Adam Curtis‘ latest documentary, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” is well worth watching — all three hours — even if by its conclusion he has not neatly tied together all its disparate threads and even if his style of production has a frenetic choppiness — “I kept thinking the dog was sitting on the remote,” a reviewer joked about one of his previous pieces.
His new documentary, just aired in the UK but presumably close to completion before the Arab uprisings began, nevertheless has relevance for every revolution across the region. The prospect of the end of dictatorial rule easily eclipses concern about what might follow — events of the present evoke a sense that the future can take care of itself. The leaderless movements currently reshaping the Arab world have organic features that sometimes seem to imply that social justice might just be a natural fruit.
But the history of self-organizing networks — a topic at the core of Curtis’ film — is that the egalitarian hopes these would-be post-political systems embody rest on an illusory foundation.
This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature. It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists. A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components – cogs – in a system.
But in an age disillusioned with politics, the self-regulating ecosystem has become the model for utopian ideas of human ‘self-organizing networks’ – dreams of new ways of organising societies without leaders, as in the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and in global visions of connectivity like the Gaia theory.
This powerful idea emerged out of the hippie communes in America in the 1960s, and from counterculture computer scientists who believed that global webs of computers could liberate the world.
But, at the very moment this was happening, the science of ecology discovered that the theory of the self-regulating ecosystem wasn’t true. Instead they found that nature was really dynamic and constantly changing in unpredictable ways. But the dream of the self-organizing network had by now captured our imaginations – because it offered an alternative to the dangerous and discredited ideas of politics. [Source: BBC]
Part One: Love and Power