All Watched Over … (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey): falling apart under its own shaky premise

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey)” (2011)

Final installation in the documentary trilogy sees Curtis pick up a few very disparate strands of African colonial history, the rise of biological determinism and the marriage of cybernetics and mechanistic systems of organisation to sociology, and weave these into a shaky essay about how humans have become no more than machines themselves. As with previous episodes in the series, Curtis selectively picks facts linked more by coincidence than by intent to justify his premise; this latest attempt not only stretches credibility but doesn’t even acknowledge and / or blend ideas and statements made in previous episodes of the series to justify itself.

The episode develops against a background of Belgian colonial domination of the central African countries that became Burundi, Rwanda and Congo (Kinshasa) which later became Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Belgian rule was harsh and the colonies were virtual slave-states from the late 1800s on. Independence in the early 1960s proved no solution; the new countries were woefully unprepared to go it alone and promising politicians like Patrice Lumumba were killed or exiled with the secret connivance of the United States, Belgium or France. Under President Mobutu Sese Seko, the thrice-named Congo state became his personal fiefdom just as it once had been King Leopold II’s, to be looted and his people abused as he pleased. Rwanda and Burundi themselves fell captive to an ideology created by a former leader (King Kigeli IV according to Wikipedia) and enforced by the Belgian rulers that the Tutsi and Hutu peoples were separate races (even though they both speak Kinyarwanda and share kinship networks) and natural enemies; the result was ongoing war between the two “ethnic groups” over decades.

Into all this mess comes British biologist William D Hamilton, come to investigate a pet theory about the origin of the HIV virus in central Africa, and responsible for developing the “selfish gene” theory in which the gene is the basis of all human behaviour and genes act like self-interested, self-organised machines. This theory was elaborated by others to explain phenomena such as murder, suicide bombers and genocide, and applied to developing computer technology reliant on coltan, lithium and other so-called “rare earth” minerals mined in … yes, you guessed it, the modern DRC and nearby Rwanda and Burundi!

The “selfish gene” theory may have come from Bill Hamilton and a close friend and fellow biologist George Price may have helped refined it; there’s no mention though of other scientists like John Maynard Smith and E O Wilson who also contributed original insights of their own, such as introducing game theory into evolutionary studies and the development of sociobiology with which Hamilton became strongly associated. If anything, sociobiology should have been under the spotlight in this essay as a major influence on biological science and potential support for the idea of humans as machines shaped by evolution acting on genes. Funny how Curtis missed this opportunity to explore the field.

Curtis’s contention that accepting and believing the notion of humans as helpless machines as a way of explaining our failure to stop civil wars and genocide in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC – and, while we’re at it, most other parts of Africa – is too far-fetched and glib to explain that continent’s problems and ignores the role of Western governments (and more recently China) in creating and maintaining weak political, economic and social systems in African countries for their own interests. Former African colonies of France are bound to that country by the Central African franc whose value is determined by the French government. Inheriting a Westminster style of government and British law hasn’t prevented corruption, poverty, warfare and repressive rule in many ex-British colonies like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Even Liberia, a country founded by former slaves from the United States, has seen its excessive share of civil war and atrocities committed by both government and rebel forces. At the risk of sounding boring, I’d like to mention that Angola and Mozambique endured years and years of civil war partly as a result of South African destabilisation efforts, secretly aided by Israel. The point is that if we Western countries left Africa alone, agreed to trade fair and square with them on equal terms, and helped them with no-strings-attached aid and loans, they wouldn’t be in the hell they are now while we wring our hands helplessly. The recent NATO invasion of Libya under a supposed “Responsibility to Protect” humanitarian charade to kick out Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had called for African unity and an African version of the European Community, invested in projects in Chad and Niger, and among other domestic achievements built the world’s largest irrigation project in Libya to bring sub-Saharan water to coastal Libyan cities (and the project being funded entirely by Libyan banks), shows the extent to which the West is committed to greed and selfishness and continuing a form of racism in which Africans are always helpless and can’t fix their own problems and outsiders have to “step in”.

