Tag Archives: adam curtis

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace Episode Two

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’s vision

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. Adam Curtis showed a clip of his demonstration of several of these ideas from what is now known as “The Mother of All Demos”.

Doug Engelbart 1968 Demonstration from Nathan Garrett on Vimeo.

 

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.

Adam 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.

Adam 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.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace Episode One

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a three part documentary on BBC 2 by Adam Curtis, who made the fantastic The Power of Nightmares, an exploration of how the Islamic Fundamentalists and the American Hawks rose from the same point in history, each with complementary aims, and a fundamental need of each other. This new series sets out to portray how we as humans have not been empowered by technology, but have instead been somewhat enslaved. A fascinating premise for me, so I was rather excited by the prospect of the series.

After viewing the first episode, I felt slightly hollow inside. I enjoyed it, but some of it didn’t ring quite true for me. Tim Maughan set me off a little further, when he mentioned his doubt about the view of the technologists of the 90s all being fans of Ayn Rand, in particular Bill Gate’s spectacular alturism in simply giving away vast amounts of his fortune. This set me off, and I decided to watch it again and dig a little further, see if I could figure out what was bugging me about it.

This episode sets out the idea that computers were proclaimed to be the salvation of the financial markets in the 1990s, providing logic and automation that could balance out the greed and errors of humans, and thus produce stable productive economies that would boom constantly. This global market would cross the boundaries of government and their influence, and was said to have risen out of the writings of Ayn Rand, claiming that her philosophy of Objectivism was what drove the technological inventions that rose at the start of that decade.

As a quick aside here, I’ve never read an Ayn Rand novel, never felt a compulsion too, so the explanation of the plot of Atlas Shrugged was a bit of a revelation for me, as it seemed instantly to me that the plot of Watchmen in part re-appropriates it for its own purposes, namely the concept of a community of creatives and intellectuals leaving society, waiting for its self-destruction to start building a new world. Also perhaps even the line “Who Watches the Watchmen?” might be a reflection of the “Who is John Galt?” refrain.

In the documentary, it was particular the brief reflections of important moments in the progress of technology that interested me. Two specific events were Loren Carpenter’s experiment with a giant game of collaborative Pong, and the publication of an essay by Humdog.

Carpenter is described as a leading computer engineer who in 1991 invited hundreds of people to a giant shed, to take part in an undescribed experiment. He talks briefly of not telling them anything about what he was doing, simply seating them all in two groups, each with a narrow paddle with a green side and a red side, and a giant screen in front of them. Once they had figured out that there was a giant camera focused on them all, and that they could see the different sides of their paddles picked up by the camera, he started them off with a giant game of pong. A single green paddle would influence one side of the shed’s pong bat to go one way, a single red the other. All of them together would be averaged out, to determined how far up or down their bat would move. This was said to show the flock mentality of the network, subconsciously managing themselves towards efficiency, all equal in their say.

Now, I managed to find a description of this very event by Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly (who does appear very briefly in the documentary as a talking head). He describes how it actually takes place at a 1991 conference of computer graphic experts in a conference hall in Las Vegas. Carpenter himself is co-founder and chief scientist of Pixar Animation Studios, and rather than an experiment on perhaps a test group of random individuals, is actually demonstrating to his peers. For me this puts it in a different light, this is pretty much at this point in time a roomful of the people most likely to understand what is going on, to figure out how things are working, and to have a desire to collaborate to see what he has achieved. Indeed, at the end of the demonstration as described by Kelly, they are flying and landing a plane in a flight simulator. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Curtis’s portrayal is a mild distortion of the event.

As for the Humdog essay, this describes an essay written by a user named Humdog in the early 1990s describing her dissatisfaction with cyberspace itself. She points out that “Cyberspace is not some island of the blessed”, that she had “commodified my internal thoughts which were then sold on as entertainments”, and that we were all “getting lost in the spectacle”. Again though I feel the purpose is being slightly misrepresented. The essay is essentially a slightly trolly farewell to the internet, mainly arising from a couple of incidents on a bulletin board called The WELL.

The WELL was an early BBS community that in part rose out of the Californian hippies of the 1960s, and is best described in Chapter 4 of Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown. Humdog was angry at these two incidents, and also what she felt was the rising commercialisation of The WELL. Rather than as Curtis portrays, cyberspace itself. Indeed, as her LinkedIn profile shows, she soon got over these fears and in the mid to late 90s worked for Seagate and Sun as a systems analyst in web applications.

Finally, coming back to my initial unease, the suggestion that the computer industry of the time in California was bursting to the seams with Randian utopiaists. This is summed up as the California ideology. I’ve found a good essay on the Californian Ideology by the Hypermedia Research Centre. This to me confirms my feelings that it was vastly more complex that this, constantly contradictory, and certainly not limited to one viewpoint.

Whilst each of these incidents are perhaps mild, and I’m not claiming to have found any smoking guns that disprove Curtis’s polemic, as they were pretty much the basis of the tech side of the first episode, it does to me suggest that he’s either been misunderstanding or misrepresenting them, sanding off the edges to make them fit his truth. I’m looking forwards to the next episode to see if I am being way too harsh, see if there is greater and more convincing evidence used. And also to see what is, absolutely, visually stunning television.