Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

All Watched Over by Heroes of Loving Grace

Posted on | June 12, 2011 | No Comments

I’m working on my manuscript How IT Came to Rule the World this summer so not surprisingly I took an interest in the recent BBC documentary by Adam Curtis called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, named after American poet Richard Brautigan’s publication of the same name. The title poem was written in 1967 while he was a poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology. It reflects on the Utopian possibilities of a society where the advancements in cybernetic technology leads to a world where the need for human labor is diminished, and the Earth returns a state of nature that is balanced with the demands of its human population.

I was intrigued with “Episode One – Love and Power,” that starts with an exploration of Ayn Rand and her influence on the rise of computer and financial technology during the 1980s and 1990s. Rand was the author of two novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) that presented her theories known as Objectivism, a philosophy that stresses heroic individualism, human rationality, and free-market capitalism. I can’t say I’m a Randian (if that is what they call themselves) but this does fit in with my understanding that the Cold War produced a multitude of technological innovations that were ripe for entrepreneurial commercialization in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The documentary uses Rand to explore the motivations of financiers and entrepreneurs, many of which claimed to be inspired by her books. Adam Curtis takes particular delight in the story of Alan Greenspan, who was an early devotee of Rand and went on to become the “most powerful man in the world” as the Federal Reserve Chairman from 1987 to 2006. Notable was his speech on December 5, 1996 that expressed his concerns about “irrational exuberance” when the DJIA stock market went over 6,000 and his subsequent dismissal of this concern. Greenspan quickly embraced the stock market and guided it to over 11,000 before he retired. Also mentioned is his embrace of the “new economy” during the dot.com bubble of the late 1990s, a process that included the globalization of financial markets that led to the Asian contagion and the promise of the electronic securitization environment for mortgages that led to the credit crisis of 2008.

Missing from the Alan Curtis analysis though is the larger social context of the time. By the late 1970s, the counter-cultural reaction to “The Establishment” of the “Nifty Fifty” corporations and their complicity in the Vietnam War and what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex was morphing into a new critique of big government “Liberalism.” Many believed that the US was becoming a “Welfare State” that was redistributing not only wealth, but opportunity and privilege. These tensions were even more evident in Curtis’ England, which in the wake of their imperial demise and impoverishment during World War I and II; nationalized their major industries, entrenched their labor unions, and implemented wage and price controls to fight off the inflation of the 1970s.

What was emerging was a new cultural era of self-based “heroic” philosophies espoused by a divergent group of proponents. These included: authors such as Rand and George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty); economists such as Arthur Laffer, who championed supply-side economics and Milton Friedman of the Chicago School; and Self-help gurus such as Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard, est’s Werner Erhard and fire-walker Tony Robbins. Even heroic popular culture icons in Star Wars and the Superman movies helped characterize the new era.

By the 1980s political operatives such as Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the US benefited from this trend. Each affirmed heroic entrepreneurial action and sanctioned the market-based capitalism that helped commercialize the fruits of the Cold War into the computers, data networks, and satellites of the new digital age – the machines of loving grace?

The loss of collective responsibility did not come without its consequences. The excessive focus on individualism and the rejection of public solutions led to a tragic underinvestment in public infrastructure, including education. It created a tax structure which encouraged the export of jobs and industries to unregulated and exploitative markets. It capitulated in the deregulation of financial markets leading to destructive asset bubbles, and it endangered democratic prospects by enhancing class divisions and reducing the viability of the middle class.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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