I intuit a distaste for progressive, social-democratic politics in Curtis’s narration which becomes more and more resigned in the course of the program. It adopts an anti-liberal tone when he claims that “liberals” in the Belgian colonial administration encouraged the Hutus to rise up against the Tutsis when Rwanda achieved independence as a way of atoning for their abysmal performance as administrators. At the end of the program, he does not draw the conclusion staring viewers in the face which is that the notion of genes and evolution affecting social behaviour entirely can easily lead to a new kind of racism in which the political, social and economic problems of African peoples are attributed indirectly to their genetic standing and Africa must be ruled once again by benevolent foreigners.

Generally for me the trilogy has been a disappointment though some interesting ideas and history have been put forward. Curtis’s documentaries suggest human societies as they are now are too far gone in their love affair with computers and technology to change and to manage the planet and its resources more responsibly. The hidden elephant in the room, as always, turns out to be modern corporate fascism in which corporations, governments, academia, the news media and the military co-operate and form networks with the aim of self-enrichment while everyone and everything else can go fuck themselves.

 

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts): plausible premise founders on definitions and little historical perspective

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts)” (2011)

Second episode in his documentary trilogy of how humans have surrendered their power to technology and technological systems, Adam Curtis’s “The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts” looks at how rival theories dreamt up by a botanist / socialist and a military man in South Africa in the 1920s came to influence concepts of the self-organising system in systems engineering, environmental studies and studies of human behaviour which fed into popular culture. The idea of self-organising systems posits that individuals are equal players in a system where they co-operate to achieve equilibrium and balance and that this balance is a good thing. There are no hierarchies or notions of coalitions and alliances that compete for power. The idea became popular in new fields of science such as cybernetics and migrated to studies of nature where biologists and ecologists alike believed that natural systems “strove” for stability and after disasters or other disturbances could restore themselves to their original balance. The idea also became popular among hippie counter-cultures in the West in the 1960s and many young people established communes in which they all expected to live as equals in harmony.

Curtis’s documentary proposes that the concept of the self-organising system, rooted in idealistic socialist concepts of British botanist Arthur Tansley on the one hand and in Field Marshal Jan Smuts’s fantasy of a steady-state British empire in which everyone and everything knows its place in a stable hierarchy on the other, will ultimately fail in real situations. In the 1970s, biologists and ecologists discovered that natural ecosystems don’t have an in-built stability. Human societies that try to abolish hierarchies and alliances and which sweep away old political and social institutions can become authoritarian and bullying, as students of the English Civil War in the 1640s, the French Revolution in the 1790s and the Russian Revolution in 1917 and their respective aftermaths will know. Yet the fantasy of spontaneous, self-directed reform movements erupting from youth remains attractive.

Curtis appears to be on steadier ground in this episode than in his previous “Love and Power” and the premise of “The Uses and Abuses …” looks very plausible at first sight. There is one problem and that revolves around what Curtis means by “stability” in self-organising natural systems: is he referring to a stasis where nothing ever changes or to an active stability where a network is just balanced but the balance changes constantly? Natural ecosystems may in fact be making continual adjustments and changes even when these aren’t apparent to the eye; if they are not examples of self-organising systems, then what is? Another problem is that natural ecosystems are not closed systems (ie, ones that receive no inputs from outside) where the balance actually tends towards greater disorganisation or randomness (entropy). Likewise human societies are not completely closed systems and, as long as there is some physical or intellectual input, tensions will always exist between the tendency towards hierarchy and social conservatism, and the tendency towards a less-structured and freer structure where social mobility is possible and frequent. Most societies around the world have such tensions.

The closest societies get to being closed systems are societies that are cut off from the outside world, either because of geography as in the case of Iceland, Tasmania and the Polynesians on their various islands for hundreds of years or as part of deliberate government policy as in China and Japan from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. These societies varied greatly in their social and technological complexity and their cultures were fairly stable; in fact Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns (1603 – 1867) enjoyed a flowering of culture and commerce and much of what we call traditional Japanese culture dates back to this period of isolation. On the other hand Iceland was poor during its period of isolation, due to the nature of Danish colonial rule combined with various natural disasters that wrecked the food supply. Modern Iceland developed an egalitarian society based on geographic isolation and cultural, historical and ethnic homogeneity. So whether such societies thrive or struggle to survive depends very much on the political, social and cultural conditions at the time the isolation begins combined with people’s access to the territory’s available resources.

