16 March, 2007

2007 Adam Curtis documentary -- The Trap (3 parts)

"The absurdity of public-choice theory is captured by [Bank of Sweden] Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in the following little scenario: “Can you direct me to the railway station?” asks the stranger. “Certainly,” says the local, pointing in the opposite direction, towards the post office, “and would you post this letter for me on your way?” “Certainly,” says the stranger, resolving to open it to see if it contains anything worth stealing. "

THE TRAP

The Trap: Episode One (Adam Curtis, BBC)

The Trap: Episode Two (Adam Curtis, BBC)

THE TRAP - EP3: (1 of 6) - Adam Curtis

Indybay has it on real media format. About 30Mb.

http://www.indybay.org/uploads/2007/03/11/1_fuck_you_buddy.rm

High quality download:

LOAD OPERA9 from www.opera.com then click on this download link

(find the other episodes there, too)

========= 3 Episodes =========

1. "F**k You Buddy" (11 March, 2007)

In this episode, Curtis examines the rise of game theory during the Cold War and the way in which its mathematical models of human behaviour filtered into economic thought.

Archive nterview with John Nash during episode 1
Archive nterview with John Nash during episode 1

The programme traces the development of game theory with particular reference to the work of John Nash, who believed that all humans were inherently suspicious and selfish creatures that strategised constantly. Using this as his first premise, Nash constructed logically consistent and mathematically verifiable models, for which he won a Nobel Prize. He invented system games reflecting his beliefs about human behaviour, including one called "Fuck You Buddy", in which the only way to win was to betray your playing partner, and it is from this game that the episode's title is taken. These games were internally coherent and worked correctly as long as the players obeyed the "ground rules" that they should behave selfishly and try to outwit their opponents, but when RAND's analysts tried the games on their own secretaries, they instead chose not to betray each other, but to co-operate every time. This did not, in the eyes of the analysts, discredit the models, but instead proved that the secretaries were unfit subjects.

What was not known at the time was that Nash was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and as a result was deeply suspicious of everyone around him—including his work colleagues—and was convinced that many were involved in conspiracies against him. It was this mistaken belief that led to his view of people as a whole that formed the basis for his theories. Footage of an older and wiser Nash was shown, in which he acknowledges that his paranoid views of other people at the time were false.

Curtis examines how game theory was used to create the USA's nuclear strategy during the Cold War. Since no nuclear war occurred, it was believed that game theory had been correct in dictating the creation and maintenance of a massive American nuclear arsenal—because the Soviet Union had never attacked America with its nuclear weapons, the supposed deterrent must have worked. This is a subject Curtis examined in his first series, Pandora's Box, and he reuses much of the same archive material in doing so.

Interview with R.D. Laing during episode 1
Interview with R.D. Laing during episode 1

A separate strand in the documentary is the work of R.D. Laing, whose work in psychiatry led him to model familial interactions using game theory. His conclusion was that humans are inherently selfish and shrewd and spontaneously generate strategems during everyday interactions. Laing's theories became more developed when he concluded that some forms of mental illness were merely artificial labels, used by the state to suppress individual suffering. This belief became a staple tenet of counterculture during the 1960s. Reference is made to the Rosenhan experiment, in which bogus patients surreptitiously self-presenting at a number of American psychiatric institutions were falsely diagnosed as having mental disorders, while institutions informed that they were to receive bogus patients "identified" numerous supposed imposters that were actually genuine patients. The results of the experiment were a disaster for American psychiatry, as they destroyed the idea that psychiatrists were a privileged elite able to genuinely diagnose - and therefore treat - mental illness.

All these theories tended to support the beliefs of what were then fringe economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, whose economic models left no room for altruism, but rather depended purely on self-interest, leading to the formation of public choice theory. In interview, the economist James M. Buchanan decries the notion of the "public interest", asking what it is, and suggesting that it consists purely of the self-interest of the governing bureaucrats. Buchanan also proposes that organisations should employ only managers who are motivated by money. He describes those who are motivated by other factors—such as job satisfaction or a sense of public duty—as "zealots".

As the 1960s became the 1970s, the theories of Laing and the models of Nash began to converge, producing a widespread popular belief that the state (a surrogate family) was purely and simply a mechanism of social control which calculatedly kept power out of the hands of the public. Curtis shows that it was this belief that allowed the theories of Hayek to look credible, and underpinned the free-market beliefs of Margaret Thatcher, who sincerely believed that by dismantling as much of the British state as possible — and placing former national institutions into the hands of public shareholders — a form of social equilibrium would be reached. This was a return to Nash's work, in which he proved mathematically that if everyone was pursuing their own interests, a stable yet perpetually dynamic society could result.

