The Adam Curtis love-in proceeds apace, following the second occular-aural massage session of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace last night. Given how brilliantly creepy his archive footage of Ayn Rand is, one has to wonder if his implausible deduction of the financial crisis from the ideas of a single crazed Nietzschean in 1950s New York is simply an effort to maximise his opportunities to show her manic beedy eyes darting around. There are times watching a Curtis documentary when you feel like you're deep inside a sinister seaside arcades 'Fun Palace', with musical jingles on loop, clatterings of loose change and technicolour lights buzzing around you. I can imagine Curtis's soft voiceover, saying "what the owners of the Fun Palace had discovered was that the looser they tightened the steel claw on the machine, the harder it was to pick up the fluffy bunny with it - exactly as Rand Organisation scientists had predicted half a century earlier..."
One intriguing focus of the Curtis series is on self-organisation theories, and their connection to cybernetics, as he develops in this fascinating piece. If you'll forgive my own delving into the archives, I thought I'd link to this 2003 article of mine, trying to blow holes in some of the worst excesses of self-organisation theory. I vanely like to think I write a bit better now, but am proud to say that I am no less curmudgeonly. This sounds similar to Curtis's thesis:
Self-organisation has attracted enthusiastic intellectual endorsement from the likes of Steven Johnson, a popular American science writer, and Demos, one of the UK's most influential centre-left think-tanks (3). And its political implications are indeed enticing. Where political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that even the most minimal social settlement requires the constant threat of force from a higher power, self-organisation theory suggests otherwise. A neighbourhood, for example, might reach a cultural and political settlement of its own accord. Often, as the Godmother of self-organisation Jane Jacobs argued, this settlement may be better than anything that town planners could ever achieve (4). But there are glaring problems here.
The intellectual shortcoming of this ideology lies in its tool of choice: analogy. Analogies do not simply add extra intellectual ballast here, but hold the entire argument together. Self-organisation was initially a phenomenon observed by biologists in organisms such as slime mould and ants. They noticed that ants create sophisticated social systems without any top-down organisation (of course, the Queen ant sits smugly at the centre of proceedings, but…oops, there I go again). Only inasmuch as we accept that we are a bit like ants or slime mould does any of this carry weight.
But we might do better to listen to the original biologist, Aristotle, who argued that human beings are nothing like ants, for the simple reason that human beings are political. They have an inbuilt tendency to create and debate political systems, and they do so deliberately, hierarchically and intelligently. In order to imagine a self-organising social group, we have to forget most of what we know to be true, namely, that organisers, leaders and visionaries inevitably arise, and start to exercise power over others.
The above text is best read aloud in a soft paternal voice, while viewing flickering images of 1950s washing machine commercials.