Adam Curtis documentaries have become their own genre. When you watch one you get an idiosyncratic TV essay, illustrated with a montage of old films, archive footage and adverts. The films are always fascinating but can also be infuriating.
Curtis says his latest documentary series, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, is about how the dream of liberation by technology has gone sour. But the programme is more about the idea of self-organising networks and the failure of an ideology of extreme individualism.
The first episode ranged from the private life of the novelist Ayn Rand to the 1990s Asian economic crisis and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The meat of the programme described how the “new economy of information technology” and the technological revolution was thought to have brought stability to capitalism and resolved capitalism’s tendency to go into crisis, when actually it globalised crisis further. In an interview Joseph Stiglitz, economic advisor to Bill Clinton, reveals how evidence of an emerging speculative bubble was deliberately suppressed to ensure economic regulation and higher interest rates stayed off the agenda.
The second episode ranged over less familiar ground. Curtis launched into a critique of the idea of the eco-system as a stable self-regulating network that tends towards an equilibrium. He attacked the politics that draws inspiration from this theory; the idea that the answer to ecological crisis is population control and strict limits to growth; the idea that non-hierarchical organising is a means of changing the world.
Curtis shows how this scientific theory was discredited as it took no account of the dynamism of the natural world, yet the political version of this theory has continued to spread. Curtis argues non-hierarchical organising is always prey to unaccountable domination by those who can manipulate it to their own ends.
Someone once likened Adam Curtis to the Wizard of Oz. He invites you to go on an intellectual journey with him only for you to find that he has led you to something you knew all along. We know the internet and IT did not abolish the laws of capitalism and we know non-hierarchical networks can impose a “tyranny of structurelessness”.
Curtis takes an hour to tell us some quite commonplace truths, but his journey is well worth taking.