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May 26, 2011 2:07 PM   Subscribe

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is the name of a new documentary series by Adam Curtis. The first episode, Love and Power [BBC iPlayer], draws connections between Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, an experiment by Pixar co-founder Loren Carpenter, the Californian Ideology of Silicon Valley in the 90s, Bill Clinton's presidency, and the persistence of the global capitalist hegemony in the face of continuing economic crisis. Curtis discusses his ideas in the Guardian.
posted by Acey (79 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 


I guess I should have known before I clicked that this was the same mind behind "The Power of Nightmares." I'm looking forward to seeing this.
posted by blucevalo at 2:16 PM on May 26, 2011


Question about the Loren Carpenter group pong thing: the narrator makes it sound like the crowd color ratio controlled the *movement* of the paddle, but he made it sound like it was the *position*. This seems like a big difference to me - the crowd could get away with much less precise control in the former case. Basically, I think everyone could show the same color ("move UP!") and as long as they all then backed off as they got close, it would work. His version seems like it would require group telepathy.

Anyhow, just curious if anyone knows more implementation details about this neat idea. Nice post!
posted by freebird at 2:17 PM on May 26, 2011


That's a fun poem.
posted by joost de vries at 2:18 PM on May 26, 2011


Okay, I can understand why curtis is popular. But to be honest, I think his complex jumpcut narratives and pseudo-conspiracy theories are really starting to show their age. Curtis's works always end up with a narrative that "if only people had followed my idea that I have developed with the benefit of hindsight" - things would not have turned out this way. A difficult untestable proposition.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:23 PM on May 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


There's also a couple of teaser trailers on YouTube, for those who don't have access to iPlayer.
posted by Acey at 2:24 PM on May 26, 2011


Thanks for this,
I would love to see this, is there anywhere I can watch it in full?
The BBC site is region blocked for UK only.
posted by Enigmark at 2:25 PM on May 26, 2011


Why are we so frightened of a few bond managers? Why can't we challenge the 'markets'? Why do we treat them as if they're their own precious ecosystem?

THIS.

posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 2:25 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Huzzah! I've got this on my hard drive, and am waiting for the right mood of righteous fury to settle in before I watch it, so I can get well and truly angry and then go write a ranty blog post or something. Sigh. This is what it has come to.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:27 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Freebird, I think the first time I played the game it was that the ratio of votes was the position of the paddle. Although at that demo (SIGGRAPH Orlando, probably '94) he also plopped up a few other things, including a flight simulator where the ratio of votes was the position of the rudder (and maybe a mode where it was the elevator, too).

I didn't realize who was behind it 'til a few years later when I'd moved to California and was hanging out with smart people talking about silly projects, like launching water cooler containers with liquid nitrogen and making computer controllable RGB flames, and Loren mentioned his paddle thing as potential crowd-sourced control system.

Participating in the hive mind learning to play Pong was an incredible eye-opening experience.
posted by straw at 2:27 PM on May 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


But to be honest, I think his complex jumpcut narratives and pseudo-conspiracy theories are really starting to show their age. Curtis's works always end up with a narrative that "if only people had followed my idea that I have developed with the benefit of hindsight" - things would not have turned out this way.

Let's play adam curtis madlibs!

In the _decade_, _secretive group of intellectuals_, thought that they could save the world if only __interesting idea__ would be implemented. They set out to enact __utopian plan__, but never thought that __negative consequence__ would happen.
posted by empath at 2:30 PM on May 26, 2011 [24 favorites]


it is available in 5 parts on youtube. looking forward to watching it later.
posted by jmccw at 2:35 PM on May 26, 2011


Thanks, just found it on youtube!
posted by Enigmark at 2:37 PM on May 26, 2011


Ha empath, that's a pretty good curtis template.
I think his documentaries are worth it just because of the archival footage. Maybe I'll turn off the sound.
posted by joost de vries at 2:40 PM on May 26, 2011


Oh no.

In "All Watched Over by Loving Grace," Curtis is trying to expose what he sees as a conspiracy by financiers associated with the Internet: that a small number of powerful disciples of Ayn Rand have taken over society by developing the Internet and controlling financial markets, strong in their mistaken belief that the computer-mediated pursuit of self interest could create stable markets and societies.

Sigh.

- BBC Journalist Bill Thompson: "misleading simplifications and overstated claims"
- Wired UK Editor at Large Benn Hammersley: " [Citation Bloody Well Required] "
- BBC News Business Editor Robert Peston: " Am Adam Curtis fan, but disappointed with #AWOBMOLG. Conflated outcomes & intentions too often for my fastidious bent: polemic not history "

I think Curtis's remix style important to the future of documentary, but I think that ultimately, he's destroying people's faith in the potential of that approach. Here is a description of his style from an interview Believer:
...re-processed media. Perhaps a better expression would be re-purposed media. It’s different from the traditional use of found footage in news documentaries. Here stock-footage becomes expressionistic – never literal – an excursion into a dream – or, if you prefer – nightmare.
The problem here is that in Adam Curtis's expressionistic nightmares, reason doesn't apply. His film produce a kind of mesmerising unease through, emotional appeal, hypnotic soundtracks, and artfilm editing.

For those of you who can't access iPlayer, here is an outline of the film, which I kept while watching it.