Curtis presents the self-organised system concept as though it were an innovation of the 20th century but the idea as Jan Smuts at least conceived it is actually very old: the mediaeval worldview held that as stars have fixed positions in the sky and the planets revolve in perfect circles around the Earth, so too God lives beyond the sphere of the stars, nine orders of angels live in the heavens and humans live in a triad structure in which priests correspond to God or the head of the body, nobles correspond to the angels or the body’s heart, and everyone else corresponds to the commons or the body’s abdomen. Likewise ancient Indo-European society was divided into three levels of priest-kings, warriors and peasants and this triad structure became the basis of the caste system in Hinduism in India. I am not sure how Tansley conceived the system concept and whether it assumes a fixed flat structure of society in which everyone must be strictly equal and no-one is allowed to be better or worse than everyone else.

The sinister aspect of “The Uses and Abuses …” which Curtis may not have intended is that the film appears to criticise attempts to move towards a freer and more fluid social structure that respects equality, at least in law and in access to resources, and to support hierarchical social and political systems. The film also suggests that attempts to preserve and sustain natural processes and ecosystems are futile; if systems are dynamic and are constantly moving to new states of “equilibrium”, humans need do nothing to preserve the systems themselves, as opposed to returning them to their “original” state. I suspect Curtis was merely being tongue-in-cheek when he made this essay and doesn’t expect to be taken seriously by politically conservative or climate change denialist groups.

What Curtis missed out is that the concept of self-organising systems based on mechanistic systems or views of the universe such as what Tansley and Smuts may have believed where everyone becomes an individual separate from and equal to others has encouraged the development of atomistic societies where everyone is not only a separate and equal individual but an isolated one as well. Informal networks that arise in such societies may be fragile and break down easily if they lack institutional support or are banned. People lose the ability to work co-operatively, to bargain and negotiate with others, and a sense of community withers away. Corporations and government agencies are then able to exploit and manipulate people’s need for personal and collective security. In such societies, people are no longer fully rounded individuals but are merely consumers or ciphers: in short, they are machines. The underlying values and assumptions of such societies become important in determining whether hyper-individualist societies become fragmented or develop a communitarian nature based on individuals working together and Curtis completely overlooked these features.

 

 

 

 

 

The Way of All Flesh: a broad introduction to an unlikely heroine in the history of medical research

Adam Curtis, “The Way of All Flesh” (1997)

As told in this fascinating documentary, the story of Henrietta Lacks – or rather, that of her cancer tumour and the cells collected from it by scientist George Otto Gey in 1951 – is also the story of a particular direction in cancer research and the ups and downs it took over the years. It is also the story about human indifference and greed, politics and a universal emotional rollercoaster of triumph turning into despair which in its turn becomes hope, anticipation and triumph again only to plunge into despair yet again. Narrated by Curtis in his superficially neutral and unassuming manner, the film plays out as a fairly straightforward documentary with a mix of interviews, films of cell activity and old newsreels. The musical soundtrack is dreamy and wistful and, based as it is on repetitions of the Maurice Jarre melody known as “Lara’s Theme”, seems appropriate for the film given that, just as Henrietta Lacks’s family fought to have their mother recognised and acknowledged as a pioneer in cancer research, so too in the film that the music was originally written for, “Dr Zhivago”, a character searches for Lara’s lost daughter and, believing he has found her, tells her of her parents’ history (but she’s not convinced).

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman living in Baltimore, consulted a doctor about abnormal bleeding after giving birth to her son. The doctor referred her to John Hopkins Hospital where the doctor there found a tumour in her cervix and cut pieces of it to send away for tests. The tests confirmed she had cervical cancer. During treatment, part of her cervix which contained both healthy and cancerous cells was cut away and sent to a scientist, Dr George Otto Gey. Gey propagated the cells (now known as HeLa cells) which he then donated, along with the methods and processes he used to develop them, to any scientist who requested them. At the time, permission from patients or their families was not required or sought by custom and neither Lacks nor her family knew that her cells were being used for study and experimentation.

The cells were used by Jonas Salk in testing his polio vaccine and were also used in medical research studies other than cancer research. Because the cells grow easily and are very hardy, and were passed around laboratories all over the world, they ended up contaminating other tissue cell cultures. When scientist Walter Nelson-Rees blew the whistle on HeLa’s widespread contamination of other tissue cell cultures, millions of dollars’ worth of cancer research, particularly research on possible cancer viruses and other cell research (some of which went back to the 1950s), went up in smoke.

