Adam Curtis: The Rise of the Machines

Cybernetics, ecosystems and pop


Interview Adam Curtis' new series begins tonight on BBC TV, and I've had a unique insight into its creation. Like all Curtis work it continues some of his long-standing fascinations - and adds some new ones.

As Associate Producer I helped explore these ideas with Curtis over the past three years, particularly the ideas of web utopianism and ecology - which he explores in the second and third programmes.

After a gentle start looking at Ayn Rand and her disciple Alan Greenspan, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace moves into areas that might make some people feel uncomfortable - as it should do. For two of the programmes tackle "what it means to be a human" - particularly with popular ideas of humans as a node in a networked system, or as a robot for genes.

It's probably the most ambitious, complex and challenging piece of journalism Curtis has attempted - in other hands it could be very heavy going. For example, the third film tells the story of the biologists Bill Hamilton and George Price, and the populariser of their "gene centric" view of evolution, influenced by Game Theory and Richard Dawkins. If that isn't enough, it also tells, in parallel, a history of the Congo and Rwanda to the present day - with the stories intersecting at various points.

Another film raises many of the creepy aspects of the web, and techno utopianism, that long-time Reg readers will be familiar with. Curtis was wary of making a film that's part of a backlash against the web utopianism. But he points out, instead of liberating us, the web has the opposite effect: established authority emerges stronger than before.

So the sound in the background you hear is of a few sacred cows being slaughtered. We spoke to him as he braced for the backlash.

Adam Curtis: I've always wanted to make a film about managerialism. It's impossible, because with managers nothing really happens. What I'm dealing with here is the ideology behind managerialism. Behind all this, behind the flipchart, is the idea that you're nodes in a system, and 'our job' is to keep things stable.

Basically I've touched on technocratic ideas of organisation, and machine ideas of organisation a lot before, but never really done them big. Ever since the 1990s we've had this idea of connectivity - we're all connected. You meet in all sorts of areas. You meet it in talks about the global economy, we're all connected in a global world. You meet it in talks about nature - we're all interconnected in our world. And you meet it in utopian theories about the web.

These were really new ways of organising the world without power. There weren't any hierarchies in nature, everyone was a little node connected in an ecosystem. We wouldn't run it, we all ran it together, helped by computers.

I was suspicious of it because I hadn't noticed power had disappeared. The real bastions of power are as they were, and are more concentrated. So I decided to trace those ideas back to their source. It leads you back to an absolutely fascinating area, which you can loosely call cybernetics, and also information theory.

What links them all is a machine idea of organisation of order, based on information flowing around systems. It really began to come together post-war years with computers - you could organise these systems mathematically and predict [their behaviour].

So I've traced how fundamentally, an idea like that, which is fine as an engineering concept, and then a computer information concept, and an ordering principle - are then taken up by powerful people, by technocrats, and by us as models for wider ideas about how to organise society.

That's the story I try and tell - when you try and apply systems ideas in a wider area you can't deal with power. They get distorted, used and abused, they bring a naivety about human society which the powerful in the world find quite useful to extend their power a bit.


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