Friday, January 30, 2015

Pandora's Box (1992)

Created & Narrated By: Adam Curtis


It is Adam Curtis's six part documentary series which looks at the consequences of exploiting technological and and political ideas without understanding and concern for the future. The message is that technocratic-rationalism is not panacea and the way he deals with it is by being nuanced and not by being bizarrely science-phobic like many environmentalists do.

The episodes are:

1) The Engineer's Plot:  The episode is on the socialist experiment of USSR which can be called as a social engineering project with science and reason playing a key role. Lenin had declared that communism means power of the soviet plus electrification. Episode looks into how technology and rationalism was inculcated into the Soviet model even though Stalin evolved it subsequently into putting Engineers at the forefront of Russian economy after a couple of purges leading up to the World War. After the World war they played a key role in the rebuilding of Russia and began to take even more central role in Gosplan, the planning commission responsible for 5 year plans. They ran the country trusting their ability to plan everything ahead and fulfilling the needs of people by conducting surveys and what not. They used to keep a price list of 25 million items as it became more and more ridiculous with increasing complexity. It can be summed up by the conclusion that Russian consumers would conclude that a particular product to be out of fashion if they are available in abundance. 

2) To the Brink of Eternity: This episode outlines how game theorists and strategists, who held sway under McNamara, developed strategies to control the nuclear threat and nuclear arms race during the cold war. Their strategies looked ridiculous when applied to situations like Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam war since it relied very much on the players acting in a rational manner. The focus is on men such as Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter and John von Neumman , based on whom Kubrick had developed the character of Dr. Strangelove. The episode concludes that the post world war two period up to the end of Soviet Union was an anomaly in world history where it had two superpowers which influenced almost every things in the world through a cold war perspective. After the cold war, the complexity increased which is a remarkable conclusion that Curtis drew in 1992 itself and has been proven right by the events after the end of cold war. This can be seen again in his later documentary: 'The Power of Nightmares' which dealt with the engineering of fear among people to keep and exercise power which was adopted by both neo-conservatives in US and Jihadists in Islamic countries.

3) The League of Gentlemen: This episode deals with post world war England coming into terms with its post colonial decline. It documents how the Labour government which came to power in the 1960s, after a Tory driven bubble about to burst, went against the Keynesian logic of depreciating its currency out of insecurity about its  standing in the World only for it to lead into Stagflation. Stagflation was explained by the monetarists like Milton Friedman who influenced the policies of Margaret Thatcher. When she came to power in the 80s inflation was put as the only agenda for the Central Bank and began to tighten the interest rates, against the Keynesian logic, leading to the death of many of England's industries. So in this episode Monetarism was the fad which was used without proper understanding of the consequences and the conclusion that can be made is that Economics is not a Science which is something that we all intrinsically know after the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.

4) Goodbye Mrs. Ant: This episode deals with the chemical industry which was projected as capable of solving all the problems during the 50s. DDT was hailed and sprayed all over America and is another example of the danger of Corporations taking a technology to make profits without proper understanding/concern about the future. They used Darwin's Natural Selection as justification for the actions that these chemicals take and when the inevitable backlash came in the 70s with Environmentalism, they also used Darwin to justify their actions. The problem is that when both sets of people take extreme and ludicrous positions in these kind of issues what is really gonna happen is worst of both worlds. 

5) Black Power: This episode is about Ghana which after getting its independence projected Volta River Dam project as its flagship program for industrialization. Financing for dam was obtained after roping in US corporation Kaiser to build an Aluminium smelting plant using the power obtained from the dam. By the time the dam was completed the country was reeling with corruption and the ruler with good intentions was replaced by a CIA engineered military coup, with Ghana being another pawn used in cold war. I found this episode to be the most interesting since it highlighted how difficult it is for democracy to survive in a newly independent country. Made me thankful about how things played out in India, despite its democratic precariousness and the nationalist dickheads that rule the country now.

6) A is for Atom: This episode deals with the rise of nuclear technology and industry. It is another case of corporations behaving in a psychopathic manner after hijacking the technology. I really don't understand the clamor for nuclear power in India, at least among those who are in power, since there is no way I could  trust it in such a corrupt and venal system. Even the developed countries struggled with it and the sector as a whole is on the decline which makes it even more dangerous.

Like most of the Adam Curtis documentaries that I have watched it is illuminating as well as depressing. He is someone who can see how things are going to get played out in the future and his prediction, at the time of Arab Spring, that twitter was going to be just an an echo-chamber for like minded people without much scope for true political impact turned out to be precise. What I especially like about him is that he is not a conspiracy theorist since there is no elaborate plan that he is revealing. It is just a case of people in power acting in a self-interested manner making decisions that leads to grave and unintended consequences.

Rating: 5/5