The episode ends with the suggestion that this mathematically modelled society is run on data—performance targets, quotas, statistics — and that it is these figures combined with the exaggerated belief in human selfishness that has created "a cage" for Western humans. The precise nature of the "cage" is to be discussed in the next episode.

Contributors

2. "The Lonely Robot" (18 March, 2007)

Interview with Napoleon Chagnon in episode 2, just before he terminates the interview early.
Interview with Napoleon Chagnon in episode 2, just before he terminates the interview early.

The second episode reiterated many of the ideas of the first, but developed the theme that the drugs such as Prozac and lists of psychological symptoms which might indicate anxiety or depression were being used to normalise behaviour and make humans behave more predictably, like machines.

This was not presented as a conspiracy theory, but as a logical (although unpredicted) outcome of market-driven self-diagnosis by checklist, discussed in the previous programme.

People with standard mood fluctuations self-diagnosed as abnormal; they then presented at psychiatrist's offices and fulfilled diagnostic criteria without explaining personal histories and so were medicated. The alleged result was that vast numbers of Western people have had their behaviour and mentation modified by SSRI drugs without any strict medical necessity.

The Ax Fight—a famous anthropological study of the Yanomamo people of Venezuela by Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon—was re-examined and its strictly genetic-determinist interpretation called into question. Other researchers were called upon to verify Chagnon's conclusions and arrived at totally opposed opinions. The suggestion was raised that the presence of a film crew and the handing out of machetes to some but not all tribespeople might have caused them to 'perform' as they did. While being questioned by Curtis, Chagnon was so annoyed by this suggestion that he terminated the interview and walked out of shot, protesting under his breath.

Film of Richard Dawkins propounding his ultra-strict "selfish gene" analogy of life was shown, with the archive clips spanning over two decades to emphasise how the severely reductionist ideas of pre-programmed behaviour have been absorbed by mainstream culture. (Later, however, the documentary gives evidence that cells are able to selectively replicate parts of DNA dependent on current needs, rather than robotically. Such evidence detracts from the simplified economic models of human beings). This brought Curtis back to the economic models of Hayek and the game theories of Cold War. Curtis explains how, with the "robotic" description of humankind apparently validated by geneticists, the game theory systems gained even more hold over society's engineers.

The programme describes how the Clinton administration gave in to market theorists in the US and how New Labour in the UK decided to measure everything it could, the better to improve it, introducing such artificial and unmeasurable targets as:

  • Reduction of starvation in Sub-Saharan Africa by 48 per cent
  • Reduction of global conflict by six per cent

It also introduced a rural community vibrancy index in order to gauge the quality of life in British villages and a birdsong index to check the apparent decline of wildlife.

In industry and the public services, this way of thinking led to a plethora of targets, quotas and plans. It was meant to set workers free to achieve these targets in any way they chose. What these game-theory schemes did not predict was that the players, faced with impossible demands, would cheat.

Curtis describes how, in order to meet artificially inflated targets:

  • Lothian and Borders Police reclassified dozens of criminal offences as "suspicious occurrences", in order to keep them out of crime figures;
  • Some NHS Hospital Trusts created an unofficial post of "The Hello Nurse," whose task it was to greet new arrivals in order to claim for statistical purposes that the patient had been "seen," even though no treatment or even examination had occurred during the encounter;
  • NHS managers took the wheels off trolleys and reclassified them as beds, while simultaneously reclassifying corridors as wards, in order to falsify Accident & Emergency waiting times statistics.

In a section called "The Death of Social Mobility", Curtis also describes how the theory of the free market was applied to education. With league tables of school performance published, the richest parents moved house to get their children into better schools. This caused house prices in the appropriate catchment areas to rise dramatically—thus excluding poorer parents who were left with the worst-performing schools. This is just one aspect of a more rigidly stratified society, which Curtis identifies in the way in which the incomes of the poorest (working class) Americans have actually fallen in real terms since the 1970s, while the incomes of the average (middle class) have increased slightly and those of the highest earners (upper class) have quadrupled. Similarly, babies in poorer areas in the UK are twice as likely to die in their first year as children from prosperous areas.

Curtis' narrations concludes with the observation that the game theory/free market model is now undergoing interrogation by economists who suspect a more irrational model of behaviour is appropriate and useful. In fact, in formal experiments the only people who behaved exactly according to the mathematical models created by game theory are economists themselves, and psychopaths.

