Machine ideology

I’ve been mesmerized the past two days by this three-part BBC documentary  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.  Steve Hsu has a YouTube link for the third episode.  The other two can be found on YouTube.   It is a rather cynical and dystopian view of how elites use machine metaphors to suppress the masses.  The  writer and director Adam Curtis is a genius in evoking a surreal nightmare with his use of images and music.  This is nothing like a Ken Burns documentary.  It is closer to modern video art.

The first episode was about how the ideas of Ayn Rand influenced Alan Greenspan who convinced Bill Clinton to deregulate the markets, which caused the internet bubble, the Asian crisis and the recent great recession.  The machine angle is that computer models were supposed to keep the markets stable.  The theme of the second part was that the concept of the ecosystem, where nature uses feedback loops to attain an equilibrium, has been co-opted by those in power to argue that the world as it is (with then on top) is the natural balance and everyone should just stay in their place and maintain the status quo.  The machine aspect is that these ideas were supported by cybernetics and a largely forgotten field called systems theory, which is basically linear control theory applied to complex systems.   The third part was about how evolution theorist William Hamilton with help from George Price in trying to understand altruism, came up with the selfish gene idea, (promoted by Richard Dawkins), which reduced humans to machines, with a parallel story of how the acts of Western powers (both selfish and altruistic) caused genocide in Africa.  The undercurrent of all three episodes is that machine-inspired ideas have provided elites with a sense of hubris and a rationale to control societies for their own interests.  Even more insidious is that these ideas, which includes the concepts of the network and self-organized systems, have made the general populace believe that we are  creating a society without hierarchy that will naturally reach a stable balance but in reality this is false and thinking so just leaves you defenseless to the whims of the elites.

I think the irony of the show is that developments in science and mathematics actually spawned two distinctly opposite world views in the twentieth century.  One view, as espoused by the series, is  that science, technology and industry can solve our problems and create a better world.  The second view is that the enlightenment goal of unbounded knowledge and rationality is dashed by thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, Godel’s incompleteness theorems, the Halting problem, and deterministic chaos.  In this second world view – disorder increases, physics is probabilistic, there are mathematical truths that can’t be proven, there are problems that can’t be solved by computers, and there is extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. It is  ironic that while the course of modern history and political power has been largely driven by the first world view, much of modern scientific and intellectual thought has been shaped by the second.  For example, the show is rather critical of people like Jay Forrester, a systems theory pioneer, who believed  he could model the world.  However, his work and ideas have had little impact on physics and mathematics where it is dogma that dynamical systems with just three degrees of freedom can exhibit all sorts of behavior and bifurcations.  Right now the study of networks is the rage but the main message is that they are complex, hard to understand and certainly don’t always ensure stable equilibria.   Although Curtis may be correct that the first world view has been the source of some of our major problems, I don’t think we should abandon it completely and take a Hayek attitude that it is impossible to understand complex systems so we shouldn’t even try.  Rather, there can be a middle course where we recognize the power and the limitations of science and technology.

12 thoughts on “Machine ideology

  1. I wish it were so simple as to attribute history to a selfish streak in human nature. Evolutionary concepts like self-preservation leave too many unanswered questions. Such a concept also fosters false hope. I remember the magazine article in the ’60s, talking about how automation would free humanity to pursue higher purposes. It hasn’t worked out that way. This is what happens when men presume to believe that they are smarter than God. A wise man knows the end of all things. That excuses me from being definitive, I only know the end of a few things. We are watching the corporate consolidation of the world. It’s end is poverty and destruction. We live in a perpetual state of war. This is why I wrote “War Under Heaven: The World At Commerce”.


  2. As an artist Adam Curtis is a genius. His use of archival footage and music is spectacular. But his analysis is a bit suspect. I agree with your view that the way that machine technology is invoked in the series (e.g., in finance and politics) is at odds with actual scientific developments.

    I’m a little peeved that I stumbled on Machines of Loving Grace only by accident. Who knows what other beautiful content on topics so dear to my heart remains to be discovered!


  3. Hi Steve,

    Even if it was serendipity, you made a good find. I was glued to my chair watching all three episodes. I thought the Rube-Goldbergesque connection of ideas was brilliantly inspired. It may not be fully accurate but this was a true work of art that took a lot of thought.

    I fully agree about missing out on interesting stuff. Who else should I be following on Twitter? Where is our generation’s Algonquin Round Table, Bloomsbury Group or Vienna Circle?


  4. I watched all three episodes in one day with a sense of guilty pleasure :-)

    Since you liked them too I would recommend Machine Dreams by Mirowski and a couple of good bios of Norbert Wiener and von Neumann, esp. the one by MacRae. Also the recent bio of Hugh Everett by Byrne. They cover related stuff like cybernetics, systems theory, cold war thinking, rationality, game theory, etc. Mehrling’s bio of Fisher Black makes similar connections to modern finance.

    I often ask myself whether there is a universe of good bloggers/twitterers/public thinkers that I am yet disconnected from. Or is it possible that I have access to most of the good English content along the lines of my interests? It seems that even elite universities have at most a handful of (active) bloggers among the faculty, so perhaps the corpus is quite finite.

    While the universe of (living) big brains is large enough that I won’t be able to come close to exploring it, the subset of big brains with very broad interests is much smaller and it’s possible that I might get to meet a significant fraction of them.


  5. PS Gleick’s new book The Information is also good.

    I sometimes see old timers like Stewart Brand or Danny Hillis at the Silicon Valley meetings I go to! It’s amazing that Curtis picked up on all of these different cultural trends.


  6. Is silicon valley really full of Ayn Rand acolytes? I’ve read excerpts of some of those books but I haven’t had much time lately to indulge.


  7. That footage of Rand with Mike Wallace (or was it Dan Rather?) is fantastic. What a nut.

    There are lots of Objectivists in Silicon Valley. People even name their companies after Reardon Steel or John Galt. But it’s not overwhelming. You can find tons of people who never heard of Rand.


  8. I think I understand her books a lot better now after seeing that interview. The thought I had watching that section was now I understand why I never meshed with the silicon valley start up culture. Rand never made any positive impression on me.


  9. Thanks for sharing Carson. I expected mention of the somewhat more recent cult of the machine. Jaron Lanier writes about it well in his book “You are Not a Gadget.” This op-ed is quite good as well

    I didn’t really believe that people besides Kurzweil take the singularity that seriously. However, one of our students here spent a month at the Singularity University last year, and it seems that some in Silicon Valley really do count on it. I think that these ideas may be much more influential currently than objectivism.

    Also, the story of George Price’s life is quite amazing – he really took his theories quite seriously.


  10. Hi Kreso,

    Price is kind of in vogue lately. There is a recent biography by Oren Harman, who is a biology historian. I’ve only read excerpts but it seems pretty good.


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