Adam Curtis’ new series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is riveting. In the second episode, as he describes in an article, his key theme is that the idea of a ‘system’ which came out of the early work on computers assumes that systems are static. And that it is therefore inevitably socially repressive. But the idea of a system has also been a central concept for ecology and so, his argument runs, the very idea of an ecosystem is inherently repressive. Moreover the accompanying idea, that individuals can act autonomously without overt (political) control and nevertheless achieve coherent results, he suggests is a dangerous illusion because power will find a way to exercise itself with or without accountability.
Riveting but wrong.
The concept of a ‘system’ is far older than computer science. It derives from the ancient Greek meaning ‘to cause to stand together’. The underlying concept throughout the ages has been the inter-connectedness of a series of parts of a whole. What early computer science did was to provide a particular form of analysing systems that was convenient for computers but not necessarily accurate for the living world.
If, as the early cybernetic systems assumed, a system has to be static, then it is indeed a poor foundation for thinking about society, which is constantly changing. But system theorists today are well aware of ‘chaotic’ effects, dynamic equilibria and discontinuous change. That may or may not make it a useful tool to understand society, but it is the best we have to understand the rest of nature.
But the real problem is that Curtis also seems keen to undermine the idea that humanity is part of a greater whole. If we are not really connected to the world, and perfectly free to behave as we like without any consequences, then there is no incentive to respect our dependency on the rest of nature. But that is precisely the situation we are in now – with, most likely, disastrous results for all of us.
Curtis’ arguments might be all too appealing to a company that wanted to ignore the impact that it had on the wider world. Coupled with the free market idea that unregulated economic activity always automatically produces the best possible outcome, it delivers a heady ideology that fully justifies business as usual.
However Curtis is right to point to the dangers of a lack of accountability in any social system. I wonder whether he sees fit to exercise that sort of accountability himself in relation to his filmed subjects? My guess is that a number of his contemporary examples of ‘autonomous subjects’, such as the UnCut protestors, would object strongly to his representation of them.