All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

Are we being enslaved by technology? Rachel Cooke is not convinced.

How does Adam Curtis get away with it? In the past, this question, falling from my own lips, was implicitly admiring. What I meant was: how, in a world of dross and fearfulness, does he get his brilliant but difficult films screened? Now, though, I'm asking it in a more straightforward way. Whisper it softly, but I'm not sure that his new documentary series - All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (Mondays, 9pm) - adds up to much.

Yes, it's full of arcane information, dizzying rhetorical leaps and serendipitous footage (no one uses a news archive like Curtis does, which is why, when I picture him in my mind's eye, he always looks like a mole). But as a thesis, or even as a provocation - 21st-century connectivity has nothing to do with freedom; we are merely slaves to the corporations that sell us this chimera - it never really gets going. He loses you at every turn, with the somewhat ironic result that, when the thing is over, you resort to one of the machines he so despises - your laptop - to clear up the mess. (Oh, the hours that I have spent googling the followers of Ayn Rand's stupid Collective!)

Does Curtis secretly fear that this is not his best work? It is possible. On Radio 4's Front Row the other evening he sounded tetchy, as you do when you sense that there might be the odd snag in your needlework. Luckily for him, though, his bosses (and some journalists) are now too convinced of his extreme cleverness to risk appearing looking stupid by pointing any such holes out. Advance publicity suggested that Curtis would go after such institutions as Twitter and Facebook - and perhaps he will in the next film (there are three). I certainly hope so. But this time he limited himself to the "New Economy" and the complex mathematical models that were supposed to, but did not, end "boom and bust". For a time, the chief cheerleader for this particular house of cards was Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, who took it on himself to tell Bill Clinton that the social reforms he had promised to implement were impossible to achieve fiscally and that instead he should let the markets transform the US.

Greenspan was an early follower of Ayn Rand, the novelist and founder of objectivism - a peculiar connection that Curtis chose to emphasise over and above any other of his influences. Why? I'm not sure. Rand has a cult following; a certain kind of middle-aged Silicon Valley executive, in thrall to her ideas about individualism, still thinks she's really hot and may even have given his son the middle name "Rand" in her honour.
But most of us think she was shrill, spiteful, batty and possibly the worst novelist of all time. I bet that even Greenspan, a friend till the day she died, had moments when he thought that Atlas Shrugged would never end. Then again, exhumed on screen in black and white, hardly anyone looks so powerful: exotic, shifty, slightly creepy. In this respect, I guess her place in all this is pretty obvious. Curtis is a film-maker, after all.

From here, there were, broadly speaking, two narratives. The first followed the collapse of the New Economy, first in south-east Asia and then in the US. Those pesky mathematical models! The second was Rand-based, and more baffling even than hedge funds. Nathaniel Branden, another of Rand's former followers, described his reluctant affair with her; so did his ex-wife, Barbara, who had apparently given her consent (no one said "no" to Ayn). I wasn't sure what this had to do with anything, save for being evidence of Rand's planet-sized ego and the Brandens' cowardice, but spliced right next to it were various Bill/Monica clips. Curtis seemed to be linking Clinton's wanton submission to the markets and his affair with
Monica Lewinsky.

But why? Is this a moral point? (Extreme individualism dictates that it's every man for himself, in the bedroom as in the boardroom.) Or is it a logistical one? (If Clinton had paid closer attention to the economy, he might not have had time for so much shagging.) Answers - given Curtis's rage against the machines, let's do this the old-fashioned way - on a postcard, please.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools