A reveview of : The Trap: What happened to our dream of freedom
March 13, 2007 5:12 PM   Subscribe

A review of The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, episode 1. BBC very recently aired the first episode of three by Adam Curtis , the author of The Power of Nightmares [prev] and The Century of Self. As far as I understood, the author advances that some attempts to implement "sustainable freedom" in our world may be founded on a politically-unarguable, oversimplifying and sometimes paranoid assumption that people almost constantly behave in a selfish way ; we may be suffering the undesiderable consequences of forcing a model to fit one assumption , actually reducing our freedom.
posted by elpapacito (35 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Torrent to first episode.
posted by elpapacito at 5:12 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Excellent (although it's a bit dodgy linking to the torrent, maybe). Curtis's two previous series (one of which I referenced just a few days ago in a comment) have been some of my favorite documentaries of recent times, and from the review, it sounds like his latest lines up pretty well behind some of the things that I have actually come to believe over the years, too.

That's venturing into dangerous FoxNews waters, of course -- watching things that merely support your point of view and give you warm fuzzies rather than make you think critically about the ideas involved. But I look forward to it anyway, and yes, I'll be hopping on the torrent when I get home tonight.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:25 PM on March 13, 2007

Thanks much! I loved The Power of Nightmares and hadn't heard about this.
Thanks for the torrent too, elpapacito.
posted by p3on at 5:31 PM on March 13, 2007

Yep I agree with your caveat stavros as we all may have a bias..or two, expecially as we like to think we are right. That very kind of observation is made in the episode, which isn't something I'd say of Fox :)...maybe they do all the time and I didn't notice.
posted by elpapacito at 5:31 PM on March 13, 2007

elpapacito - you're a star! Missed the first episode on Sunday and was gutted to find the Beeb don't appear to be doing any repeats - even on their digital channels.

Loved the Power of Nightmares, Century of the Self, and the Mayfair Set. Currently in the process of trying to aquire his other early work Pandora's box.
posted by stumcg at 5:43 PM on March 13, 2007

... acquire even!
posted by stumcg at 5:45 PM on March 13, 2007

Sadly, it uses exactly the same tone as Power of Nightmares, and this time doesn't work at all.
posted by cillit bang at 5:47 PM on March 13, 2007

Sadly, it uses exactly the same tone as Power of Nightmares, and this time doesn't work at all.

I'm curious about what you mean, here, cillit bang. Care to elaborate?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:53 PM on March 13, 2007

The episode title "F**k You Buddy" and its relationship to game theory (you have to betray the people you play with in order to win) reminds me of the board game Diplomacy.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:55 PM on March 13, 2007

stavros: I guess cillit is just baiting .. but hey it's ok it is part of proving that at least some part of behavior is selfish and regardless.
posted by elpapacito at 6:04 PM on March 13, 2007

There seems to be a misconception of game theory here -- you don't have to betray the people you play with in order to win. Hence "cooperative game theory." One of the biggest dilemmas in game theory is that what is collectively rational is individually irrational (see: social movement participation).
posted by proj at 6:17 PM on March 13, 2007

Urg...Yeah, I'm aware that game theory does not equal betrayal or whatever. Poorly written comment.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:22 PM on March 13, 2007

Many aspects in this first episode have been featured in the series Pandora's Box [Torrent]. It feels like that Mr Curtis is expanding his former visions and arguments.

I still think his work is very unique and his comments on our recent history and today's lifestyle are provoking and in many cases highly educational. It is a shame that we don't see more such 'comments' today.

We need more people who drill deep into the corridors of power, idea and science - and what these people often dream up and present us as their solution for our lifes.

Let's hope that the current wave of educating and provocating wave of political and social film makers continue. Michael Moore, Al Gore and Adam Curtis are certainly the giants at the moments, but I can a lot more stuff coming from all areas of the political spectrum.

Some more stuff to watch:

Free Docs

Docs on Google Video

posted by homodigitalis at 6:23 PM on March 13, 2007

There seems to be a misconception of game theory here -- you don't have to betray the people you play with in order to win.

