All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace Episode 1

 

Until last night, I was eagerly awaiting Adam Curtis's All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

The first episode is already available on YouTube. See below or go to the site.

I'm sad to say that I was disappointed by this first episode and am not sure I will want to spend the time to watch any further. 

In "The Century of the Self," Curtis perfected a style consisting of appropriated music and film clips—as another filmmaker told me yesterday, this is made possible by blanket licensing rights possessed by the BBC—over which the unseen Curtis narrates in an ominous voice, simultaneously calm and urgent, sounding the alarm with regard to vast conspiracies of right wing forces attacking to exploit us for their own intersets. 

In the Century of the Self, the enemy was Freud and Freudianism and with it, the strange dialectic of pleasure and control so endemic to twentieth century life. I was riveted by Century of the Self and watched a number of Curtis's other documentaries. Generally speaking I didn't find these as compelling and I must admit that the style began to wear on me after a while.

But I had high hopes for this series. It had been some time since he had made a new one and I thought that by now he would have reworked his style and produced something of striking originality. I had hoped for a fresh take on network culture. After all, I will be the first with my hand in the air to accuse network culture of promoting elitism and individualism. Its influence on our society, particularly on the academy and the creative fields, has been pervasive and pernicious.

 

All Watched Over, alas, almost descends into self-parody. The first episode seems to loosely take Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's fifteen year old Californian Ideology article as a reference point (although he fails to mention that they coined the term in a critical essay and misses the point about the critical influence of the counterculture in forging Silicon Valley's libertarian mindset) but he veers off into a protracted discussion of Ayn Rand.

Granted, Rand's work is commonly read in Silicon Valley (and of course among architects), but methodologically this is where the show goes awry. The gist of the first episode is that this rather misguided and insane woman's ideology of pure individualism and selfishness led us down the road to ruin. Curtis drags out Alan Greenspan as one of her followers. Fair enough, I suppose, although a more critical approach would be to look at the Chicago School, but I suppose that has already been done to death and Curtis wanted something more original. Still, by this point I was wondering just where Curtis was going. Although he would eventually reintroduce computers as these HAL-like entities controlling Wall Street, this wasn't terribly convincing (I think the real masters of the universe on Wall Street know very well what they are doing and rarely place blind faith in machines to save us all).

Worst of all, Curtis veered off into left field with a misinformed section on President Bill Clinton. Curtis weaves a tale of a president who had come to change society for the better but wound up so convinced by Greenspan's success with the economy and, by implication, so taken with the ideology of individualism, that he wound up leaving behind his ideas of making the country better and indulging in the earthly pleasures of Monica Lewinsky. After footage of Hilary giving a tour of the White House and even of Socks the cat, I was ready to call it a day. Somehow I made it through to the end, but I doubt I will want to cringe my way through another episode.

The changes in network culture are not the product of a conspiracy theory (if you like conspiracy theories then please spend your time on Geoff Waite's Nietzsche's Corps(e) for a much more self-reflective and compelling work). For a time better spent, try out David Harvey's A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, Fred Turner's From Counter-Culture to Cyberculture, Barbrook and Cameron's Californian Ideology essay and compliment these with a good analysis of economic history like Robert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence

I hate giving bad reviews. My mother taught me that if you don't have anything good to say, don't say it. Moreover, it pains me that I have found Curtis's work so compelling in the past and, as I stated at the outset, my whole network culture project is a sustained critique of the field. But in episode one of this series, Curtis reduces history to a caricature. 

If only Ayn Rand hadn't been so mentally unfit, if only her darting eyes hadn't been so convincing, then perhaps all these bad things wouldn't have happened and the man who had come to change society for the better would have done so. 

History isn't so simple. 

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After 6 (or is 11 or 13 or 16) Years

This month marks six years of varnelis.net on Drupal. I moved my Web site to its own domain, then kazys.net in April 1998, after running a site on lightlink.com since 1995. I began a blog (I didn’t even know that term when I started) on May 14, 2000. There must be something about this time of year, no doubt it’s tied to the extra time and energy I get when the spring semester wraps up.

Drupal is powerful but intensely frustrating. It’s Open Source software and while I’m immensely grateful, I’d be so happy to pay a couple of hundred a year to be rid of the headaches it gives me, but I’ve learned enough about it that I’m happy enough using it to run networkarchitecturelab.org, audc.org, networkedpublics.org, docomomo-us.org, to name a few sites and I can’t see transitioning away from Drupal anytime soon.

Learning the software allowed me to run the blog for the Networked Publics year at the Annenberg, in itself also a crucial transition period, allowing me to move more deeply into network culture.   

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Talks in Vilnius and Kaunas

At 6pm on the 19th, I will be speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania as part of a series of talks organized by ARCHITEKTŪROS [pokalbių] FONDAS on the topic of recent developments in education. At 11am on the 20th at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas I will be speaking on the topic of “Network Culture and Space.” I’m sure I’ll also be found in places like the SMC Cafe, which is pretty much my favorite cafe anywhere and I very much hope to see all of my Lithuanian friends on the trip.

I am grateful to both the United States Embassy in Vilnius and KG Constructions for making this possible.

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Atemporality, the iPhone Camera, and the Hipster

Over at Cyborgology, Nathan Jurgenson dissects the "Faux-Vintage Photo" to uncover how individuals today seek to occupy the near past.

Johansen suggests, quite correctly, that the familiar tools of network culture by which we mark our lives put us into a perpetual future past. Unable to find a temporal grounding today, hipsters seek it in the past. Johansen points to the popular photographic filters that give the low-resolution digital images produced by smartphones a vintage look. These, he concludes, allow individuals living to reframe their lives around moments that seem more authentic. 

This fits rather neatly within the schema of atemporality identified by Bruce Sterling (see more here and my take on it here). The hipstamatic photo is different than Warhol's approach. It's similar to Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (note that when I found that link, under related items the MoMA store listed the "Lomo" camera, the physical counterpart to the software Johansen discusses… DIY!) but not quite the same. Where postmodernism was marked by allegory, network culture's use of the past is flatter, dispensing with the use of allegory or comment.

As Johansen points out, there is a perverse degree of temporality to this sort of cultural practice. After the neo-"authentic" cultural product is overexposed, it is unsalvageable. Thus, it is the nature of the hipster to destroy the things that he or she loves.

Midcentury modern is a great example. We are purchasing a house. Since it is modern and built in 1981, just a decade ago we would have gladly bought midcentury modern furniture. Now its much more difficult. Maybe an item or two but on the whole these "classics" have aged and simply no longer work. In part, of course, this is myself speaking. But I've also spoken to other friends as well. Overexposed, the authentic recedes into the past for good. The hipster kills whatever he or she loves too much. 

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Factory Studio Exhibit at Columbia

My students put up the exhibit for the factory studio in the end of year show yesterday.

The exhibit consists of a slit in a door. The space beyond it is bifurcated by a wall that allows view into two separate rooms. The first, to the right, is a factory office from years gone by. The second, to the left is a radical vision of a future factory. The children in the images below are mine.

The show will be up until for about six days. 

With luck, we'll have student work from the studio up in a few days.

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All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I've always found Adam Curtis's documentaries chilling. 

Via Bruce Sterling, I've gotten wind of the latest: "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," which addresses network culture. It starts on 23 May BBC 2.

Imagine, a country whose government actually funds documentaries like this.  

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