back to article Adam Curtis: The Rise of the Machines

Adam Curtis' new series begins tonight on BBC TV, and I've had a unique insight into its creation. Like all Curtis work it continues some of his long-standing fascinations - and adds some new ones. As Associate Producer I helped explore these ideas with Curtis over the past three years, particularly the ideas of web utopianism …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Brilliant film maker

    Well done, Andrew. I am looking forward to seeing Curtis getting stuck into the cyber-hippies.

  2. There's a bee in my bot net

    Sounds interesting...

    will definitely be watching.

    One thing that never alters in debates about utopia is people. The Greedy, the needy, the selfish, the controlling, isolationists and more, oh and lest we forget the most obvious... power hungry people... all conspire to break utopia.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      the astounding consistency of people to behave like people is exactly why

      pieces like this invariably descend into an exercise in ridding the barrel of fish via shotgun. I shall watch it, but I'll be surprised if it doesn't - like most of Curtis' work - end up just being a long-winded stating of the obvious with some archive footage behind it.

      At least the obvious is getting some airtime. Makes a change.

      1. Luther Blissett


        you could think of it, using the same terms, as riding the barrel of the shotgun to fish. (Moby Dick size, natch).

        1. goats in pajamas

          Biased much?

          No mention of hippies so far.

          Quite the opposite.

          Breadheads who got hold of a stupid philosophy and turned it into the greatest "rich people help themselves fest" of all time.

          Altruism is basic human nature. Though you can see why the terminally greedy embraced a philosophy that denied it - makes it much easier to trample on everyone in sight.

      2. There's a bee in my bot net

        Looks like you were right...

        Not so much about the machines as about how we get shafted every 20 years or so by government and/or the financial system.

        I also find it hard to take seriously anyone who has a single over arching philosophy (i.e. Ayn Rand), There is nothing wrong with the idea that individuals should have selfish desires but that they should be a driving force and that altruism is (seemingly from her perspective) a bad thing is bizarre. Amongst many other considerations, surely one (selfishness vs altruism) should be balanced against the other both on a personal level and as a member of a bigger society.

      3. Daniel 1

        Curtis has spotted the obvious

        The Internet is the Big, Bright green, Pleasure Machine that 60s hippies always feared, and the hippies are to blame for, it seems.

        We've all been "Ayn Randed, nearly branded a communist 'cause I'm left handed... That's the hand they use, well.. Never mind."

        Not to say that the popularisation of delusional cults has not led to the precepts of those delusional cults resulting in huge swathes of money being discharged across the earth to no effect, of course... but this has only shown that the removal of religion, or any other morals-based structure, from people's money-making investments (on the precept that religious structures are delusional and must be banished), has led to any more rational or favourable outcomes, for the unmoneyed subjects that endure these systems.

  3. The elephant in the room
    Thumb Up

    Based on his track record...

    ...this series could be the best documentary on TV this year.

    His previous series are well worth tracking down as bittorrents - unfortunately not available as legitemate DVDs (although amazon does have some bootlegs) due to the complex licencing of the enormous number of film & music clips he uses. Or is it because The Powers That Be dont want the proles to start thinking too much?

    1. Phil 42

      No need for bittorrents

      Just follow the links from Adam Curtis' blogspot:

      I would recommend, rather than using the versions directly linked to, following the link from each series page to, which has better versions, in a variety of formats, e.g. for 'The Power of Nightmares'

      I get the feeling that he is only too happy for the films to be distributed.

  4. copsewood

    power concentrates but isn't singular

    To make increasingly complex pluralistic societies feasible, power has to become multiple by definition of what we mean by the term: pluralistic. It takes a primitive society to be singularly controllable by absolute dictatorship. In a more supposedly liberal context one way of measuring the concentration of influence over economic options is to measure the number of currencies, because each legal tender currency has a government budget/spend process bottlenecking much of the decision-making. In this sense the Euro experiment is a regression because it implies acceptance of European Bank control over the public budgetary process as the Greeks are painfully discovering. This all leads to grassroots types trying out various microcurrency experiments, but these tend to fail, partly due to lack of legality of such tender in payment of taxes. Those wanting more radical options need to consider the feasibility of increasing the number of currencies within which taxes can be paid based upon how many currencies people may want to use, see: .

