“This is as story about the rise of the machines” is the opening salvo of each of the three episodes in this 2011 BBC mini-series, but it is not about the development of technology itself, or our increased integration with, and reliance upon, machines in everyday life, it goes a layer deeper than that; into the very way we perceive the world. From ecology to politics to counter culture, this documentary explores a fundamental paradigm shift in 20th century Western thought.
Utopian ideals of various form are a key theme to the series, and serve as the primary focus to the first episode; a wandering examination of the links between Ayn Rand and Silicon Valley. The logical train of the episode jumps constantly between the two timelines, including original footage, later interviews with some of Rand’s inner circle, and reflections on Randian thought by individuals involved in the Silicon Valley boom. This episode sets the tone of the series both conceptually and aesthetically, laying the foundation for a building designed by M. C. Escher and built by automatons and slave labour.
Self-organising systems creating a world free form hierarchy, a utopia devoid of political control of any kind, this is the egalitarian ideal of Silicon Valley in the ’90s, and of Ayn Rand in the ’50s. It is an idea that will be put to the test by the counter culture communes of the ’60s, and shown to fail in our misguided views of the ecosystems around us in the ’70s. And it is an idea that is born, not of human-, but of machine-organisational systems. The struggle between idealism and pragmatism becomes, in these films, a struggle between the perfection of machine intelligence and the flawed hierarchy of political systems, a theme which transmutes seamlessly into a critique of the Byzantine relationship between the state and a free market.
Footage in the films is drawn from many eras, from the ’50s through to modern day, most of it old enough to lend the films a scratchy world-of-the-past aesthetic that creates a detached feeling -heightened by glitchy, inelligant edits that seem to belong in another era- that this is all something that happened to a world divorced from this one, even as the insights of the narrator force you to come to terms with the fact that what is happening in the films has had a string of follow-on consequences in the world around you, and is, in fact, continuing to happen unabated.
The greatest triumph of this series is the web it weaves; a map of the territory so detailed that is seems to become the territory itself. Nothing is left unlinked, these three rambling stories tie together a beautiful and complex and marvelously chaotic picture of a system that is not a system but rather an inter-meshing of countless systems so vast and convoluted that to understand it fully would be to dive headlong into the maw of madness.
Verdict: Disquieting, haunting, and breathtaking. This series forces us to confront, in a very intimate fashion, the idea that no ideal, especially the ideal of a society in balance, can ever be achieved. And it manages an eloquent, poetically ironic, and damning critique of the power- and money-hungry individuals and organisations that are holding the rest of the world to ransom and have driven us, again and again, into situations from which they have extricated themselves without harm, whilst billions suffer. 4.5 impossible utopian dreams out of 5.