Saw the second part of this last night, having stumbled on the first part last week. It’s a documentary series by Adam Curtis, a film maker I hadn’t come across before— but on the evidence of these two programmes, someone with a distinctive and interesting slant on some Big Ideas. Last week it was about Ayn Rand, computers, the 2008/ongoing financial crisis, and Monica Lewinsky. The connections between some of these topics were more than a touch forced, but as a critical exploration of “out of individuals’ search for self-realisation, comes emergent social order, and you can use computers to help it along”-flavoured ideas, it was compelling. Dreamy visual images and melancholic music made it much more engaging than might be expected, given the heavyweight subject matter.
This week was just as intriguing, and perhaps a little more focused— only a little, mind— and opinionated, with more to disagree with as a consequence. All in a distinct and thought-provoking way; hence this post.
Last night’s instalment, titled The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, might be summarised as follows:
A machine-inspired view of nature being ‘held in balance’ by rigid feedback loops, which has subsequently proven to be wrong, has been mistakenly applied to human society. This is a Bad Thing.
There was lots of interesting stuff I hadn’t come across before: Tansley’s ‘invention’ of the ecosystem concept, described as an interconnected web of species with energy flowing, electricity-like, through different elements; Smuts‘ coining of the term holism to describe a system of interconnected wholes, with sinister racist overtones; interviews with ecologists describing the failure to demonstrate Tansley’s ‘balance of nature’ in empirical research; systems scientist talking heads, such as Jay Forrester; and ex-hippies describing how 1970s communes degenerated into vicious bullying when utopian balanced social systems failed to emerge spontaneously in a ‘no rules, let it all hang out’ environment.
All explained patiently by a mellifluous off-screen narrator (Curtis himself?), over incongruously spliced archive footage of nature, machines, and people, with an other-worldly, bittersweet-nostalgia infused soundtrack.
The trouble is, I don’t really buy it— certainly not all of it— or at the very least, there’s a good deal of simplification going on. And the problem with this style of documentary making is that when the viewer starts questioning part of the message, the highly polemical, stylised way the message gets delivered starts to grate a little. The viewer (ok, me) starts to question it more, and the dissonance of the ideas and the images and music gets quite unsettling. Maybe this is a good thing, but it’s also irritating.
Anyway, two main criticisms: one of substance, and one of style. I think I’ve just made the style criticism, so onto substance— the film’s overcooked aversion to the notion of ‘systems’ in nature and society. I’m no ecologist, but my understanding is that— as indicated in the programme— no serious scientist believes the ‘harmonious balance of nature’ stuff any more. But that doesn’t mean that ecosystems don’t exist at all: it just means that they are dynamic systems, not rigid mechanistic ones; prone to breaking down when stressed and reconstituting in different and unexpected ways, but systems nonetheless. With complex interactions, and energy and resources flowing through different species (‘food’), feedback loops and all. Adam Curtis could have talked about homeorhesis, rather than homeostasis, or of adaptive systems rather than rigid ones, of phase space and ‘attractors’ and chaos theory— but presumably none of this fits the chosen narrative. At times it seemed like Jay Forrester was trying to get into this, and I wonder how aggressively edited those sections were (at one point, there was an off-screen voice helpfully suggesting the word ‘system’ at a key moment in an interview). Maybe there are better terms for expressing these ideas than ‘ecosystem’ or ‘system’, but Curtis doesn’t suggest them, so we are left with only the negative, mechanistic connotations that were loaded onto these words in the first part of the programme.
Applying ideas from the natural sciences to human society certainly needs to be done with caution; if this is one of the points the film is making, it makes it well. But I’m not sure the idea that a human society is a balanced, rigid, mechanistic system is as universally accepted as the programme makes out. Such a view would indeed be very simplistic— ‘wrong’ even, if you’re the kind of person who likes absolutes— but as to why this would be such a dangerous thing… I’m not sure Adam Curtis has made the case yet. It’s still not clear what, if any, overarching vision this series is trying to get across. But I’ll try to catch the final part next week to see what happens next.
Just seen part 3. Well, it makes a bit more sense now. It turns out it was all about free will: those pesky machine-inspired interpretations of human biology, ecology and society robbing us of any sense that individuals can make a difference, and of the political motivation to change things for the better. The best of the three, I reckon. Taken as a whole, the series has been excellent: a great fusion of politics, philosophy, and polemic, entertainingly executed. Full of simplifications, non-sequiturs, omissions and contradictions of course (to take just one conspiracy theory/narrative-spoiling point: the machine-inspired ‘selfish gene’ proponents from part 3 have had fierce disagreements with the machine-inspired ecosystem/Gaia folk from part 2). And the conclusions are unsettlingly incomplete. Rejecting insights from evolutionary biology, ecology and systems science wholesale just because you don’t like the way some people are interpreting them is— as S Graham comments below— throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Curtis offers little by way of alternative. Genes may have a major role in determining our behaviour, but it doesn’t have to be a defining role. And being part of a system does not mean we are powerless to change it.