All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

by on June 2, 2011 at 7:31 am in Books, Education, Film | Permalink

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, is a hallucinatory BBC documentary that hyperwarps across continents and through time to draw shadowy connections between Ayn Rand, Silicon Valley, the “rise of the machines”, anarchism, the financial crisis and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (Need, I add and much more!?) Incongruous images and a surreal soundtrack give it a Lynchian feel. Not your usual documentary. Evaluated as a whole, it’s madness but delicious madness.  Here is the first episode.

FYI, especially interesting in the first episode is Loren Carpenter’s Pong experiment.  You can read more about that here.

1 hulk June 2, 2011 at 7:34 am

I’ve watched part of the first and all of the second episodes, but found the analysis lacking. The whole history of certain concepts presented is good, but every episode at around half-way starts taking a pro-statist slant and a really weird analytical leap.

2 Anne June 2, 2011 at 9:58 am

That was my impression as well.

3 Tom June 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Consider the source

4 rettals June 2, 2011 at 8:48 am

Adam Curtis: turning simple s**t into the educational equivalent of derivatives.

5 mrB June 2, 2011 at 8:48 am

“madness but delicious madness” sums it up pretty well, it is very interesting.
It does fall down though with the definitive causal chain he presents which is far too clear cut, each leap of causation he states would require a huge stack of evidence/nuance/qualified assertion etc and he lines them all up in a row without a blink.

On reflection it actual becomes recursive, the overall premise of ep 1&2 is that hubristic revolutionary people think they can model cause and effect in massively complex systems and it goes wrong, and then he states with certainty the real cause and effect of that very same (unfathomable) complex system (even the reverse modeling shouldnt be that much easier).

It reminds me of Costner’s summation monolog at the end of JFK , point after point lining up to an unanswerable conclusion but dig deeper into each one and it all becomes more muddy. Still made a great scene though.

6 Keshav June 2, 2011 at 8:51 am

Most of Adam Curtis’s previous documentaries (the best known are probably The Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self) are available on
He blogs at

7 ben 10 June 2, 2011 at 9:09 am

point after point lining up to an unanswerable conclusion but dig deeper into each one and it all becomes more muddy. Still made a great scene though.

8 Dean Sayers June 2, 2011 at 9:17 am

I could have known it was A. Curtis. Thanks for sharing.

Of particular interest to this community would be his “The Trap” series. He discusses Game Theory, Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” (in which he argues for negative liberty), mental illness and the increasing medication of people for them, technocratic deregulation of the 90s (in the US & UK), overseas wars of “liberation,” among other things. As you can imagine, some of the links seem tenuous here as well, but they provide very interesting elements of comparison / contrast between different western policies, propaganda, narratives, etc.

Adam Curtis: The Trap Pt 1-

(Or it’s here if the embed fails:

9 Michael June 2, 2011 at 9:19 am

Adam Curtis had some amazing documentaries in the past. The one concerning Edward Bernays, Lippmann and the rise of propaganda and marketing was among the best I have seen.

The one paralleling the rise of radical islamism and neoconservativism was among the most interesting as well.

Not sure about this one though.

10 vak June 2, 2011 at 9:45 am

His best work is ‘it felt like a kiss’. Not distributed because of soundtrack issues, it is very easy to find on torrent.

11 Ashwin June 2, 2011 at 10:09 am

so far this is not Adam Curtis’ best work, although the second episode is much better. His best documentary in my opinion is ‘Pandora’s Box’ available here . He is not a statist, just an anti-utopianist – skeptical of all utopian theories, whether technocratic, technological or free market.

12 Michael June 2, 2011 at 10:35 am

His political views seem to fall closer to that of the leftist end of libertarianism(he’s anticorporatist for certain), but I read some of his articles bashing the leftist anti-imperialist movement(for their practice of deserving and undeserving victims).

I remember a story my friend told me of visiting the HBO Headquarters and asking one of the heads there to play Power of Nightmares. I think his reply was something along the lines of “Are you crazy? This will get us killed.”

13 John June 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

Carpenter’s Pong experiment really isn’t that hard to understand.

There were two points of salience in the experiment: the large screen, and the audience itself. Human response time and attention varies, and in such a group, there will be an effective average response, largely determined by the screen, but attenuated by the extent to which attention wanders from it on average.

That attenuation is enough to approximate a single player playing alone.

I suspect that if the experiment was conducted with everyone in the audience mandatorily and completely blindfolded, the resulting movement would be more random, but also might tend towards the middle position. But the fact that the observed motion effectively plays the game well is not at all surprising; the average response of players looking at the same thing on average is enough to achieve that result.

There’s nothing mystical about it at all.

14 John June 2, 2011 at 11:51 am

Rather than commenting more specifically on the topic (I have a PhD in Computer Science; I was both an early Linux contributor, and as a grad student, did research in human-computer interaction), I would refer folks to Einstein’s essay, “Why Socialism?,” which was published in the first issue of the Monthly Review in 1949.

Please, read it. Carefully. For comprehension. Einstein was a genius, but not the best writer.

Otherwise, Psalm 53:1 comes to mind: “The f00l has said in his heart, there is no God.”

