All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Three very thought-provoking films

Over the last week we have watched all three 0ne-hour films made by the BBC, aired in 2011,  under the title of the heading of this post, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.  The films are available on the website Top Documentary Films, the direct link is here.  As that website explains,

A series of films about how humans have been colonized by the machines they have built. Although we don’t realize it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers. It claims that computers have failed to liberate us and instead have distorted and simplified our view of the world around us.

1. Love and Power. This is the story of the dream that rose up in the 1990s that computers could create a new kind of stable world. They would bring about a new kind global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of the past. They would also abolish political power and create a new kind of democracy through the Internet where millions of individuals would be connected as nodes in cybernetic systems – without hierarchy.

2. 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.

3. The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey. This episode looks at why we humans find this machine vision so beguiling. The film argues it is because all political dreams of changing the world for the better seem to have failed – so we have retreated into machine-fantasies that say we have no control over our actions because they excuse our failure.

Adam Curtis is a documentary film maker, whose work includes The Power of Nightmares,The Century of the SelfThe Mayfair SetPandora’s BoxThe Trap and The Living Dead.

As was eluded, the three films are deeply thought-provoking.  There is a ‘taster’ to the first film on YouTube, as below,

Adam Curtis, the film maker, has a blog site under the BBC Blogs umbrella.  The entry on that blog-site by Adam in connection with these films is here, and makes interesting reading.  It also includes a longer trailer than the one from YouTube, above.

Finally, there are comprehensive writings on all three films on the WikiPedia website here.  To give you a taste, here’s what was written about the third film,

The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey

This programme looked into the selfish gene theory which holds that humans are machines controlled by genes which was invented by William Hamilton. Adam Curtis also covered the source of ethnic conflict that was created by Belgian colonialism’s artificial creation of a racial divide and the ensuing slaughter that occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a source of raw materialfor computers and cell phones.

William Hamilton went to Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while the Second Congo War was raging. He went there to collect Chimpanzee faeces to test his theory that HIV was due to a medical mistake. Unfortunately he caught malaria, for which he took aspirin, which caused a haemorrhage and he died. However his selfish gene theory lived on.

In 1960 Congo had become independent from Belgium, but governance promptly collapsed, and towns became battle grounds as soldiers fought for control of the mines. America and the Belgians organised a coup and the elected leader was assassinated, creating chaos. The Western mining operations were largely unaffected however.

Bill Hamilton was a solitary man, and he saw everything through the lens of Darwin’s theory of evolution. When he wanted to know why some ants and humans gave up their life for others, he went to Waterloo station and stared at humans for hours, and looked for patterns. In 1963 he realised that most of the behaviours of humans was due to genes, and looking at the humans from the genes’ point of view. Humans were machines that were only important for carrying genes, and that it made sense for a gene to sacrifice a human if it meant that another copy of the gene elsewhere would prosper.

In the 1930s Armand Denis made films that told the world about Africa. However, his documentary gave fanciful stories about Rwanda’s Tutsis being a noble ruling elite originally from Egypt, whereas the Hutus were a peasant race. In reality they were racially the same and the Belgian rulers had ruthlessly exploited the myth. But when it came to create independence, liberal Belgians felt guilty, and decided that the Hutus should overthrow the Tutsi rule. This led to a blood bath, as the Tutsis were then seen as aliens and were slaughtered.

So, all in all, this is a great personal recommendation and, it goes without saying, those of you that do watch the films and want to comment, would love to hear from you.

3 thoughts on “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

  1. Hi Paul,

    I wondered if and when Adam Curtis’ programmes would be broadcast in other countries. I watched them back in May when they were first broadcast here in the UK. I must say that I was fascinated and annoyed by them in roughly equal measure and, by the end, completely at a loss to understand what Curtis’ overall message was (if indeed there was one). Having tried and failed to find an email address for him, I posted the following comment on a BBC discussion about the programmes on his blog but never got an answer. Some of the text may seem strangely familiar to you and your faithful readers :-)…

    I thought the first episode of this mini-series was excellent; a very honest and very brave summary of how foolish we in the west have been to trust machines and/or bankers. Karl Marx called it “money fetishism“. Much more recently, Herman E Daly (former World Bank economist) coined another term for it; he called it “growthmania“. This is much more appropriate because, make no mistake, Marxism was just growthmania (i.e. industrialisation) without the free-market economics. However, as your first episode made clear, salvation does not lie in free-market economics either. Therefore, I believe you are right to attack such utopianism – wherever it is to be found. Nevertheless, I think your second epsiode is very confused and, indeed, confusing:

    The Club of Rome did not predict imminent collapse; they suggested that Limits to Growth would result in problems within 100 (now only 60) years. The MIT’s World3 model has been revised and re-run several times since and, in general, the conclusions remain the same: Over-consumption of resources and over-population of the planet will – unless we radically change our collective behaviour as a species – result in environmental catastrophe within the next few decades.

    The reality of this fact (also known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics), has absolutely nothing to do with – and is absolutely not invalidated by – anything presented in this second epsiode of your mini-series. Therefore, if it was your intention to try and undermine ecocentric (as opposed to anthropocentric) concern for the environment, then this was a very irresponsible: Today, more than ever before, we humans need to understand that we as a species are indeed upsetting the dynamic equilibrium of the planet (by pumping 3 miillion years-worth of fossilised carbon into the atmosphere every year).

    I agree that the Earth is not a machine, its ability to support us and/or to clean-up after us is limited; and we continue to deny this at our peril.


    1. Hi Martin, I would need to watch the three films again to form the clarity of conclusion that you so ably expressed above. Just started reading the book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, by Daniel Goleman, lent to me by a friend here in Payson. In a sense, it throws light on the strange species we are, a theme that could be argued to run through those Curtis films. Isn’t there a saying that goes, ‘The more I learn, the less I know!’. P.


      1. Paul,
        Thanks for your kind words. Isn’t that ‘saying’ actually a quote from the words of a song? I have given my blog a bit of a makeover: New aquamarine background, category cloud replaced with a drop-down index, links to my old blogs replaced with those that I would recommend following… I have added Learning from dogs to that list so, is there any chance you could reciprocate?
        Yours hopefully,


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