All Watched Over By Euphonious Voice-Overs on the BBC

Berlin (1632)-ADJ

Adam Curtis presented a three-part series on the BBC, recently, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (title from a Brautigan poem)… and only a day after the second installment, I received evangelical emails, about the series, from several brainy friends. I have already watched two films, by Curtis, that I consider interesting-but-loosely-argued… and a bit too “mainstream” (supportive of The Standard Worldview, with minor twists). I only managed to find part 2, online, at first, and sat through all 59 minutes and found it interesting. Curtis’ general thesis has to do with, I think, the  modernist mistake of seeing nature, through  machine-bedazzled eyes, as a machine, or machines. And that by “nature” we now mean “us”, too. Curtis argues against machines, and machine-intelligence, as either adequate models for biological systems or as the ultimate saviors of same. He seems to argue that we’re on the fast-track to some kind of show-down. So far, so plausible. But the Brautigan-poem-reference should have been a warning.

After finding the other two sections of the series, I sat down to watch all three consecutive hours of it and I was slightly appalled. Adam Curtis’ old problem… of being a bit too impressionistic with his connections, and too ambitious in his attempt to concoct a Unified Field Theory from wildly-disparate (superficially dazzling) digressions… is compounded with some utter bullshit, tossed in for good measure. But then, it is on the BBC, and the BBC is a mouthpiece. What gets under my skin is how uncritical the reception to “All Watched Over” has been. Everybody simply fucking loves it. Why?

What should be merely “thought-provoking” material is, more often than not, thought-providing. We now watch certain “documentaries” with all defenses down, as though the material is a certified service, like lawn care, that we either accept as professional or reject as slipshod: nothing in between. And who can reject one of those Sir-Richard-Attenborough-like voices (Sir David Attenborough actually makes a cameo here) in full fruit and cadence? It’s such a persuasive, objective-sounding voice. Would “All Watched Over” have been a mild sensation around certain blogs (and in my In Box) if it had been narrated by Geraldo Rivera or Rosanne Barr instead?

The euphonious British narration plus Curtis’ poetic collage of clips with (often dubiously) jazzy connections makes for a very strange, slightly mendacious, but very tasty, brew.

Here’s a dialog I had about it:


1.        ___Steven Augustine permalink

June 18, 2011 11:52 AM 

Finally tracked all three parts down and watched them in sequence last night (about three hours invested, I think). Very interesting stuff, M… I like what Curtis did with the Ayn Rand material (I wished there’d been a literary critique, though: showing that these self-appointed supermen couldn’t even detect how poorly-written their foundational texts were would’ve been telling and funny) and the archival PC/Web sequences were amazing. Also, Curtis making the connection between Rand (who always reminds me of that other huckster, Gurdjieff), and Silicon Valley, was illuminating.

Slightly leery of some of the lacunae, elisions and glosses, though: the Congo/Rwanda passages suffered from standard BBC-style bowdlerization (eg, I doubt very seriously that the Belgians, upon “withdrawal”, inadvertently sparked the first Tutsi massacre by encouraging Hutu empowerment out of a sense of liberal “guilt”). Also the bit about William Hamilton’s death seems to imply that he died in the bush from an ill-fated aspirin (in response to malaria): he didn’t; he died in London after being in the country for a couple of months (and some reports insist that his bout of malaria had already been cured before he left the Congo). But Hamilton’s mysterious case is a digression.

Given the series’ focus on tech, I wished Curtis had done more with the connection between the Congo/Rwanda messes and our i-phones. But that would have been extremely dangerous and required much more screen time. The Rwandan massacres were not just a matter of bumbling Belgians and weirdly open-to-suggestion Hutus and Tutsis. (btw: anyone remember the dance single, from the early 60s, called “The Watusi”?)

This is relevant:

“War for the control of the Democratic Republic of Congo—what should be the richest country in the world—began in Uganda in the 1980s, when now Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni shot his way to power with the backing of Buckingham Palace, the White House, and Tel Aviv behind him. This is interesting:

Paul Kagame, now president of Rwanda, served as Museveni’s Director of Military Intelligence. Kagame later trained at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, before the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—backed by Roger Winter, the U.S. Committee on Refugees, and the others above—invaded Rwanda. The RPF destabilized and then secured Rwanda. This coup d’etat is today misunderstood as the “Rwanda Genocide.” What played out in Rwanda in 1994 is now playing out in Darfur, Sudan; regime change is the goal, “genocide” is the tool of propaganda used to manipulate and disinform.”

The context:

“Columbo-tantalite, i.e. coltan, is found in three-billion-year-old soils like those in the Rift Valley region of Africa. The tantalum extracted from the coltan ore is used to make tantalum capacitors, tiny components that are essential in managing the flow of current in electronic devices. Eighty percent of the world’s coltan reserves are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Niobium is another high-tech mineral with a similar story.

