Last night, SBS screened the first instalment of a three-part documentary by Adam Curtis, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The program attracted intense debate when broadcast in the UK earlier this year.
Sitting in front of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, it is easy to let the brilliance of the style wash over you. Illustrated with dazzling imagery, one big idea morphs seamlessly into another, while Curtis’s hypnotic narration smoothes away any cognitive bumps.
Like attending a lecture by firebrand philosopher Slavoj Zizek, one comes away feeling overwhelmed and inspired by the relentless pace and mesmerising variety of idea.
But there remains a niggling feeling you may have been bamboozled, a feeling that if you stopped and thought about the big themes, they would collapse into a pile of contradictions or dissolve into banality. You begin to wonder whether Curtis is some kind of post-modern intellectual conjurer.
The message of All Watched Over is that we have come to believe we live in a world created by machines, where we are all connected, and where we are all free. But actually in this machine-world, we are all components of a system.
We dreamed systems could stabilise themselves through feedback, and create a perfect balance in human society, in the markets system and in nature’s ecosystems, a network without politics and the old hierarchies of power.
But, Curtis tells us, power hasn’t gone away. It never does.
Information isn’t power
One of Curtis’s prime targets is internet utopianism, the belief, as he states it, that “technology could turn everyone into heroic individuals, completely free to follow their own ideas”. But this is an illusion that serves to conceal the continuing reality of power under capitalism.
The blogger, the hacker and the sock puppet are all manifestations of this kind of utopianism. Computers give each one a feeling of power — expressing a view, raiding a data bank, sending an abusive email — meanwhile, the real powers just get on with ruling the world.
It’s not so much a difference of view about the centres of power, and more a different understanding of what power is. We used to believe control of capital was the principal source of power, but now we are told information is power.