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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