All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Last May and June, BBC aired a three part documentary by Adam Curtis on how computers are reshaping society called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” The title comes from a hippie poem of Richard Brautigan’s from the ’60s that expressed we would call “cyber-utopian” sentiments today. Brautigan fantasized about a world of plenty in which computers would run things:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

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.

(All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (c) 1967 Richard Brautigan, by permission.)

This is a sixties version the highest stage of communism, of course.

The documentary explores the roles of such seemingly diverse philosophical elements as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, hippie communes, cybernetics, and theories about self-organizing systems and radical democracy to explain how we got into such crises as the Southeast Asian property bubble of the late 90s, the global financial collapse of the late 2000s and our current sovereign debt crisis.

The premise boils down the belief that smart machines interlinked with the right kind of network could create a permanent condition of financial prosperity and political stability that mirrors the supposed stability of nature. With the machines in charge, people would be free to act as selfishly as Rand wants us to act without doing any real damage to each other, the economy, or the planet.

In the first episode, Curtis examines the influence of Ayn Rand from Silicon Valley to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and tells tales about Rand’s personal life. As superficial as Rand’s ideas are, they still have a following among some Washington, DC think tanks who engage in the Internet policy debates, and are to be found within the Internet engineering community, where politics tend to cluster at the extremes. How you get from radical selfishness to machine control of the economy isn’t immediately obvious, but the connection would seem to come from the promise that machines can eliminate political hierarchy and allow ideal social networks to develop organically and democratically. The fist episode also deals with China’s reaction to the financial crises of the ’90s and ’00s in the US and abroad, concluding that China is currently managing the global economy for its own benefit.

One large thread in episode two deals with naive views of nature as a system that tends to stability if left to its own devices. Of course, there is no body of evidence in natural history to support the idea of a permanent natural order, it’s been an appealing notion since at least the time of the Egyptian pharaohs who sought perpetual life through quirky embalming and burial practices. In the engineering community, this notion was developed by people like Norbert Wiener, Jay Forrester, and Buckminster Fuller who developed systems concepts in mathematics and then applied them to both natural and human interactions. This sort of thinking isn’t inherently insane, but it’s easily distorted. It’s appealing to think about both physical systems and social interactions in terms of power sources, information, and feedback loops, and models of this kind can be very useful as long as we recognize their limitations. Circuit boards are ultimately much simpler than human societies which makes for massive reductionism if we take the analogies too far.

Perhaps the most insightful portion of this episode deals with the liberation movements of 2003 such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Serbia-Montenegro Union,  and the Rose Revolution in Georgia. As was the case in the Arab Spring, these movements toppled heavy-handed authoritarian regimes and brought in idealistic and progressive replacements. None of this lasted, however, and today Serbia and Montenegro are separate and Ukraine and Georgia are just as repressive as ever. Veterans of hippie communes are familiar with their dynamic: When you remove institutions of governance from a social group, you create a situation where the strong bully the weak and the weak have no recourse. This happened at The Farm, the hippie commune that gave rise to the on-line community known as The Well, it happened among the Wellberts, and it happens today on Wikipedia, an offshoot of the Well created by Wellberts such as head guru Jimbo Wales.

There is every reason to believe that the Arab Spring will go the same way: The first act of the interim government in Libya was the repeal on Qaddafi’s ban on polygamy, and extreme religious sects won the lions share of  the seats in Egypt’s post-revolution parliamentary election and are now tussling to write a new constitution.

Despite the failure of cyber-utopianism to produce lasting and positive effects in the real world (or in the virtual world for that matter,) it’s not yet an abandoned philosophy. We can easily see that it’s alive and well in debates over Internet governance and in such national issues as the measures in the U. S. House and Senate that seek to deal with copyright infringement and the sale of dangerous goods on-line.

If you’re struggling to understand why the opponents of the Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy Act are so all-fired passionate about their cause as to boycott, bully, and slander the other side (as well as people they believe to be on the other side who aren’t,) let me suggest that the issue doesn’t have much to do with what it is at the surface.

The underlying issue is whether human institutions such as the U. S. Congress can dictate terms of operation to the cyber-utopian liberation machine. Cyber-lib doctrine says that the Internet and all the interactions it enables are above national law and can only be affected by a consensus of the Internet community itself, and this is a community in which national lawmaking bodies have no special standing. It’s fine with cyber lib for the cops to arrest people who use the Internet for kiddie porn, but only if they can find the perps and catch them without altering the Internet.

Leaving aside the naivete of the beliefs in permanent order and optimal self-organization, I think it’s necessary to question the utility of the belief that the Internet can govern itself at all. It is after all a mechanical system that lacks any particular built-in system for stopping bad behavior and promoting goodness. To the extent that anything like this happens, it’s a result of social systems that oversee the Internet, as was the case when an Acceptable Use Policy guided the Internet’s use of the NSF backbone in the 80s and early 90s.

Don’t we need to engineer a set of replacements for the Acceptable Use Policy? I think so, and a good place to start is with the recognition that nations don’t lose their sovereignty simply by connecting national networks to international ones.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Adam Curtis by Andrew Orlowski of The Register, a co-producer of the documentary and my former editor.

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