Join 3,440 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Trap on the Google Video
March 21, 2008 8:25 PM   Subscribe

Adam Curtis' "The Trap" is a documentary broadcast in 2007 on BBC exploring the development of modern concepts of individual freedom.
[Google video links] Episode one: F#@^ You, Buddy; Episode two: The Lonely Robot; Episode Three: We Will Force you to be Free

Previously. Related.
Twointerviews.
Bonus short film by Curtis.
posted by Burhanistan (33 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
While I find some his stylistic elements obnoxious, his theory concerning how modern individualized libertine behavior traces its roots back to game theory used by cold war planners interesting.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:27 PM on March 21, 2008


er, rather modern ideals of individual liberty that politicians and intellectuals presume to uphold, rather.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:36 PM on March 21, 2008


For more from Curtis on game theory, see To the Brink of Eternity (from the series, Pandora's Box).
posted by acro at 8:44 PM on March 21, 2008


Nice. Watching the first ten minutes of Part 2 impressed me enough to search out torrents of the programs, so that I can watch them in a format and resolution that doesn't make me bleed from the eyes.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 8:58 PM on March 21, 2008


I think I said this last time someone started an Adam Curtis thread, but here goes anyway.

His documentaries are so well put together that they're almost spellbinding. I've watched all of them, and the entire time I'm convinced that MY GOD I UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING NOW.

Then I actually go on the interwebs and look up info on the stuff he talked about and find out that it basically was a crazy quilt of exaggerations and half-truths stuck together with threads of innuendo and suggestion.
posted by empath at 9:13 PM on March 21, 2008


Basically -- he's a left-wing Alex Jones with class and education.
posted by empath at 9:14 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


It is a fairly accurate depiction of game theory and John Nash, however; that game theory is essentially a sociopath simulator is hardly news.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:04 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


What's particularly interesting is how far back this sort of conception of the human being goes. Hobbes, for example, can be almost straightforwardly read as giving game-theoretic arguments for preferring civil society to the state of nature (which will, for game theoretic sorts of reasons, devolve necessarily into a war of all against all). It all depends upon what facets of human motivation and behavior you decide to model; the criticisms expressed in the videos are definitely not new.

(I watched these a while back, from the previous mefi post, so forgive me if this is mentioned in them already.)
posted by voltairemodern at 10:32 PM on March 21, 2008


Oh, and a link discussing game theory and Hobbes.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:32 PM on March 21, 2008


lol, like omigod i see the matrix!
But seriously though, as I re-watched this program. It reminded me of this fascinating game theory. But this misanthropic view of humanity is irreconcilable in my view. My worldview is framed by (perceived) racism and selfishness but I know that humans are not innately evil. I just finished Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter { . } (Also a Brit, on theology, philosophy, cultural transformation as it relates to religion and science). Although the book was tedious, and garrulous, It was edifying. I first encountered, in detail, the philosophy of Hobbes which this program encapsulates. (As well as Hume, Priestly and Locke). A particular passage specially reflects the gist of these documentaries.

The ultimate motive force behind society was pure Hobbesian self-interest. The outcome does not have to be a state of terror, however, for the trick of society lay in converting basic survival instincts (eat or be eaten) into less socially destructive-indeed socially beneficial-vices for instance, envy and avarice, and the love of honor, glory and reputation. Practices are devised whereby, without abandoning one whit of their essential egoism-people made themselves socially useful by masking it. indeed it was greed, vanity and amour pompre which actually kept the merry-go-round turning-they provided work and created wealth through the intricate mechanisms whereby social ostentation,ornament,equipage,fame,titles and suchlike show and splendour provided the psychological satisfaction necessary to displace gross violence while gratifying the 'odious part of pride'.

Transvalued into enlightened self-interest and clad in conventional mores and pious cliches, self-seeking does not, in short, have to be malignant: in fact, the astute would prize it as the very yeast of society. The war of all against all would is socialized into emulative competition-flaunting more liveried servants or a finer taffeta grown than your neighbors. Once harnessed, selfishness worked to the general good, vice became virtue, and private vices,public benefits. High minded moralistic platitudes fill the air-it was all hypocrisy. But that hypocrisy was salutary because it is an open secret. The art of conflict management was down to the craftiness of the astute politician, resourceful in channeling gut urges into artificial wants.


