2. The Use And Abuse Of Vegetational Concepts
Having conclusively proved the arcane links between Ayn Rand, the 2008 global economic crisis and Monica Lewinsky, one-of-a-kind filmmaker turns his attention to ecology in the second episode of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Or more specifically, this second episode looked at how ecological theories would later inform the growth of computer systems.
As anyone who’s seen Curtis’ earlier work – The Power Of Nightmares, or The Trap, for example – will already know, his unapologetically subjective, opinionated documentaries are a little like history lessons provided by a man in a tinfoil hat.
This week’s lesson, begins in 1918, when English botanist Arthur Tansley came up with the modern concept of the ecosystem, and ends with the rise of social media in the 21st century. Taking in MIT computer theorists, hippy communes and ecological surveys on a Colorado grass plain, Curtis finds a compelling link between apparently disparate moments in history.
Curtis’ argument is that, beginning with Tansley in the early 1900s, ecologists began to look at the natural world as a mechanical system, in which all life forms naturally find their own equilibrium over time. It was a concept that was later picked up by pioneers in cybernetics, not least US computer engineer Jay Forrester.
Forrester came up with an idea called System Dynamics, which were a means of predicting behaviour by building models of feedback loops. These models treated everything like a smoothly running machine, or like nodes in a network – a reasonable assumption in the world of computers, Curtis suggests, but such models are ineffective when applied to the natural world or to human society.
For evidence, Curtis points to failed communes in the 60s, in which idealistic young people attempted to set up tiny societies without leaders or hierarchy. The results were straight out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – all members of these communes were free, but some were more free than others. Most communes collapsed within three years or less, following bitter feuds or accusations of bullying.
Meanwhile, ecologists began to realise that their earlier view of nature as an economic system was wrong. A study of the creatures lurking in the grass of a small field in Colorado revealed that ecosystems are chaotic, and almost impossible to predict – not unlike the behaviour of members in a hippy commune.
Our modern network of personal computers, Curtis suggests, is a modern attempt to replicate the utopian ideals of a hippy commune on a larger scale – we’re all nodes in a network now, plugged into a vast global system like the luckless human batteries of The Matrix.
It is, of course, a gloomy worldview, tempered somewhat by Curtis’ marvellous way of editing together weird archive footage, his eye for a memorable caption or title (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace comes from a rather spooky poem by Richard Brautigan), and an ear for a catchy tune.
And then there’s his soothing narration, delivered with the kind of even tone that could accompany a session in a relaxation tank.
Not everyone will necessarily buy into the links that Curtis finds everywhere – and I find the link between 20th century ecologists and computer engineers rather tenuous – but there’s something endlessly fascinating about his personal way of making documentaries that continues to mesmerise, even as you shake your head in mild disagreement.
It’s a pity, too, that while Curtis repeatedly points out the flaws in our political systems, he seldom offers any alternate solutions. He rightly notes that, although social media has played an important part in the various revolutions that have occurred in places such as Georgia and the Ukraine, a stifling political regime later returned in the years after those uprisings took place. Our computer networks provide away of otherwise disconnected people to coordinate themselves, he says, but offer “no ideas about what comes next.”
I hope that, in the third and final episode of the otherwise excellent Loving Grace, Curtis has a few alternative suggestions of his own.
Read our review of episode 1 here.
The third and final episode of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace airs Monday, 6th June, at 9pm on BBC Two.