All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a three part documentary on BBC 2 by Adam Curtis, who made the fantastic The Power of Nightmares, an exploration of how the Islamic Fundamentalists and the American Hawks rose from the same point in history, each with complementary aims, and a fundamental need of each other. This new series sets out to portray how we as humans have not been empowered by technology, but have instead been somewhat enslaved. A fascinating premise for me, so I was rather excited by the prospect of the series.
After viewing the first episode, I felt slightly hollow inside. I enjoyed it, but some of it didn’t ring quite true for me. Tim Maughan set me off a little further, when he mentioned his doubt about the view of the technologists of the 90s all being fans of Ayn Rand, in particular Bill Gate’s spectacular alturism in simply giving away vast amounts of his fortune. This set me off, and I decided to watch it again and dig a little further, see if I could figure out what was bugging me about it.
This episode sets out the idea that computers were proclaimed to be the salvation of the financial markets in the 1990s, providing logic and automation that could balance out the greed and errors of humans, and thus produce stable productive economies that would boom constantly. This global market would cross the boundaries of government and their influence, and was said to have risen out of the writings of Ayn Rand, claiming that her philosophy of Objectivism was what drove the technological inventions that rose at the start of that decade.
As a quick aside here, I’ve never read an Ayn Rand novel, never felt a compulsion too, so the explanation of the plot of Atlas Shrugged was a bit of a revelation for me, as it seemed instantly to me that the plot of Watchmen in part re-appropriates it for its own purposes, namely the concept of a community of creatives and intellectuals leaving society, waiting for its self-destruction to start building a new world. Also perhaps even the line “Who Watches the Watchmen?” might be a reflection of the “Who is John Galt?” refrain.
In the documentary, it was particular the brief reflections of important moments in the progress of technology that interested me. Two specific events were Loren Carpenter’s experiment with a giant game of collaborative Pong, and the publication of an essay by Humdog.
Carpenter is described as a leading computer engineer who in 1991 invited hundreds of people to a giant shed, to take part in an undescribed experiment. He talks briefly of not telling them anything about what he was doing, simply seating them all in two groups, each with a narrow paddle with a green side and a red side, and a giant screen in front of them. Once they had figured out that there was a giant camera focused on them all, and that they could see the different sides of their paddles picked up by the camera, he started them off with a giant game of pong. A single green paddle would influence one side of the shed’s pong bat to go one way, a single red the other. All of them together would be averaged out, to determined how far up or down their bat would move. This was said to show the flock mentality of the network, subconsciously managing themselves towards efficiency, all equal in their say.
Now, I managed to find a description of this very event by Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly (who does appear very briefly in the documentary as a talking head). He describes how it actually takes place at a 1991 conference of computer graphic experts in a conference hall in Las Vegas. Carpenter himself is co-founder and chief scientist of Pixar Animation Studios, and rather than an experiment on perhaps a test group of random individuals, is actually demonstrating to his peers. For me this puts it in a different light, this is pretty much at this point in time a roomful of the people most likely to understand what is going on, to figure out how things are working, and to have a desire to collaborate to see what he has achieved. Indeed, at the end of the demonstration as described by Kelly, they are flying and landing a plane in a flight simulator. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Curtis’s portrayal is a mild distortion of the event.
As for the Humdog essay, this describes an essay written by a user named Humdog in the early 1990s describing her dissatisfaction with cyberspace itself. She points out that “Cyberspace is not some island of the blessed”, that she had “commodified my internal thoughts which were then sold on as entertainments”, and that we were all “getting lost in the spectacle”. Again though I feel the purpose is being slightly misrepresented. The essay is essentially a slightly trolly farewell to the internet, mainly arising from a couple of incidents on a bulletin board called The WELL.
The WELL was an early BBS community that in part rose out of the Californian hippies of the 1960s, and is best described in Chapter 4 of Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown. Humdog was angry at these two incidents, and also what she felt was the rising commercialisation of The WELL. Rather than as Curtis portrays, cyberspace itself. Indeed, as her LinkedIn profile shows, she soon got over these fears and in the mid to late 90s worked for Seagate and Sun as a systems analyst in web applications.
Finally, coming back to my initial unease, the suggestion that the computer industry of the time in California was bursting to the seams with Randian utopiaists. This is summed up as the California ideology. I’ve found a good essay on the Californian Ideology by the Hypermedia Research Centre. This to me confirms my feelings that it was vastly more complex that this, constantly contradictory, and certainly not limited to one viewpoint.
Whilst each of these incidents are perhaps mild, and I’m not claiming to have found any smoking guns that disprove Curtis’s polemic, as they were pretty much the basis of the tech side of the first episode, it does to me suggest that he’s either been misunderstanding or misrepresenting them, sanding off the edges to make them fit his truth. I’m looking forwards to the next episode to see if I am being way too harsh, see if there is greater and more convincing evidence used. And also to see what is, absolutely, visually stunning television.