All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

UPDATE-13 March 2013: Sadly, the videos have been pulled from YouTube, and the BBC doesn’t offer them either.

Adam Curtis, perhaps the finest video documentarian of our time, brings us a three part account of the capture of the mechanisms of power by the ideology of Ayn Rand, wielded by the corporateers of Silicon Valley and the banksters of Wall Street.

Episode one, “Love and Power”

Episode removed from YouTube, BBC

Rand’s notion of the autonomous, anti-altruistic individual as the summum bonum of humanity inspired the wizards of Silicon Valley, who say in their technology a mechanism for empowering the individual and breaking the power of institutions ranging from government to the church.

But one figure in Rand’s inner circle , Alan Greenspan, would carry her eccentric beliefs into one of the world’s most powerful positions, the chair of the federal reserve. While Greenspan himself doesn’t appear as an interview subject, we do hear from the man who introduced Greenspan to his mentor, Nathaniel Branden, best known as the author of The Virtue of Selfishness.

Curtis makes a critical connection necessary for the understanding of the 1990‘s, the confluence of Randian fiscal cultism with the person of William Jefferson Clinton, a fateful occurrence which gutted Clinton’s populism and paved the way for the financial collapse of 1997.

But it took the events of 11 September 2001 to endow Greenspan with the full mantle of power, making him, as Curtis notes, “the most powerful man in the world.” But just offstage, it turned out, China was waiting in the wings and the creations of Silicon Valley were leading this nation into a dangerous delusion. . .

Episode two, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”

Episode removed from YouTube, BBC

At the same time as Edward Bernays was creating the mechanisms of modern propaganda, British botanist Arthur Tansley was positing the notion of a global ecosystem which operated much like a machine, an idea advanced by American computer scientists Jay Forrester [with his notion of “feedback loops”] and Norbert Weiner, who further the idea of cybernetic systems as models for a self-stabilizing living world.

These ideas were further developed by two brothers, Howard T. and Eugene Odom, who developed models in which natural processes were declared synonymous with electrical circuitry — which, in turn, enabled a fusion of machine models with traditional Eastern religious concepts.

This fusion manifested itself in the person of Buckminster Fuller, Curtis says, a remarkable figure we had the pleasure to know [and who was the subject of our first book]. In the Fuller section, we think we spotted a fleeting image of a familiar Berkeley figure in his younger days, John Curl, a former denizen of Drop City. We would also note that Fuller was a man of contradictions.

From Fuller, the tale moves to the innovators of PARC, the Xerox-funded Palo Alto think tank that gave us the graphical user interface and the computer mouse and the story of Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and now a major booster of nuclear power. Cybernetics and Fuller’s vision fused, in turn, in the poetry of Richard Brautigan, author of a collection of poems that gives its name to the title of Curtis’ series.

Forester resurfaces, this time in the context of the Club of Rome, as the creator of a cybernetic model of the earth, this time incorporating the awareness of the growing global pollution crisis, food shortages, and surging population into a model which afforded no room for changes in political systems.

Nor did the models depict nature, as biologist Daniel Botkin discovered when he began his observations of fluctuations in populations of predators and prey, in this case, wolves and moose. But with the death of the notion of a stable ecology, the notion of self-organized political network grew, perversely, even stronger.

In the new vision, it is the computer network that is hailed as the instrument of liberation, though in reality, that same vision renders us vulnerable to the manipulations of the powerful.

Episode 3, “The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”

Episode removed from YouTube, BBC

The segment opens with the story of William D. Hamilton and the bloody African corporate colonial wars for the control of coltan, the blend of columbium and tantalum so necessary for modern electronic gadgetry. Hamilton’s legacy is one of the fundamental legacies of modern biology, the selfish gene.

The story then moves to the sad story of Patrice Lumumba and the chaos that followed the departure of Belgian colonial governance. At stake then was the nation’s rich reserves of uranium, the critical mineral of the Cold War. Deposed in a coup back by Belgium and the Central Intelligence Agency, the Congo passed into the hands of Mobuto Sesse Seku and the uranium into the hands of a Belgian mining corporation.

In studying the animals of the Congo in the days when the CIA was busy deposing Lumumba, Hamilton stumbled upon the solution to one of the greatest enigmas in the human condition, the role of altruism.

Then comes the story of one of the deadliest myths of modern times, the idea — created by by Armand Denis, another documentarian, in the 1930‘s that the Hutus and the Tutsis of Rwanda were virtually different species of humans, with the Tutsi the superior people, perhaps descendants of the ancient Egyptians, while the Hutus were an inferior and native peasantry. The Belgians set the myth in place, then encouraged the first of the bloody wars between two cultures when their colonial regime departed in 1962, though both were, in fact, indigenous.

The story shifts back to Hamilton, and the discovery of his work in 1967 by American researcher George Price, a biologist and computer expert, who adapted Hamilton’s theories to John Von Neumann’s notion of self-reproducing machines and decided that such devices already existed and were called Homo sapiens. To Price, the selfish gene unlocked the darkest mysteries of the human heart, warfare, murder, and suicide. A collaboration between Price and Hamilton ensued.

Price, however, eventually took a different course, deciding his discovery of the fusion of the ideas of Hamilton and Von Neumann was nothing less than divine inspiration, and eventually becoming a zealous Christian, devoting his life to the poor and giving away all his possessions as if in a conscious effort to dispel the selfish gene theory. In the end, he killed himself, pursued by “the hound of heaven.”

Curtis then moves to the story of Dian Fossey, whose research on Rwandan mountain gorillas descended into tragedy, whose zeal in defending the threatened species would lead directly to her own murder.

Then another computer programmer-turned-biologist picked up Hamilton’s torch, Richard Dawkins, who declared his intent to reconceptualize the human as a machine for passing on genes. But, as Curtis notes, in so doing, the computer-like code of the genes became the reincarnation, as it were, of the ancient concept of the immortal soul.

Curtis shifts back to Rwanda, this time for the 1994 Hutu/Tutsi violence, the fall of Mobutu, the continuing demand for coltan, and William Hamilton’s final days as an embittered eugenicist.

Curtis offers no solutions, only a stark, somber portrait of the origins of our current plight.


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