Makes sense doesn't it?
posted by Student of Man at 10:34 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Correction to first sentence in last paragraph ...would be socialized into...
posted by Student of Man at 10:45 PM on March 21, 2008


Burhanistan, Thank you for linking to our interview on Blairwatch. We were also given advance copies of the first two parts, and we put up synopsis: Part One and Part Two. I hope people find them interesting.
posted by quarsan at 3:16 AM on March 22, 2008


Wait... You mean people who wear red ties aren't Communists?
posted by RollingGreens at 3:54 AM on March 22, 2008


I liked his previous series The Power of Nightmares about the twin rising of Neo-conservatism and Islamic fundamentalism but I thought The Trap was a bit of a stretch in making Game Theory responsible for, well, just about everything.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:44 AM on March 22, 2008


I don't think the programs say Game Theory is responsible for everything. Sure, it has a lot to answer for when it comes to population management and the target based culture, but that's not *everything*. Not by a long stretch.
posted by gsb at 4:53 AM on March 22, 2008


Wait, I recently watched Century of the Self and I thought psychoanalysis was responsible for just about everything. Unless ... OMFG ... psychoanalysis was responsible for game theory! We are so fucked.
posted by localroger at 6:31 AM on March 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Through the devious scientific allure of game theory we got infected by it's inventor Nash's paranoid schizophrenia. Psychotherapy and political science where the middle men.

Has any political party adopted Curtis' style? It would make for very powerful propaganda.
posted by jouke at 6:59 AM on March 22, 2008


jouke, I don't think too many political campaigns would see the multi-hour documentary as an effective ad format.
posted by localroger at 7:23 AM on March 22, 2008


I wasn't referring to the length but to the combination of historical arguments, eery music and suggestive images.
posted by jouke at 7:47 AM on March 22, 2008


The wikipedia article provides a clickable list of the thinkers that are referenced in the documentary.
posted by jouke at 8:57 AM on March 22, 2008 [3 favorites]



Excellent post! Thank you for pointing out this new docus.

fearfulsymmetry writes "Game Theory responsible for, well, just about everything."


Game theory also causes sexual disease ; or maybe, if some people stopped blaming fucking and evil and started paying a little attention, there wouldn't be much blaming of perfectly fine activities.



Student of Man writes "The war of all against all would is socialized into emulative competition-flaunting more liveried servants or a finer taffeta grown than your neighbors. Once harnessed, selfishness worked to the general good, vice became virtue, and private vices,public benefits. High minded moralistic platitudes fill the air-it was all hypocrisy. But that hypocrisy was salutary because it is an open secret. The art of conflict management was down to the craftiness of the astute politician, resourceful in channeling gut urges into artificial wants.

"Makes sense doesn't it?"


Well yes , it is true that some "force" ought to be channelled by reason, that is to say , pure lust for something may lead not to obtain the object of lust, whereas a little waiting and organizing may offer great rewards ; even if some suggest your reward is in the afterlife, the greatest scam ever conceived.

Yet , exactly for the same mistrust of human compulsion , I wouldn't trust a group of humans to channel conflicts and "vices" just to obtain public benefits , because that would imply these fews are superhumans, which isn't the case. I also think that humans aren't naturally "full of vices" , we are just incredibly scared and ignorant.
posted by elpapacito at 11:09 AM on March 22, 2008


Thanks for posting this.
posted by homunculus at 11:20 AM on March 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


1) Game theory : it certainly influenced somebody, if anything because Nash was awarded a Nobel for it. Some people
are suckers for authority, so when they are told by *authority* (Nobel) that Nash did an astonishing job, they may
not question the wiseness of the choice, conclude that they are wrong, there must be excellency in Game Theory

Yet the very Nash noticed he was operating under a delusion, that of being constantly spied , operating constantly
against an enemy. That doesn't make GT mathematically wrong but it makes it fit for a non-existant world , that
happens to coincide with nash paranoia.

Now , if the start from the assumption that

1. nash theory is a fitting description of reality (particularly human behavior toward each other)

then it follows that

2. reality must fit nash theory

but empirical evidence , at least with some secretaries, suggests that at least some people don't behave according
to game theory , which disproves the universal validity of game theory.

