14 November 2011

Adam Curtis: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (1/3)

I realize that I am desperately late to this particular party. Everyone has probably already watched the documentary, read the inevitable backlash, and digested the response to the backlash. Nevertheless, here are my notes on the first episode.

Part 1: Love and Power

Barbara Branden’s comments about Ayn Rand being disappointed by the reception of “Atlas Shrugged” are hilarious, yet sad. She reports that Rand was desperately upset when the people in her inner circle who had how much they liked the book, failed to stand up and say what genius it was when it was being excoriated in the press. Well, Ayn, of course they didn’t. They were behaving in their own selfish rational self-interest, exactly the way you yourself had told them they should. That should have been a learning experience for you right there, but somehow it wasn’t, and you ended up alone in a crummy apartment living off Social Security.

I remember when Alan Greenspan buckled under and took back his prediction that the economy was “irrationally exuberant”. I thought at the time that it was patently obvious that there were a lot of incredibly overvalued companies, and that we were likely in a bubble of speculation on Internet stocks. For one project I worked on, Enron was one of the bidders. I did some reading, concluded that they were dodgy, and said so. They were rejected. A few months later, their whole business imploded. Their glossy brochures had been really impressive though.

The idea of treating marriage and relationships rationally, or as business arrangements, is a very bizarre American one. There are lots of articles on the net which put the view across. “What can the corporate world teach us about personal relationships?” — I sincerely hope that the answer is “nothing”, but I’ve read of couples who schedule weekly meetings with each other to deliver “status updates”. There have even been Powerpoint proposals. The latest person to end up miserable because of treating marriage as a business? Kim Kardashian, allegedly.

The whole issue around commodifying our thoughts for exploitation by others is one of the reasons why I post anything of length on a site that I own, rather than letting Facebook or Google own them. Of course, Google Plus and Facebook are good ways to get an audience—but you don’t want to let them own you.

One of the sad facts about the New Economy idea of unregulated markets and computer networks leading to stability, is that I think any decent mathematician or computer scientist would have told you that it was almost certainly not going to work. Unregulated systems with feedback often have chaotic behavior, and the more complicated the system, the more likely it is to be chaotic. Even trivial systems of a few equations with feedback can result in chaotic complexity—that’s what makes fractals so interesting. Unfortunately a lot of people in Internet businesses and banks in the 90s either didn’t have the mathematical background to know about chaotic systems, or didn’t want to believe that they were building them. I remember reading articles about the issue at the time, but nobody really took it seriously. There is at least now some discussion of issues like the effect of trading speed on market stability, even as the financial services companies continue to reduce already small latencies to allow for even faster trading cycles.

Around Austin, Greenspan and the Federal Reserve are widely seen as villains. It’s pretty common to see “End The Fed” on bumper stickers and T-shirts. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticism comes from Ron Paul followers, and Paul is one of those people who still believes that unregulated market systems will be naturally stable. The fact that history seems to show the opposite, he and his followers dismiss, arguing that there was still some government regulation somewhere, and if only we had absolutely no regulation anywhere, then it would all work just fine. That is, the cure that killed the economy didn’t work because we didn’t try it hard enough.

It has been obvious to many people for years that China has been systematically buying control of the USA. As I would tell people during the boom, when they got angry for action against China over human rights abuse: China could shut down the US economy overnight any time they liked. They wouldn’t need bombs to do so, they would just shut down a few factories or ban exports. The USA wouldn’t be able to restart manufacturing, and its economy would collapse. There are a few companies that understand this; mostly foreign ones, like Toyota. They keep manufacturing plants across the globe, hedging their bets.

Finally: It’s pretty ballsy of Curtis to effectively make the case that Al Qaeda were right to bomb the WTC. Fortunately for him, I think he stated it subtly enough that the people who might otherwise have lynched him, failed to notice the point being made.

© mathew 2017