- Ayn Rand influences San Francisco computer culture (fast cut of partial phrases by lots of computer people I have never heard of)
- Ayn Rand influences Alan Greenspan
- Greenspan influences Bill Clinton
- Computer culture creates the (false) New Economy of the 90s
- Greenspan is skeptical but assents and convinces Clinton that it's real.
- Ayn Rand has an affair in the 1950s
- Bill Clinton has an affair in the 1990s
- The Free Market leads to The Asian Financial Crisis
- The Internet commodifies our personality and repackages it as entertainment. Freedom and individuality are consequently not possible online.
- The dream of a global system of democracy and finance come to an end when:
-- the Asian Financial Crisis hits
-- the Monica Lewinksy affair surfaces
-- With Clinton occupied with the scandal, Rubin, the IMF, and Wall Street take the reins of American foreign policy. Cut to Stiglitz
- Ayn Rand's affair breaks up, and so does her intellectual circle
- Greenspan remains loyal to Rand and begins his rise to power
- The attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on the radical individualism of the American global economy
- But the economy doesn't go down, because Alan Greenspan saved the global economy and became the world's most powerful man
-- The Enron scandal broke, and with it consumer confidence
-- Greenspan cut the rates and told us to keep spending
-- The economy stays stable
- But it wasn't Greenspan actually, it was the Chinese Politburo
- Thanks to the Chinese Politburo, American banks could create the property bubble
- But no one questioned this because the bankers trusted their computers
- The housing bubble collapses, and with it Greenspan's vision of a better world
- So Chaos and Instability are the result of markets and computers, controlled by powerful elites
- Be afraid

The documentary uses lots of clips from Mike Wallace's interview of Ayn Rand.
posted by honest knave at 2:41 PM on May 26, 2011 [9 favorites]




Curtis really doesn't seem to care that his conspiracy theories contradict one another from film to film, and make very little sense when all taken together (or alone, really.)

He was on Little Atoms this week, and the host of the show (which describes itself as "a live talk show about ideas and culture with an emphasis on ideas of the Enlightenment" and is generally awesome) turned into an fawning fanboy while Curtis waxed incoherent about how the UK student protest movement was a failure because it had been infected by 'cybernetics.' Utterly baffling.
posted by Wylla at 2:44 PM on May 26, 2011


Well, I haven't seen the documentary yet, and haven't dug into your refuting links yet, honest knave... but it's not like Greenspan's Objectivist belief system has been a secret, is it? I've heard that about him for at least 5 years if not longer at this point.
posted by hippybear at 2:45 PM on May 26, 2011


Machines of Loving Grace
posted by mark242 at 2:46 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think he's a brilliant artist and a lousy historian.
posted by empath at 2:49 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh. I didn't realise he entirely believed what he was saying. I always assumed his films were supposed to be posing interesting questions by slicing history weirdly and looking for parallels, but they were sort of semi-joking. I mean, they're so laden with massive generalisations, I always saw them (including the first of this new series) as something closer to poems, pointing towards a partial truth, perhaps, but mostly allegorical.

If Curtis thinks he's assembling coherent theses, he's mental.
posted by RokkitNite at 2:50 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


hippybear, alas my post is constructed from material published during the actual airing. I haven't actually attempted to put together a refutation.

I think Curtis wanted to make three documentaries:
- one about Internet culture, which he dislikes
- one about Objectivism, which he dislikes
- one about the banks and the IMF, which he dislikes

Instead, he made one very scattershot documentary, painting a world in which all three are in collusion to a very sophisticated degree.
posted by honest knave at 2:50 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Um, yeah. What empath said (much better).
posted by RokkitNite at 2:51 PM on May 26, 2011


I love Adam Curtis. Even if I take it all with a grain of salt at times. Is the voice on this the same guy who does the "Look Around You" voiceover? Sure sounds like it.

It seemed like the Pixar dude was trying to avoid saying "group mind". That was completely cybernetic.
posted by symbioid at 2:57 PM on May 26, 2011


Personally, I regard Curtis documentaries as food for thought more than anything. His narratives are often little more than fairy tales, but he certainly has a knack for finding appealing connections between apparently unrelated things. I disliked the anti-technology angle he took here - technology is so often the scapegoat - but I found some of the stuff about the world's changing power dynamics to be very thought-provoking. And I thought it was worth watching for the pong experiment alone.
posted by Acey at 3:04 PM on May 26, 2011


honest knave, thanks for the reviews and summary. I've seen enough of these kinds of propaganda films. They just underscore how visual media can be twisted to just about anything you want, how unreliable visual media is for determining truth. Written language has its limits also (the tyranny of narrative) but it's the lesser of evils.
posted by stbalbach at 3:08 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why would someone out to make a rigorous study of history name it after a utopian poem?

The people flipping their shit over a lack of footnotes realize that paintings are flat and bowls of fruit aren't, right?

Besides, to me, the whole point of Adam Curtis is how deceptive a strong narrative thread can be. Beneath all the tone-poem stuff with archival footage, his shit all stresses how Strong Narrative Beliefs usually end up fucking us in the real world. The appeal of the paranoid narratives he strings together in his movies serve to remind us how more conventional, unquestioned, stories in everyday life have connections to reality that are just as tenuous,

-The march of progress
-The civil liberties ratchet in liberal democracy
-Science knows what it's doing and its method is a guarantor of truth

And the ones we've discarded,

-Black things and people are inherently evil and debased
-Someone has to be the king
-Jews, while perhaps not explicitly the spawn of the devil, are certainly an indispensable common enemy whose usefulness as a rallying point necessitates their permanent economic and social marginalization

The bottom line is Curtis is way too smart to blithely apply the enormous rhetorical power of A Story to things that really happened in the real world. The fact that he wields that power so irresponsibly could not be any more the point.
posted by lazenby at 3:32 PM on May 26, 2011 [6 favorites]




I gave up on taking Curtis too seriously when I saw his hideously bad hatchet job on Leo Strauss. But his stuff is "compelling," if that's the right word. He's fun to watch, anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 3:54 PM on May 26, 2011


I"m having a hard time figuring out how Monica lewinksi has anything to do with anything.
posted by empath at 4:17 PM on May 26, 2011


In "All Watched Over by Loving Grace," Curtis is trying to expose what he sees as a conspiracy by financiers associated with the Internet: that a small number of powerful disciples of Ayn Rand have taken over society by developing the Internet and controlling financial markets, strong in their mistaken belief that the computer-mediated pursuit of self interest could create stable markets and societies.