I suppose it depends on the game, no?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:55 PM on March 13, 2007

Monopoly is a good example of a cooperative game. You need to get everyone to agree to stop playing before you can do anything fun.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:00 PM on March 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

TwelveTwo - Game, Set and Match!
posted by speug at 7:04 PM on March 13, 2007

Sorry for being pedantic, but that's not a review. It's a preview ...
posted by MrMerlot at 7:18 PM on March 13, 2007

I suppose it depends on the game, no?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:55 PM PST on March 13 [+]

Correct, but there's nothing inherent about game theory that says betrayal always wins. Game theoretic models simply require an assumption that actors are acting to maximize their interests (note here that interests can include the ideal as well as the material -- maintaining friendships and being happy can be a preference/interest). Rational actor models often get glossed over by misinformed individuals as "selfish people acting selfishly" when that's not really the assumption at all.
posted by proj at 7:19 PM on March 13, 2007

There seems to be a misconception of game theory here -- you don't have to betray the people you play with in order to win. Hence "cooperative game theory."

That's not cooperative game theory.

In game theory, cooperative and noncooperative are very specific terms of art that have exactly nothing to do with the real meanings of the words.

Cooperative game theory deals with situations where players' agreements are enforced by some outside actor. Where you can write enforceable contracts. Games with referees, if you will.

Noncooperative game theory deals with situations where there is no outside actor who will enforce any deals the players make.

That is the only difference. There is noncooperative game theory in which the equilibrium outcome is highly cooperative -- assurance games are one example. There is cooperative game theory where the players might agree to do something morally hateful.

If there's someone enforcing the rules, Monopoly is indeed cooperative, but not for the reasons you thought.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:22 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great Channel 4 Blade Runner documentary at homodigitalis' link.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:26 PM on March 13, 2007

Care to elaborate?

The thing that bugs me most is that Century of Self, Power of Nightmares and (it seems) The Trap all want to tell the backstory of the mindset of western society ca. 1930-present. He presents each one as if it's telling the one absolute truth that explains everything, and you can't really do that three times.

And wtf elpapacito? Saying I didn't like the program is "baiting"?
posted by cillit bang at 7:47 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

He presents each one as if it's telling the one absolute truth that explains everything, and you can't really do that three times.

Hmm. I haven't gotten that sense, but I recently rewatched Self and haven't seen Nightmares in a while, so I'll watch that again with the new one and think about it a bit.

My feeling was that the 'secret history' aspect of the docos has deliberately given the nod to the idea that in some sense there are an infinite number of secret histories, but perhaps that's my preconceptions interfering. Either way, I haven't gotten the sense that Curtis intended to present the final words on anything, but, like I said, I'm going to watch again and think about that.

You're right, though, that the view that there is one correct way to look at history, one lens that brings it all into focus, is nonsense. I'm just not sure that's what these docos are doing.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:58 PM on March 13, 2007

I'll step in and take advantage of our local game theory expert to validate this example:

Let's have two players, A and B. They are in the desert and there is an hidden bottle of 1L of water. They can either

1. cooperate in the search , have a probability of 0.99 of finding water (almost certainity) and obtain each one 1/2 liter

2. not cooperate, each on their own and have a probability of 0.5 of finding water on their own, but the one who finds it gets it all

3. A kills B , so ruling out B interference, but still with 0,5 probability of findig water

4. B kills A, as above

so we have 4 possible moves. In theory, if both players have the same probability information and are rational, they should choose 1 because the chances are higher, even if the reward is only half.

on preview:
And wtf elpapacito? Saying I didn't like the program is "baiting"?
Well you didn't exactly say you didn't like..you said "it didn't work" letting a door open to interpretations of your msg being an empty critic like "u suck", so I tought you were trying to start some flame. That's it, no more no less.
posted by elpapacito at 8:10 PM on March 13, 2007

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by cillit bang at 8:27 PM on March 13, 2007

elpapacito: that basically works, except who's going to enforce our agreement to split the water if I find it first?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:49 PM on March 13, 2007

Yes, so there's option 5 and 6:

5. A and B cooperate, A finds the water first, A kills B.

6. vice versa

7. A and B cooperate, fight when they find the water, and injure each other. The wounds become infected.
posted by anthill at 9:12 PM on March 13, 2007

"Let's have two players, A and B. They are in the desert and...."

Step one - conspire to kill whomever's bringing you out to the desert.
I shared a win with someone in Diplomacy. Played it in school as part of a lesson. We teamed up. He enabled me to not have to watch my back, I eliminated his territory to one country (greater mobility for me) and took care of the competition. At the end of the game I shared victory. My teacher didn't like that. Said I had to have a decisive win to get a grade. I said I'd rather take the zero than betray someone who covered their end of the deal. So he cut us a break and gave us both some credit.
The game model is only as robust as the enforcement.
Enforcement is rarely naked force.

