam Curtis attempts to link ideals of a self-stabilising self-organising political structure radically different from today's power architecture to the invention of the technology behind the internet today.  I think this assertion undermines many other academic, commercial and military interests also driving network technologies at the time.

Curtis then makes reference to communes that tested ideals of stable self-organising human "systems" based on "vegetational concepts": human-to-human interaction and feedback being the driving force for a stable system of governance, mirroring order in the plant kingdom, where each participant is free, but acts in the interests of the group through dynamics of feedback and sharing.

These communal experiments are said to have failed, wrecked by the emergence of dominant personalities, with no effective mechanism to deal with the dominance:
"Some people are more free than others - strong personalities come to dominate weaker members, but the rules of the self-organising system refused to allow any organised resistance to this oppression."
I've italicised the last part of the quote because herein lies the problem.  We are today, just as humans have been since forever, living in a self-organised system!  UFO conspiracies aside, humans alone are responsible for creating our own systems of world governance.  Throughout the last 10,000+ years, society has created the power structures we see now.

Organised power-brokering is a natural construct of human behaviour.  Disallowing this important behaviour prevented a crucial feedback mechanism - the ability of several (weaker) people to group together to depose a malignant, powerful dictator.

One assertion I can agree with is that systems of governance that promote equilibrium may become subverted by those higher up the power chain to maintain the status quo - what A G Tansley described as The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts (pdf)

But this is largely irrelevant as Curtis seems to have missed the wider point: that technology - the "machines" - are redressing a feedback imbalance that started 500 years ago with the advent of mass printing.  The internet has restored a degree of feedback after half a millennia of asynchronous broadcast-based communications.

Curtis argued:
"Now, in our age, we're all disillusioned with politics; and this machine-organising principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age.  But what we're discovering is that, if we see ourselves as components in a system, that it is very difficult to change the world.

"It is a very good way of organising things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas about what comes next; and just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.

"Next week's programme will show how we have reconciled ourselves to this voluntary sacrifice of power by coming to believe we are nothing more than machines ourselves."
Being disillusioned with politics as an explanation for action is a simplification that warrants deeper analysis.  We're disillusioned with the instruments that allowed the current order to rise and remain dominant, and at least one of the main instruments of control was a stranglehold on one-way broadcast communications channels.

Governments and religious institutions strictly controlled the early printing presses, until publishing became too accessible to regulate (although power clung on through libel action against pamphleteers).

The same was true at the advent of electronic broadcasting, when governments strictly controlled the airwaves (see early pirate radio in the UK).

Even when not under government control; broadcast TV, radio and print media doesn't provide much scope for viewer/listener/reader feedback.  So the delegation of broadcast spectrum from government to "responsible" corporations did little to redress the imbalance.

And, crucially, there were no realistic alternatives to established newspapers, TV channels and radio stations.

There was none of the filtering that we see now on Twitter and Facebook, where articles rise to our attention because they are promoted by our peers.  Even our consumption of broadcast media can be regulated via two-way nodes who listen to feedback about what they're sharing.

We were, for many years, messaged directly by the state and corporate interests.  Now, just like in the communes, we have a direct channel to many other participants. (Who may or may not be listening!)

But, unlike in the communes referenced by Curtis, we are free to organise resistance, to present a coherent voice of dissent to governments and commercial institutions that aren't seen to be acting in the interests of the people.  It's this feedback mechanism that fascinates me.

We're able to seek-out similarly interested individuals from around the country - or around the world - and discuss issues.

It's less a question of a wholesale revamp of world power structures and more a question of how the existing power structures will change and adapt to public feedback channels in the face of the democratisation of information - from one-way broadcast to two-way discussion.



  1. Aren't you simply shouting at the telly here?
    Whilst the internet etc provides greater peer to peer communication this is no different from the 1970s commune dwellers endlessly discussing their feelings as individuals to each other.
    Who was left to plant the crops, generate growth, deal with the more volatile issues/elements within the group?
    Who really cares what you think or feel? are you really 'doing' anything here at all? Am I?
    In essence, I liked the programme. It was interesting and provocative. However I think we each took different things from it.

  2. Of course I liked the programme, I wouldn't recommend so enthusiastically, as I did at the start of my post, if I didn't!

    What am I doing? The same as Adam Curtis or any other social commentator. Expressing my opinion, in the hope that somehow it will form a small part of shaping the future, in some small way.

    The feedback channel is important, as was acknowledged in both episodes so far. I think the biggest change in how we live our lives, esp how corporations and governments are run, will be driven by the radically improved feedback they get from the public via the internet.

    If this becomes established, the whole way we regulate and operate as a business fundamentally changes.

    James Firth

  3. Good points. I would say, though, that there is a counter-argument to the 'benefits' of the internet. Don't get me wrong; I'm all in favour of, and just as excited by, the increased uncontrolled communication. But I'm also wary; consider this:

    Organisation of resistance to power has always depended on communication between those of similar intent. Traditionally, this has always been easiest among people who spend time physically close to each other, for example in a workplace, educational establishment, street, pub, etc. Consequently, the issues were more likely to be those of a local nature to that group; work-related, town-planning related. This meant two things: that the object of resistance tended to be easily identifiable, small enough to handle and not very far away (i.e. tangible); and that there were already a group of people on hand to move quickly into action.

    With the internet we are more likely to discuss more abstract and global concerns, indeed the 'parents' of the problems previously mentioned. But these things are considerably less tangible: they are big, with no clear idea of where to start; the number of ideas and amounts of information are bewildering and it is much harder to come up with decisive unity; and people are spread around the country or the world, sitting at home in their underpants and not in a good position for joint physical action.

    I'm wary of this. I'm wary of the increasing corporate dominance of the internet. I'm wary that too many people fill in an internet petition and believe that is enough; they've politely registered their resistance and then left it up to the status quo.

    I say this, I suppose, to re-iterate that there is nothing wholly good or wholly bad. The internet offers us some real benefits, but its dangers are no less real.


  4. A bit bonkers and ranting in places but brilliant, intelligent thought provoking TV. Well done BBC2 for scheduling this at a reasonable hour. Well done Curtis & Co for creating. I won't grumble about my licence fee until Only Fools and Horses comes on again at Christmas.

  5. Also really agree with Trev about corporations and loss of local fraternity. On hearing about the programme I thought this would be the main point - that in spite of the supposed freedom brought by computers they've diverted us from some necessary things; they have us in their power, as do the businesses controlling them / us.

  6. This critque balances the documentary well and accordingly the BBC web site for the documentary points here.

    Furthermore, as we become more free, liberal and cosmopolitan, the diversity makes it less probable that we will find like minds to connect with in our physical neighbourhood. Fortunately the internet redresses this new physical loneliness. Hopefully the decline of xenophobia will result in more fluid national borders that will allow these new virtual communities to realise themselves into physical "intentional ommunities". Hakim Bey's concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone may yet have its day.


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