  5. Dave Murray
    Thumb Up

    A decent documentary on BBC? Shock!

    Saw a trailer for this last night and thought it looked interesting. After reading the article I will definitely be watching.

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Softly softly ....... so as not to unduly alarm and frighten the natives

    Hi, Andrew,

    It would be quite wrong to not imagine and realise that the rise of the machines is not a sophisticated fiction, for is not the following, a snippet from a bigger picture post, perfectly true ....

    "It is a much more worrying development for people that government think they need a certain amount of secrecy to function, for such shadows and dark places so easily harbour and nurture contemptuous and elitist, them and us notions of a delusional superiority in governments and, much more dangerously, bodies/organisations/businesses assisting governments, but which would be doing so covertly/clandestinely ....... secretly. Then has the power shifted from government to forces which are generally unknown to all but a very select few, who are then fully dependent upon the intelligence supply of private unknown independent third party support for public power which can be published/shared and communicated with media to program the natives/supply their world views. Governments are then as a front/puppet/cuckold to a virtually controlled machine creating realities with SMART Astute IntelAIgent Direction for, ideally, Quality Media Production of Prosperous Future Presentations.

    Or do your Secret Intelligence Services deliver something else which is different and much better, and would be ideal for mass exposure and support, or a great deal worse and unworthy of sharing because of the despicable nature of their future proposed and currently planned exercises/Great ARGames in a Colossal Enigmatic Edutainment Enterprise with AI Virtual Feed to/from Global Operating Devices, which is certainly what is surely available for immediate delivery today, for whatever pictures of tomorrow are deemed necessary? " .....

    And you wouldn't believe what the government are doing with the ........ well, Enigmatic Alien Technology and AI Methodology would sum it up quite succinctly if one were to choose to express disbelief and dismiss it as the dominant future reality being delivered.

    And I was in two minds as to whether those last few words should have been written ..... as the dominant future reality being, delivered.

  7. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Sunny days in blue skies are an every day event, dear boy. You gotta get out more.

    "We don't have any optimistic ideas for the future." ...... Adam Curtis.

    That is a preposterously false statement which no smart being would choose to make unless in a fit of pique or depression?

    1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Sunny days in blue skies are an every day event, dear boy. You gotta get out more.

      The "we" means policy makers, politicians, etc.

      Adam did remark that the policy elites are much more pessimistic than any one else, in some cases, pessimism is confined to the policy makers and not shared by anyone else. His point was that managerialism creates fatalism.

      This didn't make the write-up. I should put it in.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Crikey, .... Sorry, Adam ..... It was Andrew who made me say it :-)

        Thanks for the clarification, Andrew, it does make my questioning of AC's pessimistic state of mind somewhat unnecessary, and who would argue about the stars cited in the clarification being without the required intelligence to deliver anything really worthwhile in the virtual environment which has media leading them by the nose in the direction which pays them the best with the artificial props of wealth so beloved of the ignorant masses.

        I wonder when we can look forward to "Alien Forces in LOVE ..... The Heavenly Reality being Denied You" appearing as Spooky Thriller Series documenting the Fall and Rise of Virtual Machine Command and Computer Control of CyberSpace Communications.

        Not so much an education about a SCADA bug in the System, much more an education about Systems Administration Protocols for Live Operational Virtual Environments ........ with Clouds Hosting Advanced Operating Systems for Media Enriched Role Playing Programs in Alternate Reality Head Games. ...... from MkUltraSensitive and Secret IntelAIgent Service Providers.

        And imagining that as just a crazy fiction and dismissing it as any sort of possible current program is the remarkable power and control in its Fab AI Stealth.