Maybe you didn't just sit through practically two decades of how computers, the internet and the free market were going to bring a revolution in: economics, politics, society, your sex life, etc. Mondo 2000, hello?

The fact that it was couched in a thin veneer of counter-culture didn't change the libertarian paradise at it's core....
posted by ennui.bz at 4:21 PM on May 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


He provides conspiracy theories for people who don't believe in conspiracy theories, but my goodness it's so much fun, and so beautiful to watch and listen to.

The Lewinsky section was such a joy. The narration dropped, and you had to sit there thinking ooh look at the love in Lewinsky's eyes it's just like Rand and whatsisname and just like what Rand wrote and fuck you Curtis for making me think this makes any kind of sense for as long as this musical montage lasts Indonesia computer market moustache gun war Leonard Cohen who what.
posted by jack_mo at 4:39 PM on May 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yes neo-liberal globalism is nothing new, and affects us all. And it is going to get worse, not better. Why? Because those of us in the developed world have, so far, been sheltered from the full weight of the various policies that many in the so-called developing world labour under.

Things really are that bleak. Sorry.
posted by clvrmnky at 4:47 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a Curtis fan but take his work with a big grain of salt, and keep in mind that he's about making interesting arguments and stories rather than factual accounts. As this subtle self-parody suggests, Curtis also takes himself with a grain of salt.
posted by Bwithh at 5:27 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm actually legitimately surprised at the (admittedly healthy) skepticism people are displaying towards Curtis's stuff. It's important not to take anything we're told as gospel.

Though I guess he does present the relationships between the things he talks about as hard links, I honestly don't think he intends them as anything but (nor should they be taken as anything but) dotted lines.

I've never thought of him as a conspiracy theorist, with all the batshittiness that that implies. I think he raises excellent questions and makes insightful connections, but I also think that the mad complexity and interconnectedness of 20th century civilization means that there are any number of explanatory paths through the maze, and he offers just one of them.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:49 PM on May 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


Youtube link, for the americans.

I can see that video here in Korea, too, for what it's worth.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:16 PM on May 26, 2011


Enigmark: "Thanks for this,
I would love to see this, is there anywhere I can watch it in full?
"

Torrents of Anonymoused Grace
NZBs of Anonymoused Grace

I love empath's fill-in-the-blank, and Curtis is well capable of ironic self-deprecation, as the "News Journalists" skit shows, and also his blog sometimes displays the same kind of delicious, restrained and despairing wit that comes across in the lighter moments of his docs. You're basically face-to-face with a modern Cynic of the highest order.

For me, watching a Curtis piece is like reading something like, say, Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces. It's a rapid, unapologetic immersion into the worldview of a fiercely intelligent mind that is idiosyncratic and delightful to behold.
posted by meehawl at 8:20 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm excited to watch this, even though I'm sure I will disagree with parts of it. My gut reaction is that the connection to Ayn Rand is dubious. The ideology of the internet is based around the wisdom of crowds and pro-social ideals like sharing, collaboration and participation, almost exactly opposite of Rand's heroic selfish individual.

There are probably better, more accurate and less conspiratorial treatments of the ideas Curtis is trying to cover, but none of them will be as broadly seen, so its a net win as far as I'm concerned. If there's one main problem that I have with Curtis, it's that he's too conservative. It feels sometimes like he's trying to reframe our situation to restore the effectiveness of standard Marxist critiques. He doesn't admit that those critiques have largely been co-opted and integrated by Capital.

And I'm not anti-snark by any means, but sometimes its lazy, a substitute for actually figuring out why you disagree with something.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:53 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]




Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss, Francis Fukuyama, etc. aren't behind any conspiracies, but they are philosophers that influence real people, not just corporate financed think tank circle jerks. And our two party systems means their writings provides an awful lot of cover for dipshits.

Yes, Ayn Rand influence upon Sergey Brin & Larry Page looks minor. Anyone feel like discussing her influence upon the Koch brothers?

I'm quite please with the i-counter-culture internet movement that's given us wholesale piracy, fairly honest search via google, free software, pgp/gpg, tor, i2p, freenet, EFF, net roots organizing, cryptome, wikileaks, bitcoin, wholesale violation of UK libel laws, etc. We want the minimal regulation that reliably produces an egalitarian & livable society, i.e. focused towards upon dangerous or monopolistic activities, i.e. chemical, nuke, etc. plants, net neutrality, etc.

I'm less pleased that our current internet moguls place zero value upon their users' privacy, but (a) that's your & my fault for not building the great user-friendly gpg-pushing email client or encrypted traffic analysis resistant instant messenger* and (c) that's a double edged sword anyways.

* There isn't afaik any viable encrypted traffic analysis resistant instant messenger and voip client. For sure, there are cruddy ones inside tor and i2p, but.. meh. You want a federated server based system that's less paranoid and lower overhead than tor and i2p. There are an awful lot of us bitching who could build such a system. **

** A few tradeoffs might be : Your account information is publicly locatable by the hash of your login id, and publicly readable using a password derived symmetric key. Ergo, you may anonymously retrieve your account information without forwarding through other servers. Account updates otoh could be anonymously forwarded through another server. You'd manage persistence by creating a temporary anonymous "shadow" account on a random server and issuing an update forwarding all your friends there. You need not entrust even your friends with your IP address for ordinary instant messages, but, by default, you'd trust them for voip traffic and file transfers. Ideally, you'd modify ICE to discover whether you'd actually benefit from revealing your IP address.

posted by jeffburdges at 3:47 AM on May 27, 2011


Could he have come up with a more pretentious title?

