All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I’m going to come clean now. In addition to being a fan of Kate Bush, Ken Livingstone, Leila Berg, Ally Pally, Iceland, Flowered Up, The Swimming Pool Library and Plan B (quite some list there), I am a huge fan of the documentary maker Adam Curtis.

He is, to use a rather hackneyed expression, “a national treasure”. His films are wonderful – my husband and I spent a fantastic few days last year geeking out over pretty much all of his back catalogue – from an early 80s doc about tower blocks to more recent series such as Century of the Self, The Trap and The Mayfair Set.

The documentaries cover an incredibly wide range of subjects – from nuclear power to public relations, via economics, environmentalism and the Iraq War. If I could sum them up in any meaningful way, I’d say they are about how power affects the individual and how elites fashion societies in their own image. They ask BIG questions, which is rare for TV these days.

Curtis has a blog, which is totally amazing. Check it out – it’s a real treat and your head will be reeling afterwards.

It’s beauty lies in unearthing rare pieces of archive from the BBC vaults and also in its ability to connect up seemingly unrelated incidents and characters into a grand narrative. It has been the inspiration for my rants – hopefully what I’ve produced is more of an homage than a fromage (oh dear).

I was also reminded of Curtis, when I was doing some of the final readings for the MA Module on Internet Cultures, which amongst other things, has tried to encourage us to think critically about technology, rather than genuflect in front of it like some incense crazed altar boy.

I’m going to break the rules and write one single post (a meta-post?) about Education 2.0 (the very phrase makes me shudder – oops, gave the game away there) and the idea of participatory culture. I’m going to use Curtis’s most recent documentary project – shown last summer – which picks apart the cyber utopianism that is one of the dominant religions of our time.

I loved its bonkers title All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which referred back to some hard-core 60s stuff that Curtis identifies as one of the dominant forces behind internet culture.

Here’s an interview with Curtis in The Guardian from last summer. There’s a lot in there, so you may have to read it more than once just to take in this vast slew of information.

This passage stands out for me and pretty much gets to the heart of much of what we have been discussing on the MA course.

He quotes Carmen Hermosillo, a West Coast geek and early adopter of online chatrooms who in 1994 argued that, although the internet is a wonderful thing, your emotions become commodified. “It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality,” she wrote. “This is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.”

Says Curtis, “On Facebook and Twitter, you are performing to attract people – you are dancing emotionally, on a platform created by a large corporation. People’s feelings bounce back and forth – happy Stakhanovites, ignoring and denying the system of power. It’s like Stalin’s socialist realism. Both Twitter and socialist realism are innocent expressions of the ideology of the time, which don’t pull back and show the wider thing they are part of. We look back on socialist realism not as innocent but as a dramatic expression of power; it expresses the superiority of the state, which was the guiding belief at the time. I think sometime in the future people will look back at the millions and millions of descriptions of personal feelings on the internet and see them in similar ways. This is the driving belief of our time: that ‘me’ and what I feel minute by minute is the natural centre of the world. Far from revealing that this is an ideology – and that there are other ways of looking at human society – what Twitter and Facebook do is reinforce the feeling that this is the natural way to be.”

In other words, Curtis refuses to drink the Kool Aid and believe that the technology in general and the internet in particular is some kind of magic pill that makes everything amazing.  It also gives a lie to the claim that the internet is the key to a golden age of civic participation – we’re far too busy talking about what we had for breakfast to change the world. OK, we might click on some 38 Degrees or Avaaz thing,  but how many of us are really out there getting involved and challenging governments or big business about the way they control our lives?

The interview with Curtis was written just after the Arab Spring when we were told that Facebook and Twitter had changed everything ; the reality is obviously a little bit more complicated.

And here’s a trailer for the documentary:

That just makes me want to watch it all over again. But I have a rant to write. Yes indeed.