The film does a good job of detailing the government hoopla surrounding cancer research and the search for a possible viral cause for cancer in the 1960s. A wealthy socialite benefactor donated generously to research and many Hollywood celebrities joined the TV campaign urging the public to support cancer research. Considerable time is given to the political stoush that almost occurred when Soviet researchers had announced a breakthrough in their cancer research which led to US and Soviet exchanges of cell tissue material and the Soviet material was found to be contaminated with HeLa cells! Later, when HeLa cells became the focus of gene mapping and researchers began to seek out Lacks’s family for information, the children finally learned about what had been done with Lacks’s cancer cells and the film documents in a general way the family’s long fight to have their mother acknowledged as an unwitting pioneer in medical research. There is some mention of the family’s fight for financial compensation but it is superficial and viewers end up with little knowledge of the family’s financial situation at the time the film was made (mid-1990s).

Generally the film serves as a broad introduction to the life and history of Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells which continue to thrive, wanted and unwanted, in cell cultures around the world. What’s missing is some insight into the process of scientific research and how stringent its controls and regulations are or are not, and what aspects of human behaviour, both positive and negative, are illustrated in scientific endeavour. It seems that too many scientists neglect to check cell cultures they receive for possible contamination before picking up their tweezers and syringes. You’d think they’d get warnings about checking their equipment and materials before doing any work drummed into their heads at school so much that they’d be doing it in their sleep. Human error and other shortcomings, such as people taking for granted that someone has already cleaned the equipment, simple ignorance or seeing what you want to see, should have been mentioned also. Then of course there’s the pressure from employers such as pharmaceutical firms on people to get results as quickly as possible before other researchers hit the jackpot, forcing researchers to take short cuts or even to fake results. Beyond the presentation of facts, the film barely grazes the social and ethical issues brought up by the history of the HeLa cells and their wayward journeys around the world and viewers interested in more information and the fate of Lacks’s family (who at the time this review was posted still can’t afford the medical insurance to buy the treatments and medicines that the HeLa cells made possible) should read Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, published in 2010.

Since “The Way of all Flesh” was made, there have been developments in cervical cancer research of which director Curtis must surely appreciate the hidden irony: the cancer that killed Lacks has been attributed to the human papilloma virus and a vaccine (Gardasil) has been developed for it. The vaccine itself has become the subject of much controversy due to various side effects (including death) and the fact that in some parts of the US, its maker Merck Inc has been aggressively lobbying state governments to make it compulsory for girls aged 11 and 12 years before they can attend school.

The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough): informative enough for a general audience

Adam Curtis “The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough)” (1995)

Curtis sure doesn’t do things by halves and his “The Living Dead” trilogy which explores the manipulation of memory and history for political and social ends is no different. Episode 2 of the series revolves around the history of mind control and brainwashing and the eagerness of psychiatrists to co-operate with governments and intelligence agencies on moulding human beings to create the perfect spy or assassin. Curtis builds up a persuasive argument with an entertaining and often whimsical mixture of interviews, newsreels, previous documentaries, science education films and excerpts from movies like John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate” which starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, embellished with a music soundtrack that often comments ironically on the incidents it accompanies.

The film traces the history of a particular strand of neuroscience that starts with Canadian surgeon Wilder Penfield who found that he could stimulate parts of the brain with electrical probes and thus map areas of the brain corresponding to the functions of limbs and body organs. His work raised the possibility of changing people’s memories and the creation of rational human beings. Scottish-American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron was introduced to and inspired by Penfield’s work and he became convinced that by changing people’s memories and thinking through psychiatry, he could get rid of nationalism, prejudice and other undesirable mental traits that had encouraged the rise of authoritarian rule in Germany during the 1930s and led to the outbreak of World War 2.

Cameron was recruited by the CIA in the late 1950s to work on experiments that involved erasing the minds and memories of patients and then rebuilding the subjects’ personalities according to his whims. The wider political and military context of these experiments is shown in the film: the US government was alarmed by reports of apparent brainwashing of American POWs by the Soviet Union and China during the Korean War and the CIA wanted to keep abreast of psychology experiments the NKVD (later the KGB) was supposedly conducting. Curtis later wanders away from Cameron’s experiments to focus on the CIA’s obsession with assassinating Fidel Castro and the possibility that US President John F Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been brainwashed during his time in the Soviet Union. Eventually the CIA stopped funding mind control experiments and along with the US military began to fund research into developing technology with computer software that mimicked characteristics of the human mind such as memory and visual recognition.