No, apparently not.
posted by Pilly at 5:46 AM on May 27, 2011


The bottom line is Curtis is way too smart to blithely apply the enormous rhetorical power of A Story to things that really happened in the real world.

I'll see your Multidimensional Chess Argument, and raise you Occam's Razor: Curtis is a crank who happens to be an above-average storyteller.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:59 AM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I find Adam Curtis enormously appealing because he creates a narrative about How We Got Here that manages to avoid the traps of both too-tidy conspiracies ("Where people do set out to have conspiracies, they don’t ever end up like they're supposed to. History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they're taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended."), as well as the more popular nihilistic non-argument of "Well, life is just shit and that's how it is. None of it makes sense and it's all chaos."

Instead, he emphasizes that ideas have consequences. That might seem self-evident, after all we're always being told (at least as children) about the power of "one idea to change the world." But in an age with so few public intellectuals (who have, instead, been replaced by "experts") and a populace that by and large would abhor the notion that their opinions/feelings/thoughts came from anywhere other than a wholly organic and self-created place (from the gut), most shaping of political/economic/social theory happens entirely in the dark, with citizens only experiencing the blowback from it, not even aware there was ever a debate in the first place, outside of whatever facile shouting match is currently being televised.

Powerful people make decisions that are very immediately shaped by theorists whose theories are sometimes horrifically misguided (Fukuyama, Rand, whoever) or whose theories are mutated and built upon and expanded and shifted to fit new realities and situations that they were not initially suited for. It is almost more terrifying than simply assuming that those in charge "go with their gut" or that they have secret malevolent plans behind their paper-thin public justifications for action (freedom, justice, etc).

What I think tends to rub people the wrong way is that Curtis favors a view that doesn't portray the state of the world as the result of anyone axiomatically evil, corrupt or even incompetent, but instead that powerful men, guided by forces within themselves they may not even be aware of and standing on the shoulders of giants they're often unable to see, change the world in ways they couldn't possibly expect. This seems especially true after the events of the past decade, where it is not hard (and certainly not a conspiracy) to see how much has been shaped by various reactions to American Cold War theory.

Finally, I love this last exchange between Curtis and Errol Morris here:

"AC: It’s all so weird. That the men who sit in neon-lit rooms with very nicely done tables and who question you and tell you things, are actually weird.

EM: Yeah. Well, as we all know, the banal and the weird are not incompatible.

AC: That's the whole point - that's what's so fascinating about our time. The banal and the weird are one and the same thing.

EM: Yes. They hold hands."
posted by StopMakingSense at 10:09 AM on May 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


What I think tends to rub people the wrong way is that Curtis favors a view that doesn't portray the state of the world as the result of anyone axiomatically evil, corrupt or even incompetent, but instead that powerful men, guided by forces within themselves they may not even be aware of and standing on the shoulders of giants they're often unable to see, change the world in ways they couldn't possibly expect

What bothers me about Curtis is that he draws firm connections between people, events and things that either are not connected at all, or at least connected only tenuously. He seems to be strenuously fact checked, but one leaves one of his documentaries with strong impressions about history that don't seem to check out if you do follow up research on your own. Everything he says might be literally true, but there might be some other mitigating facts that would alter your understanding of the events if he had shared them.

The underlying facts of history don't tend to support the narrative as well as he would like you to think.

That said, he is ALWAYS worth watching, because I usually will find out about some strand of history that I hadn't thought of very deeply before and they always send me off reading and doing my own research for hours afterwards.
posted by empath at 12:31 PM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


What bothers me about Curtis is that he draws firm connections between people, events and things that either are not connected at all, or at least connected only tenuously.

Well, in that way, he's kind of the social sciences version of James Burke.

I kind of like the Big Sweep way to look at history, where ideas spring out of other ideas. That the springing forth may be difficult to prove except in that B followed A can be problematic, but that whole "standing on the shoulders of those who came before" thing is always true in that every new idea is built on those to which the thinker was exposed earlier. Whether that exposure was direct, say in the manner that Oscar Hammerstein II was Stephen Sondheim's mentor, or whether it was indirect, in that Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas were progenitors of The Sound Of Music... It's all an upward spiral.

I do think that some of Curtis' work is stronger than others. The Century Of The Self seems to be pretty well based in fact, with interviews involving first-hand sources and stuff. It's the series he does where he's drawing out the grand mural without that kind of backup which feel a bit more false to me.

And yes, the great thing about Curtis is how he gets you interested enough to look into things yourself.
posted by hippybear at 8:08 AM on May 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Okay, and I FINALLY got to watch this. And yeah, there are a few leaps in there which are a bit unsupported. But overall it was an interesting narrative.

I look forward to seeing the other two episodes. over the next couple of weeks. I hope they also get posted to YouTube! Maybe as people dig those up we can make sure the links get posted to this thread?
posted by hippybear at 10:01 AM on May 28, 2011


I'll see your Multidimensional Chess Argument, and raise you Occam's Razor: Curtis is a crank who happens to be an above-average storyteller.


Yeah see you can't say that without creating a comforting narrative of your own ('Curtis is a crank.')

The multidimensional chess argument isn't really about Adam Curtis, but about the world we live in: post-factual with no overarching narrative that can give comfort and security to all participants. Think about the number of dissatisfied people in the world and ask yourself if the narrative in which Occam's Razor is a supreme arbiter could be reasonably expected to find universal acceptance.
posted by lazenby at 8:27 PM on May 29, 2011


For anyone still keeping track of this, episode 2 is very much worth checking out - it's the loopiest, most convoluted, paranoid conspiracy theory I've seen in years.