Just thinking of the retort from Curtis on 'Nightmares: "In a populist, consumerist age where they found their authority and legitimacy declining dramatically they have simply discovered in the 'war on terror' a way of restoring their authority by promising to protect us."

And of course Machiavelli - you only run things because people think you run things.
They stop thinking it, you stop running it.
S'why how things are run are so often open to negotiation.
As with my above anecdote.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:13 PM on March 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

We're going to be interviewing Adam this week, so I'm interested in this thread. We've also been provided with preview copies of the first two parts (the third is still being edited) and we've got synopsis and an interesting discussion. Yes, it's a self link.

The Trap: F**k You Buddy

The Trap: The Lonely Robot
posted by quarsan at 10:19 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Behavior on internet forums can be viewed an exercise in game theory as well.

Yours is a decent example, elpapacito, but I think it needs to be specifically pointed out that the optimal response hinges on the relative chances, as assessed by the players, of finding water alone and/or together. Game theory rests on probability theory. Change the conditions, and the optimal response changes. Consider a situation beyond the mere events of the game, as anthill pointed out, and the optimal response changes.

Further affecting the game is that the players may, or may not, be able to communicate. Each time a bit of information (true or false) is communicated to a player by another player, the optimal response for each will change.


1. A has lost his glasses and without them is nearly blind (75% probability of finding water in any square metre he searches) but is very strong and tough. B has only a 25% chance of defeating him in a fight. Keeping him alive will add to B's survival chances, which are unknown at this point. Since the players have different abilities, their optimal choices may be assymmetric.

2. A is two years old. B is her mother.

3. A and B both have immediate fatal allergies - one to Coke, the other to Pepsi. All that is known is that the buried bottle contains one of the two black fizzy drinks.

4. A has galloping hepatitic rabies. While he will live for at least a day if he gets water, anyone who comes within four metres of him will catch the disease. His disease makes him slow, irrational, and aggressive. We know he'll search as hard as he can for the bottle.

5. A, B and C search for the bottle. A wishes C to die; B and C are indifferent to anyone else's survival. How should A operate so as to ensure that C does not share in the water?

The problem with applying game theory to real life, and the reason why it's generally confined to games, and game-like situations such as corporate legal strategy, is that it's rare for players to know all of the rules of the game. But if you can get the simulation to the point where something unknown seems extremely unlikely, then the simulation is useful. (Tautological as that is.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:24 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Reading the synopses and reviews lead me consider Curtis on par with the big picture "Impact of things on human society" work of McLuhan and also, Vance Packard. Thank you for bringing this work to my attention.
posted by infini at 11:58 PM on March 13, 2007

Thanks for the interesting post. A few months ago I sat though "Century of the Self", that was rather fun. I will have a go at this documentary. Fascinating stuff.
posted by lone_one at 3:08 AM on March 14, 2007

homodigitalis: Some more stuff to watch...

Thanks for the documentary links hd... love those kind of resources. Another site I've found some interesting bits on is Educational TV, a blog recommending stuff (mostly on Google Video afaics)
posted by stumcg at 6:48 AM on March 14, 2007

Thanks for etvblog.com - that was new to me.

I am very happy that a lot of educational and brainy stuff finds it's way on the intranets and tubes - YouTube is mostly short and/or crappy kiddy stuff.

Excellent source for documentaries via Bittorrent: www.mvgroup.org

More and more political journalists and TV people bring their stuff on the web too - I just hope that channels like PBS, BBC, Channel 4 (for it's 'Dispatches' (on Mininova)) etc. open their archives for free or a small fee.

Related documentary to this thread: Frontline - News War excellent stuff about the current state of american mainstream journalism and the new stuff like blogs on the intranets (270 min).
posted by homodigitalis at 3:28 PM on March 14, 2007

Totally exciting post and links in comments. Thanks elpapacito! I love Adam Curtis' documentaries. Looking forward to watching these. Much appreciated.
posted by nickyskye at 9:15 PM on March 14, 2007

I watched it and am left with some questions:

on what grounds does he call the tv series 'Yes Minister' propaganda?
I don't see how the introduction of the DSM can be blamed for people wanting to conform to 'being normal'. Apparently it's the cold numbers or something.

Generally his documentaries sound a bit like diatribes against evil plots. That combined with his effective use of eerie music and ominous images makes it more of an effective political pamphlet and less of a documentary.
posted by jouke at 12:42 PM on March 15, 2007

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