Having watched the first episode of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, I wrote how I wasn’t quite at ease with some of his proofs of how technology had influenced society. I was keen to see how he developed his ideas, which rolled on into a new direction, of “How the idea of the ecosystem was invented, how it inspired us, and how it wasn’t even true”. This exploration was preceded by the statement that:
In the mass democracies of the west, a new ideology has risen up. We have come to believe that the old hierarchies of power can be replaced by self-organising networks.
To investigate this and some of the other ideas from the episode further, I need first to go off on a Curtisian diversion.
In the 1950 the US military started to investigate the concept of how to communicate in a post-nuclear war world. This work was lead by Paul Baran of The Rand Corporation, creators of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence via mutually assured destruction, and subsequently spoofed as The Bland Corporation in Dr. Strangelove. To be clear given the tone of the first episode, there is no connection to Ayn Rand.
Their conclusion was that you needed a system that could send packets of information over a network. The packets would search for the best route, and would be reassembled at their destination into a whole message. The aim of this isn’t stability, or to balance the network, or for all nodes of the network to be of equal value. It is instead to have a functioning system for message delivery.
The realisation of this vision was ARPANET, a network for the exchange of information between military computers, and the forerunner of the internet. ARPA achieved this in part through the funding of a group led by Douglas Engelbart.
Englebart was a graduate in the field of Electrical Engineering, and following his degree he laid out a set of principles he himself wished to follow as his career goals. They became his bootstrapping strategy, and he refined them into a set of principles that his laboratory work would follow.
- Our world is a complex place with urgent problems of a global scale.
- The rate, scale, and complex nature of change is unprecedented and beyond the capability of any one person, organisation, or even nation to comprehend and respond to.
- Challenges of an exponential scale require an evolutionary coping strategy of a commensurate scale at a cooperative cross-disciplinary, international, cross-cultural level.
- We need a new, co-evolutionary environment capable of handling simultaneous complex social, technical, and economic changes at an appropriate rate and scale.
- The grand challenge is to boost the collective IQ of organisations and of society. A successful effort brings about an improved capacity for addressing any other grand challenge.
- The improvements gained and applied in their own pursuit will accelerate the improvement of collective IQ. This is a bootstrapping strategy.
- Those organisations, communities, institutions, and nations that successfully bootstrap their collective IQ will achieve the highest levels of performance and success.
His team’s work at SRI for ARPA produced early iterations of the mouse, hypertext links, tools for online collaboration and precursors to what became the GUI. Engelbart himself was granted a patent on the computer mouse in 1970. Curtis showed a clip of his demonstration of several of these ideas from what is now known as “The Mother of All Demos”.
This is the whole demonstration, for a couple of quick highlights go to 10:00 to see him editing a shopping list, and to 26:00 for an explanation of the input systems he’s using, including his mouse.
Engelbart saw computers as a means for sharing and collaboration towards the greater good, but there is no mention of equality in his vision. Simply that man could improve his world through collaboration. Similarly, ARPANET didn’t work on the principle that all nodes should share and contribute equally, indeed, a computer network built on these principles would quickly run into bottlenecks. Instead the aim is to simply deliver in an effective manner.
Curtis suggests that it was the ideas of people like Engelbart, Jay Forrester (creator of the Early Warning Network in the 1950s) and Buckminster Fuller (inventor of the Geodesic dome used to house the early warning network), along with Howard and Eugene Odum’s flawed principle of Ecosystems (based on Forrester’s Network Theory) that influenced how the hippie communes of the late 1960s were organised. Curtis explains some of this in a recent article in the Guardian.
His example was of the Synergia Commune, whose philosophies were specifically based on the theories of Buckminster Fuller, living in homes styled on geodesic domes and following his idea that the solidity of structures made of equal nodes could be reflected in a human society. However this is true of but one commune shown. The hippie culture itself drew from an array of influences, from mysticism, alternate philosophies and sheer hedonism. One of the acknowledged major influences on the culture as a whole was Dr Timothy Leary, who advocated to simply “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Again, this isn’t a principle of equilibrium and balance. In terms of the influences on the communes themselves, one can also look back generations to farming cooperatives, the kibbutz, Socialism, Communism, all more general and far removed from Fuller’s theories.
The final set of examples depicted were the people’s uprisings of the past ten years, which have often been characterised in the media as Internet revolutions, or in recent years as Twitter and Facebook revolutions. Again the social equality of the revolutions is shown as both the underpinning of its methodology and the crux of its failure. What most of them have in common though is that the initial focus has often come from a wronged opposition party. The Rose and Orange Revolutions of Georgia and the Ukraine both occurred following disputed elections, and the initial protests were organised by those wronged parties. In Iran the protests against the government similarly followed the disputed 2009 elections. And in Egypt, some observers credited years of organised protest by trade unions against the Government as a major contributing factor to its eventual overthrow. As for the use of the internet in Eastern Europe, and later the use of social media in the Arab Spring for Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, it is a facile argument that they “won” the day in any of the cases. However they certainly contributed to the organisation of the protests in every case, taking advantage of a lack of knowledge of those systems by the ruling parties to route around the more normal paths of comment and organisation that were being barred by oppressive regimes. Almost like ARPANET, they were able to find a route to deliver their message in the end.
It seems likely now that any oppressive government worth its salt will look to monitor, hack, and disable the commonly used social networks like Twitter and Facebook in future to prevent protest. It is equally likely that opposition groups will just find alternatives to route around the blockages in the system.
Curtis rightly identifies the flaw with the theory of ecosystems explained early in this episode. Data was flawed, misrepresented, and simplified until it met the theory the Odums wanted to prove. It feels though that Curtis in the first two episodes has fallen into the same trap, misrepresenting his own evidence to “prove” a neatly defined argument, when in fact the results show broader and more pragmatic systems are in place.