Film: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Episode II – Fellowship of Humanity    

Film: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Episode II

Posted by Humanist Hall on October 29, 2011as , , , , , , ,




Wednesday, November 23 at 7:30 pm

All Watched Over by Machines

of Loving Grace

Episode II

by Adam Curtis

This is a series of three documentary films by renown director Adam Curtis about how humans have been colonized by the machines they have built. Adam Curtis will show us that, although we don’t realize it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of computers. His film series claims that computers have failed to liberate us and instead have distorted and simplified our view of the world around us.


Today we see Episode II: The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts. This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature.  It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists.  A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components — cogs — in a system.  In the 1960s the idea penetrated deep into the public imagination that nature is a self-regulating ecosystem — there is a natural order.  The idea was that a natural ecosystem stabilizes the natural world via natural feedback loops.  So the natural world is a stable system.  But the trouble is, this is not true.  As many ecologists have shown by now, nature is never stable;  it’s always changing.

Adam Curtis looks at how ecological theories informed the growth of computer systems. He argues that, beginning with Arthur Tansley in 1918, 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 U.S. computer engineer Jay Forrester who came up with an idea called “System Dynamics,” which was a means of predicting behavior 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. A rival theory was proposed by Jan Smuts who believed that hierarchies were what made systems stable. Both men influenced concepts of the self-organizing system in systems engineering, environmental studies, and studies of human behavior — which fed into popular culture.


The idea of self-organizing systems posits that individuals are equal players in a system where they co-operate to achieve equilibrium and balance and that this balance is a good thing.  There are no hierarchies or notions of coalitions and alliances that compete for power.  The idea became popular in new fields of science such as cybernetics and migrated to studies of nature where biologists and ecologists alike believed that natural systems “strove” for stability and after disasters or other disturbances could restore themselves to their original balance.  The idea also became popular among hippie counter-cultures in the West in the 1960s and many young people established communes in which they all expected to live as equals in harmony.  In fact, the fantasy of spontaneous, self-directed reform movements erupting from youth remains attractive.  In the 1970s, biologists and ecologists discovered that natural ecosystems don’t have an in-built stability and that their earlier view of nature as an economic system was wrong. Human societies that try to abolish hierarchies and alliances and which sweep away old political and social institutions can become authoritarian and bullying.  Ecosystems are chaotic, and almost impossible to predict — not unlike the behavior of members in a hippy commune. Adam Curtis suggests that such models are ineffective when applied to the natural world or to human society.













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