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The Trap 02 - The Lonely Robot

« The Trap 01 - What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom

The Trap 03 - We Will Force You To Be Free »

Description

The Trap

Adam Curtis

Episode Two

The Lonely Robot

The second episode reiterated many of the ideas of the first, but developed the theme that 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 based on symptoms, but not actual causes, discussed in the previous programme.

People with standard mood fluctuations diagnosed themselves as abnormal. They then presented themselves at psychiatrist's offices, fulfilled the diagnostic criteria without offering personal histories, and 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, tribesmen 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 two decades to emphasise how the severely reductionist ideas of 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. According to Curtis 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 hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa by 48%
  • Reduction of global conflict by 6%

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 sole 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's narration 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, or psychopaths.

Contributors

  • James M. Buchanan, winner of Economics Prize for public choice theory
  • Philip Mirowski, historian and philosopher of economics and politics
  • Robert Rubin, economic adviser to Clinton
  • Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Clinton (1993-1997)
  • Thomas Frank, political journalist
  • John Maynard Smith, geneticist (speaking in 1976)
  • Napoleon Chagnon, anthropologist (filmed The Ax Fight in 1975)
  • Richard Dawkins, popularizer of genetics (speaking in 1987)
  • Paul McHugh, psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital
  • Robert Spitzer, chair of the DSM-IV task force
  • Dr Jerome Wakefield, psychiatrist
  • Arthur Levitt, SEC Chair under Clinton (1993-2001)
  • Itzhak Sharav, accounting professor
  • Kevin Phillips, political analyst
  • Brian Ferguson, anthropologist
  • John Nash, winner of the Economics Prize for game theory

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