All watched over by machines of loving grace

What?

An Adam Curtis documentary shown on the BBC May/June 2011.

Comment

The trailers (above link) give a good feel for the series, which is entertaining, with some good video, music, pseudo-history and comment. The details shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but it is thought-provoking, on some topics that need thought.

Thoughts

The series ends:

The idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes [remains powerfully influential in our society]. The question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything that we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences? …

We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines, to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.

This thesis has three parts:

  1. that everything we do has terrible unforeseen consequences
  2. that we are fatalistic in the face of such uncertainty
  3. that we have adopted a machine metaphor as ‘cover’ for our fatalism.

Uncertainty

The program demonizes unforeseen consequences. Certainly we should be troubled by them, and their implications for rationalism and pragmatism. But if there were no uncertainties then we could be rational and ‘should’ behave like machines. Reasoning in a complex, dynamic world calls for more than narrowly rational machine-like calculation, and gives purpose to being human.

Fatalism

It seems reasonable to suppose that most of the time most people can do little to influence the factors that shape their lives, but I think this is true even when people can perfectly well see the likely consequences of what is being done in their name. What is at issue here is not so much ordinary fatalism, which seems justified, as the charge that those who are making big decisions on our behalf are also fatalistic.

In democracies, no-one makes a free decision anymore. Everyone is held accountable and expected to abide by generally accepted norms and procedures. In principle whenever one has a novel situation the extant rules should be at least briefly reviewed, lest they lead to ‘unforseen consequences’. A fatalist would presumably not do this. Perhaps the failure, then, is not to challenge assumptions or ‘kick against’ constraints.

The machine metaphor

Computers and mathematicians played a big role in the documentary. Humans are seen as being programmed by a genetic code that has evolved to self-replicate. But evolution leads to ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and epochs.  Reasoning in epochs is not like reasoning in stable situations, the preserve of rule-driven machines. The mathematics of Whitehead and Turing supports the machine-metaphor, but only within an epoch. How would a genetically programmed person fare if they move to a different culture or had to cope with new technologies radically transforming their daily lives? One might suppose that we are encoded for ‘general ways of living and learning’ but then that we seem to require a grasp of uncertainty beyond that which we currently associate with machines.

Notes

  • The program had a discussion on altruism and other traits in which behaviours might disbenefit the individual but advantage those who are genetically similar over others. This would seem to justify much terrorism and even suicide-bombing. The machine metaphor would seem undesirable for reasons other than its tendency to fatalism.
  • An alternative to absolute fatalism would be fatalism about long-term consequences. This would lead to a short-term-ism that might provide a better explanation for real-world events
  • The financial crash of 2007/8 was preceded by a kind of fatalism, in that it was supposed that free markets could never crash. This was associated with machine trading, but neither a belief in the machine metaphor nor a fear of unintended consequences seems to have been at the root of the problem. A belief in the potency of markets was perhaps reasonable (in the short term) once the high-tech bubble had burst. The problem seems to be that people got hooked on the bubble drug, and went into denial.
  • Mathematicians came in for some implicit criticism in the program. But the only subject of mathematics is mathematics. In applying mathematics to real systems the error is surely in substituting myth for science. If some people mis-use mathematics, the mathematics is no more at fault than their pencils. (Although maybe mathematicians ought to be more vigorous in uncovering abuse, rather than just doing mathematics.)

Conclusion

Entertaining, thought-provoking.

Dave Marsay

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About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

One Response to All watched over by machines of loving grace

  1. Pingback: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace | Daniel Agnew

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