      2. Asgard
        Big Brother

        Cause and effect back to front

        "policy elites are much more pessimistic than any one else, in some cases, pessimism is confined to the policy makers and not shared by anyone else. "

        I very much agree with that point above, but this bit ... "His point was that managerialism creates fatalism." ... Its far more likely the other way around, as fatalistic (I.e. fearful of others in control) kind of people often want managerial roles, as that then explains why many managerial people seek managerial power. Managerial roles attract control freak people who seek power and control over everyone else, because simply they want to be in charge, but the key is that their desire to be in charge is often driven by a hidden inherently negative perception of other people and of what it would be like (for the control freak) to suffer others in charge of them. So the control freaks desperately don't want that and secretly fear that and so they fight and lie and cheat their way through life and into power and once in power, they do all they can to hold onto power; driven by endless secret fear of what it would be like for them to loose power and relinquish power to someone else.

        So yes, the people in management and power are secretly very pessimistic about other people. Worse still it is this self-centred fear driven behaviour that makes them so dangerous to everyone else (as history and current news from for example the Middle East has sadly shown so many times), as there is no limit to their need to control and micro manage others and yet now, new technology allows spying and control beyond anything the world has ever seen so far. So what would that kind of controlling person do with so much potential for control? The obvious answer is they will seek ever more control.

        Anyway thanks for the interesting article, I can't wait to see this documentary. :)

        1. Frumious Bandersnatch

          or, to put it more succinctly...

          Question: Is control controlled by its need to control?

          Answer: yes

          (Ah Pook, the Destroyer:

          1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

            Big Brother Controls aint Heavy in Heady Brigade Operations .....

            ... although in Perfect Tempestuous Storms can they be Constructively Destructively Disruptive when Necessary and/or Unwisely Selfishly Opposed

            "Question: Is control controlled by its need to control?

            Answer: yes" ..... Frumious Bandersnatch Posted Monday 23rd May 2011 22:28 GMT

            Hmmm? Others, Frumious Bandersnatch, with a much more practical hands on, get down and boogey, HyperRadioProActive bent would, whilst not disagreeing with any need to control, realise that the primary factor for power is superlative feed to control.

            And then the only really important question shifts to consideration of to what, and that will always default to, to whom does one supply that superlative feed, if one has decided to assist present effete elite arrangements rather than considering a whole new ball game with supply to a ready willing and enabled renegade rogue with a mind to provide hope and change and give peace a chance to change the world beyond all present recognition.

            Would anyone care to register an opinion on who that might be because of what they may head or what they may have which would be helpful and make things oh so easy?

            Of course, if one were to supply a number of such players with the same sophisticated coherent internetworking feed, would the program be greatly enhanced and much more quickly embedded to ensure and guarantee it as, ............. well, it would surely be an Astute NEUKlearer HyperRadioProActive IT AIDefault New Virtual World Order System for Really SMART Players.

            Oh, and William S. Burroughs [Ah Pook] was a real barrel of laughs, wasn't he, although hardly surprising whenever one considers the personal battles he undertook with himself ......

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I don't think he meant it personally

      More as a culture. We effectively live in a one-party state now, so politics isn't exactly lively. Our media seem to be populated by unquestioning drones, and the slightest dissidence is seen as eccentric or hopelessly romantic. The official narrative is reinforced at every turn.

      People don't seem to have much real collective existence now; it is more a matter of what they, as an individual, privately identify with. Which allows for increasingly sophisticated manipulation since most reliable psychology is based on numbers of subjects responding as individuals.

      No doubt computer models honed by repeated cycles of testing on 'the public' are a great help in this. Every time 'they' find something that works, they keep it. And what do we have? Not even each other.

      I'm not trying to depress you, but apparently the depressed *do* have a more accurate perception of reality than the rest of us.

  8. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Yet even Marx predicted the state would eventually "wither away"

    Marx predicts the same as Chriswell.

    Indeed, the state would wither away, once the "proletariat" had obtained the power to decide exactly what YOU should be doing in the morning, afternoon and evening. In other words: total control. Calling this "withering away" is just an extreme example of doublethink. When everyone wears the uniform, nobody does, right?

