New Adam Curtis Documentary, ‘The Trap’

March 12th, 2007

Adam Curtis, who made the documentaries ‘The Power of Nightmares‘ and ‘Century of the Self‘ has his new work broadcast by BBQ2: ‘The Trap’. This first installment is up to his usual high standards.

Its thesis is fascinating, and is similar to ‘Century of the Self’; a clutch of academics come up with ways of explaining the world that can be applied directly to human affairs, inagination-less politicians read their works, become enamored by them, implement them, and the side effects are entirely negative.

In this installment, the academic is John Nash, (who the insightful Mimi Majick immediately identified as being Autistic), whose work at The Rand Corporation and his “Nash Equilibrium” equations helped form the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Please watch this installment for the background.

Curtis explains clearly how the “Nash Equilibrium” works, and my first thoughts were these:

Equilibrium is a state that can be found at a large number of points in a dynamic system. Some we want, and some we do not want. If M.A.D. were carried out, we would reach equilibrium where no one had nuclear weapons and the threat would be over. There could be described as the equilibrium of unburied death. But that is just one possible outcome, one possible point of equilibrium, out of a near infinite number of possibilities.

We are all familiar with coupled pendulums, and multiple magnet toys. These dynamic systems take a very few elements running on simple rules which when coupled together, create a system that is impossible to predict, yet which operates within a gamut that can be unambiguously written out and expressed as a formula.

Human beings, when they are left to their own devices will interact in the same way and out of this will emerge a dynamic system. We can loosely predict the states generated by the result of huge human populations interacting as individuals, and we can cause changes in the states of these populations by increasing or decreasing inputs like V.A.T., propaganda or legislation.

Think of a stream of water coming out of tap. We have all played around with them. the shape of the falling water is constant when the speed of the water is not varied and the slightest increase or decrease can change it from drips a braided stream a spluttering gush or any one of an infinite number of variations in between. The point is that there is no one way to achieve any particular state of equilibrium, and we have to strive for an equilibrium that is desirable, not undesirable.

Nash did work that expressed in a formula how people could always make an optimum decision when they are interacting in an adversarial game. His theories work from the position that people are selfish, that they are adversarial, suspicious of each other trying to ‘figure out’ what their fellow man is going to do at any time, by nature. This is where Mimi Majick chimed in with, “That guy is AUTISTIC!“.

If Nash is autistic (at the very least, the documentary says that he was suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia when he did his award winning work) then it would make perfect sense that this is how he saw other people; sufferers of Autism cannot put themselves into the minds of other people; they cannot read other people’s faces or emotions; they live in a confusing world where other people’s behavior cannot be predicted. It is a frustrating world for them, and the have to devise their own strategies and rules of thumb to get along in situations that we all take for granted.

Nash, being a gifted mathematician will have applied his powerful skills to this ‘problem’, as it would have been very troubling to him that for all his life he could never read the emotional states and more importantly, the intentions, of other people.

The implications of this are frightening. Following Nash’s work was wrong not only because there are an infinite number of points of equilibrium in human interactions that are all possible (and more preferable), but because policy has been built around the affliction of an Autistic man, whose world view is totally abnormal and in fact, inhuman.

I can give two examples of humans reaching mutually beneficial equilibrium through the opposite of Nash’s distorted world view of inherent human distrust and selfishness.

The first is amongst the rough diamond dealers in Antwerp. Orthodox Jews in Antwerp can do diamond deals worth any amount of money and pay with slips of paper in exchange for goods. These ‘IOUs’ are as good as money. They all trust each other totally. This community has less friction than communities where there is distrust; you can do a deal anywhere and with confidence. You don’t have to run security checks or any of the high friction malarky that distrustful communities and relationships are burdened with. Everyone trusts each other, everyone makes a profit. No one is cheated. The community is in equilibrium, and the only way it can work is if everyone trusts each other.

The other example is that of Free Software and Open Source Software. In these software communities, everyone is generous and not selfish. We have all seen (and you are reading this on the results of) this approach. It has literally changed the world, for the better, and we are moving toward an equilibrium state where everyone has free software, all are benefitting, and anyone can make money off of the free software.

Imagine if Eric S Raymond worked for The Rand Corporation, and instead of the literally sick and abnormal world view of Nash, we had a variation of The Cathedral and the Bazar as the starting point for the position that we are in now. I think we would all be better off.

Perhaps in the future we will see a documentary describing how little know men like Richard Stallman implemented radical ideas that spread throughout society, changing it for the better.

I’m looking forward to the other parts of this documentary.

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