Ecologists, the makers of the internet, 1960's communards, and anyone who uses the phrase 'the balance of nature' even casually is out to re-impose the British empire and South African Apartheid. Anti-capitalist environmentalists are actually secret parts of the big-business conspiracy run by evil "cyberneticists!"

Dear lord...
posted by Wylla at 3:31 AM on May 31, 2011


So... I'm watching the second episode right now.

Hooooboy! If people were freaking out about part one (which I think was a bit better than some have portrayed it), I'm going to need to strap myself in for the reaction to this one.
posted by hippybear at 5:35 AM on May 31, 2011


Wylia: what does your link to Jonathan Kay have to do with this Adam Curtis piece?
posted by hippybear at 5:37 AM on May 31, 2011


Hey, at least part two has a direct reference to the titular poem. It actually fits right in with the thesis of the piece.
posted by hippybear at 5:48 AM on May 31, 2011


Sorry for the sloppy link - hippybear is right, that was totally unclear!

Jonathan Kay's book (which I agree with in some parts and disagree with in others, BTW, his perspective - coming from a conservative newspaper in Canada - is sometimes rather...clear) has a lot to say about Adam Curtis, and seeing this just after finishing reading Kay's book really brought a lot of what what seems to be going on in these films into focus for me.

One of Kay's types of conspiracy theorists - the failed historian - really seems to be a good explanation of how Curtis sees history.

"All ideologues — from Marxists to tea party activists, Islamists to radical Zionists — shoehorn history into preconceived templates, developing triumphalist story lines that will eventually lead to the victory of a chosen group and the vanquishing of an enemy. When history doesn’t cooperate, explanations become necessary. For Failed Historians, conspiracy theories supply those explanations."

What seems to tie Curtis's mutually-contradictory conspiracies together from film to film is the idea that, were it not for one nefarious cabal or another, the bottom 70% of the world's population would have risen up as one by now. The explanation of who the cabal is or what they would have done after 'rising up' varies from film to film, but the underlying problems Curtis is trying to solve - that of why so many people seem not to see the world the way he does and have not acted on his views, why no 'revolution' has yet happened and why apparent revolutions so often fall short of his template for success - remain stubbornly the same.
posted by Wylla at 5:57 AM on May 31, 2011


That take on Curtis is so bewilderingly orthogonal to mine that I just farted in a fit of intellectual dismay. Or it could have been the eggs I had for lunch.

There's a certain mindset with which we are all to familiar that sees conspiracies where there aren't any to be found. It seems to me like there are people in this thread who are quick to see conspiracy theories where there aren't any being proposed.

Ah well. I still haven't seen these latest Curtis efforts; perhaps he has run off the rails and is now actually suggesting conspiracies exist, rather than confluences, as it seems to me he has always done.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:19 AM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ecologists, the makers of the internet, 1960's communards, and anyone who uses the phrase 'the balance of nature' even casually is out to re-impose the British empire and South African Apartheid. Anti-capitalist environmentalists are actually secret parts of the big-business conspiracy run by evil "cyberneticists!"

Um.... Did you even watch the whole episode? Or did you write this comment about 40 minutes in and then stop watching? It's pretty explicitly stated that the anti-capitalist environmentalists are posed directly against the worldview promoted by the cyberneticists. It speaks directly to the evolving understanding of ecologists and their learning that balance isn't actually part of nature at all.

And certainly there is no point where Curtis says that ANY group seeks to reimpose the British Empire or apartheid. If anything, the final moments say that the very underlying basis for such things -- the idea that everything has a place in a self-organizing system -- are entirely incorrect.

I think you're entirely mischaracterizing the point of this episode based on one small segment of this hour of programming.

Now, as far as Curtis as a conspiracy theorist and a "failed historian", I really don't have the background to comment on that accurately. But you really missed the boat talking about this particular 60 minutes of Curtis-created programming.
posted by hippybear at 6:20 AM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


What I find interesting about this particular series by Curtis is that, since it is based around the "promise of computers" which has been held forth for a few decades now, and that so many of those of us who participate here on MetaFilter (indeed, online at all, if you've been around for more than 10-15 years or so), that it is loaded with Deep Implications about a world and possibly a worldview which sits near and dear to our hearts.

As I watch, I find myself wondering how much of my base "oh, that can't possibly be right, he's a madman" reaction is because I have been pretty much indoctrinated into the whole internet / cybernetics / we're all one system viewpoint and how what he's saying directly threatens that.

It's an interesting thing, to watch one of these Curtis documentaries which is taking place within my adult lifetime. Most of what I've seen from him has been based in the past. Even if it's been during my life, it's usually far enough in the past, say the 70s and 80s, that there's a real distance from that time and which lets me reflect upon it as though it is something historical.

But bring his ideas forward into the Now, and I'm confronted with the concept that maybe a lot of the idealism surrounding the internet and computers that I've adopted over the past while isn't necessarily as Great And Wonderful A Thing as I had heretofore assumed... and I find that I want to rebel against it even while there's a part of me which says "wait a minute, let's look a bit more closely at these concepts... maybe I need to examine them a bit more closely".
posted by hippybear at 6:29 AM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


I watched the entire episode twice, for the record, and listened to several radio interviews with him, including the Little Atoms episode I linked to above, in which he discusses his overarching thesis for the three hours at length.

I think you are being way too generous to Curtis - it's true he lets some myterious "environmentalist protestors" off the hook (probably the same "anti-capitalist environmentalists" you mean), but it's also clear that he believes that the majority of environmentalists (or seemingly anyone who cares at all about keeping environmental 'sytems' intact) has been duped by the 'cybernetic' conspiracy. In the little Atoms interview, he goes to great lengths to also paint the current UK movement against university tuition hikes as dupes of the same cabal.

