Cybernetic utopianism and political failure

[Note 4/15/2015]  Here is a new link to these videos.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

[Note 12/1/11] The original English-language versions of these videos were taken down.  The versions I have substituted are the same except for having English subtitles.

[Links updated 9/17/2016.] 

The BBC documentaries of Adam Curtis are remarkable.  They tell me things I hadn’t known before, show me astonishing material I’ve never seen before and connects the dots in ways nobody else does, all with a mind-blowing blend of archival video footage and background music.  I find some of Curtis’s connections far-fetched, some of his generalizations overly sweeping and a few of his assertions incorrect, but overall his work is as fascinating as anything I’ve seen in the Internet.  I view it on the Internet because his work is aired on TV all over the world, but not in the United States.

His three-part series, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” is about using the computer as a model to organize human life and society.  The first part in the series, above, is about the fallacy of thinking of the economic system as a computer-like self-regulating system, and links Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton.  The second part in the series, below, is about the fallacy of thinking of the eco-system as a computer-like, self-regulating system, and links 1970s hippie communes, Buckminster Fuller, Jay Forrester and the Club of Rome.

The third part in the series, below, tries to weave together two strands of thought – the idea that human beings are programmed by the “selfish gene,” and the bloody history of regions of central Africa where minerals essential to electronic technology are mined.

The most interesting part is the stories of the lives and deaths of Bill Hamilton and George Price, the originators of the selfish gene theory.  Hamilton offered mathematical evidence that it makes sense, from the standpoint of the gene, for someone to sacrifice himself for the survival of those to whom he is genetically related.  George Price offered mathematical evidence that it makes sense, from the standpoint of the gene, for someone to mercilessly kill those to whom he is not genetically related.

Price lost his life evidently trying to prove that he was not a slave to his genes.  Hamilton lost his life trying to prove that altruism is harmful.  I didn’t think this part was as effective as the first two at making connections. I recommend fast-forwarding through the stuff on primate research and African civil wars, and viewing the footage on Hamilton and Price.

I think the four-part Adam Curtis series on “The Century of the Self” is even better.

It is about the implications and effects of Sigmund Freud’s teaching that human beings are at the mercy of irrational emotions and drives.  The first part tells about the creation of public relations by Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew.  The second part tells of the influence of Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter, in promoting adjustment to society as an ideal.  The third part tells of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and the influence of Wilhelm Reich in the attack on rationality.  The fourth part describes the focus-group politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

View it below.

The overall theme of Adam Curtis’ work is to debunk the alternatives to the Enlightenment ideal of a free and rational citizen in a free and democratic society.  I don’t think he’ll run out of things to debunk anytime soon.

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