All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (BBC documentary): a review

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.

Further reading:
Guardian article

Addendum 6/6/11:
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.


14 Responses to “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (BBC documentary): a review”

  1. bob Says:

    I think, or rather expect, that Adam Curtis is trying to suggest that the underlying lassez-faire economic and political systems (as promoted by the likes of Morgan Friedman and Ayn Rand) are flawed. These ideas are still held in great esteem amongst very powerful people across the western world, especially in our business & finance systems.

  2. bob Says:

    That should have been Milton Friedman!

  3. Matt Says:

    Yup, that makes sense, particularly thinking back to what I saw of part 1. If so, I think this episode’s undue focus on (and misunderstanding of) natural ecosystems is a mis-step in the argument. Still, looking forward to seeing where he goes with it next week.

  4. S Graham Says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say. I remember when I attended lectures in ecology in the mid 90s that it was definitely presented as a study of the dynamic rather than a search for equilibrium.

    However, I would go further. I feel that a lot of the ideas presented as “new” in the programme were not. For example, the mechanistic universe concept predates the 20th century by some years (some would claim back to the 17th Century, but certainly the Age of Enlightenment). Similarly, the 18th Century saw a flourishing anti-establishment and anti-hierarchic movements, which continued into the 19th Century and produced many societal experiments, some of which suffered in the same way as the communes he includes (although some lasted a lot longer too, such as the Oneida Community). In passing, it may be noted that the rationalism of the French Revolution led to an even more extreme example of this victory of the powerful with the rise of Reason. It is also worth noting that to the experience of Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia could be added France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 which did not need the Internet to create popular uprising – I wonder whether we of the Internet generation forget that what has been called the “bush telegraph” worked effectively as a subversive communication medium for millenia before the cellphone. I also suggest that systems theory did not challenge the legacy of the Enlightenment that “human beings are separate from nature” but that this was challenged by Darwin somewhat more decisively some time before and that the understanding that human beings can affect their environment at least dates back to the author of Genesis if not before. I would even take issue with the idea that Forrester was the pioneer of feedback loops in cybernetics – how about Arturo Rosenblueth? – while Tansley himself was influenced by more than just Freud and clearly read the works of Warming and other ecologists too, so all these theories have a legacy which was not originally spoken in English.

    On the other hand, I think the basic premise of the story – that we have too much blind trust in system theory – does have some validity. Bob’s point is valid and I agree that it is naive to use systems theory as the only decision making tool. However, I am concerned that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. The programme briefly mentioned Gaia and I am not convinced that Lovelock’s theory is as naive as the programme presented ecological theory in the 70s.

    There is some value in metaphor and models and I would prefer to see some exploration of axioms, assumptions etc in the programme. There is a worryingly fatalistic slant to the narrative (for example, I am not convinced that “we are all disillusioned in politics”) and as no alternative is explicitly presented, one is left with an implicit acceptance that the world is too complex to be managed and therefore it is best alone, for which the sting is of course that it will be left to the powerful to manipulate, and that any change perceived is “natural” and therefore outside our control. I am not convinced that this is Curtis’ aim (certainly this would not be consistent with his earlier excellent documentaries) and I too hope that the next episode demonstrates more of the inspiring insights based on thorough research that he is better known for.

  5. kenny Says:

    just a comment really.i have just caught these programmes tonight and i must say they are fanyastic. brilliantly thought provoking. loved every minute,


  6. Family Enclosure Man Says:

    I found the three programmes fascinating and each had their moments of insight, but overall it was far from clear that there was a strong coherent central argument which linked them all. It left me scratching my head. Do we have free will or don’t we? Should we leave ‘systems’ alone or interfere with them? If this were an academic thesis I think it would be taken apart by the examiners, if only for the unclear presentation of the core argument.

    If there is one.

  7. David Says:

    I found these programmes strangely compelling, but I was bothered by the way a polemic was presented as a “documentary”. As “Geodoctor” says, after the first time you realise that one of Curtis’ confident assertions is a gross simplification and/or distortion of the truth you rapidly begin to assume that they all are.

    I didn’t buy Curtis’ thesis at all, most of the ills he ascribes to “machine worship” such as a belief in the “natural order”, actually predate the industrial revolution, often by millenia.

