I’ve always had a soft spot for the work of Adam Curtis, historian and film-maker. His BAFTA for The Power of Nightmares seemed richly deserved – it was a compelling piece of film-making arguing that Islamism and Neoconservatism not only needed each other – ie having a bogeyman to contest is a short route to credibility – but had more in common than they’d care to admit: both at least partially achieved power by promising to protect us from the spectres they promoted. His work is characterised by rich webs of connection and lateral leaps: it always reminds me, rightly or wrongly, of the conception sequence in Amelie, although the plot is invariably a little darker.
But this time around, with his three-part film All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (the third is shown next Monday), his penchant for yoking together Big Themes seems to have got a little tangled somewhere in the Big Sewing Machine of Metaphor. Watchable, as ever, but in a more baffling way than usual, he sought to demonstrate links between the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, the cybernetic thinking of Jay Forrester, and the influence of these trains of thought to explain the financial crash and the oligarchy nature of Western democracies. These trains of thought made many an intervening stop too: Buckminster Fuller, the Californian communes of the 1960s and 70s, and the initial ecological concept of eco-systems as naturally self-balancing. (If you’ve not watched episodes 1 or 2 yet, be warned this synopsis leaves out an awful lot more.)
Unusually for Curtis, he’s got some pretty mixed reviews this time around: personally, I agreed with the note of ambiguity in The Telegraph’s review:
A lot of these elements simply didn’t belong together, and even if they did there wasn’t enough time to prove how.”
This needed a 13 part series, except the BBC might not have felt like paying for that and were probably mindful of the viewing figures you might get for 13 hours of something so complex. (I couldn’t help but note, however, that reviewers of just about every stripe unanimously sang the praises of his earlier programmes: if the BBC are reading, can they please put these out on DVD?). Perhaps like The Apprentice, an urge to entertain is arguing against a desire to inform or challenge – although Curtis certainly achieves a healthier balance. (Curtis is more likely, I suspect, to have read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.)
Watching it at home – with the occasionally baffled exclamation from my partner – I remembered a very different book that I missed any mention of but which shed interesting light on the failure of cybernetics: Francis Spufford’s equally fascinating and strange Red Plenty. Both this and Curtis’s two-part film seemed to me to make a similar point – that any system that ignores human nature and sees human beings as nodes in a vast network or resources in a similar vein to iron ore, electricity or rainfall ultimately winds up being rudely derailed by the very thing it has managed to ignore.
Spufford’s book – a fictionalised account of life in the Soviet Union from the mid-50s onward that is heavily based on real events – shows that the Soviets too thought cybernetics was the answer. Viewing Soviet society as one vast system where different levers could be interactively adjusted to produce the optimum output of not just steel but also cardigans and happiness, vast armies of mathematicians and scientists laboured incessantly to create a version of the world their political masters would then undermine as it threatened their position.
As a review at Schismatrix describes:
Where Norbert Wiener believed that a cybernetic social theory would benefit from and would lead towards a more liberal, less rigid system, where feedback would freely bounce among different social strata, both the Soviet government and industrial management opposed such a loose framework and emphasised, for different reasons, the need for a controlled top-down structure. For Khrushchev, communism could only work as a tightly ran machine. The apparatus had to be centrally controlled, not allowing for the possibility that input could be generated by other levels. Many of the advantages of cybernetics therefore crumbled on ideological grounds.”
Curtis’s film pointed out that these weren’t the only ideological problems with a Systems Thinking based outlook. The UN’s 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, influenced by a systems view of ecology (and a prediction of impending disaster from a computer model that drew the conclusion that governments must abandon growth and focus on stabilising the world as it is), drew protest on the grounds that “preserving the world as it is” leaves in power the people who’ve led it to its current position. “Touché” seems the most appropriate one-word comment.
I was also struck by some of what were almost asides in Curtis’ film: that those in the 1970s world of IT who were promoting a “machine-like fantasy of stability” were driven at least in part by the kudos that radical academic and scientific ideas bestows on those who promote them: these young men – the women were thin on the ground – might not have achieved ecological or social sustainability on the basis of their philosophies, but their careers came to no harm. (Stewart Brand popped up as a talking head, having filmed an early experiment: his own evolution from counterculture computer culturist to consultant provides a commentary of its own on the last 40 years or so.) This almost imperious disregard for the potential implications of technologies reminded me of the films of Duncan Jones (reviewed here recently): the dystopian undercurrent that surfaced in much 1970s sci-fi – and resurfaced in Moon in particular – seems oddly lacking in much of contemporary culture. Maybe Curtis has a valid point?
I was also left feeling that episode 1 was a few years behind a curve, albeit one that didn’t get much attention as it passed through. Although accusations of cutting his digital cloth to suit his purposes have some validity, the initial wave of Silicon Valley digerati did have a very strong streak of cyberlibertarianism and technological determinism to it. The University of Westminster’s Hypermedia Research Centre’s The Californian Ideology essay, and a 1997 essay by Langdon Winner joined the same dots that Curtis now does, although they can’t – from their year of writing- extrapolate as far forward as now.
The moral I left with was one I had on arrival, but it had been underlined. Essentially, modelling in the sense of creating a simplified, neat version of Life, The Universe and Everything bears as much relationship to reality as modelling in the sense of flicking your hair for the photographer while you twirl under the lights in a gossamer confection of lace and linen. The communes gleefully created under Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, where everyone was an equal part of a ‘system’, fell apart within a couple of years at most as the ‘system’ made no allowance for political or social feedback loops. Making everyone a node in a network may appeal to a mind drawn to systems, but the model has no way of adjusting when the nodes act as the model suggests they won’t.
Amid the cuckoo impersonations and barking noises coming from the other sofa by way of commentary, my partner pointed out that we currently have some of the most powerful computers on the planet attempting to model and predict the weather. At which point a sarcastic comment of ‘Yeah, right’ makes a very good point about how two positives can make a negative. For those tempted to adopt the comforting position of a model that explains everything (therefore implicitly absolving us of so much), or who would prefer to run with a number-crunched ‘answer’ rather than to assess their own, there are two valuable warnings in popular culture. Firstly, when ‘Computer says “No”’, pause to reflect on who designed the software and what their view of the world was. And secondly, think about those complex weather models and remember the words of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. If you want to know what the weather’s doing, look out of the bloody window.