In the current TV episode, he links 'cybernetic theory' (which he sees as the cause of at least one senior British official's racism) to the persistence of Apartheid and to the desire to return to a 'steady'state' order characterised by relationships between peoples similar to those in the British empire, which he gives as one example of a steady-state system. (Yes, that jumped out at me, because I think it's nuts - but there's plenty of crazy to go around.)

In general, he bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory: secret codewords only he and other initiates really understand when they are spoken by the powerful, a narrative about super-competent people who have hoodwinked everyone who would otherwise be set to follow his program to the promised land, an ever-expanding cabal which morphs and grows to accomodate changes in the facts, etc.

Kay's book isn't perfect, as I said, but it has a lot that's quite useful to say about this sort of outlook, whether it emerges on the left or on the right.
posted by Wylla at 6:37 AM on May 31, 2011


Or it could be that you've read a book which has ideas in it which is influencing everything you see at the moment. That's entirely possible, because I haven't read this book and don't see anywhere that Curtis says that cybernetic theory is a cause of racisim or apartheid, nor do I see where he says that current environmental theory continues to hold static systems theory as a current belief system.

I also have NEVER seen Curtis offer up a program which would deliver anyone to any supposed promised land.

I think you're viewing this through an influential lens which is coloring your experience.

I'll watch both of these episodes later today and see if what you say is there actually is there. But after the once-through I've given both of these episodes... I just don't see it.
posted by hippybear at 7:48 AM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow, hippybear, how condescending!

I read the Kay book this week - after I posted about the first episode of this series - I linked to it above because it seems to give a better general description of this kind of thinking than other books on the same subject (Seth Kalichman on AIDS conspiracy, Seth Mnookin on vaccine denial, David Aaronovitch on historical conspiracy theories, etc.).

You are right that Curtis does an awful lot of hand waving - it's certainly possible to argue where he's simply saying that the ideas he dislikes have influenced developments he dislikes and where he's suggesting that the conspirators are actually driving developments - but I think the implication ("If the scales would only fall from the masses' eyes, a movement would arise to enact a society I see as an ideal! Why can the masses not see? - those in power have rendered them blind!") is really pretty clear. The conspiracy changes from film to film (It's neocons! It's ad agencies! It's BP! It's Buckminster Fuller!It's the guy who founded the Whole Earth Catalog!) but the overall theme doesn't. His general ideas may be interesting, and some of those he blames are indeed pretty evil...but that doesn't make the overall view of the world any more accurate.

I am going to leave it here - this thread is dead other than us bickering - feel free to get in the last word if you'd like.
posted by Wylla at 8:25 AM on May 31, 2011


Okay, that wasn't meant to be condescending, but obviously you took it the wrong way. I've certainly digested books which have entirely colored everything I've consumed or experienced for a while surrounding that, and was just suggesting that maybe you need to look for that possibility.

Anyway, it's not just us. Or did you not notice stavrosthewonderchicken's comment posted just an hour or two ago? I hope you won't stay away, because I think there are ideas here worth discussing.

I think you're entirely wrong about the idea that Curtis is talking about conspiracies rather than tracing threads. Especially in this series, there is never a point where he steps forward with "And then these people planned this thing to happen and they did X Y and Z to make it happen." Well, except for the part with China selling the US cheap goods and then lending the money from those sales back to the US. I don't think there's anyone who disputes that is what is happening.

You say, "I think the implication ("If the scales would only fall from the masses' eyes, a movement would arise to enact a society I see as an ideal! Why can the masses not see? - those in power have rendered them blind!") is really pretty clear." And I don't really see anywhere that Curtis has ever said anything like that, and that you're projecting a will and polemic behind his work which simply doesn't exist. If Curtis does any thing at all, it's examining the application of big ideas and their unintended consequences.

If there's any takeaway about Curtis' philosophy at all, it's is in the newer Little Atoms interview, starting around 17m16s:
And this is really all I'm saying, in all these films, to go back to what you were talking about -- the disappointment you shared, is that I'm very sympathetic to a lot of the protest movements and to challenging power in society. But you're not going to do it through self-organizing networks where you all sit 'round and there are no leaders and there is no sort of guiding vision except self-organization. It's a retreat, I think. And in many respects I think it's a cowardly retreat on the part of the Left from confronting the fact that power is getting more and more and more concentrated in our society, but they don't have an alternative. And they retreat, like bureaucrats, like librarians, into process. Processes of organization. Without actually inspiring me with a vision of another kind of way of organizing the world.

But in your earlier comment where you link those interviews , you say "the host of the show (which describes itself as "a live talk show about ideas and culture with an emphasis on ideas of the Enlightenment" and is generally awesome) turned into an fawning fanboy while Curtis waxed incoherent about how the UK student protest movement was a failure because it had been infected by 'cybernetics.'"