  8. aubyn Says:


    Thanks for this excellent review. I was so irritated by the second episode of this series (for the stylistic and substantial reasons you hit on) that I went looking for decent critical review and thankfully found your blog. I think Curtis’s home turf is probably Politics and Economics as illustrated by his much more convincing (but still polemic) “the Power of Nightmares”.

    A very good point made in one of the responses above it that the old natural systems in equilibrium view has probably stayed central to prevailing economic theory much longer than in other sciences or pseudo sciences, and the error of this has been starkly revealed by the recent global banking crisis. I am yet to see the emergence of a substantial alternative economic theory (please tell me if you have!) other than crude bilateral interventionism, so maybe these programmes are making a useful point

    But Curtis really does seem to have got it wrong in relation to history of ideas about natural systems and it makes you wonder whether he has watched the BBC/Jim Al-Khalili’s “Secret Life of Chaos” – if not he really should have and if he has, he doesn’t seem to have understood it. Either way, the BBC should perhaps exercise a bit more editorial control over such polemics (viz. ‘the great global warming swindle’ on channel 4 a few years ago that should really never have been shown).

    Anyway I will now watch the third programme on iPlayer and see if I agree with your final comments!

  9. Matt Says:

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to comment.

    aubyn, you touch on something I’ve been mulling over since seeing the programmes- the value, if any, of these polemic-style documentaries.

    The Great Global Warming Swindle was another great example- much like AWOBMOLG I found it an entertaining watch, provocative and thought provoking (also hopeful- because no sensible person wants global warming to be true). But even at the time I realised it didn’t really add up, and it prompted me to take greater interest in climate change and (I hope) gain a deeper insight into the issue… along the way, of course, realising Durkin had constructed a complete fabric of untruths and distortions. But it certainly served a purpose in provoking debate, and I’m sure helped crystallise many viewers’ own thoughts on the matter (wouldn’t be surprised if mostly in the opposite direction than Durkin intended).

    I see AWOBMOLG in a similar way, if not to quite the same extent. Despite the sometimes major caveats and irritations I’m positive about the films overall, partly I admit because I probably share much of Adam Curtis’ worldview (when he sticks to the politics and economics anyway), also because the music and visual imagery were compelling— quite different from what I’ve come across before— but mostly because it’s so unusual to come across stuff on TV that manages to be visually, musically and intellectually intriguing all at the same time.

    It would be nice if there was some way these ‘documentaries’ could flag themselves more clearly as polemic so that viewers won’t expect even the smallest token gesture towards balance… But I don’t think the TV/media folk think that way.

    [just googled that music- Baby Love Child by a Japanese group called Pizzicato Five if anyone is interested…]

  10. John Says:

    I’m trying to find name of the piano music played between 49 mins 36 secs and 51 mins 32 secs on this programme. Please help.

    Also, enjoyed the programmes, without always agreeing with content.

  11. Anita Says:

    I tuned into no.3 towards the end and had no idea what I was watching, so had to go back and find them on iPlayer. I found them fascinating (all that stuff about Ayn Rand, for instance) but troublingly incoherent. What did the massacres in Rwanda have to do with the selfish gene, or David Attenborough whispering sweet nothings to a gorilla have to do with either? I was very relieved to find these comments and discover I was not alone in my perplexity. But I agree that programmes as polemical this should be more clearly flagged as such. It’s a question of responsibility. These programmes were tremendously watchable and therefore seductive. That worries me a bit.

  12. David Says:

    Thanks, Anita, for expressing my views so eloquently. I too was troubled by these programmes as they used all the classic techniques of propaganda: powerful (though irrelevant) images and music, oversimplification and distortion of the facts, the unseen “voice of authority” telling us what to think (supported by on-screen text) etc. etc. And I agree it was irresponsible of the BBC to allow these programmes to go out as “documentaries”. They should have been clearly flagged as polemics.

  13. doug_m Says:

    Just saw the 3 parts the other day (on youtube–I’m in USA). Was also a bit confused…and then pleased to find the critical reviews on this site–thanks. One thing that is often left out when comparing old to new is the amount of energy that the “haves” of the world now have at their disposal. With a little money, I can control hundreds of horsepower (in a car), much more than nearly anyone ever controlled pre-1900. The first time this was driven home to me was reading Bucky Fuller on “energy slaves”, a nice review of this can be found here:

  14. News You Need Says:

    News You Need…

    […]All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (BBC documentary): a review « Geodoctor[…]…

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