    Anyway, what's new? We once had Newton's Clockwork Universe with philosophers ponderously debating whether free will could exist in such a system or not. Then came quantum mechanics. Same hard thinking in the corner. Old social ideas were put on paper and to the test; Communism, Fascism, Socialism, New Deals, New Society, Big Society; same shit different jars, people nearly incapable of following a thread of logic for more than two inferences suddenly are in the seat of power or glom onto the next upwardly mobile sociopath, go apeshit and decide to turn the knobs. The hard thinking went on and on until the leather-elbow-patch tweed jacket wearers had killed about 300 million people in a quarter of a century. Managerialism indeed. Nice doing, intellectuals.

    Hands off those knobs, I say!

    1. Dave Bell

      The first is not the best.

      What makes Marx a great figure in history is how he tried to apply scientific thinking to politics.

      That doesn't mean he was right.

      England and Europe, 150 years ago, didn't have the sort of "state" we have now. The states he knew didn't wither away, they fell on their own swords. in various messy ways, during the first half of the 20th Century. The states which could adapt became something else, and survived as entities. Those that could not were built anew.

      And maybe Britain, if it's analogous to a person, is a Time Lord rather than a Human. Look at how it seems to be almost killed, and then regenerates with a different face.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        but Marxism

        ended up being downright anti-scientific. It must have looked good when it was new because it fitted the available evidence so well. But, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, there is always more than one hypothesis that fits the data. It led the Left into throwing away what, by all appearances, was an unassailable position, and into creating new forms of tyranny.

        It still has consequences: a surprising number of 'market totalitarians' are former Marxists, including some of Margaret Thatcher's advisers, Alan Johnson, and perhaps even Rupert Murdoch! Assorted 'Think Tanks' are stuffed with them. Perhaps it's easier to just flip the 'ideology bit' than it is to lose the totalitarian mindset and risk thinking for yourself?

        The next time you see some pompous twat on Newsnight in a suit and an open necked white shirt telling us that 'competition *must* make the NHS more efficient because that's what the Theory says' recall the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9

        "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

        I, for one, do *not* welcome our new feudal overlords.

  9. Graham Marsden

    "hopefully this particular series will strike a topical chord"

    Hopefully it's a bit more interesting than that turgid, pretentious and over-long trailer...

  10. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

    When will we get it on BBC America?

    Sounds fascinating, but doesn't appear on the the current BBCA schedule.

  11. coolcelt

    deja vu

    Sorry - this is all sadly predictable derivative stuff, discussed much more intelligently & presciently by Mike Cooley in his 1980 (yes, 1980) book, 'Architect or Bee'...Ivan Illich has also been down this road with 'Tools for Conviviality' (1971), revisited in 'Blasphemy: A Radical Critique of our Technological Culture' (1995). good to see the usual idiots are still about, with Acronyms Reinforcing Stupid Explanations,or whatever. The really interesting thing about this first episode was that, if you actually look at the facts AND the interviews, you realise that it's not about the rise of the machines, but about the banking elite tightening their control by the use of global debt creation...

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    You don't understand?

    See, there has to be a switch in importance from say, actual resources to notional resources.

    The financial world has been doing this for years (buying without money, selling and paying of the loan and making profit, several owners before the stuff arrives at port, .. )

    Perhaps the West has little interest in actual (I admit it is a poor choice of word) resources makes for oil rich, gold rich, ... mineral rich, ... , nations to be top dawn in the world.

    So, you see, IP has to happen in IT as it is making for the "new" gold and the "new" oil fields?

  13. Jack Prichard

    From the colonies


    Just putting it out there, does anybody know the best way for someone in New Zealand to watch these films?

    I am guessing iPlayer is out because I'm not in the UK blah blah. I have seen BBC content on YouTube eventually, any idea of the time-line?

    Anyway, I'll keep an eye out if anybody has a bright idea.