There is little or no fanboyism going on by the interviewers. They express disappointment with the new series and discomfort with his thesis. Furthermore, he doesn't mention the UK student protests. He does specifically say this (starting at 27m02s):
I'm really sympathetic to anyone who challenges the vested interests of power, because I think we live in an age where that's increasingly going to have to happen. But self-organizing systems, on their own, are what they say: they're organizing systems. They're managerialism. And managerialism isn't about changing the world. It's a retreat into bureaucracy or is a sort of rearranging things. It is managerialism which is really the prevalent ideology of our time, is that we're all systems. We hold things stable. And what I argue in ALL those revolutions, which if you look at them now have gone backwards, they were incredibly noble, brave... hundreds of thousands of people poured into those squares in places like the Ukraine, challenged those in power and got rid of them. But then, what next? Because it was a brilliant piece of organization. But what next? And they've actually gone backwards. And I just think that what I'm trying to point out in that is not that they're wrong, it's just that this ideology, of systems of which we are all parts and somehow that system stabilizes itself and that's it... is limiting or actually useless when you actually want to really change the world. You have to have a vision of a different way of organization.
You see conspiracies in his work. I see someone pointing out that things haven't turned out the way they were expected to because people didn't think through to the actual end goal and instead were focused on the processes in the middle.
posted by hippybear at 8:57 AM on May 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


Gaaaah. A closing blockquote tag didn't take in my comment above. I hope it's obvious where Curtis' quotes end and my own comments resume.
posted by hippybear at 9:00 AM on May 31, 2011


stavrosthewonderchicken: “Ah well. I still haven't seen these latest Curtis efforts; perhaps he has run off the rails and is now actually suggesting conspiracies exist, rather than confluences, as it seems to me he has always done.”

There have been times when he went off the rails in lots of his documentaries. Look at The Power of Nightmares or The Trap, for example. Heck, nearly every single word in this clip from The Power of Nightmares about Leo Strauss is wrong. I could spend time picking it apart, but suffice it to say that Adam Curtis obviously had a conversation with Harvey Mansfield (a notorious ideologue, frankly, who never actually studied with Strauss himself) over an afternoon and took everything he said at face value, without doing any real background research whatsoever.

Seeing that stunned me; and it brought me to a significant fact: sometimes Adam Curtis simply doesn't do his homework. Sometimes all that stirring and interesting and thought-provoking stuff isn't researched properly. Sometimes it's just a very infantile reading of the reality of a situation fed through Curtis' admittedly sharp mind, which makes it appear learned and wise.

Since I saw that, I've been a bit more circumspect about accepting Adam Curtis' explanations of things. I guess I don't so much mind the implied conspiracies, but I'm a bit jaded as far as just accepting that a lot of his facts are well-checked. Particularly when he's talking about relatively obscure things.
posted by koeselitz at 9:45 AM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


And this is really all I'm saying, in all these films, to go back to what you were talking about -- the disappointment you shared, is that I'm very sympathetic to a lot of the protest movements and to challenging power in society. But you're not going to do it through self-organizing networks where you all sit 'round and there are no leaders and there is no sort of guiding vision except self-organization. It's a retreat, I think. And in many respects I think it's a cowardly retreat on the part of the Left from confronting the fact that power is getting more and more and more concentrated in our society, but they don't have an alternative.

The way I'm reading this, he's saying that the problem to be solved is that there is too much concentrated power in society, but that the protest movements will not be successful in challenging that power if they are decentralized and self-organizing, so he is proposing what exactly? That revolutionary movements concentrate power and decision making? It seems to be somewhat circular.
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on May 31, 2011


empath: Well, he's not offering solutions. He's offering observations. I don't see in any of Curtis' pieces where he's tried to offer solutions for anything he's describing / documenting / paranoid-conspiracy-theorizing / whatever-it-is-he's-doing..

I do think that one of the first things I heard after the Arab Spring started was someone comparing the uprising and overthrow to Eastern Europe and noting that if those in the Middle East didn't have any plan beyond throwing out the bastards in power, there would only come a new version of the same thing to replace what has been removed. That's pretty much what Curtis seems to be saying in his points in that Little Atoms interview.
posted by hippybear at 11:14 AM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


hippybear: "But bring his ideas forward into the Now, and I'm confronted with the concept that maybe a lot of the idealism surrounding the internet and computers that I've adopted over the past while isn't necessarily as Great And Wonderful A Thing as I had heretofore assumed""

Disclaimer: Not yet seen part 2. One thing that disappointed me about Part 1 was that he did not really explore the actual history of cybernetics, which dates back in its electronic form to the 1950s. The first great wave of cybernetic pundits emerged in the late-1940s (picking up the Art Deco Scientifictional modernity-at-all-costs vibe of the 1920s/30s that had been smashed down by depression and war) and ran right through the 1950s, promising that a New Society would emerge from the deployment of the great electronic brains throughout society. They went into eclipse until the first AI bloom of the 1960s-1970s, which itself faded before recurring in the 1980s and cresting as the wave he Curtis identified (at least in Part 1). But cyberneticists have basically been promising the same thing since before electronics, when all they had to work with was clockwork and magnetism. But they do change their name every so often. Right now, a lot of them talk "social networks" and "emergent politics", but it's the same story.
posted by meehawl at 11:16 AM on May 31, 2011


meehawl: I'm rewatching both episodes right now. I have to say, he spends a lot of time wasted on his in-depth biography of Rand and even getting into the Lewinski scandal, neither of which seem to really fit his main narrative. I mean, Rand is part of the narrative, but all the details about her personal life... really aren't part of the point.

Anyway, he does get a bit more into cyberneticism and its history in part 2. But the story is more of a parallel examination of the influence of mechanistic and computer-based thought rather than being a true sequel or follow-on of part one.
posted by hippybear at 11:20 AM on May 31, 2011


Interesting Thread.

Episode 1: Mixed up a bit, couldn't quite see how Rand fitted in except as an early influence on Greenspan, but the later IMF/South-Asia stuff was superb, reminded me of both Klein and Stiglitz on the subject (yes, I know he was on the show. I actually stood and applauded when he came on.) Also, the link to computers was somewhat tenuous: yes they can perform finance-math real quick, and so on, but still.

Visually superb, just gorgeous to look at. How does he find this footage? He certainly has an eye for it. Also, gotta love all that old tech, just fantastic to see ("lights blinking and flashing...".) And the music was fantastic, he should put up track listings for his stuff.

Episode 2: (on my to do list - gonna watch it now)
posted by marienbad at 1:07 PM on May 31, 2011


Also, the link to computers was somewhat tenuous: yes they can perform finance-math real quick, and so on, but still.