Contributors

3. "We Will Force You To Be Free" (25 March, 2007)

Archive interview with Isaiah Berlin
Archive interview with Isaiah Berlin

The final programme focussed on the concepts of positive and negative liberty introduced in the 1950s by Isaiah Berlin. Curtis briefly explained how negative liberty could be defined as freedom from coercion, and positive liberty as the opportunity to strive to fulfill one's potential. Tony Blair had read Berlin's essays on the topic, and wrote to him in the late 1990s, arguing that positive and negative liberty could be mutually compatible. He never received a reply, as Berlin was on his deathbed.

The programme began with a description of the Two Concepts of Liberty, reviewing Berlin's opinion that, since it lacked coercion, negative liberty was the 'safer' of the two. Curtis then explained how many political groups who sought their vision of freedom ended up using violence to achieve it. For example the French revolutionaries wished to overthrow a monarchical system which they viewed as antithetical to freedom, but in so doing ended up with the so-called Reign of Terror. Similarly, the Communist revolutionaries in Russia, who sought to overthrow the old order and replace it with a society in which everyone was equal, ended up creating a totalitarian regime which used violence to achieve its ends.

Using violence, not simply as a means to achieve one's goals, but also as an expression of freedom from Western bourgeois norms, was an idea developed by African revolutionary Franz Fanon. He developed it from the Existentialist ideology of Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that terrorism was a "terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others." (^ Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, Bernard-Henri Lévy, p.343). ) These views were expressed, for example, in the revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers.

This programme also explored how economic freedom had been used in Russia, and the problems this had introduced. A set of policies known as "shock therapy" were brought in mainly by outsiders, which had the effect of destroying the social safety net that existed in most other western nations. An economic crisis escalated during the 1990s, and some people were paid in goods rather than money. Yeltsin was accused by his parliamentary deputies of "economic genocide", due to the large numbers of people now too poor to eat. Yeltsin responded to this by removing parliament's power and becoming increasingly autocratic. At the same time, many formerly state owned industries were sold off to private businesses, often at a fraction of their real cost. Ordinary people would sell shares which to them were worthless for cash, without appreciating their true value. This ended up with the rise of the Oligarchs—super rich businessmen who attributed their rise to the sell-offs of the '90s. It resulted in a polarisation of society into the poor and ultra-rich, and indirectly led to a more autocratic style of government under Vladimir Putin, which, while less free, promised to provide people with dignity and basic living requirements.

There was a similar review of post-war Iraq, in which an even more extreme "shock therapy" was employed—the removal from government of all Ba'ath party employees and the introduction of economic models which followed the simplified economic model of human beings outlined in the first two programmes—this had the result of immediately disintegrating Iraqi society and the rise of two strongly autocratic insurgencies, one based on Sunni-Ba'athist ideals and another based on revolutionary Shi'a philosophies.

Curtis also looked at the neo-conservative agenda of the 1980s. Like Sartre, they argued that violence would sometimes be necessary to achieve their goals, except they wished to spread what they described as democracy. Curtis quoted General Alexander Haig then US Secretary of State, as saying that "some things were worth fighting for". However, Curtis argued, although the version of society espoused by the neo-conservatives made some concessions towards freedom, it did not offer true freedom. The neo-conservatives were ardent supporters of the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile which used violence to crush opponents and a virtual police state.

The neo-conservatives also took a strong line against the Sandinistas—a political group in Nicaragua—who Reagan argued were accepting help from the Soviets and posed a real threat to American security. The truth was that the Sandinistas posed no real military threat to the US, and a disinformation campaign was started against them painting them as accessories of the Soviets. The Contras, who were a proxy army fighting against the Sandinistas, were—according to US propaganda—valiantly fighting against the evil of Communism. In reality, argued Curtis, they were using all manner of techniques, including the torture, rape and murder of civilians. The CIA funded the Contras by allegedly flying in cocaine into the United States, as financing the Contras directly would have been illegal.

However such policies did not always result in the achievement of neo-conservative aims and occasionally threw up genuine surprises. Curtis examined the Western-backed government of the Shah in Iran, and how the mixing of Sartre's positive libertarian ideals with Shia religious philosophy led to the revolution which overthrew it. Having previously been a meek philosophy of acceptance of the social order, in the minds of revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini, Revolutionary Shia Islam became a meaningful force to overthrow tyranny.