Overall, “You have used me …” is a cleverly made and informative film for audiences not familiar with the history of mind control experiments and other unethical experiments sponsored by the US government and its agencies. Each topic touched on in the film is worthy of a 60-minute documentary in its own right so if you’re looking for some fairly in-depth information into the nuts and bolts of how Cameron was approached by the CIA and agreed to work for that agency and what exactly he achieved for the CIA, you may be disappointed. Curiously, nowhere in “You have used me …” does Curtis actually utter the magic term “MKULTRA” as that was exactly what Cameron was working under: his experiments formed part of the MKULTRA project. The omission of the entire MKULTRA project and the related Project BLUEBIRD (later Project ARTICHOKE) seems strange; at the very least, Curtis could have acknowledged that Cameron’s work was one part, albeit a very important one, of the umbrella project that involved the use of chemical, biological and (gulp!) “radiological” methods of achieving mind control.

The film’s conclusion that memory can hold individuals and societies back is chilling. Surely Curtis’s intention here is tongue-in-cheek, perhaps even satirical. The historical context he refers to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which among other things led to various ethnic rivalries, long suppressed by the Communist government, in that country breaking out. A better argument for what happened is that various ethnic groups, denied the political tools to negotiate and hammer out an agreement and a compensation process to settle overlapping territorial and property claims, and all residing in a country with a weakly developed (and probably corrupt) legal system, ended up resorting to violence once the old authoritarian fetters fell away. I also can’t imagine Curtis fronting up to groups like, say, Armenians and Jews, and telling them that focussing on past historical traumas of repeated genocide is holding them back and they should let go of these memories! The loss of memory was not sufficient enough to hold back hundreds of Cameron’s former patients from suing the CIA for compensation: in 1984 the CIA settled out of court with eight plaintiffs who brought a class action lawsuit against it and in 2004 (admittedly beyond the film’s scope) a Montreal court decision allowed over 250 people to claim cash compensation.

The upshot of the failed mind control experiments – Project MKULTRA was terminated in 1973 – was that the US government, the CIA and others concluded that it’s easier to manipulate history than to manipulate minds. History not only can be rewritten to suit the victors and make losers like Nazi Germany the supreme evil bogeymen, it can also be scripted in advance: many countries around the world with leaders not to the taste of NATO, the US, Israel or the EU and suffering invasions in the name of “freedom” and “democracy” will surely agree.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power): film cherry-picks facts to fit its premise

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power)” (2011)

A curious and challenging visual essay, the first in a series of documentaries about how humans have transferred power to their machines and how technology dominates and moulds our thinking and culture, this film posits the idea that eccentric Russian-American author and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) is the spiritual grandmother of our modern social and economic system and its global networks, and how her ideas and beliefs have indirectly destabilised global financial systems, wrecking economies and bringing on the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 through the so-called California Ideology adopted by the Silicon Valley IT community. A mix of voice-over narration, delivered by Curtis in a droll accent and sometimes feigning astonishment, with interviews and a soundtrack of songs selected for ironic comment on the narrative and the visual information, much of which is previous newsreels, old movie clips and Curtis’s own footage, makes for a distinctive and rather dream-like piece in which the documentary’s premise becomes more plausible than it actually is.

Through her novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, both of which maintain an on-again/off-again modest popularity with the general public, and other works, Rand espoused a philosophy that decried religion, philosophy and all other belief systems as forms of control by which elites kept the masses in psychological and physical slavery and which argued that individual pursuit of self-interest and happiness alone would result in stable societies and peace. Rand’s ideas attracted several followers, known as The Collective, of whom one was Alan Greenspan, the future US Chairman of the Federal Reserve and finance czar to the Clinton government in the 1990s. Rand’s philosophy appealed to people working in information technology, the finance industry, politics and economics, and the notion that computer networks could monitor and stabilise financial and economic systems and networks, bolstered by some dodgy human psychology experiments and other research in game theory, probability and risk management, caught on. With computers controlling and stabilising the global finance industry, people become free to follow their dreams and find happiness as Randian heroes.

