Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

New Adam Curtis Doc Questions our Subservience to Machines

At the end of April, Adam Curtis announced on his BBC blog, The Medium and the Message, that he had been working on a new documentary called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. In fact, Charlie Brooker spilled the beans on this one back in March, but it was only yesterday, with an appearance in the Guardian, that Curtis fully revealed the ambitions of his latest television essay.

Frankly, it looks like a brilliantly pitched and very timely return to TV musings for one of the most intellectually driven and creative documentary film-makers in Britain. His approach seems as though it will chime well with the 60s-cultural-revolution-nostalgia-mongers who believe that future generations are creating a soulless and plastic civilisation out of their supposedly liberated society. Curtis's main contention is that power has now been handed over to machines and systems which we have invented in order to make work easier and social interaction more efficient and more stable.

I detect a resonant paranoia regarding the sterilising impact of computer-mediated communication on social dialogue, particularly since Curtis refers to Carmen Hermosillo, an online culture expert, who in 1994 wrote an essay called "Pandora's Vox" in which she stated: "I have seen many people spill out their emotions - their guts - online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself." Interestingly, this view has become extremely old-fashioned of late within CMC and sociological circles which analyse the genuinely positive social impacts of social media as well as the negative. (To summarise: the academic consensus is that while online interaction can cause problems for naïve users, be unpredictable, and subject to extremes of inanity and aggression, there is mounting sociological evidence which suggests that many users - particularly young users - of online services are learning to be creative and responsible online in ways which will shape the digitally enhanced communities of the future.)

It's important to remember that Curtis's approach is steeped in political history - his blog, for example, is saturated with archive footage and as such peers eagerly into the 20th Century origins of Western society's contemporary values. Look at how he discussed the Libya crisis for instance, or WikiLeaks. As such, Curtis will be keen to position his assessment of information technology within political and corporate expansionist contexts. He will not be the first to do this, as many science fiction writers - particularly Philip K. Dick - have already imagined worlds defined by what Curtis calls the 'managerialist', utilitarian stifling of society and emotion. It's the claim of the age - that Singularity is almost here, or has more or less arrived, but it's a sweeping sort of conclusion to make and it will be interesting to see how Curtis tries to convince his audience that we've been tricked into dull existences by our undying faith in technological progress.

The potential that such is the case is more than enough to make this documentary a worthwhile endeavour, and as you might expect from someone who took inspiration from The Machine Stops when coming up with this website, I am looking forward to it heartily.

The series, which gets its title from this poem by Richard Brautigan, starts on BBC 2 on the 23rd May at 9pm. If you want to watch a similarly urgent documentary by the same film-maker, try The Power of Nightmares which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. One of the opening lines is, "increasingly politicians are seen simply as managers of public life." The machines, Curtis appears now to be arguing, might be their greatest allies.

Two books to read alongside All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace are The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov and What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. Enjoy!

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