Seeing Beyond The Mass "Consensual Hallucination"
Adam Curtis’ new documentary, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, gives hope that at least some of the world is waking up from the mass hallucination of disembodied information. The documentary, which is subtitled, “The Rise of the Machines,” explores how in the later part of the 20th Century, and the first decade of the 21st, much of the world became organized around the old gnostic fantasy that information or souls can be separated from the constraints of the material world, becoming free to circulate through time and space. This way of seeing the world has always unleashed powerful fantasies of power among the powerful. And it has recently led some to the ludicrous conclusion that, “information wants to be free,” or that human beings are merely meat vehicles for the transport of genetic information through time.
Adam Curtis is a master of the voice-over documentary form, aiming at the material we use to knit together the fragments of everyday life into meaningful, but often, deluded wholes. He combines his own essay-voice-over analysis of culture and politics with insightful music selections, and a cascade of ‘found’ archival visual and audio footage from the across the media culture. The result for viewers is an eerie and often foreboding sense of the thin fabric of social reality. His latest 3-part documentary, now appearing on BBC 2 in the UK, reveals how in the 90s a grand fusion of early cybernetics and systems thinking, simplistic biological and ecological theories, along with the loony-tune economic ideas of the right and left libertarians, came to represent the dominant ideological substrate for an emerging network society. Curtis introduces us to the libertarians and techno-hippies of silicon valley, Wall Street neoconservatives, the new entrepreneurs of social media, and the post-war information society research centers, whose ideas and interests aligned -- intentionally and unintentionally – to give network culture its neoliberal character.
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace features well chosen music tracks from the likes of Nine Inch Nails and breathtaking selections of repurposed video -- a young robotic Hillary Clinton waiting for the on-air signal, 60s commune dwellers swaying in an encounter ritual, Alan Greenspan going on about “irrational exuberance,” and old footage of his lunatic mentor, Ayn Rand -- all assembled to get at the tangled debris of mass media culture and the powerful, unexamined ideological assumptions and metaphors masquerading as nature that circulate between our networks and our own embodied, meaning making minds.
One of Curtis’ key criticisms in this documentary is that we have confused distributed computational metaphors of mind circulating on Internet-style communication networks with nature. He argues that we have lost our way within our own metaphors, and lost our grasp on political agency and individualism in the bargain. Ironically, I can think of no better way to describe Curtis’ narrative than as a kind of turbulent, dynamic network space of distributed meaning making. His drifting montage of text, image, sound, music and expository narrative voice switches across the layered networks in our minds making unexpected connections across time and the breadth of our culture to let us feel the machine-like workings of power just beneath the surface of everyday life.
As a documentary maker, Curtis owns this space and he has the immeasurably deep BBC film archives as his playground. His last documentary, The Power of Nightmares, explored the convenient ideological interdependence of the Bush-era neoconservatives in the Pentagon and radical Islamist. This kind of documentary making is inherently risky and Curtis doesn’t succeed entirely in this latest film. But we should not judge harshly; he has taken on some heady subject matter here. People have been killing each other over many of the ideas in this documentary for at least 3000 years, throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North America. The most notable failure of the documentary is that it might leave some viewers with the impression that much of the science of network dynamics is without merit, or that early work in cybernetics and systems theory was simply ideology. None of this is entirely the case by any means.
The science of networks is yielding critical knowledge about the networks of networks, the information flows and high-speed transport that are the material infrastructure of the global system. And it is urgently needed in our efforts to understand the shifting relationships between culture, power and communications. Network dynamics might be the only social space now available capable of yielding an answer to the question of what new kinds of organizations can resist the power and the economic logic of the times? And the early cybernetic insight that we are all connected in flows of energy and information helped undermine, indeed, may have put the final nail in the coffin of mind/body dualism and the 500 year old row of pain it had plowed through we humans.
But by most measures, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, is “high functioning” documentary making and we can be grateful to Adam Curtis for taking on this daunting task. The sense that information is disembodied, and not grounded in ecosphere, labor and sociality is one of the most powerful ideologically induced hallucinations haunting our communications politics today. For too long many communications activists have touted the emancipatory potential of the network environment without coming to terms with the fact that neoliberalism is one of the core operating systems of network culture, an adjunct to capital’s quest to overcome space and time. Despite the real democratic potential of network communications, it would not be too much of an overstatement to say that our network infrastructure is little more than the circulation of capital in material form. Only if we understand that, will we be able to work on democracy. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace makes it easy to see this, and much, much more.
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, has been appearing on the BBC in the UK. It is possible to see all three episodes on YouTube if you are elsewhere. If you are feeling timid about enjoying material with dubious intellectual property origins you should know that I am pretty sure that Curtis’ last documentary The Power of Nightmares never aired on any broadcast or cable channels in the US and it took a very long while before it could be gotten on disk from Amazon [I would love to know if I am wrong about this so let me know if you know otherwise].
The title, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, is taken from Richard Brautigan’s prescient poem from the 60s: http://www.redhousebooks.com/galleries/freePoems/allWatchedOver.htm
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
I'd like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace
Fred Johnson is a documentary filmmaker and media theorist based in Portland, OR, and a founder ofMedia Working Group.