Last night the BBC broadcast the first part of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – the first of three, as ever an important, visually-arresting and hard-hitting piece of work.
He starts by exploring the works of Ayn Rand and their influence on American intellectual life, weaving this with an account of how American economic dominance and the ideology of the free market led to the collapse of Asian economies in the 1990’s, a collapse that in essence was repeated in the West in 2008 – and the role of Rand disciple Alan Greenspan in both. This was interspersed with reflections on Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky (which meant his eye was off the ball at the time the US Treasury gained the upper hand in foreign policy).
Alongside all this he explains how the arrival of computers and the internet led to the development of a libertarian ideology based on the liberatarian essentialism of Ayn Rand – the internet would be the vehicle for a Randian utopia of absolute liberty of autonomous beings free to pursue their own paths to happines and fulfilment without any need for regulation or intervention to ensure stability or order. Citizens would enjoy a new empowerment without the need for government. Curtis appears to be arguing that this utopia led to a reliance on machines that was a cause of the economic failures behind the Asian crash of 1999 and the banking crisis of 2008, with effects that we feel today.
Some of this of course is not new. Anyone who has seen the film Inside Job, or has followed events since 2008 will be aware of the baleful influence of Alan Greenspan; and the revival of Ayn Rand has been one of the more ironic events to follow the crash, as I’ve commented before.
Curtis’ explanation is clever and attractive but it has its flaws – for example one would have liked to see him challenge the Pong experiment, which seems to me to tell us nothing about complex, emotionally loaded decisions. One of the most fundamental seems to me to be the role he ascribes to machines. Computers certainly mean that transactions happen more quickly, and it is not difficult to see how they create the illusion of novelty by allowing information to pass more quickly, and to allow individuals and corporations to exchange data with a speed and volume that is unprecedented. But how fundamental a shift is this? Is it a change of function, or is it something that simply allows capitalism to do what it has always done more efficiently?
I think the clue lies in a piece that Curtis quotes at length – a famous piece by an online commentator called Humdog, pointing out that the internet was not liberating or empowering at all, but kept familiar structures of control and power in place:
Cyberspace is a mostly a silent place. in its silence it shows itself to be an expression of the mass. one might question the idea of silence in a place where millions of user-ids parade around like angels of light, looking to see whom they might, so to speak, consume. the silence is nonetheless present and it is most present, paradoxically at the moment that the user-id speaks. when the user-id posts to a board, it does so while dwelling within an illusion that no one is present. language in cyberspace is a frozen landscape.i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called “the means of production.” capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.
It’s a text that takes us straight back to Marx (although the section quoted by Curtis did not include the reference to Marx), who wrote about commodification and the use of technology as a means to alienation long before computers were dreamed of. Marx also described how capitalism would develop across borders. It seems to me that’s exactly the process that is being described here. We need to get behind the silicon valley ideology, to the assumptions underlying it – and if you do that I’d argue that what you get is pure market ideology, with alienation and impoverishment of the individual dressed up as freedom and prosperity (the same is true, I’d argue of the pseudo-philosophy as Ayn Rand – to the extent one can make sense of it).
In other words – it’s not the machines, or the silicon valley ideology. It’s the ideological assumptions behind their use that matters, and that’s not new.
So, important and timely and eloquent as Curtis’ film undoubtedly is, it seems to me that it is more about the restatement of an old problem than about a new insight.