The film hops between detailing Ayn Rand’s affair with one of her followers, Nathaniel Branden, and Greenspan’s advice to US President Bill Clinton to let the markets self-regulate. The New Economy so unleashed delivered mixed results and led to a financial crash across east and southeast Asia in 1997. Countries affected were forced to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund, prompting international investors to bail out which in turn led to economic collapse. This had very serious consequences: among others, rioting broke out in Indonesia and led to President Suharto’s downfall after over 30 years of corrupt authoritarian rule.

The last part of the film deals with China’s apparent undertaking to manage the US economy (and so stabilising the world economy and avoiding a repeat of the 1997 Asian financial crisis) by pegging the yuan at an artificially low exchange rate to the US dollar. Cheap Chinese-made goods flooded the US and other Western markets and the money earned was invested by the Chinese government in US government bonds. US banks were flush with money which they then lent out to individuals, businesses and corporations with no regard for borrowers’ credit worth. The result was a property bubble, a huge accumulation of private and public debt and the US government being able to conduct wars and proxy wars in several countries. Of course China’s attempt to tinker with the global economy was bound to end in tears as the offshoring of industry and jobs from the US to China led to households and businesses defaulting on loans across America.

Curtis’s argument looks very persuasive but this reviewer had the impression he was cherry-picking his information to make it all fit his film’s premise. He seems unaware that Rand’s ideas were attractive to business, political and science leaders in US society because that society already adhered to a set of values that privileged individual action over collective action and which defined freedom as the absence of restraint and external control over one’s destiny. This negative definition of freedom, often in alliance with escape and remaking one’s identity, is a very American idea arising in part from the nation’s revolutionary birth, its subsequent conquest of territory and the waves of immigration the US experienced over the 19th century. Rand’s emphasis on “rationality” and “objectivity” finds its parallel in capitalist economic theory that assumes consumers in a free market act rationally. As for the notion that people act in self-interest and try to maximise their happiness as measured in accumulation of money and material goods, this can be traced back to ideas and concepts developed by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, all of whom lived before Rand and whose ideas may have been absorbed into capitalist economics as assumptions. Global financial crises were occurring as far back as the 1890s at least before Rand and Greenspan came along. Rand’s ideal human, free to pursue happiness and self-actualisation, is not different in essence from its equivalents in philosophy (think Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist idea that people must decide who or what they want to be) and in psychology (Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs); and we shouldn’t discount the possibility that her admirers have interpreted and changed her ideas to suit their self-serving agendas.

The film’s notion that China attempts to manage the US economy in the way suggested by Curtis is a laughable idea: there are many different reasons why China has deliberately pegged its currency at a low rate relative to the US dollar, not all of them to do with “regulating” the US economy. Some are more about making Chinese Communism look good while keeping potential problems under control. China needs industry and jobs to keep its restive population in check. The country has over 100 million unemployed people and there are an estimated 40 million men who will never marry due to a severe gender shortage caused by the one-child birth policy; these men are viewed by the government as a potential source of discontent and strife. Add to that the perception many Chinese have of their government as not trustworthy or ethical and it’s no wonder the Chinese government pegs all its faith in and throws all its effort behind relentless economic and material progress and advancement; should the economy falter, the fragile political contract between ruler and ruled will crumble.

At least Curtis aims very high, striving to explain the philosophical basis for the way various modern technological phenomena have developed and the role they may have played in the development of rolling economic crises throughout the world since the 1990s. Although the presentation is artistic and original, combining the kitsch with more serious matter and featuring a musical soundtrack that often comments ironically and light-heartedly on the images it plays over, Curtis’s structuring of the issues and ideas he wants to explore is hodge-podge and the connections between and across issues can be very tenuous. Given that Curtis’s focus is on technology and its role in shaping the global financial landscape of the past 30 years, I find it curious that he doesn’t pay attention to the rise of IT companies like Apple Inc and Microsoft and their corporate philosophies, whether these incorporate Ayn Rand’s beliefs and how such philosophies and the companies’ structures and culture might influence the structure of IT systems and networks. How these networks in their turn influence the thinking and actions of individuals and institutions who purchase Apple and Microsoft products might be a topic worth investigating.

Ironically, global political power is shown to pass from governments to the financial industry and its elite through blind trust in technology. This finds its parallel in the lives of Ayn Rand and US President Bill Clinton, both of whose love affairs with Nathanael Branden and Monica Lewinski respectively destroyed their integrity and leadership and dissipated power to others. It is a wonder Curtis doesn’t seize on these parallels and make more of them than he does.