Kat Austen, CultureLab editor
Silicon Valley in the 1990s. Excitement filled the air. Hopeful entrepreneurs drove fast cars to their shiny workplaces, where they discussed the boundless possibilities arising from the technological explosion unfolding before their eyes. They progressed in leaps and bounds towards their utopia: a self-stabilising network of human beings who could be free of state control and country borders.
Whence came that dream? And whither did it lead? In his new series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, British documentarian Adam Curtis, famed for his incisive and sometimes controversial socio-political works, marries his indisputable knowledge of economic and political history with insights into the way that computers have shaped not only our world, but our world view.
The first episode, Love and Power, aired in the UK last night on BBC Two. Skilfully bridging a chronological gap of 40 years, the show links the Objectivist philosophy from the 1950s – which promoted rationality and an individual’s pursuit of happiness – with a belief in the infallibility of computers, which Curtis argues brought about the economic booms of the 1990s as well as the recent catastrophic economic collapse. The product is a fascinating yet chilling take on recent global techno-political history.
According to Curtis, four decades after Objectivism’s genesis in the mind of Russian-US author Ayn Rand – who laid the idea out most completely in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged – the philosophy was appropriated by the leading minds in Silicon Valley, who married its emphasis on individualism and freedom from state control with a utopian dream of computer networks. Meanwhile, the idea had also been carried on in the personal philosophy of economist Alan Greenspan, who had been part of a “collective” that formed around Rand in 1950s New York and went on to become chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
Curtis suggests that the pervasive belief that the route to a better future lay in radical individualism, when coupled with a naive faith in the computer’s power to perform flawless economic calculations, led Greenspan in the early 1990s to advise the newly elected Bill Clinton that cutting government spending and interest rates would result in economic growth off the back of “risk-free” lending.
Curtis makes the case that the latest economic upheaval across the west is the result of those misguided plans. In the documentary, he recaps the collapse of Asian economies in the 1990s and suggests they should have provided ample warning that computers are not, as was believed, infallible. He also shows that computers, rather than being the hoped-for facilitators of individual autonomy, were used to divert power from politicians to investors. And in explaining the ins and outs of the more recent economic troubles, Curtis does not balk at pointing out the bitter irony of unchecked faith in technology.