Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)

The Trap

BBC2 TV has just started a new series of documentaries produced by Adam Curtis called the Trap. The first one was broadcast last Sunday (although my deferred viewing habits meant that I only got round to watching it yesterday). I’ll be watching the rest of the series – this looks like one of the most interesting ideas I’ve heard for a long while. Basically he’s questioning the belief in ‘personal freedom’ that has overtaken the West in recent decades.

This is a particular use of the word ‘freedom’, one that seems to have been adopted by such powerful people as Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. It comes from the the game play ideas of John Nash and the RAND Corporation during the Cold War and the core idea is that we are all isolated individuals scheming to get an advantage over everyone else. Once we accept this, a kind of equilibrium sets in (a Cold war rather than a hot one).

It explains a lot of the selfishness and ‘f**k you’ attitude seen in today’s society. People have grown up immersed in this point of view since the 80s so it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: we have been told that is how we behave, therefore that is how we actually do start to behave. Hence the politicians are now serving themselves, the civil service is out to make a profit for its staff, and we are all out to screw anybody we can. Next week’s episode looks at the consequences on management and business but I can already see it reflected where I work, with some managers using Macchiavellian techniques to get to the top, plenty of buck-passing and lots of people jumping on the latest idea whether or not it is actually any good for our users (or to use the modern parlance customers).

It will be interesting to see whether Curtis ends the series with any suggestions for getting out of the mess we’ve created. A possibly hopeful note was shown in that some of the early experiments failed because the subjects preferred to co-operate rather than deliberately exploit each other, and we are all aware that there remain some genuinely good people who avoid seeking advantage out of the misfortune of another. You see both types everyday on the Internet, from the spammers and trolls who try to exploit us, to the open source movement and those who provide information freely. I wonder how society would change if altruism became more prevalent?

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March 13, 2007 - Posted by | General

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