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A glitch in the machine

Adam Curtis is a very talented documentary maker, he has done a large number of quite brilliant and mesmerising documentaries mainly for the BBC using the vault of archives at their. Disposal.



Like a lot of things I was once again late to the party discovering his unique story telling style by chance on BBC2, it was the total that coughs my imagination, ‘all watched over by machines of living grace’


The series argues against the over reliance on computing and algorithms to both predict and regulate financial markets. It explores how our trust in the computing was ill placed and too simplistic and how the computers eventually failed to allow and predict the follies and behaviour of its human subjects.


Several decades on from the incidents described by Curtis and we find ourselves once again both placing our trust in and being let down by machines and algorithms.


Whether it’s the absolute shambles of the A level assessments or the disarray of the track and trace app it appears we are not so much watched over by machines of living grace but rather let down by machines of ambivalence.


The title comes from Richard Brautigan's poem, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," first written in 1967 imagining a world where our rationality , our ability to think and reason has been negated and transferred to the digital realm. It was first written in 1967 yet resonates in today’s age.


We currently have a government with a majority and power it could never have imagined lurch from one disaster and u-turn to another. And at the centre of this is a powerful unelected guru who continues to hold faith in the algorithms and technology to overall and supercharge what he believes to be a broken and outdated Whitehall machine.


While there may be need to reform Whitehall I doubt very much that algorithms will solve it. What we need most especially as we negotiate the tricky waters of both living in a post Covid society and the Brexit shock to come is not clever programming but good management. Something sadly it seems is missing at present.


The conclusion to Curtis documentary is that it isn’t the computers that have failed use but rather the human forces who place both flawed data and mis placed confidence in the machines.


We are the glitch in the system.




All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and

the sooner the better!)

of a cybernetic meadow

where mammals and computers

live together in mutually

programming harmony

like pure water

touching clear sky.

I like to think

(right now, please!)

of a cybernetic forest

filled with pines and electronics

where deer stroll peacefully

past computers

as if they were flowers

with spinning blossoms.

I like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labors

and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal

brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace

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