A Lifeline to Reality


Philosophy, culture, science

Ayn Rand, Cybernetics and the Selfish Gene

‘I like to think (it has to be!) of a cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace.’

Richard Brautigan – ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’

I’ve just finished watching the latest documentary by Adam Curtis, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Curtis examines the roles that computers have had in constructing social systems and their influences over philosophy. Commendably, he looks at a wide range of ideas. In the first episode, Curtis focuses on Ayn Rand’s objectivism and the individualism of the Silicon Valley boom, and how these ideas led to the modern financial collapse (which is debatable if objectivism really held a hand in the ideas which led to the current economic situation). On the contrary, in the second episode Curtis looks at the rise of cybernetics and the failed collectivist theories of 1960s ecologists and commune movements. Similarly to the first episode, Curtis attacks the collectivist ideas, claiming that some people will always be more free than others, however much they are influenced by egalitarian values (another debatable idea, but interesting nonetheless). The portrayals of the computer utopians in the second episode are particularly brilliant too, with their dreams of what can only be described as a cybernetic anarchist social order, long before the internet or even the first personal computers were a notion within mainstream thought. The third – and final – episode is less focused than the previous two, looking at W.D. Hamilton’s controversial ideas in selfish gene theory and the Belgian’s fabrication of tribal warfare in the Congo, which ultimately concluded with horrific genocide and a free-for-all for materials to provide Western commodities like cell phones. It’s slightly disappointing however, that Curtis doesn’t seem to come to a true conclusion in the final episode, but I realise that must be a feat in itself for such a widely focused and ambitious three part documentary. Perhaps the conclusion will be left to the machines, since Curtis is only human after all! (or is he?)

I’ve completely oversimplified Curtis’s documentary with my description, and if you are interested in modern history and philosophy, I urge you to try and watch all 180 glorious minutes, if not just for the fact that Curtis makes extremely entertaining and thought provoking documentaries. It’s currently availible on iPlayer for those in the UK. For those outside of the UK, it’s readily available elsewhere…


Filed under: History, Philosophy, Science, Sociology, Television, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. paul wright says:

    I think that Curtis is to be commended in making one of the most thought provoking series of documentaries I have ever viewed. I agree that in trying to cover such wide -ranging ideas sometimes the programmes fail to pull their threads together into any coherent conclusion, but they do provoke a number of ideas for follow up essays or programmes, like the hollowing out of political power at the Clinton White House. It would be good to be able to see these programmes repeated again soon. Has Curtis written a book or published anything to run alongside the programmes?

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