sun 03/07/2022

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC Two

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC Two

From Ayn Rand to Silicon Valley to Wall Street in one giant bound

As The Observer once put it, an abiding theme of Adam Curtis's documentaries "has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragicomic consequences of those attempts". This neatly sums up the essence of Curtis's new three-part series - though it looks like being more tragic than comic - which began with a daring parabolic narrative which soared from the monomaniac philosophies of Ayn Rand across California's Silicon Valley to the Clinton White House and Alan Greenspan's basilisk-like reign on Wall Street.

Whether these assorted items really fit together as neatly as Curtis made it appear is questionable, but it made a buoyant and provocative hour's worth. Curtis's opening premise was that this was "a story about the rise of the machines" - wasn't that Terminator 3? - and how it was believed that computers and technological networks could replace systems of political control and guarantee a stable and self-regulating social order. For proof, or at least a sort of fuzzy premonition, Curtis showed us Loren Carpenter's experiment in which a hall full of people was divided in half, each side collectively operating one of the on-screen table tennis bats in a game of Pong. By some unknown intuition, each team managed to manipulate its bat at just the right speed and in the right direction.

Moreover, it was felt that in a world in which each individual became a node on an electronic network a non-hierarchical global consciousness could be achieved, even if many of them wouldn't be able to spell it properly. The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were big on this during the Seventies, many of them having apparently dosed themselves up on Ayn Rand's books (especially Atlas Shrugged), in which she argued for "the virtues of selfishness" whereby creative individuals should be left, unfettered, to their own devices. By this means, they would become free and heroic (Adam Curtis, pictured below).

adam_curtis_smallIn practice, no such thing has happened, and the yearned-for limitless freedoms of the internet have merely left us in thrall to a new handful of megalithic corporations such as Apple, Google and Amazon. Computers haven't liberated us, Curtis concluded, but instead we find ourselves "helpless components in a global system... that we are powerless to challenge or to change". Politicians have scant grip on events, and one of Curtis's themes was the way that Bill Clinton, emasculated by his sticky dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, was a mere bystander as the US Treasury ran American foreign policy on behalf of Goldman Sachs and their ilk.

You could argue that The Matrix has already told us most of this, but Curtis's exuberantly elastic brief permitted him to take some exotic detours. His theory was eminently applicable to the workings of the financial markets, where everybody deluded themselves that computers could smooth and manage currency movements, and he delivered a dashing exposition of the way that American banks and hedge funds used the South-East Asian countries as a laboratory of casino capitalism. Spectacular boom was followed by catastrophic bust, though Western investors were suspiciously able to extract their lolly while Asian taxpayers were stuck with gargantuan debts (Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead, from Ayn Rand's novel, pictured below).

gary_Cooper_trimThe East, led by China, struck back in the aftermath of 9/11and the Enron collapse by flooding the US with cheap exports and buying piles of American bonds. In this climate of illusory stability, American banks were free to invent collateralised debt obligations and all that voodoo stuff that almost destroyed the Western half of the planet. Put in those terms, it looks as if we've just tottered, clothes ripped and hair smouldering, out of World War Three, an orgy of hand-to-hand combat in the world's stock exchanges and boardrooms.

Somehow, the denizens of the financial sector once again managed to persuade the politicians to bail them out with our money. We may only be "helpless components in a global system", but we'd all feel a lot better if some of these bastards were in jail, and we could poke them through the bars with sharp sticks.


Adam wants people to understand that the machine was created by humans who were highly motivated by a mixture of egotistical self-interest and earnest moral yearning - and therefore other highly motivated humans have the power to change or remove the machine and create something better. We should not feel powerless because 'the system' has never truly run itself - this is just technocratic rhetoric - in reality it has staggered along propped up by misplaced human passion. It's a timely message.

A totally fascinating and absorbing programme. I look forward to the next two in the series

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters