The rise of the machines

An Adam Curtis series is always an event, if you’re interested in whether intellectual content can make it on TV. Last night, the first part of his latest was broadcast, which came with the Baroque title of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

It carried his trademark style, impressionistic and fragmented, and held together by an over-arching narrative that works like the interpretation of a dream. Only, I didn’t find the interpretation that convincing. Too much conspiracy. Not enough linkage.

The basic thesis is that the rise of networked computers, coupled to Ayn Rand’s individualistic philosophy, led to our world in which free markets dominate – politicians and bankers believing that the network can provide the stability previously strived for by governments. But the boom and bust cycles did not end, and when the busts came, the powerful few manipulated global networks to rescue themselves, and dump the cost on the desperate many.

It is a vaguely familiar story, though too simplistically told, meaning the film contained no insights I felt I could really trust. Plus, it’s two human interest angles – Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, Branden’s affair with Rand – felt like they were in to provide some spice, not to flesh out the thesis.

It did remind me of when I was writing about IT, pre-dotcom bust. The story of a ‘new economy’ did do the rounds, only it had more to do with the illusion that the economy had dematerialised. Limitless growth was entertained on the basis that the constraints of material resourcing had been left behind. Laughable now. But it’s a different fantasy than placing your trust in networked stability.