Yet as these women were deemed to act irrationally, some may have tought that rational person did act according to
game theory. A strong bias in favor of "rational" person may have suggested that secretaries just weren't evolved
enough to play the game correctly...which is a striking example of making up explanations that save the game theory
at the expense of destroying the very same expected uniform human behavior, foundation of the theory.


2) Schizophrenia subject: Laing's experiment consisted in talking with people alright, BUT one of the effects was that
of sending a number of them home. Then they came back.

One could reasonably think that

a. the sanitarium didn't offer a solution, but Laing's intervention and attention did break some chain of events,
as patient showed marked improvement
b. but they come back! Which kind of negated the valitidy of Laing's method , or at least the duration of its effects.

Clearly Laing preferred , as many others would do, to think that is work was ok and that the cause of the problem may
be external, which may as well be the case, as his patient did show improvents, but then they come back sick from home.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

So he decides to use game theory , maybe because it was all the rage back then , and he discovers that by applying it
that ...eureka, his hypothesis of external cause was verified! The family was a potential cause for schizofrenia.

Yet, if the game theory itself is based on some assumption that human MUST be bipolar (good / evil) and these are
given as constant , some or all of the application of the theory may lead to conclusion that reflect the starting premise.


So game theory causes nothing by itself, but it may as well been used to demonstrate or give credence to underlying
unverified assumption.
posted by elpapacito at 3:10 PM on March 22, 2008


I think you might be confusing the point of game theory. The point of Game Theory, is not prescriptive but descriptive: analysis of a game permits us to locate the equilibria, and thus to predict those states of play which will be stable.

It proves most useful when you can superimpose this "game" onto a whole slew of other fields (including economics,evolution,anthropology,earth sciences etc.).

It may seem Game Theory is predicated on some people behaving in self-interest as presented in these documentaries. That's not the case. Game theory even works well in a situation where all participants are altruists.

Game Theory is indeed axiomatic in our socio-economic lives. It will surely garner results and help in making decisions about whether to intervene or let something play itself out for lawmakers, scientists and social service decision making.
posted by Student of Man at 4:05 PM on March 22, 2008


This is great, thanks also for posting these.
posted by peppito at 4:08 PM on March 22, 2008



Nice. Watching the first ten minutes of Part 2 impressed me enough to search out torrents of the programs, so that I can watch them in a format and resolution that doesn't make me bleed from the eyes.


You coulda just hit the iPod/PSP download link.
posted by arto at 4:39 PM on March 22, 2008


Student of Man writes "The point of Game Theory, is not prescriptive but descriptive: analysis of a game permits us to locate the equilibria, and thus to predict those states of play which will be stable."

Yet it seems it may be used both descriptively and normatively , particularly to suggest that the Homo Economicus model (maximizer of individual utility) is the "naturally occourring" behavior , whereas it seems that this is not the case. Yet, the relative complexity of the subject and misunderstood authority of "science" may be used to cover up conclusion that don't follow, but that may be convenient to some. See "religion".
posted by elpapacito at 5:19 PM on March 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Or see by parallell a misunderstanding of Darwin's theory of evolution used to justify eugenics

1. these who survive in the environment will reproduce and pass on the genes to the next generation , it's a naturally occourring process
2. the one who survives is the fittest to live in the environment
3. therefore if my race kills the inferior races, inferior because they didn't defend themselves well enough, it follows we juar were the fittest to
survive , it's just nature work

The possible negative consequences of this misunderstanding seem rather evident to me.

On a tangent: indeed I gave exactly not my impression, by stating that GT is based on one of the strategies it studies ; this is clearly not the case. I also messed up by claiming game theory itself is the same as or based entirely on one debateable premise, that humans behave always (or its their modal behavior) as
if they were paranoid.
posted by elpapacito at 6:09 PM on March 22, 2008


Sometimes I feel like The Power of Nightmares fixed and obfuscated my fear of America, simultaneously. Maybe one of the most effective endings in non-fiction film I've seen.

I grew up in the mid-west and currently live in Denver, but I spent some time in Korea where I was confronted with so many questions I had no answers to. I was asking many of them.

