Machines of Loving Grace

June 2011

“Conspiracy, one is tempted to say, is the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is the degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content.”

Adam Curtis begins talking about networks and self-organisation in the second episode of ‘Machines Of Loving Grace’, and his claims range from muddled to misinformed and at worst misleading. It’s become painful to watch him cherry-pick events and paradigms from different social periods in history, while linking his dubious trajectories with fascinating archive footage.

Take one example: He offers experimental west coast communities of the late sixties as proof that self-organising networks are not an apt model for human society, because they can’t deal with the emergence of power. He claims that this vision had flawed egalitarian aims (true). He extrapolates this conclusion to recent global uprisings, effectively saying that all self-organising movements are doomed to failure, because, you know, humans like power, and our belief in self-organising systems is based on misplaced notions of equilibrium (false since about 1970). An equilibrium which we mistakenly believe in as the result of a gross simplification of nature enshrined in computer models (false since about 1970).

Modern science does not tell us that self-organising systems are about steady state equilibrium. It tells us the opposite: that they are complex, and that these complex systems have many (fragile) stable states which break down into chaos easily. He seems to be in denial about the fact that cybernetics was superseded by complexity as a paradigm for understanding non-linear dynamics in the 70s. We can see this in the body of discourse, which the machine will happily illustrate for us.

The intersection of complexity and cybernetics in the 70s reflects the discourse, which affected economics, ecology, and the social sciences. That’s 40 years ago, long before any of the uprisings he talks about and at about the time of the experimental communities he depicts. Clearly, economic theory was no longer concerned with steady state solutions by the Clinton era (Episode 1).

In fact, as early as 1925 ecology had begun to explore the fragility of equilibria (Lotka-Volterra’s logistic population equations, which break down into multi-stable states through bifurcations at certain points in the parameter space), whilst many researchers (e.g. Michael Batty) were already looking at complexity in human society by the late 70s.

So we know very well that self-organising networks in human society are not a means of creating equality or a steady state stability. Even a cursory understanding of a self-organised network like the web (Barabasi) will show you that node degree distributions fall into power laws, with small numbers of powerful hubs and long tails of less influential nodes. But basing a social critique of self-organisation on this is flawed for anyone but a die-hard Marxist (who believes in an egalitarian society) or an early systems theorist (who believes in a stable society). This does not discredit self-organisation as a way of say, creating a participatory democracy, or creating a global information network, because these projects are not explicitly about creating equality or stability, they are about making society inclusive, making information accessible, and connecting people. These are laudable social goals for a complex age. These projects have an implied emergent order to them, a complex order, not ‘stable’ in any naive meaning of the term.

What Adam in his retronautical trajectories hasn’t grasped is that we are living in an age of complexity, not a failed cybernetic society. It is an ‘age’ of complexity because we are beginning to digest the paradigm into our popular consciousness, including our social structures. Few people have developed a good critique of complexity (Castells might be trying, figures like Luhmann and more recently De Landa have produced some of the theory), whereas a critique of early systems theory is just far too easy. The social sciences demolished it in the 80s. By contrast, his attack on self-organisation fails because he has no convincing body of social theory to fall back on. Self-organisation is a feature of our complex age, not of a bygone cybernetic utopia. I wonder if he will deal with this in his concluding episode.

In his latest cognitive mapping exercise, Curtis comes across as everything Jameson feared, his map appears to be out to debunk anything that isn’t true Marxism as ‘unrevolutionary’, and quickly descends into either conspiracy or pastiche. Machines are generally cast as a controlling force acting on humanity in ways we can’t affect, as we are mere nodes (the tired, reductive discourse of techno-determinism), so it follows that techno-utopians aren’t proper revolutionaries. He’s then peppered this with some David Harvey lite.

Ultimately the work’s distinctive aesthetic (typography, soundtrack, editing) triumphs over its attempts at a coherent argument, confirmation of its “slippage into sheer theme”.