All Watched Over By Machines – Adam Curtiz, BBC2 documentary


The televisual essayist and social documentarian and Adam Curtis has just slipped out another fascinating series on BBC2. If the first episode ‘Love and Power’ is anything to go by, it’s going to be a great ride. Curtis has a knack of weaving together the big picture of history with the personal struggles of those who made it. To aid him he also infuses some subtle popular music cues, such as Kraftwerk, on the soundtrack.

In this episode Curtis explores Ayn Rand’s role as the seismic catalyst to a wave of thinking that propelled the Republican notions of a society made up of independent “free” individuals. Inspired by Rand, Silicone Valley entrepreneurs led to a rush to promote new businesses on the back of a utopian vision of computer-based free market abundance. Yet their social dreams ignored the economic realities of unsound growth and over-reaching national debt. More personally, Curtiz contrasts Rand’s unforgiving, Darwinian view of love with her own moribund love life and failed affair with the psychologist Nathaniel Branden. After he finished with her, apparently Rand angrily accused Branden of betrayal. At the end of her life, to her TV interviewer the supposedly loveless free marketeer repeated the cold, steely words of a ferociously self-willed Greek philosopher: “I will not die – it’s the world that will end.”
One of the most interesting points in the whole episode (7:30 in on the clip) is when we hear the disillusioned words of 1990s online poster Carmen Hermosillo. Her claims are even more prescient to the age of web 2.0 social media as they belie liberal notions of the active audience. We work for capital now, as Hermosillo made clear over a decade ago, even when we don’t realize it:

It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge their individuality. This is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online, and I did so my self until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product that has a money value. In the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories by workers, who were mostly exploited, but I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board that I was posting to, like Compuserve or AOL. That commodity was then sold on to other consumer entities as entertainment.

Cyberspace is a black hole. It absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as an emotional spectacle. It is done by businesses that commodify human interaction and emotion, and we are getting lost in the spectacle.