The Trap by Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis, producer of brilliant documentary series such as Pandora’s Box, The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, has a new series starting on BBC 2 next week. The Guardian profiled him and his work today. The Power of Nightmares is available to download here.

Cry freedom
In the cold war paranoia made sense, but a bold new documentary argues that the west has become trapped in a false idea of what it means to be human. By Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman
The Guardian, Saturday March 3, 2007

IN THE MID-1950s, with the cold war growing chillier, paranoia seeped through the corridors of the Rand Corporation, the fabled military thinktank in California. After all, to the hotshot young analysts paid to devise America’s strategy in the nuclear standoff with Moscow, paranoia seemed to make perfect sense. If you assumed that you couldn’t trust your enemy—and you assumed that your enemy felt the same about you—then whatever noises you made about disarmament, you’d always stockpile weapons, because you’d assume your enemy was doing the same. Nobody would dare attack, and an edgy stability would result. Act with trust and co-operation, on the other hand, and you risked a situation where both sides would claim to be willing to disarm, but then only you actually did so, spelling instability, then doom.

This was what the thinktank’s logicians called the “prisoner’s dilemma”, and the more ambitious among them—inspired by John Nash, the mathematical genius and Rand Corporation scholar portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind—had high hopes for their newborn theory. Could it be, they wondered, that stability in everyday human relations was achieved by the same kind of self-centred suspicion and distrust? To test their ideas, they recruited the nearest everyday humans they could find: the Rand Corporation’s secretaries. In experiments, they posed various dilemmas for pairs of secretaries, in which they could co-operate or betray each other. (A typical question involved the purchase of a Buick; one imagines women in knee-length dresses, gamely tolerating questions from clipboard-wielding men in horn-rimmed glasses and short-sleeved shirts.) The theory predicted they’d choose betrayal, because they couldn’t trust the other one not to. Every single time, however, they chose to co-operate.

Perhaps if the analysts had paid more attention to their secretaries, the history of the past half-century would have proved very different. Instead, according to a new documentary series beginning on BBC2 next weekend, the paranoid theories hatched during the cold war would come to inspire a peculiar, cold-hearted idea of personal freedom—one that helps explain everything from the rise of Prozac and Viagra to Labour’s obsession with healthcare targets, from the military crusades of George Bush and the rise of the Iraqi insurgency to the rampant diagnosis of attention deficit disorder in children.

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