I have trouble articulating this stuff, but... it's kind of hard to be an American in a living-with-guilt kind of way.

I read in a comment (probably on digg) today about how obvious it is that the Neo-Con movement/brand has been revealed and is dead, that no one will vote republican anymore. I just hope we don't shoot to far in the other direction.

And... loading The Trap now!
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 3:11 AM on March 23, 2008


I also messed up by claiming game theory itself is the same as or based entirely on one debateable premise, that humans behave always (or its their modal behavior) as
if they were paranoid.


It would be more accurate to say that game theory suggests that the best way to behave is as if one is paranoid.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:29 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty writes "It would be more accurate to say that game theory suggests that the best way to behave is as if one is paranoid"

You are correct in indicating that some "game" studied by game theory is likely to suggest people that one is better off by being always paranoid, because it suggest all the other people are being paranoid too.


Let' substitute 'noid with "utility maximizing" and let's imagine we are competing for a pie , which we have left over the table unguarded, we have 4 possible choices.
I wake up in the night and take the pie , you sleep : I win all the pie , you lose it all (1,0)

I wake up in the night, you too : we fight over the pie and smash it in the process, we both loose (0,0)

You wake up , I sleep : ( 0 for me ,1 for you)


We both sleep and the following morning we cut the pie in half ( 0.5 , 0.5)
Clearly, a good outcome for both is sharing the pie as we each get 0.5 , 0.5

But If I am an utilility maximizer, craving the pie all for me all for me, I will have to wake up in the night and steal the pie. But if we rest on the assumption that
ALL man are very similar, then you will think like me and will try to steal the pie too. Knowing that we will fight for the pie and lose it, we both would be stuck
between our absolute compulsion to get the pie and our rationality saying we shouldn't fight over it.

Quoting the wiki
the Nash equilibrium (named after John Forbes Nash, who proposed it) is a solution concept of a game involving two or more players, in which no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy unilaterally. If each player has chosen a strategy and no player can benefit by changing his or her strategy while the other players keep theirs unchanged, then the current set of strategy choices and the corresponding payoffs constitute a Nash equilibrium.
I can't just choose to sleep, cause if you don't choose to sleep as well I will lose all the pie. You think like me, so you will also keep your decision and go during night. It seems like a nash equilibrium to me, cause nobody benefits if we both choose not to change our decision. The dilemma is "solved" by using probability estimation, as we aren't really equal and we don't have access to the same information at all times.

BUT , nonetheless, if we envision the world as if all the possible games were zero sum games and all people were noid about each other decision, then by self fulfilling prophecy I think we are likely to live in a 'noid, uncooperative world. Eventually, if the authority of Nash is used as the authority of Darwin to justify eugenics and such nonsense , we may suffer greatly, for instance because some people may buy , hook line and sinker, that they ought to expect that rational people are also paranoid.

Also, misapplication and/or miscontruction of the models used to describe abnoraml behaviors may lead to , as we see in the documentary, a misperception of what "normal" is ; that is to say some people may believe that normal is what is NOT "sick" , according to a model. Thus suggesting a demand for pills to "make me normal" that maybe shouldn't exist to begin with, but we know that many will be apply to oblige a demand if money will pay for it.
posted by elpapacito at 4:29 PM on March 23, 2008


It's particularly weird that the first film uses the Prisoner's Dilemma as an exemplar of Nash's paranoid worldview, which is just about the opposite of the truth. The whole point of the Prisoner's Dilemma is that it's a case where classical game theory falls down: the Nash equilibrium is for both sides to defect, but that produces a worse outcome for both sides than if they both cooperate. It's been shown that in an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, defecting all the time is a very poor strategy, and that strategies that at least attempt to establish mutual cooperation do a lot better in the long run. It's even been argued that PD-like situations in real life lie behind the evolution of altruism. And yet all the film says about the PD is that it "expressed the strange logic of the cold war".
posted by baf at 10:56 PM on March 23, 2008


Interesting counterpoint baf. Watching Curtis' documentaries I have the constant feeling there are holes like that in his reasoning but I find it hard to spot them since I'm bombarded with evocative images.
posted by jouke at 11:27 AM on March 24, 2008


« Older Brilliant Women:...  |  You've probably seen Hillary4U... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments