All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Adam Curtis’s three-part BBC documentary series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ explores the notion that humans have been colonised by computers. He argues that humans have lost faith in their ability to change the world for the better. Politics is dead. As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people are nothing more than helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change.

Hope is a false prophet and secular idealism is no more of a superstition than religion itself. Cyberspace is a black hole, where our thoughts, feelings and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make money.

Carmen Hermosillo, an early adopter of online chatrooms, argued in 1994 that our emotions will become commoditised.

It is fashionable to suggest that cyber-space is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality, this is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money value. In the 19th Century, commodities were made in factories, by workers who were mostly exploited. But I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board I was posting to – like Compuserve or AOL – and that commodity was sold onto other consumer entities as entertainment.

Although what is most disturbing is not the commodification of our inner thoughts but the suggestion that humans are merely biological machines programmed by genetic instructions. One of Britain’s most famous and controversial scientists Bill Hamilton argued that human behaviour is controlled by our genetic codes.

Famously popularised as the ‘Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist explained that ‘DNA is a coded description of the worlds in which our ancestors survived. We are walking archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas, walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days’.

According to gene theorists, human altruism is a paradox that can be explained as a survival strategy by our genes. Murder, violence, genocide and suicide can also be logically explained as pre-coded behaviour to allow the stronger gene to replicate in an unforgiving survival of the fittest.

Although while Dawkins has never been an advocate of social Darwinism, his late counterpart Bill Hamilton believed nothing should be allowed to interfere with the destiny of the gene. He believed modern medicine affected the stronger gene’s survival and that to keep unfit genes (sickly people) alive would lead to the degeneration of the human race.

In this respect gene theories bear a striking resemblance to the radical Presbyterian belief of pre-destination. Calvinist extremists believe that God knows everything from the beginning of time to the end of time. So it doesn’t matter what you do in your current life as your destiny has already been pre-written by God himself.

Pre-destination was popularised in the James Hogg’s 1824 masterpiece ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, where a Scottish religious fanatic becomes convinced by the Devil that he is grace incapable of sin, even the sin of murder, and therefore is immune from physical and spiritual punishment.

The religious protagonist in Hogg’s 19th century novel subsequently takes the pre-destination theory to its extreme conclusion. God has since died but Dawkins selfish gene offers a near identical masterplan. He believes we are all controlled by DNA codes, which are buried deep within us and humans are simply machines playing tiny roles in a vast strategic game of survival.

It doesn’t matter what we do with our current lives because our genetic destinies have already been pre-written. Our genes may live forever but according to computationalism there is no spiritual or ethical dimension to our human existence. God, love and family are merely an HTML code.

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