All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace episode 1 review: Love And Power

Filmmaker Adam Curtis’ new series looks at the impact of computers on society. Here’s our review of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace episode 1, Love And Power…

1. Love And Power

Warning: this review contains spoilers for anyone who hasn’t yet read about the 2008 economic crisis.

Filmmaker Adam Curtis has always been remarkably adept at mixing music and images to jarring and occasionally eerie effect, with incongruous snatches of archive and news footage providing the backdrop for his fascinating visual essays.

His latest series, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, examines our society’s now inextricable entanglement with computers, and how they’ve grown to dominate our financial markets and the way they interact. Like his earlier films, this first instalment, Love And Power makes seemingly incongruous connections between current events and those in the past.

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Beginning in 50s America, Curtis argues that author and philosopher Ayn Rand was quietly responsible for the imminent computer-controlled social and economic system that was to come. Through her best-selling books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand argued the case for her own personal brand of philosophy, objectivism.

It was her view that it was through pursuing individual happiness, rather than concern for others, that society could achieve stability. Old forms of religious and governmental control, she argued, were outmoded, and that through self-interest, society would stabilise itself.

It was a philosophy, Curtis tells us, that was quickly seized upon by the scientists and businessmen in America’s electronics and financial sectors, and immediately captured the imagination of Alan Greenspan, a philosopher who would later become one of the most influential economic figures in the world during the Clinton administration.

Like Rand economists of the 90s believed in a system of self-regulation, in this instance governed over by computers, which would minimise the chances of financial collapse by carefully monitoring investments and the rise and fall of global markets. It was a belief that ultimately led to a disastrous recession in Asia, and in 2008, a similar financial catastrophe in the west.

The shifting of power from government to finance, it seemed, had created a new yet unstable system, in which a financial elite protected its own interests while those at the poorer end of society were left in economic ruin.

Meanwhile, Curtis finds an interesting (yet probably tenuous) parallel between the doomed romantic affairs of Rand and Bill Clinton; in both instances, their power was all but demolished by their furtive relationships.

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All this sounds horribly dry and gloomy as I type it, but Adam Curtis’ skills as both a filmmaker and essayist make subjects like objectivist philosophy and global economics seem approachable and intriguing. As ever, he has an unfailing eye for strange, engaging and slightly unsettling images. The grim chronology of the 2008 recession will be familiar to anyone who’s watched the superb film Inside Job, but the way it’s told via a surreal mixture of archive footage and incongruous music is pure Curtis.

There’s something more than a little disquieting about the footage of scientist Lauren Carpenter’s 1991 social experiment, which involved a gigantic game of Pong in a darkened shed. The experiment demonstrated that, even in a chaotic environment in which strangers operated a videogame by holding up coloured bats, a large group can come to what Carpenter described as a “subconscious consensus”, like the participants in a Ouija session pushing a glass around a table.

Then again, is it the experiment itself that’s disquieting, or the clever, sly manner in which Curtis cuts and selects his footage? Curtis’ ability to use the moving image, music and his own soothing voice to put forth his argument shouldn’t be underestimated, and his penetrating critique of the growing power of financial entities is alarmingly persuasive.

In a world apparently enslaved by a computerised economic system, we can be sincerely grateful that Curtis isn’t writing propaganda on behalf of our digital rulers – well, not yet at least.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace returns on Monday on BBC Two.