Sprocket reports that the high-tech boom of the 1990s caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to nearly $300 per pound. In 1996 U.S.-sponsored Rwandan and Ugandan forces entered eastern DRC. By 1998 they seized control and moved into strategic mining areas. The Rwandan Army was soon making $20 million or more a month from coltan mining. Though the price of coltan has fallen, Rwanda maintains its monopoly on coltan and the coltan trade in DRC. Reports of rampant human rights abuses pour out of this mining region.”

These statistics (c. 2007) all predate the invention and/or marketing of devices which have seen an explosion in the demand for these minerals!

2. ___M  permalink*

June 18, 2011 12:15 PM 

I’m with you, Steven. On the whole, I thought it was very well done, but the last episode seemed to be trying to do too much and some of the connections he was making were either passed over in too cursory a fashion or given(in my opinion) to much importance.

I’m a bit leery of all that ‘selfish gene’ stuff, anyway. I mean, there are clearly elements of truth in it but they extrapolate too far. The evidence to the contrary (in the form of disinterested self-sacrifice) is too common and too universal to allow that theory much credibility.

The Rwanda/Congo parts were treated as though it had been a perfectly straight-forward issue, which it clearly wasn’t. As for Hamilton’s ‘aspirin death’, I thought that was a bit iffy so I’m glad to have it confirmed.

Still, there was some great stuff. Didn’t Ayn Rand look absolutely crazed, her eyes bulging with derangement? As you say, it’s a pity they just accepted that Rand was a great writer: she was nothing of the sort. She was a wretchedly bad writer. As someone remarked (of Atlas Shrugged :

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

3. ___Steven Augustine permalink

June 18, 2011 12:29 PM 

The Rand/Orc quote perfectly hilarious!

“I’m a bit leery of all that ‘selfish gene’ stuff, anyway.”

The worst bit being the un-scientific presentation Curtis makes there, characterizing (or seeming to) the genes as actually “strategizing” or producing thoughts/plans of any kind. As though the genes are actively and conspiratorially operating us as their delivery systems, when, in fact, after millions of years of selection/ random filtration, things are as they are for largely statistical reasons: the genes are insentient chemicals, full stop. Curtis, ironically, makes Dawkins nearly sound like a proponent of Intelligent Design! Laugh.

All in all, though, as you say, it was a worthwhile three hours.

4. ___M permalink*

June 18, 2011 12:41 PM 

Well, exactly. It’s one thing to assert that it’s a gene’s imperative function to survive and propagate (incontestable); it’s another thing entirely to suggest that genes are conversant with game theory and are acting accordingly.

5. ___Steven Augustine permalink

June 18, 2011 12:47 PM 

It’s surprising how often scientifically-trained writers/educators will talk/write about adaptive changes (in things like moths or lizards, say) as though these creatures had *willed* the changes… when, in fact, it’s just that the unfortunate varieties (bright red moths on foliage; slower lizards) get gobbled up and phased out of the gene pool. I read articles (or paragraphs), at least once a month, in which the “science” writer obviously doesn’t get the distinction.

6.___M permalink*

June 18, 2011 3:44 PM 

True, but even stranger is the number of otherwise brilliant scientists who were taken in by this idea of ‘natural system stability’ and the machine/biological systems analogy. I mean, it’s so obviously flawed a hypothesis from the very outset. But one sees it time and time again. Edward O. Wilson, a ferociously brilliant man, made much the same error.

After devoting a lifetime to the study of social insects (which culminated in his magnum opusThe Ants, a fascinating book) he lost the plot and decided that insect societies could serve as useful models/comparators for human society.

How could such a clever man make so basic a ‘category error’ (as philosophers call it)? Did nobody think to take him aside and say: “Erm, Ed…people aren’t ants”?

Likewise, all these scientists, mathematicians etc who thought that complex systems tended towards stability. Just a moment of common sense would have exploded this notion. The very opposite is true. Even now, the most difficult challenge for computers is to model incredibly complex (because of the number of variables) processes of turbulence or protein folding: they’re too close to chaotic. The more complex a system, the more it tends towards chaos. One would have thought that so obvious a truth would hardly need pointing out. But for years, all these theorists acted as though they had never noticed the fact. All very odd…

7.___Steven Augustine permalink

June 18, 2011 6:38 PM 

Well, too many of those thinkers weren’t aware of the subtle tenacity of their Judeo-Christian Goggles… even the atheists, IMO. The “natural balance” they sought to prove (or restore) was Edenic.

Now, let me introduce some weevils into the eco-system of our biscuit pantry and wait until they achieve a natural balance…

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