Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Trap.

"The Wire" is a great HBO series about the Baltimore Police. One topic throughout the series is the importance of "numbers" to the Police Department: the amount of arrests made, number of homicides that took place in Baltimore, etc. It are these number that are used to promote majors to colonels and that make mayors win their elections. It's not about the quality of the police work, but about these numbers (and as a result they are jigged). This reminded me of a great BBC documentary that a friend suggested when in the Congo last year: "The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom". The documentary, made by Adam Curtis, consist out of three one-hour parts that explore the concept and definition of freedom. The documentary is an absolute must-watch! (Something you can do here).

The documentary shows how "a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom." By making use of contributions by people such as (this is just a selection of what I remember): Frantz Fanon, James Buchanan, Thomas Schelling, John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins, John Nash, and Isaiah Berlin, the documentary start by describing how the individualistic, "robotic" description of human kind has its roots in the Cold War with it's use in game theory, and then how it was validated by fields such as psychology and biology (think for example of Dawkins’s "The Selfish Gene"). Curtis continues by conjecturing that this zeitgeist combined with Berlin's concept of negative libery (freedom from coercion) was taken up by the public sector. The state was nothing more than a mechanism of social control and in order to create a stable society and true freedom it had to embraze a free-market economy: social safety nets were thus torn down, subsidies decreased, and state-owned enterprises had to be sold. Curtis argues that by doing so these governments (Blair specifically) had created the opposite of freedom. We now live in a society without meaning, populated only by selfish automatons. People have become slaves of numbers (e.g. output targets). Curtis argues that there is value in positive liberty (the opportunity to strive to fulfill one's potential) in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.

I enjoyed this documentary a lot. First, it placed connections between readings that I had not yet seen myself (e.g. Hayek and Hawkins). Second, I just can't get this feeling away that there is much truth in the main point of the documentary - and about how society has changed over time; with the decrease of social bonds and the increase of the individual and the importance of numbers. I recently read two books by Geert Mak
(here and here) about how Dutch society changed over the last century and that has only deepened this feeling. Also, I am sure that people who have ever shopped in New York's Century 21 (or any big US shop for that matter), or has tried to get internet for his/her apartment understands me. People are no longer given responsibilities. More and more, people receive a screenplay about how they have to behave and an output target to know what they have to achieve. Welcome to society.

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