All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: a review

Just watched Adam Curtis’s documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which, elegant graphics and poetic title aside, seems to be selling the audience short. (The title really is poetry and is from Richard Brautigan’s fifth collection.)

Curtis’s thesis seems to be that our present economic woes result from the kneelings, separated by some forty years, of Alan Greenspan at the feet of Ayn Rand and of Monica Lewinsky at those of Bill Clinton, the former having too much faith in the abilities of markets, the latter hampering the abilities of government beyond a heavily curtained Oval Office. These protagonists are joined, at various stages, by Californian entrepreneurs, many of whom are devotees of Rand (siring eponymously named children) and dream of a self-stabilizing society of individuals pursing their own happiness. Bearing witness to Rand’s salon are a former Park Avenue double act so present at the scene that Mrs pimped Mr out. (I can’t wait for their reunion show in which they thrash out objectivism in their signature guises of Donald Trump and Nancy Reagan.) Beyond Rand, who emerges as sympathetic, if demented, lurk the far more sinister bogeymen of Goldman Sachs and the Chinese Politburo.

The astute viewer will quickly notice that Curtis’s attempt to prove Rand wrong is slightly different to proving wrong the Californians, whom we might suspect of providing us with the titular machines of loving grace. (Rand famously took her name from the state of the art technology of her time, the typewriter.) The Californians are nevertheless proved wrong as their networked society turns out to be far less self-stabilizing than was envisioned. In fact, it turns out to be a vast shopping mall, primarily for the fame-hungry and emotionally disturbed, and doesn’t that make for a nice link to Lewinsky.

The real curiosity of the piece is Greenspan, and not just because he resembles a bespectacled ET. Presumably at some point after deciding that the world does indeed exist but before he became in Curtis’s description “the most powerful man in the world”, Greenspan was beginning to suspect that he had got it wrong and that the booming markets were not a sign of booming social prosperity. This happened in the bath, and if you’re not terrified by the thought of the Board of the Federal Reserve setting interest rates with ET taking a bath, then you might be in a position to ask why Greenspan – not a man incapable of considered judgement – volte-faced on his “irrational exuberance” speech of 1996 and did not raise interest rates.

This Curtis does not attempt to explain, instead following the money out of America to South East Asia, where the economy is imploding and Goldman makes its mint thanks to the IMF and a sleeper cell in the Treasury Department. This all seems terribly familiar and it’s only beat before we get the post 9/11 command to go out and shop, which the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Thais, having learned the lesson of the nineties, are more than happy to indulge by taking dollars and lending them back in the form of delightfully low interest Treasury Bills which will fund yet more consumption of imported goods.

How this relates to computers in any way other than the most mundane or, beyond the fact that many people read her books, how it relates to Ayn Rand remains unclear. There might be a point to be made about a group of masters of the universe awestruck by the system they believe they have created, but that could also be said of the agreement that existed between European powers in 1913, or indeed that which they created at Versailles in 1918. Curtis’s argument could be cut off at any point: the points made about the Californians do not depend on Rand, nor do the points he makes about politicians and bankers depend on the Californians. The title of his show seemed to promise something which might cause me to question my faith in machines, or rather my unwitting dependency on them. Certainly examples could be drawn from Curtis’s materials, but they are not offered as such and when Curtis does come across a significant questioning of machines in the form of Greenspan, he fluffs it preferring to tell a great, if now clichéd story of banking villainy, western profligacy, and the oriental long-game.

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