Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

17 FEBRUARY, 2012

Everything is a Remix Part 4: System Failure

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A brief history of intellectual property, or why 1790 was more culturally progressive than 2012.

For the past year, Kirby Ferguson has been tracing the history and evolution of remix culture in his fantastic ongoing series Everything Is A Remix, with each episode tackling a different facet of collaborative creation. This week, the fourth and last part of the series, titled System Failure, finally makes its timely debut in the aftermath of SOPA and the peak of the ACTA debates.

From the origin of “intellectual property,” which suddenly transformed shared ideas into owned artifacts, to the psychological paradoxes of how we justify doing the copying but resent being copied, to the dirty business of opportunistic litigation, the film explores the aberrations of copyright and reminds us that the original Copyright Act of 1790 was entitled “An Act for the encouragement of learning” and the Patent Act of the same year was “An Act to promote the progress of the useful Arts,” upholding an ideal of a rich public domain with shared knowledge open to everyone.

Our system of law doesn’t acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren’t so tidy. They’re layered, they’re interwoven, they’re tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality… the system starts to fail.

The closing lines capture the urgency of the issue with remarkable eloquence:

We live in an age with daunting problems. We need the best ideas possible, we need them now, we need them to spread fast.

(As an evangelist of combinatorial creativity, Part 3 remains my favorite — do check it out.)

Kirby’s new project is called This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory and will do for politics what Everything Is A Remix did for remix culture. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter — I’m supporting it wholeheartedly, are you?

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06 FEBRUARY, 2012

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Adam Curtis on How Technology Limits Us

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What Ayn Rand has to do with the Occupy movement.

Documentarian Adam Curtis is among our era’s most influential cultural storytellers, with a penchant for debunking the established order of beliefs and ideologies. In The Century of the Self (2002), he traces the origin of consumerism and how Freud’s theories shaped twentieth-century manipulations of public opinion, from politics to marketing; in The Power of Nightmares (2004), he explores the rise of the politics of fear; in The Trap (2007), he examines the concept and evolution of freedom and the simplistic models of human nature on which it is based. His latest BBC documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, premiered last May, mere months before the global Occupy movement erupted, and paints an infinitely intriguing, though in my view wrong on many counts, portrait of technology as a limiting, rather than liberating, cultural and political force. The title of the series comes from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, in which he envisions a world of cybernetics so advanced that the balance of nature is restored and there is no need for human labor.

Though the film has strong techno-dystopian undertones akin to the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock series of the 1970s and neglects how technology enables such powerful phenomena like networked knowledge and crowd-accelerated learning, it offers a dimensional context for many of our present political, economic, and technological givens. Coupled with Curtis’s signature immersive storytelling and exquisite use of historical materials, rare footage, and revealing soundbites, the series is an invaluable primer for much of today’s most pressing sociocultural issues.

The first part, titled Love and Power, deals with how Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism shaped the ethos of Silicon Valley in the 1990s and, eventually, the global economy as Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton set out to create the New Economy, based on the premise of a dramatic rise in productivity thanks to emerging information technology. Curtis, however, goes on to argue that instead of creating market stability, these Randian ideals constricted people into a rigid system with little hope of escape.

We are now living through a very strange moment. We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite — that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”

Part two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, explores how technology cornerstones like cybernetics and systems theory were, Curtis argues, falsely applied to natural ecosystems and used to develop unrealistic models for human beings and societies. The episode has particularly timely resonance, in light of the recent global Occupy movement, as Curtis argues that such self-organizing network models without central control might be good at organizing change, but are less effective in what comes after.

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions showed the limitations of the self-organizing model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power. The hippies took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics. They believed that this alternative way of organizing the world was good because it was based on the underlying order of nature. But this was a fantasy. In reality, what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines. Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organizing principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age. And what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas as to what comes next. And, just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”

The final part, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, examines the selfish gene theory of evolution, developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Curtis traces how this applied to everything from the civil war in Congo and the Rwandan genocide to George Price’s quest for the origin of altruism to Dawkins’ atheist reformulation of the religious idea of the “immortal soul” as a computer code in the form of genetic patterns. Curtis concludes by asking whether, in accepting these views of humans as machines, we as a culture have disempowered the human spirit.

Hamilton’s ideas remain powerfully influential in our society — above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes. But, the question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences?… We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.”

Curiously, Brautigan’s original collection of poems, which inspired the film title, was intentionally distributed for free. The Curtis documentary, on the other hand, remains largely (legally) unavailable online and nearly impossible to legally see outside the U.K., as if a stubborn and enforced metaphor for the very thing it argues.

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31 JANUARY, 2012

Christopher Sykes, the Filmmaker Behind the Beloved Richard Feynman Documentaries

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Storytelling meets the pleasure of finding things out.

For many years, whenever British filmmaker Christopher Sykes got asked at parties what he did, he would say, “I make films about Richard Feynman.” Which he did — though Sykes has made more than 70 eclectic documentaries, he became best-known for his film on Richard Feynman, including the excellent No Ordinary Genius and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, from which these timeless excerpts on beauty, honors, and curiosity came. Sykes painted a portrait of Feynman that was as fascinating and full of his scientific genius as it was entertaining and brimming with his playful irreverence.

In this talk from TEDxCaltech, Feynman’s daughter, Michelle, introduces Sykes and as he takes the stage to pull the curtain on this extraordinary partnership between a great scientists and a great documentarian.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” ~ Richard Feynman

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24 JANUARY, 2012

How Money Is Made: A 1920 Silent Film from the Royal Mint of Canada

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“In this factory no samples are given as souvenirs, though the practice would be a very popular one.”

We’ve already seen how money came to rule the world, but how is it actually, physically made? This fascinating vintage silent film from 1920 traces the journey of gold and silver bars, through oil-burning furnaces and heavy rollers and friction-drive presses, to finished coins in the Royal Mint of Canada, “where the metal becomes converted into ‘coin of the realm.'” Bonus points for the endearing attempts at comic relief in the title cards.

In this treasure house of gold and silver they open the doors with a plain iron key.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Mint of Canada has just gotten some beautiful new coins by designer Gary Taxali.

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12 JANUARY, 2012

The Hidden Beauty of Pollination

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We’ve already marveled at the macro beauty of pollen, nature’s love-making mechanism. From Louie Schwartzberg’s film Wings of Life — an homage to “the love story that feeds the Earth,” inspired by the worrisome vanishing of the honeybees, nature’s irreplaceable Cupids — comes this stunning montage of high-speed images, revealing the intricate beauty of pollination:

Schwartzberg contextualizes the footage in his talk from TED 2011:

For a related moment of humility, treat yourself to Schwartzberg’s moving and rewarding TEDxSF talk on gratitude — it gets truly extraordinary at around 3:55:

You think this is just another day in your life. It’s not just another day — it’s the one day that is given to you, today. It’s given to you, it’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life, and the very last day, then you would have spent this day very well.”

HT Smithsonian Retina

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