TV review: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Computers have not liberated us, Gary Day learns, but rather locked us in a corporate capitalist world

June 2, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Richard Brautigan was an American author who was hailed as a genius. God knows why. Perhaps because he had a moustache and wore a hat. It can't have had anything to do with his writing, which had all the get up and go of a snail on vacation. His best-known work was Trout Fishing in America (1967). A more appropriate title would have been Trite Fishing in Literature, but let that pass.

No writer is so awful that they can't invent the occasional good line, although Brautigan nearly managed it. Then, at the last moment he came up with "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace", which forms the title of Adam Curtis' riveting three-part investigation into politics, commerce and art, with particular focus on the rise of computers. They were supposed to create a new and better society. Mind you, people have been saying that about technology ever since the invention of the wheel. Watching this series is like being in the middle of a dream. There's a rapid succession of images. One is of the debris of the Twin Towers swirling in an updraft. Is that the answer blowing in the wind?

The first episode (BBC Two, Monday 23 May, 9pm) featured snippets of an interview with the novelist Ayn Rand (1905-82). She claimed that the only philosopher who had influenced her was Aristotle. The rest, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, must have breathed a sigh of relief to hear themselves absolved of any responsibility for her nonsense.

Aristotle himself would have been astonished to learn that he was the inspiration for the views that humans should be selfish. Perhaps Ms Rand had got him mixed up with his pupil, Alexander the Great, who certainly didn't let anything get in the way of what he wanted - not people, not cities, not countries. Obviously, Alexander paid about as much attention to his teacher as Ms Rand.

Her most famous novel, the one that contains an extended statement of her philosophy of "objectivism", is Atlas Shrugged (1957), a stirring tale of how individual enterprise eventually overcomes the evil of state intervention. The novel, if you can use the term for such gong-banging propaganda, became extremely popular with those working in Silicon Valley. Rand became a cult figure with the pioneers of the computing revolution, even naming their children after her.

Software engineers sought to make Rand's ideas real. The advent of the personal computer would dissolve traditional hierarchies, connect everyone across the globe, and leave them free to pursue their own desires. And no doubt prove the existence of Father Christmas, too.

Loren Carpenter, one of those filled with messianic fervour, sat in his kitchen and recalled a glorious moment back in the early Eighties when he invited a group of people into a large shed.

At the front was a screen and on each chair a paddle, green on one side, red on the other. Loren didn't tell the guinea pigs what they were for, but eventually they worked out that if the reds combined and the greens combined they had two bats with which to play computer tennis on the screen.

The experiment, or "happening", was supposed to illustrate how society could spontaneously self-organise in a manner that benefited everyone. Loren's wife tried her best to look as if this was the first time she had heard the story, but the game was up when she began to snore and nearly fell off her stool.

So why aren't we living in Utopia? Because of capitalism. That is not a word you can say on television. It would be considered a form of blasphemy, like naming God in some religions. And so the script had to be coy about its real subject but, my goodness, it came close to saying Marx was right. The argument was that computers were not used to deliver paradise on earth but to develop complex models that enabled the banks to predict and control risk. Well, that worked out all right, didn't it?

One of the high priests of magic, or, if you prefer, mathematics, was Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. He was also a devoted follower of Rand. Greenspan and the US Treasury Department under Robert Rubin, or it might have been Robert Ruin, set about destroying the economies of Southeast Asia, all in the name of an ideology that the programme traced back to Rand. A more likely source, though, is the Mont Pelerin Society, founded in 1947 by the Austrian political philosopher Frederick von Hayek and dedicated to promoting the free market - that is, a system that enriches those who control it and impoverishes those who don't. The breathtaking cynicism of that word "free" almost makes Brautigan's posey folksiness look like lost innocence.

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