Believing that there is no collective purpose in “the free market” is a religious belief, and an incorrect one; the question is just what that purpose is. And as in Carpenter’s experiment, the answer is not hard to figure out – it’s what folks pay attention to, on average.

I’ve been writing open source software for the past two decades. I know better than to think that selfishness is the only human motivation. And I would be a f00l to imagine that it’s a desirable motivation for the collective – and there is always a collective, either by explicit intent or by implicit default. I would be more of a f00l to think that we should just sit back and let stuff happen, as if that has some high moral purpose – it doesn’t. I prefer, as does Einstein, and as should any rational human being, to do what I can to direct humankind towards a truly more noble future.

15 Gabriel E June 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm

You’re no f00l.

You’re a damned fool.

16 FYI June 2, 2011 at 5:48 pm

No doubt. As so was Einstein in this subject. The paragraph that starts with “Production is carried on for profit, not for use” is amazing (not in a good way). The guy was not a socialist, he was a communist.

This actually just shows how capitalism is superior to any other system: it allows a brilliant scientist who is also a stupid economist to benefit society in the best possible way.

17 David Mershon June 2, 2011 at 6:11 pm

There are plenty of selfish reasons to write open source software. Selfishness != work done for monetary compensation.

18 Loren Carpenter June 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm

It was my experiment. We repeated it well over a hundred times. Anyone who has not experienced it is at a disadvantage when proffering an explanation. I don’t believe there is anything “mystical” about it, in spite of any editing on the part of mr Curtis, who is a nice guy, fwiw. It seems that the experience can activate a dormant brain circuit, not unlike the “zone” described by athletes and musicians. Any human activity that allows the subconscious to emerge is almost always cloaked in controversial language.

19 Olaf Derwojed June 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm

@ Loren Carpenter

Man, Thank you for the experiment.
It validates my conceptualization of my observations in a long lasting hobby.

Strangely enough, I had been using or rather harnessing the very same forces exposed by your experiment in my work. I am working with systems and workflows, designing and improving processes in any given system of working environment, but mostly human and technology interractions.

Quite unconventionally for established methods in designing and redesign of the processes I do incorporate and relay on these forces to make it stable, self correcting, easily adaptable, effective (alive) process, sort of anticipating change, it is efficient and its dynamics provide feedback loop for anyone observing and understanding it.
These forces are rather common and potent in any group, large or small, larger the more potent the less coordinated and that they are somewhat unwitting, therefore they require direction or a point of focus but minimal supervision, only coordination.

Thanks again.

@ Adam Curtis work:

He is not the prophet of new ideas….. He only presents a set of historical facts and events and their relations with other events and facts that followed in collective fashion. Delivers us a documentary film by its definition.
Thus, allow us to acquire perspective on chain of events that may in its totality or partiality be responsible for delivering the “today”, the “NOW” which in all likelihood nobody with any major certainity can claim to know absolutely.
(and mind you it is Modern, Up Close, Alive History, changing quicker then ever before)

I think he is doing awesome job because it makes you think.

Cheers 😛

20 Chris Dornan June 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Alex has this just right. Adam Curtis’s films are really extended documentary essays, which I generally find compelling, though less so in this case. Still its pretty good.

Check out The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self — both freely available availabe on line.

21 Ian Lippert June 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm

The first episode was pretty terrible, the second one was fascinating.

At the end he is discussing the failure of the communes, even though they had no official hierarchies, hierarchies still arose through the various instances of human interaction. It could be said that the communes failed because they were addressing the effects, percieved hierarchies within society, and not the causes, why people form into hierarchical personal relationships. Political hierarchies are simply the effect of personal hierarchies, its all very Stefan Molyneuxian.

22 Owen June 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Check out Adam’s blog: he gets out old BBC docos (useful in itself) and provides a commentary on what actually happened. One of the best is a pre-glasnost look at the huge Fiat plant in Russia.

23 David Mershon June 2, 2011 at 6:08 pm

All the Adam Curtis documentary essays are great fun, and really got me thinking about the subject matter. I usually don’t end up agreeing with him at the end of the day, but I would still recommend any of these films.

24 LemmusLemmus June 3, 2011 at 11:40 am

I don’t know about the documentary, but the poetry’s ace:

25 Dean Sayers June 3, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Hah! He put L. Cohen’s “Suzanne” in this one. Just another reason to love Adam Curtis…

26 ovaut June 3, 2011 at 9:59 pm

A lot of the economics is from Gray, False Dawn.

Of all writers I would like to see Gray review Curtis.

27 ovaut June 3, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Why does Curtis think individualism is entailed by systems theory? Is it?

Curtis thinks we subscribe to an ideology that makes us feel politically powerless. But to be wedded to such an ideology that makes us feel powerless is a kind of powerlessness itself. And I don’t believe Curtis knows how to defeat the plutocrats any more than the deepest fatalist.

28 jesus alfaro June 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm

The weakness of the documentary lies – in my view – in applying the same reasoning to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and consumer markets. There was nothing especially wrong in the “new economy” ideas when applied to the realms outside of Finance.

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