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.