Watched All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace by Adam Curtis from Thought Maybe

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a series of films about how this culture itself has been colonised by the machines it has has built. The series explores and connects together some of the myriad ways in which the emergence of cybernetics—a mechanistic perspective of the natural world that particularly emerged in the 1970s along with emerging computer technologies—intersects with various historical events and visa-versa. The series variously details the interplay between the mechanistic perspective and the catastrophic consequences it has in the real world.

Watched the second part of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”.

Like part 1, it is very enjoyable. The themes are all up my alley, although I didn’t really seem to pick up on an overarching thread as much in this part. Struggling to piece it together into something coherent in my head. I guess it had less well-known characters to wrap a story around.

Let’s see – it was linking together ecosystems, cybernetics, counterculture communes, the Club of Rome’s take on tackling climate change, and some of the revolutions in the first decade of the 2000s where social media was kindling.

I think the main gist of the argument was against the ideas from systems theory and cybernetics that either nature or society have a tendency to self-regulate and self-stabilise. He seemed to be making the point that all attempts at a kind of social homeostasis are doomed to failure, because it’s based on flawed thinking, and that it doesn’t translate from machines to societies. I think he probably strawmans cybernetics a bit for his own ends there, but I suppose machine control makes for a good boogieman. He also seemed to be saying that hiearchy creeps in, however horizontal and interconnected you try to make your structure, so you shouldn’t bother trying a flat structure. Again, I don’t think total flatness is really how cybernetics presents systems theory though (although I don’t know a lot about cybernetics to be fair.)

I found it really interesting when talking about the Club of Rome and limits to growth. Apparently the idea of stopping growth and finding ‘a natural balance’ (in an attempt to curtail climate catastrophe) was protested at the time as being akin to Jan Smuts’ ‘holism’ – a disingenuous and racist way to maintain a currently unequal system. I guess the protestors weren’t championing growth, though – presumably they wanted a complete system change altogether.

The suggestion that the ideas of the balance of nature and ecosystems thinking is all bunk, is all new to me. That’s really interesting. I’ve fairly unthinkingly bought into a strain of thought that we are affecting an implicit natural balance, the narrative that we’re interfering with delicately balanced ecosystems, and that we need to not do that, in order to prevent the worst of climate breakdown. I’d never really thought of that as being concomitant with trying to preserve an unequal system.

I think he was making the point that nature doesn’t tend towards a stable equilibrium, so we shouldn’t lean on that idea for our social systems. I don’t think I’ve seen a modern environmental movement, at least the ones I’m interested in, suggest that we *don’t* need to radically change the system though. Maybe I need to read more into the Club of Rome and what it’s current descendents are.

So probably the common theme between the two episodes is that of being against blind faith in technology for societal ends. Part 1, he didn’t like the undue faith given to algorithms to support selfishness and neoliberal financial systems. Part 2, he doesn’t like how ideas from technology were used to support the idea that humans are relatively unimportant cogs in a larger system. (Part 3 gonna be some synthesis or middle ground? Is he going to suggest that society is dynamic, we shouldn’t cling to a transplanted notion of natural balance, that we need a radically new system to beat climate breakdown and inequality, and that technology should serve society, not the other way round? If so. I’m down with that.)

I can’t really figure out if he’s presenting history as technological determinism or social determinism. It seems a bit of both, e.g. Rand influences tech bros, tech bros build selfish tech, selfish tech drives selfish society. Or nature influences cyberneticians, who then translate the technology to the society.

Anyway, all fascinating stuff. I don’t think I would really call it a documentary, in the sense of historical record. It’s more of a visual essay, one man’s (elegantly crafted) opinion. Certainly getting me thinking about a few things, can’t ask for more than that.

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