User:Lieven Van Speybroeck/Notes/All Watched Over

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All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Adam Curtis – BBC documentary (3 episodes, 1st aired on may 23, 2011)

A series of films about how humans have been colonised by the machines we have built. Although we don't realise it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers.


Read also: De Witte Raaf, ed. 153
intro (excerpt):

EPISODE I: Love and Power

Ayn Rand (1905-1981)

  • Alissa "Alice" Zinovievna Rosenbaum
  • born in Russia -> moved to NY in 1950s
  • writer / philosopher
  • influenced by Aristotle "only"


  • We the Living
  • Fountainhead
  • Atlas Shrugged
-> science fiction world that resembles America in the 50's very much
-> heads on the (destruction of the) idea of altruism
-> politics are abolished and replaced by 'the virtue of selfishness'


  • main line of thought: the supremacy of the individual
-> justifies greed, selfishness, desire -> in order to achieve his own happyness ("highest" purpose of man on earth)
-> free oneself from all political and religious forms of control
  • "Rational Egoism":
-> a new code of morality: not based on faith, not on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason. A morality which can be proved by means of logic. Which can be demonstrated to be true and necessary. Each man must live as an end in itself and follow his own rational self-interest.
  • Reading Group: The Collective
Joan Mitchell (painter)
Alan Greenspan !!! (Inception of the free, self-regulating financial market idea – computers would keep it stable)
Nathaniel Branden
Barbara Branden
  • statement about love: "in love the currency is virtue"
  • statement about death: "I will not die, it's the world that will end"
  • 50's: Rand's ideas were considered dangerous
-> selfishness and greed had lead to the depression and financial crisis of the 1930s
-> role of politics was to manage and control the selfish desires of the individual

Silicon Valley

  • 1990's
  • immensely inspired by Ayn Rand (especially her novel Atlas Shrugged)
-> "The self-made heroic individual" – the new SV entrepreneurs ("An Ayn Rand hero")
-> global social vision: everyone could be an Ayn Rand hero, aided by computer technologies
-> "old forms of political control unnecessary because computer networks could create order in society without central control"
  • the cybernetic dream: If human beings all over the world could be linked by webs of computers, together they could create their own kind of order.
-> self stabilizing system through feedback systems, where everyone was free to follow his own desires.
  • Loren Carpenter 1991: interactive pong game with massive audience
-> creation of a model of society where there was no hierarchy: free individuals linked by technology lead to stability and order::====> "subconscious consensus"

The Californian Ideology

  • fusion of radical individualism and utopian theories about computer systems
  • "the global system of networked individuals" (do away with the traditional/established model of politics, economics,...)
  • the government should be a facilitator, not a regulator and controller
-> THE NEW ECONOMY: a new age of (financial-economical) stability controlled by computers
-> free flow of capital

Free Market Economy Model

  • 1986: Alan Greenspan speech
doubts about the stability of the free market system
-> stockmarket overvalued?
-> fear that a speculative bubble was being created (figures couldn't show in which way the productivity was increased)
-> created huge fuzz in economical and political world
-> eventually changed his mind under political pressure: concluded that the new system was so revolutionary that data figures were just unable to represent its (read: the computer's) ways of establishing productivity growth
  • computer systems and the global systems they created hadn't distributed power, they just shifted it and concentrated it in new forms
-> www was not new form of democracy but a commodifying system (of emotions into entertainment)
look into:Carmen Hermosillo (humdog)
  • 1997: 2 major crises
  • Lewinsky scandal
  • Asian property bubble burst
-> the 2 uncontrollable forces of love and power
  • constant push and pull between politics and economics, leading eventually to massive crises that are ultimately being payed by the ordinary people (taxpayers). First the asian property crash, fueled by American 'support', afterwards the western depression, fueled by Chinese 'support'. The belief that computers would take care of the stability (selling and bouncing shares according to algorithms), was an illusion kept alive until the economy breaks down, resulting in heavy inflation.


Instead of becoming Randian heroes in control of our own destiny, we feel like today we've become helpless components in a global system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.

EPISODE II: The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

  • today's dream: old hierarchies of power can be replaced by new self-organizing systems

Arthur Tansley

  • inspired by Freud, particularly the model of the mind as an electrical circuit
  • coined term 'ecosystems' -> nature as a self-regulating interconnected network of energy, constantly searching for a state of equilibrium
=> hypothesis that would have to be scientifically proved by the computer

Jay Forrester

  • regulation through feedback loops
  • seemed to offer new insights on how order is maintained in the world
  • computers-eye view of the world: human beings as nodes in a universal system linked together by information (machine & humans on the same level)
=> seen as the scientific proof of nature as an ecosystem
-> basis for the 'science' of ecology
-> a machine-like fantasy of nature

Buckminster Fuller

  • Geodesic domes
-> imitation of the ecosystem idea
each separate element = weak
all elements together = strong
  • spaceship earth
-> get rid of politics in order to prevent struggles for hierarchy and power