    1. Steve Button Silver badge

      RE: From the colonies

      Try the usual ways. BitTorrent or usenet. Bound to be on there pretty quick. Or proxy into a UK based IP and use iPlayer.

    2. Pete 2 Silver badge

      I wouldn't bother

      I saw the first episode (a full 1 hour) last night. Not impressed. A lot of the programme was about the much vaunted Ayn Rand, but she came across as emotionally stunted and, frankly, a bit of a nutter: if not quite Barking, at least Upton Park. Although I was impressed by Curtis' earlier work "The Power of Nightmares", in this effort he seems to treat facts as plasticine: to be molded for his convenience. The description of the Asian financial crisis seemed to me to be fanciful and bore little resemblance to Wiki & other web entries (which I was reading as the programme went on in the background).

      The link to computers and how they'd all look after us didn't really come over - though I guess that will be revealed in later episodes and I felt his link, tenuous at best, to Enron/Lehmans/etc and computerised trading was a stretch too far.

      It was nice to hear Laughing Len's "Suzanne" as backing in one scene, though.

  14. JohnHMorris
    Thumb Up

    Also "from the colonies" -- and Stafford Beer's city of retirement


    (Not being on a first name basis I hesitate . . .) Super interesting article about cybernetics and managerialism. And a nice identification of the question of power, which is so often overlooked in technology journalism.

    May I ask for a little more research though on the question of the relative popularity of cybernetics in Eastern Europe, versus the West?

    In my experience with a quite a few software and engineering types educated in Eastern Europe, it has been very common to find most of them educated in cybernetics, at least insofar as we are talking about plant-level systems theory. I didn't know that the Soviets, at the executive level at least "were suspicious" of cybernetics.


    In fact, the information I have had leads to the opposite conclusion -- that cybernetics, as a good theory of how systems work, was perhaps the only hope that the Soviets had to supplant or replace the information processing power of the price mechanism found in the West. I believe that had the Soviets held out for another 10 or 20 years, the processing power of computers, coupled with cybernetic theory, might have begun to make a difference in Soviet economic viability. (We are of course leaving aside questions of morality and democracy etc..)

    As evidence for this point of view, the well known cyberneticist (and later a bit of an "enthusiast") Stafford Beer ("Brain of the Firm") spent some time working for socialist Salvador Allende in Chile, with the avowed purpose of increasing governmental command and control of the economy.

    The flipside of the view is that cybernetics -- as control science at least, but possibly excluding the worlds of ecology etc. -- has not been popular in the West. I would say that the main reason for this has been that cybernetics is often presented in a rather top-down fashion (thus the Soviets) and managers in the West are somewhat suspicious of giving up their perogatives to central planning, even in their own firms. Lord knows, most execs ensure that industrial engineering and operations research stay where they belong, i.e. on the plant floor.

    What is the future? Insofar as cybernetics really is a solid discipline, with a lot to offer, and recognizing that there is a lot of overlap with other management science approaches, could we see an uptick in interest? Overall not a bad thing I think, if one accepts cybernetics as just a form of rationality. Questions of power are another topic entirely.


  15. Denarius
    Thumb Up

    about time

    Sounds like he has similar ideas to JR Saul, although a different perspectives.

    Same for Kiwi questioner, how do we in the Antipodes get to see it ?

    About time some-one targetted the Rise of [organic] Machines.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    well I was somewhat disappointed, and to be honest had forgotten most of what went on within a half hour (I had a Dune RPG to read) there was a bit on digital society idea at the start, then the scary lady with an interesting philosophy and the weird cult she built around her, then a bit on how mathematical models led people who didn't fully understand the models to make rash financial decisions and the models were made by mathematicians not computers the computers just did the crunching. There was also some woman talking about people being commodities and monica lewinskie.

    TBH the most interesting component was about the IMF actions in the East and the movement of treasury making foreign policy (though I don't think that's really as new as the guy tried to make out.)

    All in all an interesting watch but it wasn't what I was expecting and was a bit more "people begin to believe their own BS and it comes back to bite them."

