3. The Monkey In The Machine And The Machine In The Monkey
Part documentary, part essay, part soothing, disturbing art project: by now, the rhythm and style of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is decidedly familiar. That’s not to say that, as ever, it’s been anything less than enthralling – there’s something endlessly watchable about the way Curtis cuts together his montages of light and sound.
His films are made with scalpel-like precision, and the results are hypnotic, even if Curtis’ style has changed little over the years. The course through history Curtis charts in this final episode also follows a familiar pattern – if you can call it a pattern.
Beginning in the Congo in the early 60s, this week’s film takes in space monkeys, Tomb Raider, biology, biochemistry, tribal war, David Attenborough, more monkeys, Richard Dawkins, precious minerals, despotic rulers, plus a side order of monkeys.
Curtis explores a pair of uniquely modern occurrences. First, our growing understanding of genetics, and the changing theories about the role our genes play in both our development and the way we interact. Second, the rise of computers, particularly in the last two decades, which has seen a murderous land-grab for the precious minerals – specifically, copper from places such as the Congo, which is rich with the stuff – and how they inform political policy and the balance of power.
The connecting ties Curtis makes between these two strands are sometimes a little tenous, but they at least make his narrative more compelling. Just as he was in earlier films, Curtis is concerned with the dehumanising effects of political power and computers.
Here, it’s suggested that corruption extends even to the materials from which our computers and other electronic gadgets are made, with the control of mines in places such as the Congo have resulted in civil unrest, genocide and the appearance of despotic regimes.
Meanwhile, the theories of influential biologists, from Bill Hamilton onwards, have perpetuated the idea that we’re all “soft machines”, driven by the impulses of our genes. Even a trait as apparently unique to our species, altruism, can be explained in practical terms – “A gene would destroy itself in order to allow its future self to survive,” we’re told.
It’s all gloomy stuff, and yet there’s something seductively personal about Curtis’ delivery. His soothing voice, with its portentous pauses, adds drama to his secret, faintly paranoid histories, leaving you constantly wondering what he’s going to say next. Throughout this final episode, I kept expecting there to be another dramatic silence, or a burst of incongruous music, and then for Curtis to suddenly say, “And then, of course, the massive crabs took over.”
Instead, Curtis concludes with the assertion that we’ve all willingly adopted the idea that we’re genetic machines, and that we’ve done so because it explains why there are so many dreadful things going on in the world – things that we’re powerless to stop.
Is this really the case? Does the average member of the public really think that we’re all just computers in fleshy clothes, following a pre-programmed path through history? I don’t think it’s as widely held a belief as Curtis suggests.
The reality, I think, is even more depressing. The corruption and oppression caused by the production of electronics also lies in everything else we grow or produce, from coffee to coffee machines, from pigs to the food they eat, to the sausage machines the pigs end up in. In everything that we make, and in every industry, there are people at the bottom of the economic pyramid who are poorly paid, oppressed or mistreated.
And our explanation for this universally understood fact isn’t that we’re all Texas Instruments calculators in trousers, but a blank – nothing. We respond to the world’s horrors with ignorance and apathy. We simply acknowledge that a gigantic system has grown up around us, Matrix-like, and accept, with a shrug, that there’s nothing we can do about it.
There’s no way we can rebel against the machine, because no one has a better system to replace it. And, of course, no one has yet found a way to kill the colossal, invisible crustaceans that secretly rule us, that control everything we do, that invented reality TV, bananas and Jedward.
But that, dear reader, is a topic for Curtis’ next series of documentaries, All Watched Over By Massive Crabs.
Read our review of episode 2 here.