Emergence of communes (1967-1971)

  • cybernetic ideas as organizing principle -> 'ecotechnics'
  • 'many who act as one'

Rise of the personal computer

  • link smaller devices together on a global scale in a network that would find it's own natural order through information feedback.
~ the commune idea

Richard Brautigen

  • pamphlet: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
-> crystallization of the fusion between the idea of the natural ecosystem and the cybernetic theories about computers.
-> humans freed of labor

Gobal environmental crisis

  • awareness around early 70's
  • no politic solution
-> Jay Forrester: technocratic solution
- the world as an entire cybernetic system
- development of a computer model of this system using all known data about:
  • population growth
  • industrial prod
  • food & aggriculture
  • natural resources
  • pollution
-> when the model was run, it showed that the world was headed towards disaster.
-> solution: global politics should stop promoting continual growth.
-> New role of politics: maintain an equilibrium.

-> protest by environmental movements: new model to control the world instead of saving it - maintaining the status quo of those who were in power

  • Wholeism (General Smuttz)
-> everything has its place in nature and should keep that place.
-> theory that had to ensure the power of the British Empire
-> Tansley: accused Smuttz of the abuse of vegetational concepts.
  • The idea of balanced nature applied to civilization => intellectual trick to keep the power to the elite.
  • 1970's: Fatal flaw in the theory of self-balancing ecosystems was exposed through empirical research
- constant change and instability
- disturbances (storms, ...) do away with the environment in its existing form, instead reconfigure it and remold it to something new.
  • George Van Dyne
recreate a computer model of a grassland landscape by collecting data on everything (plants, animals,...)
-> when run, it didn't show any signs of stability.
-> recreation of the real, chaotic instability of nature inside a computer (<-> previous ruthless simplification of nature by ecologists)
  • Balance of nature = illusion
-> idealistic vision of the self-organizing network = dream of a new egalitarian world order kept alive
-> early 2000's: wave of revolutions
-> internet played key role
-> desire for self-determination and freedom
-> just like the communes, after the revoltions, the turn to a self-organizing system failed. Hierarchical structures emerge again: politics and power.


The fantastic ideology of a balanced society based on the underlying order of nature, was in fact based on the cold and logical mechanisms of the machine. If we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very hard to change the world. It is a very good way to organize things, but it offers no ideas about what comes next. It reaffirms the status quo of those already in power in the world.

EPISODE III: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey

William Donald (Bill) Hamilton

  • humans: self-replicating machines like computers whose function is to transmit a vital code accross time that would live throughout eternity
  • Darwinist but concerned with altruist behavior
-> key to this behavior: genes
-> would destroy themselves in order to let more related copies of themselves survive = calculation of the best mathematical outcome.

-> modern medical science = wrong: nothing should be allowed to interfere with the strategy of the genes.

-> degeneration of the human species
-> attempt to prove the failure of modern medicin: quest to show that the aids-virus was accidentally created by American scientists as a failure of testing a polio vaccin (mixed with the HIV version with Chimpansees).
-> died before completing his research
-> turned out to be completely untrue


  • Belgian colony until independence 1960
  • 1st president: Lumumba - killed by rebels in a coup organized by America & Belgium (fear of Congo's alliance with the Sovjet Union)
  • war over minerals!
  • Rwanda: Hutsi - Tutsi conflict caused by a myth created by Belgium in the 1930s. (! 'The Congo I Knew, Armand Denis, 1935 - 'documentary' about Africa)
Tutsis: noble & intelligent race originally coming from Egypt
Hutus:: separate race of ignorant peasants
-> Belgium used it as a tool to enhance power in the region through the principle of divide & rule
-> approaching Belgium's retreat in 1961
-> encouraged the Hutus to rebel against their Tutsi overlords out of a feeling of guilt about their imperial past in order to help the Hutus become free individuals
-> rebelion turned into a genocide fueled by revenge.

George Price

  • Rationalist
  • Computer scientist
  • inspired by William Hamilton's gene-theories
-> recognized a computer logic in Hamilton's equations
-> rational way of looking at human beings and their behavior - soft machines controlled by onboard computers

-> Price's mathematics explained murder, warfare and genocide as possibly rational strategies for the genes controlling your behavior (to prevent distantly related genes from evolving and more closely related ones to survive)

! The Selfish Gene (theory developed together with Hamilton)

-> rational and mathematical quantification of altruism
-> abolished the idea of religion

Price thought that such insight could only have been a gift of God, which is completely counter to what the theory showed.

-> Richard Dawkins picked up the theory

-> the organism as a machine to pass on genes ('immortal self-replicators')
-> the selfish gene instead of the selfish individual
-> DNA ~ computer code

=> paradox:

Diane Fossey

  • show the human species are connected to gorilla's and chimpansees
-> retreated from all human company
-> tried to behave like a gorilla
-> terrorized local people in order to protect the gorillas
-> another example of africans maltreated in the interest of a higher, Western idea.


We seem to have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.