I think he missed out on going more into detail on risk hedging and computer modeling.

Horizon covered it pretty well.
posted by empath at 1:17 PM on May 31, 2011


BTW, I found episode 2 through alternate means. Is there a YouTube link anyone has found yet for that?
posted by hippybear at 1:39 PM on May 31, 2011


ok Episode 2. Fantastic. Again beautiful, the editing (from old tech to penguins for eg.) was amazing.

"I think you are being way too generous to Curtis - it's true he lets some myterious "environmentalist protestors" off the hook (probably the same "anti-capitalist environmentalists" you mean), but it's also clear that he believes that the majority of environmentalists (or seemingly anyone who cares at all about keeping environmental 'sytems' intact) has been duped by the 'cybernetic' conspiracy. "

"In the current TV episode, he links 'cybernetic theory' (which he sees as the cause of at least one senior British official's racism) to the persistence of Apartheid and to the desire to return to a 'steady'state' order characterised by relationships between peoples similar to those in the British empire, which he gives as one example of a steady-state system. (Yes, that jumped out at me, because I think it's nuts - but there's plenty of crazy to go around.)"

He is using the ideas of self-organising systems in Ecology as a Framing device for Political systems. He talks about the Balance of Nature and how it was believed Nature remained static, when it is then shown to be dynamic and changing, which seems kinda obvious if you believe in evolution.

He talks about "Theories of Equilibrium" and although the British Empire wasn't in that state, it is the idea of mantaining the status quo. Then shows that Equilibrium is wrong, and that there is dynamic change.

Forgot to say this before, re: Episode 1: When he got to the bit where he said "what is being done to the west is what was done to other countries around the world" i actually cheered. Finally the fucking beeb stands up for something, stands against the fucknjg government. It has gotten a bit supine recently.
posted by marienbad at 1:58 PM on May 31, 2011


For those interested: the theme tune.
posted by marienbad at 9:35 AM on June 1, 2011


First Pizzicato Five, and just now in Ep2 he's pulled out one of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes...I don't know how much of the Kool-Aid I'll end up drinking, but I love this guy's audiovisual style
posted by Thomas Tallis is my Homeboy at 7:45 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Has everyone watched to the end of episode 2? I'd like to repost something I posted in an earlier thread:
[...] hippies are the most nakedly hierarchical animals I've ever observed and frequently peck lower caste individuals to death leaving behind only a smear of feathers and grease.
posted by fleetmouse at 4:58 PM on June 2, 2011


One thing that disappointed me about Part 1 was that he did not really explore the actual history of cybernetics, which dates back in its electronic form to the 1950s. The first great wave of cybernetic pundits emerged in the late-1940s (picking up the Art Deco Scientifictional modernity-at-all-costs vibe of the 1920s/30s that had been smashed down by depression and war) and ran right through the 1950s, promising that a New Society would emerge from the deployment of the great electronic brains throughout society.

You could go further back, to stuff like Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-Morrow - there's something decidedly proto-cybernetic, ecosystem-like and network-ish about his approach to town planning. Earlier still, you have 'benevolent capitalists' and Quaker industrialists building model villages like Bourneville and Port Sunlight. And before that utopian Socialists of the late 1700s were getting all techno-social at New Lanark.

In an alternate universe another Adam Curtis is making a documentary that blames the world's ills on George Cadbury, Titus Salt and Robert Owen.

In that same universe, Steampunk is considered socially acceptable.
posted by jack_mo at 6:00 PM on June 2, 2011


Looks like someone else put that Ayn Rand interview to good use.
posted by empath at 5:25 AM on June 6, 2011


So, episode 3 is.... interesting...

I'm going to have to watch it again. It has a lot to do with the Rwandan genocide.

Overall, I feel like this series is kind of odd. The last one in particular feels like he's forcing the subject to fit the overarching hypothesis rather than allowing the hypothesis to spring naturally from the subject. So far only the second episode as felt like it had a straightforward line through it conceptually. The first spends way too much time with Rand's biography and the Lewinski scandal and such, and this last one feels like it puts all its eggs into one basket which I'm not necessarily sure follows from the main concept.

I'll watch all three again later tonight and see how I feel then.
posted by hippybear at 8:20 AM on June 7, 2011


After watching the third episode, which is a little disjointed, I'm interested to know if anyone is creating a resource to debunk or at least criticize Curtis's ideas as presented in this series. It all seems a bit pat, the same way conspiracy theories are pat.

I'm especially keen on finding support or the converse for his ideas about the balance of nature... how modern ecology has repudiated that idea (or not).
posted by fleetmouse at 5:38 AM on June 8, 2011


Watched this on YouTube this weekend. I think this documentary explains why ERP never works.
posted by humanfont at 12:10 PM on June 9, 2011




hotsoupgirl: HAHAHHAHAHAHHA....that was amazing. I like Adam Curtis' stuff, but that was on point.

I actually like a lot of the random, irrelevant tidbits, like the stuff on Ayn Rand's love life and the Monica Lewinsky derail. I enjoy the diversity. I've never really seen Curtis' work as having cohesive themes and that's one of the reasons I like it.

How often does any narrative, anyone's experience of life, fit into a cohesive theme? All of our lives are filled with mundane events, seemingly unrelated occurrences, and events and themes that seem disjointed and unrelated, but are often very personal and important to each of us. I see a large part of his message as being that there is no cohesive, all-encompassing narrative that describes the whole of existence and the paths of history, and I don't consider it a failure when he doesn't create one. After watching his videos, I learn things and think about things, some of them unique and some mundane, but that's all I expect and I like it.
posted by nTeleKy at 6:36 PM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


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