Technology is Society’s Catalytic Converter


The Adam Curtis documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, begins each of three BBC-broadcast episodes with the title card, “THIS IS A STORY ABOUT THE RISE OF THE MACHINES”.



The series aired in spring 2011, and is now available online.  Curtis’s style, you could say, assembles montage to invoke the not-too-distant past. Unearthing the scattered and buried bits from our media-infused memory, Curtis stitches colorful swatches of documentary footage and interviews into rhythmic graphic relationships matched by a soundtrack that brings it all into sharp focus.  Set in a visual vernacular not unlike educational science films of the 1970s, it’s a video exposition on the current relationship between technology, nature, governance, and society – and how we got here. 


I ran across the series thanks to a tweet from Maria Popova‘s blog Brain Pickings (which is excellent by the way). Ben Sachs provides a solid film critic’s review for the Chicago Reader here (ep1), here (ep2), and here (ep3)


What fascinates me about these films is how efficiently Adam Curtis is able to trace the relationships of emerging cultural and biological theory to the development and diffusion of technology.  Curtis uses a deep understanding of the tensions between human desires, biological processes, and technological change to examine society’s relationships with technology through the influences of major figures in the period spanning the late 1960s through the early 2000s.  The result is that many lesser-known figures from the biological and systems sciences are repositioned as significant and forceful (but not purposeful) arbiters of cultural and technological change.




In episode one, Love and Power (mp4, 228 mb via Internet Archive), Curtis highlights the individualist ideologies of Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan, linking their roles in economic theory to early distributed computing demonstrations and, ultimately, the internet.  Like The Enlightenment 200 years before, the human conflicts that emerge over free will, stability, governance, and collective action help us understand how the contemporary ethos of Silicon Valley has resulted in a new social contract between technology and society with computing and the internet as arbiters of free will and governance.  The expansion of US-led, market-based (invisible hand) ideology in the 80s and 90s, Asia’s economic collapse, and the subsequent rise of China in global economic affairs provide the global backdrop.  Events like 9/11 come into view as almost deterministic, while a particularly powerful montage with Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Bill Clinton highlights the curious impact of human relationships on our social, political, economic, and technological order.    





The second episode in the series, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts (mp4, 260 mb via Internet Archive), cracks open the lineages of the ecosystems and complex adaptive systems concepts from biology and engineering and the application of the “great universal law of equilibrium” to social and technological order.  Curtis dives deep, describing how biologist and originator of the ecosystem concept, Arthur Tansley, drew on Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of the brain as an electrical machine to generate a metaphor for all of nature.  Jay Forrester’s contributions to systems models soon follow, and Curtis outlines how information and feedback become cultural, economic, and technological icons for a new interpretation of nature and society against the backdrop of spaceship earth, Gaia, and environmental catastrophe.  Use and Abuse continues to trace these icons from the work and architecture of Buckminster Fuller to experiments in communal living in the 1960s, arriving at social media’s role in political uprisings in Central Asia and the Middle East.  Curtis argues that technologists, engineers, biologists, politicians, and ecologists misinterpreted and perhaps misused the data from systems and ecological experiments  to make a case for technology to bringing equilibrium and stability to society.  


With signals like the Flash Crash of 2010, Occupy Wall Street, Facebook and Twitter’s role in the uprisings in the Middle East, Facebook’s impending IPO, the science of climate change, and the new science of networks, it’s obvious we are still struggling for better match between our social contract with each other, the shape of our machines, and a “true” representation of the “natural order”.




The third and final episode, The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey (mp4, 263 mb via Internet Archive), chronicles the contributions of evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton, filmmaker Arnold Dennis, mathematician George Price, and ethologist Dian Fossey to the interpretation of human behavior as a genetically-programmed process. With the exception of Arnold Dennis (who Curtis credits with creating a myth that led to widespread African war), the film takes pains to highlight the significant scientific contributions that Hamilton, Price, and Fossey made to society without letting them off the hook for their metaphysical commitments to different visions of a “natural order”.  Through the lens post-colonial conflicts, tribal identity, the introduction of consumer computing platforms, and the global struggle for natural resources in the Congo and Rawanda, Curtis traces the lineage of cooperation and altruism through its contemporary history to show how theoretical and empirical advances in biology and technology firmly displaced our view of humans as quasi-rational actors with the hyper-rational gene’s eye view of human and natural agency championed by Richard Dawkins.  


Curtis’s films, when viewed through even more recent applications of gamification and behavioral economics, help us reflect on our ongoing attempts to co-opt our internal mechanistic behaviors.  We’ve even gone so far as to reframe very difficult political problems in society as wicked problems, social dilemmas, or as having dancing landscapes that more adequately describe our fleeting ability to both understand and control our social and technological futures.  Far from being futile, I think we are now able and willing more than ever to ask what next.




In the Technology Horizons program at IFTF we often refer to Marshall McLuhan’s seminal quote from Understanding Media (1964) that “We shape our tools and our tools shape us.” The meaning of this is important.  Technology is not just something we make to accomplish a task; there is an interaction between technology and social  behavior that is reinforcing–perhaps even catalytic.  


Curtis’s film are striking because they cast a sense of perspective on the ongoing translation work between biology and technology.  McLuhan’s quote reminds us that technology can shape generations, and as we learn across generations, one of the enduring questions to ask is what we keep and what we leave behind.  However, McLuhan’s quote, while relevant, seems to obscure the effects of our environment and, by extension, technology iterations that are cumulative across history. Neither history nor technology are remade each generation. The social contract in not made afresh.  Most forms, behaviors, infrastructures, ideologies, and tasks are remnants from previous generations.  Perhaps many are even vestigial, having lost all of their original role and meaning in society. 




Technology helps us respond to our social values, acting as a sort of catalytic converter, making some what we value durable while converting undesirable elements into other, “less noxious” things.  It’s not too difficult to sense the underlying conflict between what we view as desirable and undesirable.  Far from being a panacea, with every technology there are trade-offs between the social interactions it values and those it suppresses.


As we think about the shape of technologies like the internet to come, these questions  resonate with me. I am also reminded of an article published in Nature in 2010 by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and Edward Wilson which described limitations to Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory, the basis of the gene’s eye view paradigm. The biology community’s response as well as the article itself demonstrate how much Hamilton and Price’s views are still in flux.  But what piqued my interest was one of the authors’ concluding statements that, “…a durable nest remains a key element in maintaining the prevalence [of cooperation].” In the animal kingdom, nests are technologies.  They promote group cohesion, and they limit dispersion.  To think of technologies as tools for structuring cooperation–reinforcing some interactions more than others–means asking ourselves what we want to encourage in society and at what scale.  We don’t yet know how seemingly minor elements of an infrastructure like the internet or an integrated transport system will get remade into other durable social architectures. But like all good hypotheses, I think the interplay that Adam Curtis deftly remixes between emerging biological thought, technological change, and social order is both instructive and generative for any and all future tchnology horizons.


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