With Curtis at the back (or should that be forefront) of my mind, I find it hard to be anything other than deeply skeptical about ideas such as Education 2:0. Yes, using social media and blogging is useful way to engage students in lessons and I’m all for it. Accepting that young people spend a lot of time on line can also help an old fart like me create interesting lessons – hang on a minute, I probably spend just as much time online as they do! Neil Selwyn (as ever) raises a wise note of caution about assuming all teenagers are the same in his 2006 paper Dealing with Digital Inequality: Rethinking Young People, Technology and Social Inclusion, although there’s a part of me that wonders if the picture might be slightly different in 2012.

Much as I like messing about online and using technology to engage students, I recoil from the idea that everything is different now and that the old rules just don’t apply when creating a curriculum or even an entire education system.

The cyber-babble is none more evident than in an article from 2011 by Ben Williamson called Wikirriculum (hope I’ve spelt that properly). It includes all the usual propaganda:

The industrial revolution created a world of centralisation and organised hierarchy. Its defining pattern was a single, central dot to which all strands led. But the emerging digital age is different. The pattern of political, commercial and cultural life in the emerging digital age is the absence of the central dot. In its place, a mesh of many points is evolving, each linked by webs and networks … we are witnessing the death of the centre and the rise of a new centrifugal trend that disperses power to individuals [and is] empowering audiences…

Is he on the same planet as the rest of us? In my world, we are looking at a society where  more is owned by fewer people and governments are rolling over to let big business control even more. The brakes were only put on Uncle Rupert’s bid to control all of Sky because the bad behaviour of some journalists caused a bit of a stink. Quite frankly, his UK interests seem like small potatoes compared to what he’s got worldwide:

infographic showing the makeup of newscorp

Williams continues by explaining how the modern curriculum is influenced by business as well as educationalists – I’ve already ranted about Uncle Rupert’s plans to get into the edu-business – and also describes something called “the wikirriculum” which unlike schoolis centrifugal (spinning out rather than in?)

This is how Williams explains it:

Rather than core knowledge, a future, decentralized, network-based curriculum is being imagineered to be accessible beyond school; it is envisaged as nonlinear and navigable like new media rather than transmitted like conventional mass media; it is imagined as being editable like a wiki instead of hierarchical and authorial.

Call me old fashioned, but I like to see school, or college, or university as having some sort of authority, that steps aside from whatever is new and cool and brings some kind of critical distance to all the hype being spouted about this, that and the other – hype that nine times out of ten is making someone somewhere a load of cash.

I like to think of education as somewhere that independent thinking is encouraged and the status quo is questioned – this sort of approach is typified by someone like Neil Selwyn who contrasts hype with hard facts. I like the idea of being allowed to challenge orthodoxy; my main worry with the idea of the wikirriculum (or Education 2:0) is that schools will just become echo chambers for whatever fad happens to be in vogue.

I also think that the ultimate danger of going down the route of total techno-enthusiasm is we forget the very ideological nature of the curriculum. I was chatting to my tutor from the PGCE course and he introduced me to the work of the American sociologist of education, Michael Apple.

Apple’s thesis is that the school curriculum is ideological; if this is the case, surely concepts such as Education 2:0 or theories that the web is the tool that will make us all into good participatory citizens (whatever our class, race, gender or economic status) are pure ideology. It’s also surely the ultimate example of style over substance – pimp the new while being conspicuously silent about old issues such as mass youth unemployment, the rising numbers of NEETS, debt, poverty and all the other consequences of living in a society that is run for profit rather than the public good.

Time for a cup of tea – all that ranting has made me thirsty.

This entry was published on March 14, 2012 at 10:11 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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

