The opening episode of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace — the BBC documentary that’s been generating big buzz since its debut on BBC 2 in late March — is a wildly enjoyable and coruscating, but nevertheless flawed dissection of the connections between Randian Actualism, the rise of technoculture, and the accelerating boom/bust cycles of global market capitalism. Adam Curtis (he’s huge in England) is a smart and skilled filmmaker working in the very contemporary rapid fire, cut-up mode.
Nevertheless, I fear that I must quibble with the narrative a bit. Episode One paints (or tars) with broad strokes. Clever as hell… but this is a sketchy and surprisingly simplistic narrative presented as airtight history. It’s also a very European take on U.S. technoculture (“I see libertarian people!”).
The title, of course, comes from a famous poem by hippie writer Richard Brautigan envisioning a cybernetic/ecological/post-scarcity utopia. As I sat down to view it, I expected the usual scalding critique of the illusions of the ‘90s cyber/counterculture and the hippie technotopians who made it all go down, playing right into the hands (as critics would have it, and they are at least partially correct) of the global financial elite.
Imagine my surprise then as I viddied the opening: “It’s a strange story and it begins with a strange woman in the 1950s in New York.” Cut to Mike Wallace interviewing Ayn Rand.
“Well, no.” thought I. “It all started with Lee Felsenstein, veteran of the ultraleft countercultural underground newspaper, Berkeley Barb, who organized the Homebrew Computer Club for computer hobbyists in Berkeley, California in the mid-1970s. (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were amongst the many attendees who created the “personal computer revolution.”)
But I quickly realized that Curtis was telling an entirely different story — one that is largely valid (in aforementioned broad strokes) — about what happened when boundary defying technologies with global implications collided with market capitalism under the, at best, premature assumption that these combined forces would become a smooth functioning cybernetic (self regulating) system that would never crash.
Ayn Rand’s face, slightly twitchy and sad-eyed, recurs throughout the opening episode, looming over the proceedings, the central conceit being that Rand’s extreme philosophy has guided our political economy for several decades. This is a partial truth. The real story is, of course, more complicated and much messier, having less to do with ideology put into practice than natural opportunism responding to a set of circumstances. I mean, does anybody really believe that we wouldn’t be where we are now technologically without Ayn Rand? And granting that; does anybody believe, given the globalizing nature of that technology, that average Westerners wouldn’t have fallen into competition with people in developing countries and that the leaders of nations and states wouldn’t be reduced to offering tax breaks (If not blow jobs) to corporations if they’ll only bring their business to town (or keep it there)?
A complimentary narrative is interweaved into the episode involving the Clinton Administration, as we follow the Democratic President as he gets swallowed whole by Robert Rubin’s market ideology and Monica Lewinsky and we witness the exciting boom and then bust of the nineties, repeated with less boom and worse bust in the 2000s.
This, then, is not so much the story of the rise of digital enthusiasm as it is the story of the rise of speculative casino global capitalism contextualized by digital enthusiasm.
I would also point out — in fairness to my libertarian friends — that the ethic of the species of Silicon Valley libertarian entrepreneurs who play a starring role in the episode (they’re not as utterly ubiquitous as the documentarian implies) is entrepreneurial capitalism. This ethic honors using capital to actually do something, as opposed to simply making money from money by playing tricky games. Not that there was a great deal of resistance to the speculative booms in those quarters, but you will find some of these entrepreneurs sharpening those distinctions today as they note the damage done.
All these quibbles aside, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace looks to be a promising examination of technological exuberance over the last several decades. By the end of it all, I may be worshipping at Adam Curtis’s feet.
You can find the first two episodes now on YouTube and here’s hoping it makes it to BBC America.