The programme reviewed the Blair government and its role in achieving its vision of a stable society. In fact, argued Curtis, the Blair government had created the opposite of freedom, in that the type of liberty it had engendered wholly lacked any kind of meaning. Its military intervention in Iraq had provoked terrorist actions in the UK and these terrorist actions were in turn used to justify restrictions of liberty.

In essence, the programme suggested that following the path of negative liberty to its logical conclusions, as governments have done in the West for the past 50 years, resulted in a society without meaning populated only by selfish automatons, and that there was some value in positive liberty in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.

The closing minutes directly stated that if western humans were ever to find their way out of the "trap" described in the series, they would have to realise that Isiah Berlin was wrong and that not all attempts at creating positive liberty necessarily ended in coercion and tyranny.

Contributors

Ratings

While commending the series, Radio Times stated




2. Tonight's new Adam Curtis offering on BBC2 at 9pm

The Trap - a new documentary from Adam Curtis explores individualism and freedom
The Trap starts on 11 March on BBC2 at 9pm
http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_id=10878
by Anindya Bhattacharyya

"Human beings will always betray you. You can only trust the numbers."
This chilling declaration flashes up in the opening credits of The Trap:

What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom, a new documentary series by Adam Curtis which starts on BBC2 next week.
Curtis is best known for his 2004 series The Power of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics of Fear. This detailed how neocons in the US talked up the threat of radical Islamism to justify their "war on terror".
The Trap is even more ambitious in scope. Like The Power Of Nightmares, it uses archive footage and interviews to explore the history and political impact of an idea -- in this case the model of "individual freedom" that underlies neoliberal economics.
Curtis traces the roots of this idea to the early post war years, when a circle of right wing thinkers -- followers of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek -- became influential in shaping US nuclear strategy during the Cold War. These researchers, including the mathematician John Nash, gathered at the Rand Corporation in California. They developed "game theory" to model what a "rational" military strategy would be in the face of threatened mutual nuclear annihilation. These games imagined a paranoid world where individuals ruthlessly sought rewards and modified their behaviour in the light of that of their opponents.
Crucially, this behaviour could be measured "objectively", allowing researchers to create computerised models and calculate "optimal" strategies.
Curtis' documentary traces how its underlying vision of social behaviour was picked up and generalised to areas such as psychology, economics and management theory. The political crisis of the 1970s offered the chance for the followers of Hayek to take centre stage.
They attacked notions of a "public service ethos" in state controlled institutions, arguing that public sector workers were motivated purely by self-interest -- just like the "lonely robots" of their computer models.
Private sector management techniques were imported into public services, displacing previous attitudes with performance indicators, targets and incentives. This, it was claimed, would remove "inefficiencies" and induce "rational" behaviour into sluggish bureaucracies.

Market

Curtis notes that while this project started in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher's introduction of the "internal market" into the NHS, it really took off under John Major's government – and has been ruthlessly expanded under New Labour.
But far from "rationalising" public services, this battery of statistics had the opposite effect. Public sector managers started to "game the system" -- fiddle the figures by reorganising services to artificially meet targets. Curtis cites examples from the health service, education and policing. In one instance, hospital managers took the wheels off trolleys and reclassified them as "beds" in order to hit their target of reducing the number of patients on trolleys.
New Labour's response to this madness was to create even more targets in a futile effort to balance out the distortions produced by the system. Public services were plunged into a nightmare world of metrics, audits and meaningless jargon -- what Curtis calls the "tyranny of objective numbers". The results of this shift have been disastrous, Curtis argues -- and even some of the original founders of game theory, such as John Nash, now agree.
Far from bringing "freedom" from bureaucracy, neoliberal management policies have increased social inequality, plunged the poorest in society into misery, and fuelled the rampant concentration of wealth in the hands of a new super elite. Under New Labour social mobility has declined to the lowest levels since the Second World War.

Ideas
Curtis narrates his story by splicing together archive footage of news events, social situations, even clips from television dramas and films. It's a compelling and original style that places his work somewhere between a documentary, an essay and a dream.
However, it has limitations. Watching The Trap one can't help feeling drawn into the paranoid world of the Rand Corporation theorists.
While Curtis expertly traces the development of their ideas, he is silent when it comes to explaining why those ideas took hold.
There is no sense of any kind of alternative vision, nor any pointers to a solution. Episodes such as the rise of Margaret Thatcher just "happen", with the immense political conflicts of that period relegated to a footnote. Rather than seeing ideas as being consciously promoted by particular social forces, Curtis paints a world where we all just sleepwalk into oblivion.
Nevertheless, Curtis's work is gripping and thought provoking. His documentaries are proof that television can deal with complex issues without being patronising.
The final programme in the three part series -- still in preparation as Socialist Worker went to press -- examines the "war on terror" as an attempt by neoliberals to extend their deranged vision of "individual freedom" by force. If the first two episodes are anything to go by, The Trap is a strong contender for "must see" documentary of the year.


