Generally I quite like Adam Curtis’s documentaries. I admire the fact that at a time where expository documentaries presenting wide scale socio-cultural arguments are hugely out of fashion he makes films which probe big issues around power, politics and history. I hugely enjoy the aesthetic of his work, the heavy usage of archival material to visually illustrate the points the narration makes. In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace I also particularly enjoyed the soundtrack (it was mainly a collection of Nine Inch Nails material) which combined excellently with the visual material to provide an affectively potent piece of media.
However while I found the argument made in part one of the documentary to be somewhat partial and lacking, I was immensely disappointed by the contents of the second part. The central argument the documentary makes is that from the 1950’s onwards there was a movement which began with cybernetics and sought to reduce humans to mere nodes in complex networks of matter and energy rather than following the enlightenment view that humans were distinct from the rest of the world, and unlike the determinate automatons of nature, that humans and humans alone possessed free will. Curtis appears to regard this idea as a dangerous proposition which de-emphasised the sanctity of individualism, and which undermines analyses of power and politics presenting instead the notion that systems can self-organise without a command and control hierarchy being in place.
Now the first thing which is crucial to point is that the Enlightenment view of humans as being ontologically distinct from the rest of the natural world as championed by Curtis is of course complete nonsense. It is based on on the nature/culture dualism which has roots in monotheistic theology and has no basis in fact. The notion which stemmed from the cyberneticists that humans, other living creatures, and machines could be understood as complex systems governed by circular causality – that is, feedback – is not a dangerous ideological myth, it is factually correct. The utility of the cybernetics movement, and indeed the disciplines which grew out of it such as systems biology, complexity theory, autopoiesis, connectionist AI, cognitive sciences etc all did so because the basic premises that feedback is a crucial process in dynamic systems was correct.
One of the places where Curtis goes hopelessly wrong was his definition of feedback. Curtis explored negative, or self corrective feedback, which was one of the two types of feedback loop discovered by the cyberneticists but completely omits positive feedback from the film. While the majority of the early cybernetics was dominated by issues around reducing noise through negative feedbacks, positive feedback has played a crucial role in contemporary understandings of how change occurs in dynamic systems, particularly within the domains of chaos theory, complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics. Indeed, current understandings of open systems, systems which are dynamically balanced at a point far from equilibrium, and maintain this dynamic balance through taking in flows of energy (such as food for many living systems) are largely predicated on knowledge which can be traced back to cybernetics. Yet Curtis’s film fails to mention anything about this. Probably because it totally undercuts the narrative he portrays. What makes this ironic is that while claiming that the natural world is too complex for the analyses derived from cybernetics to provide useful models, we see images of swarming creatures to illustrate this argument. Swarming is of course an emergent behaviour which can be simulated and replicated using just three very simple rules; 1) Keep moving in the same direction as your neighbours 2) Keep close to your neighbours 3) Avoid colliding with your neighbours. This is a classic example of the kind of self-organisation which Curtis is trying to argue does not occur.
Similarly Curtis goes on to argue that unlike humans, who have free will and so can make choices, machines are purely determinate automatons, whose every action can be predicted. Which is true of many kinds of simple, linear and closed machines. But which is clearly not true of cellular automata, artificial neural networks or other systems which are based on emergence. Presumably the reason these types of system are not mentioned is that they would undercut the nature/culture dualism Curtis seeks to maintain which imbues humans with special properties not found elsewhere in the universe.
While the majority of the film presenting a very misleading picture of the legacy of cybernetics, the final section then deals with alleged examples of contemporary self-organising systems and protest movements. Which was so utterly woeful that it actually made the rest of the film appear competent. I was expecting to see the Zapatistas, the alternative globalisation movement, the Peoples Global Assembly, the World Social Forum or a range of other organisations who have organised in non-hierarchical ways to present a political alternative to the discredited radical politics of Leninist vanguardism, whereby a small elite violently seizes power in order to then create an egalitarian democracy. The motivation behind the movements which have used these types of democratic, grassroots organisation to mobilise pro-democracy movements has largely been to organise in a way that reflects the kind of politics a group seeks to achieve, rather than to attempt to create an egalitarian society via dictatorship.
So what did Curtis have to say about this? Sadly the answer was nothing. Instead of focusing on the methods of these types of movement we instead were told that the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine was an example of self-organisation and a leaderless non-hierarchical movment. The Orange movement was in fact a movement heavily funded by groups such as the US State Department, who according to the Guardian had spent $67 million in the Ukraine in the two years before the disputed Presidential run off. It was a ‘leaderless’ ‘self-organising’ movement which was centred around trying to get one particular corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yuchenko, elected over a rival, corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. Largely it was a struggle between the western half of the country, aided by western governments who wanted Yuchenko to prevail pitted against the eastern half of the country and Russia who wanted Yanukovich to prevail. In other words it had nothing to do with spontaneous self-organisation, non-hierarchy or systems thinking. It was a great example of corrupt politics as usual.
The only reason I can muster for Curtis to use such a ridiculously awful example to illustrate the point is that using a more relevant example would have undercut the epic narrative he sought to explicate. Which ultimately is a big part of why the kind of grand narrative based expository documentary is so out of fashion, while its easy to make a compelling argument based on affective manipulation through audiovisual means, an hour (or even three one hour parts) just isn’t enough time to really explore complex issues in any amount of depth. Which means that documentary filmmakers end up creating narratives which are hugely misleading, which is exactly what Curtis does here.