Tuesday, 7 June 2011

All watched over by machines of loving grace

Well, this is my blog. So hello. I don't really do introductions, so let's just say, I enjoy writing, I enjoy sports (especially rugby), I'm a gamer, a musician, and a dad. I work in HE, and I'm probably not going to mention that any more unless I'm promoting myself. So, on to interestingness…

Last night I watched the final part of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, the three part documentary by Adam Curtis.

I'm trying to digest what it was that he was trying to do with the whole thing, each part seemed to have a distinct theme, the first  looking at how Ayn Rand's 'selfish' philosophy of objectivism was embraced by capitalists of the late 20th century, and how it led to the decimation of world money markets thanks to an over-reliance on technology, the humans believing it infallible.

The second programme looked at the ecosystem and the dangers of using technology and 'machine think' to tackle natural systems. The problem being that natural systems are too chaotic and have far too many parts to them to ever be able to effectively simulate.

The third went further by looking at how humans have applied these systems and technologies to their own behaviour. Through the prism of Africa, we saw how mining companies exploited the resources, and western governments stirred up tensions in order to exploit weak leadership. In the background was the idea of the 'selfish gene', that we are controlled by an in-built 'computer program' which cares for nothing expect self-replication, at the expense of us.

It was easy to see the conceit, that we have ceded our own responsibility to systems and machines. They are the 'genes' that drive us, and we are controlled by them, because we no longer think of something we can control. From the reliance on the computers controlling the money markets in the first programme, through the trust in computer systems modelling natural systems and behaviour, later shown to be wrong, through to our latest ideas about genes and control, with the open ended question, is this another system we're putting too much trust in?

The lack of responsibility is given greater resonance by showing the damage our reliance on technology causes. It's hard not to feel moved by the fact that wars in Africa, and the problems in Zaire/The Congo appear to be caused by the mineral deposits there, and the control of that land that our addiction to technology requires. With images of the Rwandan genocide and war in the Congo, it was chilling stuff… But nothing was as chilling as the company man at the start of the programme reassuring his shareholder that the genocide would not affect profits, stating "we don't care about it".

I can see why technologists hate this programme, criticism on Twitter has been vehement, it takes aim at many of their sacred cows, and gives them both barrels. I've not even gone into the criticism of commodification of the self that is inherent in online publishing (and see the irony of expounding on it here!) It's not necessarily always on target, but Curtis makes excellent links, and leaves pretty much everything open ended. It's the sort of documentary to make you think, and one that needs much more discussion. 


  1. Good start, Owl. I wonder when All Watched Over will play the Colonies?