TV: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (BBC, 2011)

Using flashy visuals, evolutionary theory and Ayn Rand, Adam Curtis illustrates the rise of the machine in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

Kathryn Bromwich

Broadcast on BBC Two to wide critical acclaim (mainly from Guardian readers), Adam Curtis’s documentary AWOBMOLG explores the rise of the machine in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. This fascinating and cumbersomely-titled programme is divided into three parts:

1) Love and Power. Curtis opens by looking at the influence of Ayn Rand on the Western world’s politics, economy and psychology. Every minute she is on screen she is frightening, especially considering she is the author of the second most influential book in the US after the Bible. She mixes selfishness with desperation and appropriates words such as ‘hero’ and ‘rational’ to make them mean entirely different things. Curtis implies that her permeating influence is directly responsible for the current state of the economy.

2) The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts. The second episode discusses the concept of eco-systems, and critiques the belief that the earth self-regulates to adapt to damage. Instead, scientists have shown that the world is in a state of constant flux, operating with no regard for human wellbeing. Curtis demonstrates how hippy communes which aimed for equality and coexistence ended up being just as brutal as the societies they rejected.

3) The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey. The last episode is a coup de grâce to the Enlightement idea that progress is possible. In the most jaw-dropping hour the BBC has shown this year, Curtis tells us about scientist William Hamilton, who invented the idea of ‘memes’, or ‘selfish genes’. Using the genocides in Rwanda as a harrowing but appropriate example, Curtis argues that human beings’ actions are naturally commanded by selfishness, not because they are immoral, but because it makes evolutionary sense.

At times there’s a bit of a conspiracy theory feel to the whole thing, and, as pointed out in this parody, Curtis occasionally bypasses rigorous logical argument in favour of edgy music and vintage video footage. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. Like a John Gray of the small screen, Curtis uses provocation to force us to reassess the role of human beings in relation to nature, technology and other animals. The outcome is not particularly flattering to humans, underlining what JG Ballard calls “our almost unlimited gift for self-delusion”. And, whether it’s because of the flashy visuals or the fact that he is right, I totally agree with Adam Curtis.

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