The Mythology of Science and Technology

Pandora’s Box: A Fable from the Age of Science

Directed by Adam Curtis (1992)

Film Review

Pandora’s Box is Curtis’s first documentary (at least that I can find on YouTube) about the history of perception management, mass indoctrination and collective thought control. His films, a treasure trove of the hidden history that is censored in our schools, offer a unique perspective on the role of government and media in manipulating the way we view ourselves and our relationship with society and the ruling elite.

First appearing on BBC television in 1992, the six-part series explores the collusion between engineers, corporate oligarchs and the public relations industry to hoodwink the industrialized world into believing science and technology would solve all the world’s problems. It was a process that granted a dangerous amount of power to pseudo-rational engineer/technocrats – who in many instances proved far less rational than the general population.

As Curtis demonstrates in Part 1, a parallel process occurred in the non-capitalist Soviet Union under Stalin.

Part 1 The Engineer’s Plot – concerns the powerful impetus to electrify and industrialize the Soviet Union after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin, who believed industrialization was vital to the success of Communism, was famous for the dictum: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification.”

Part 2 To the Brink of Eternity – concerns the development of Game Theory at the Rand Corporation (a right wing think tank closely allied with the Pentagon and US intelligence) and whiz kids like Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who nearly led us into a global nuclear holocaust. Clips depicting McNamara’s use of Game Theory to manage the Vietnam War are particularly comical.

Part 3 The League of Gentleman – concerns the capture of British economic policy by Milton Friedman’s pseudo-scientific monetarism under Margaret Thatcher. This would result in the total decimation of Britain’s manufacturing base and skilled workforce (and economy).

Part 4 Goodbye Mrs Ant – concerns the glorification of the chemical industry after World War II, resulting in the total contamination of the environment (and our bloodstreams) with DDT and similar synthetic pesticides. Curtis also traces the backlash against this environmental destruction that started with Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring and culminated with the birth of the ecology movement at the University of Wisconsin in 1968.

Part 5 Black Power – concerns the destructive myth perpetuated by Wall Street and the World Bank that massive technology projects would magically solve the problem of third world poverty. Curtis specifically examines the massive Volvo damn project the World Bank funded for Ghana (and Kaiser Aluminum) in 1960. And how shameless exploitation by Kaiser (and the collapse in the world cocoa price) left the country worse off than ever.

Part 6 A is for Atom – concerns the massive snow job the nuclear power industry did on the US, British and Russian public in promoting nuclear energy as a totally safe and cheap form of virtually unlimited energy. According to Curtis, nuclear engineers knew as early as 1958 that nuclear power was far more expensive than other energy sources – and would require massive government subsidies. They also knew by the early sixties that standard safeguard features were unreliable in preventing nuclear accidents. When they pointed this out to the Atomic Energy Commission, the government bureaucrats decided too much money had been invested in nuclear power to admit they were wrong.

The Myth of Individual Freedom

Another great series of Adam Curtis documentaries about the myth of individual freedom

Trapped: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom

Adam Curtis

BBC (2007)

Film Review

Part 1 Fuck You Buddy

Trapped is an exploration of the major thinkers behind the ideologies of extreme individualism and consumerism championed by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

“Part 1 Fuck You Buddy” traces the major influence Game Theory and so-called Public Choice Theory played in the pro-freedom ideologies that propelled both leaders to power. It begins begins by introducing Rand Corporation and their use of Game Theory to fashion America’s cold war strategy. Game Theory is used in poker to predict all possible best moves for each player. Because it allows you to predict mathematically how your opponent will respond, Rand scientists used it to calculate how far the Soviets could be pushed without resorting to nuclear war.

Rand mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) figured very prominently in this work. A number of cold war strategies are attributed to Nash, including the Nash Equilibrium, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Fuck You Buddy and the Sucker Payoff.

John Nash Proves that Altruism Destroys Social Harmony

Like radical individualist Ayn Rand and conservative economist Friedrich von Hayek, Nash argued that altruism was irrational and destructive to social harmony. In fact, he proved mathematically that the only rational choice in any encounter is to act selfishly and betray the other person. He and his fellow Rand scientists also proved nuclear disarmament was impossible – their equations showed the Russians would cheat.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?*

Ironically every time Nash tested the secretaries at Rand, women always behaved “irrationally” and trusted each other. In 1959, Nash was committed for paranoid schizophrenia.** Yet none of the technocrats at Rand never thought to question the validity of his so-called “proofs.”

Enter R.D. Laing

Over the next decade, Nash’s ideas spread beyond Rand and the Pentagon to the broader public, thanks mainly to the work of radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Laing’s contribution was to apply Game Theory to family life. Based on questionnaires he administered to hundreds of families, he produced mathematical equations showing that all so-called normal families continuously use complex strategies to selfishly manipulate one another.

Laing, who dismissed psychiatry as a fake science, became the hero of America’s counter culture anti-psychiatry movement. His ideas also led to the widespread mistrust of authority (i.e. anyone over 30) and institutions that characterized the sixties.

James Buchanan and Public Choice Theory

Conservative economist James Buchanan took Laing’s ideas one step further with Public Choice Theory. Buchanan maintained that politicians and bureaucrats who claimed to be working for the public interest were really self-deluding hypocrites acting in their own self-interest. He also argued that the only way to trust public officials was to reward them for behaving appropriately with mathematical targets, incentives and rewards.

Thatcher would became prime minister in 1979 by promising to free the British public from power mad, unsympathetic bureaucrats.

The Chinese Menu System of Psychiatric Diagnosis

Laing would also have a profound influence on both psychiatric and medical practice. In 1979, the growing influence of the anti-psychiatry movement would lead to a new psychiatric diagnostic system. Unlike physical illnesses, which are diagnosed based on history and physical findings, mental illness would now be diagnosed based on symptom checklists resembling Chinese menus. The adoption of this checklist approach also made it possible for people to “diagnose” themselves and to demand drugs and other treatment interventions to make them “normal.”

*The failure of the Fuck You Buddy model to work with women should have rung all kinds of alarm bells. Not that all women are necessarily more inclined to interpersonal trust and cooperation. However at the very minimum, someone should have taken a hard look at the geeky, Aspergerish types who relied entirely on cold mathematical models to explain social behavior.
**Based on everything I’ve read by and about Nash, I’m highly skeptical he suffered from schizophrenia. It seems much more likely he suffered from Asperger’s disorder complicated by bipolar disorder (which often presents with hallucinations and paranoid delusions). Prior to the 1970s, bipolar disorder was commonly misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Asperger’s wasn’t formally recognized until 1981.

Free link to Part 1: The Trap 1 Fuck You Buddy [BBC]