  1. Whilst I welcome a good critique about the online world and all things internet I don’t think that it is all about feelings, mostly but not all and like all things new to our world, it will evolve and remake itself, hopefully as we evolve and realise that our brains are not just another platform for exploitation. The younger generation tend to place the internet in its place alongside all the other usual distractions of spots, angst and boy/girlfriends. It is we the older generation who are more in thrall to it because we know how far it has come, so fast. And it’s not all style over substance given that more people are now open to information about mass youth unemployment, etc. etc. As for education, it’s always been subjective has it not? Generally our children are not taught how to question what’s around them, there are exceptions but we’re talking generally here. They are taught to respond to a curriculum and outside demands, they are taught to survive – of course they need tools for the world they are to inhabit as adults – but in many cases that means they are taught to compromise. And that applies right the way up to third level education. You will be an inspirational teacher because you are excited by life and indulge your curiosity but you are an exception. For the rest of us self-educated the world of the internet is a vast library of possibilities. I remember first turning on a modem in 1994. Online at the time was compuserve, aol, port and bits of Edinburgh University’s library. Felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightening when I realised what that portal could become and personally I still get that rush and whilst not a worshipper at altar of technology it has become much, much more than I had ever imagined…….

  2. Great post. Would love to see you expand more on the argument you begin to develop in the last four paragraphs. There are a lot of people working on this stuff (on both “sides” if you will) and your perspective is heartening and refreshing.

  3. Enjoyable post, and like you I love Adam Curtis, though I felt that All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, the fantastic title notwithstanding, was too ambitious and failed to live up to the hype. I think when he concentrates on more concrete subjects he’s on firmer ground – The Power of Nightmares was superb, as was Pandora’s Box back in the early 1990s. Curtis is also a terrific interviewer, giving his subjects just enough rope. For example, another Pandora’s Box episode – The League of Gentlemen, about postwar UK economic policy – contains some wonderful excerpts of Thatcher’s guru Sir Keith Joseph in classic mad professor mode.

    The main problem, I felt, with All Watched Over… was that it tried to ascribe too many changes to too few influences; for example, apparently blaming US neo-liberal economic policy on Ayn Rand seemed to be stretching things, there were many other currents of social and political developments occurring at the time. Nevertheless, his programmes are never less than thought-provoking, and as that’s such a rare quality these days then he should be celebrated for that if nothing else. I regard his programmes less as documentaries in the traditional sense than as film essays, with a magnificent command of image and music (his choice of music is always phenomenal and almost wholly unexpected: you can see how influenced by this Charlie Brooker – a self-professed Curtisite – has been in his own documentaries).

    Like you, I find much about the hyping of online technologies and they way they have been consistently oversold to be somewhat disturbing. All this talk – such as by Williamson – of the dispersive effects of the web empowering individuals and somehow thereby weakening big business and government reminds me of the endless hype of postmodernism which constantly told us that there were no grand narratives, that everyone’s viewpoint is equally valid, there is no objective truth, and that somehow individual choices in fashion and the exercise of taste somehow empowered us. Yet postmodernism, just like the techno-boosters of Williamson’s ilk, always failed to understand or at least articulate that nothing in their prospectus made the slightest difference to entrenched economic – and therefore power – relationships. If anything, the seemingly infinite capacity of modern turbo-consumerism to absorb all dissident movements and package them as just another product merely served to emphasise the bankruptcy in practical terms of postmodernism.

    The same, I fear, is what is happening to the miracle of the web. I’m old enough to remember what the world was like before the internet – hell, at 43 I remember the first home computers. And truly the advent of the web is astonishing. How else could I end up sharing thoughts with a complete stranger (i.e. you) without, say, becoming a journalist or essayist? Even then the traffic is very one-way. And think of how access to entertainment has been revolutionised. Even looking at it from the most banal level, I have access to music, films, images, writing that twenty years ago I would have only had an inkling of. Yet in terms of changing people’s relationship with government and the economy very little has happened. If anything, entrenched business interests are becoming more entrenched, especially under a government that seems determined to sell off anything that isn’t nailed down, in which, to quote Dave, “Business can be a moral force.” No, business cannot be a moral force because the bottom line is always its ultimate morality; all else is subservient.

    I could go on but as I’ve already probably bored the arse off you and anyone else reading – plus it’s getting late – I’ll end here.

  4. not remotely boring – far from it.
    You are totally spot on about “postmodernism” – the ultimate consumerist philosophy.

  5. Pingback: “I don’t know why I love her like I do. All the trouble that you put me through.” « More or Less Bunk

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