    1. Jamie Kitson


      Apart from the disappointment, forgetfulness and Dune RPG I completely agree. It was an interesting programme, but I really didn't think there was any evidence that computers had much to do with anything, as AC above says, the computers were just used to do the maths.

      My flatmate says that Adam Curtis documentaries always have a very "long arc" and he may be lulling us into a false sense of security :)

  17. moonface

    Interesting program......

    That Ane Rand didn't appear to be much of a looker. So being 25 years older than Nathaniel Branden. One has to wonder whether he shagged her, motivated by dubious rational egoism or pure ethical altruism.

    I would also love to see that 5,000 pong experiment run again but with more information. How many of the individuals were doing the actual work?? i.e. breakdown of changes made to inluence the situation and how those individuals stack up in relation to personality type, etc i.e. (Extravert/Introvert, Authoritarian/Libertarian)

    Is the consensus an impetuous herd movement in the initial right direction, who then keep their original choice. With this being tempered by cautious thinkers with holding their initial positive affirmation until it is apparent that they are called to do so? A nice eample of fine tuning of collective consciousness, despite the noise of egotistical management types, changing their decision constantly (ala the headless chicken effect) as they 'can and must' have some part in overall positive control.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Although maybe...

      ...the Pong experiment was a bit like a crowd singing: the random errors of the singers average to zero and you get the consensus version of what the singers were trying to achieve. You don't get the performance of a trained singer because the systematic errors don't average out.

      Btw if shagging Ayn Rand stopped her writing another book, it was both rational AND altruistic!

  18. goats in pajamas

    Missing information

    He completely failed to mention the Glass-Steagall Act and how it's repeal allowed the lending of money to those with no hope of ever repaying.

    His explanation of how money was lent to those unable to pay is malformed without this fact as it takes a deliberate act of knowing stupidity to repeal an Act put in place to protect a nation/society, rather than the alleged "series of silly misunderstandings culminating in..." that was offered.

    Interesting to see how that tiny minority have manipulated nations and Governments to enrich themselves.

    They're still doing it.

    Don't suppose this documentary will lead to any changes.

  19. Mr Larrington


    After Ayn Rand started blathering on about her theory which is hers and belongs to her and seemed indistinguishable from Mr Crowley's "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" I'm afraid I got bored. Then we had some 1990s breadheads who named their children after Ayn Rand (which automatically destroys their right to be taken seriously) and sawn themselves as "Randian heroes" (I have not the words). It might have got better after that, but by then I'd lost the will to live and had started drinking heavily.

    "The Power Of Nightmares" was utterly compelling. This is the opposite.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I was amazed actually.

    Never realised that so many genuinely intelligent, active and apparently well balanced people had taken Ayn Rand seriously. Isn't there a strange parallel with some of Al-Qaeda's recruits there?

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    I thought it was superb

    Yes, it was a bit incoherent and yes, the IT angle was a bit of a stretch and in places hindered rather than helped, but the overall message that Alan Greenspan, as an acolyte of Ayn Rand (he visted her every Saturday early in his career) successfully shifted power from a political elite that is at least theoretically accountable to us, to a financial elite accountable to no-one but themselves, is compelling. The last 15 minutes, in particular, gave a viewpoint on the macro-economics of the last 20 years that was phenomenally clear and compelling.

    Were details omitted? Of course. But this was running at the philosophical / macro economic level where things like the Glass-Steagall Act were footnotes beneath a juggernaught.

    Superb stuff.

  22. fuguewriter

    Deeply disappointing melange of associational thinking

    What a shame that Adam Curtis' show is one of the worst, most error-ridden things ever transmitted on television. I note some of its errors here:

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      2nd episode even more disappointing

      Curtis seemed just completely to fail to "get" how and why people use numerical models.

      And he missed (or wilfully omitted) the point of chaos theory -- the problem with predictive computer models of ecosystems or economies wasn't [just] their simplicity, because even very simple dynamical systems can be chaotic.

      And what do computer models have to do with hippy communes anyway?

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