=================

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (BBC Two). Having previously asserted in The Power of Nightmares that the threat of terror was an exaggeration by US conservatives and Islamists, he now contended that our leaders’ concept of freedom has led to a less free society. For Curtis, the roots of their ideology lie in Cold War game theory that identified the motivating force for individuals and society as self-interest. The mathematician John Nash then calculated an inevitable equilibrium being reached in which everyone’s self-interest was perfectly balanced against each other.

Never mind that Nash (played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) had wrestled with paranoid schizophrenia for years. His theory chimed with free-market economic thinking and inspired nascent Thatcherites. So, says Curtis, Tory thinking created a culture of government-set targets to allow self-serving civil servants and public-sector workers to achieve Nash’s equilibrium for the benefit of everyone. How this view of human nature as a cold, calculating machine has since curtailed our freedoms presumably becomes clearer in the next two episodes.

Years ago, a programme like this would simply have had the kind of stiff, bushy-bearded lecturer with a blackboard that we see on Sam Tyler’s 1970s telly in Life on Mars. Curtis now offers a stream of ideas with interviews (it was remarkable to see the elderly Nash) and archive footage and music used more for mood than illustration. Beehived dancers looked blank. Corridors ranged from missile silos to NHS wards. Cult movie soundtracks such as Assault on Precinct 13 provided menace.

If this series had been one of yesterday’s Crufts finalists, it would have fared better in the agility contest than the Obedience World Cup. It indulged in the kind of conceptual leapfrogging that brought in the psychologist R. D. Laing and his views of the family as another oppressive institution of the self, and American psychiatry that categorised people as mad if they didn’t fit into checklist standards of normalcy.

All this, Curtis was saying, has fed into an overarching ideology of freedom. But in giving us a narrative of ideas, it was hard to see the causal connection between these ideas and the wider social and political changes around us. It occasionally reminded me of the 1970s James Burke series Connections. One moment he’d be on a rollercoaster musing on the nervous system, the next in an igloo talking about insulation with the connection between the two lost. Nonetheless, The Trap makes seductive viewing — it’s almost like an ambient documentary, Brian Walden remixed by Brian Eno.



=====================




2. Tonight's new Adam Curtis offering on BBC2 at 9pm

The Trap - a new documentary from Adam Curtis explores individualism and freedom
The Trap starts on 11 March on BBC2 at 9pm
http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_id=10878
by Anindya Bhattacharyya

"Human beings will always betray you. You can only trust the numbers."
This chilling declaration flashes up in the opening credits of The Trap:

What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom, a new documentary series by Adam Curtis which starts on BBC2 next week.
Curtis is best known for his 2004 series The Power of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics of Fear. This detailed how neocons in the US talked up the threat of radical Islamism to justify their "war on terror".
The Trap is even more ambitious in scope. Like The Power Of Nightmares, it uses archive footage and interviews to explore the history and political impact of an idea -- in this case the model of "individual freedom" that underlies neoliberal economics.
Curtis traces the roots of this idea to the early post war years, when a circle of right wing thinkers -- followers of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek -- became influential in shaping US nuclear strategy during the Cold War. These researchers, including the mathematician John Nash, gathered at the Rand Corporation in California. They developed "game theory" to model what a "rational" military strategy would be in the face of threatened mutual nuclear annihilation. These games imagined a paranoid world where individuals ruthlessly sought rewards and modified their behaviour in the light of that of their opponents.
Crucially, this behaviour could be measured "objectively", allowing researchers to create computerised models and calculate "optimal" strategies.
Curtis' documentary traces how its underlying vision of social behaviour was picked up and generalised to areas such as psychology, economics and management theory. The political crisis of the 1970s offered the chance for the followers of Hayek to take centre stage.
They attacked notions of a "public service ethos" in state controlled institutions, arguing that public sector workers were motivated purely by self-interest -- just like the "lonely robots" of their computer models.
Private sector management techniques were imported into public services, displacing previous attitudes with performance indicators, targets and incentives. This, it was claimed, would remove "inefficiencies" and induce "rational" behaviour into sluggish bureaucracies.

Market

Curtis notes that while this project started in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher's introduction of the "internal market" into the NHS, it really took off under John Major's government – and has been ruthlessly expanded under New Labour.
But far from "rationalising" public services, this battery of statistics had the opposite effect. Public sector managers started to "game the system" -- fiddle the figures by reorganising services to artificially meet targets. Curtis cites examples from the health service, education and policing. In one instance, hospital managers took the wheels off trolleys and reclassified them as "beds" in order to hit their target of reducing the number of patients on trolleys.
New Labour's response to this madness was to create even more targets in a futile effort to balance out the distortions produced by the system. Public services were plunged into a nightmare world of metrics, audits and meaningless jargon -- what Curtis calls the "tyranny of objective numbers". The results of this shift have been disastrous, Curtis argues -- and even some of the original founders of game theory, such as John Nash, now agree.
Far from bringing "freedom" from bureaucracy, neoliberal management policies have increased social inequality, plunged the poorest in society into misery, and fuelled the rampant concentration of wealth in the hands of a new super elite. Under New Labour social mobility has declined to the lowest levels since the Second World War.

Ideas
Curtis narrates his story by splicing together archive footage of news events, social situations, even clips from television dramas and films. It's a compelling and original style that places his work somewhere between a documentary, an essay and a dream.
However, it has limitations. Watching The Trap one can't help feeling drawn into the paranoid world of the Rand Corporation theorists.
While Curtis expertly traces the development of their ideas, he is silent when it comes to explaining why those ideas took hold.
There is no sense of any kind of alternative vision, nor any pointers to a solution. Episodes such as the rise of Margaret Thatcher just "happen", with the immense political conflicts of that period relegated to a footnote. Rather than seeing ideas as being consciously promoted by particular social forces, Curtis paints a world where we all just sleepwalk into oblivion.
Nevertheless, Curtis's work is gripping and thought provoking. His documentaries are proof that television can deal with complex issues without being patronising.
The final programme in the three part series -- still in preparation as Socialist Worker went to press -- examines the "war on terror" as an attempt by neoliberals to extend their deranged vision of "individual freedom" by force. If the first two episodes are anything to go by, The Trap is a strong contender for "must see" documentary of the year.


=================

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (BBC Two). Having previously asserted in The Power of Nightmares that the threat of terror was an exaggeration by US conservatives and Islamists, he now contended that our leaders’ concept of freedom has led to a less free society. For Curtis, the roots of their ideology lie in Cold War game theory that identified the motivating force for individuals and society as self-interest. The mathematician John Nash then calculated an inevitable equilibrium being reached in which everyone’s self-interest was perfectly balanced against each other.

Never mind that Nash (played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) had wrestled with paranoid schizophrenia for years. His theory chimed with free-market economic thinking and inspired nascent Thatcherites. So, says Curtis, Tory thinking created a culture of government-set targets to allow self-serving civil servants and public-sector workers to achieve Nash’s equilibrium for the benefit of everyone. How this view of human nature as a cold, calculating machine has since curtailed our freedoms presumably becomes clearer in the next two episodes.

Years ago, a programme like this would simply have had the kind of stiff, bushy-bearded lecturer with a blackboard that we see on Sam Tyler’s 1970s telly in Life on Mars. Curtis now offers a stream of ideas with interviews (it was remarkable to see the elderly Nash) and archive footage and music used more for mood than illustration. Beehived dancers looked blank. Corridors ranged from missile silos to NHS wards. Cult movie soundtracks such as Assault on Precinct 13 provided menace.

If this series had been one of yesterday’s Crufts finalists, it would have fared better in the agility contest than the Obedience World Cup. It indulged in the kind of conceptual leapfrogging that brought in the psychologist R. D. Laing and his views of the family as another oppressive institution of the self, and American psychiatry that categorised people as mad if they didn’t fit into checklist standards of normalcy.

All this, Curtis was saying, has fed into an overarching ideology of freedom. But in giving us a narrative of ideas, it was hard to see the causal connection between these ideas and the wider social and political changes around us. It occasionally reminded me of the 1970s James Burke series Connections. One moment he’d be on a rollercoaster musing on the nervous system, the next in an igloo talking about insulation with the connection between the two lost. Nonetheless, The Trap makes seductive viewing — it’s almost like an ambient documentary, Brian Walden remixed by Brian Eno.




Bookmark and Share
posted by u2r2h at Friday, March 16, 2007

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

first two episodes are here:

http://blogomnibus.blogspot.com/

Sat Mar 24, 03:45:00 am UTC  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Locations of visitors to this page Politics Blogs - Blog Top Sites