The Trap: What Happened To Our Dreams of Freedom?, BBC2

by | Mar 11, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A profoundly enlightening, but by no means flawless, analysis of how Western governments have attempted to erode emotion and instil predictability in their subjects through complex mathematics.

What was good about it?

• Creator and writer Adam Curtis’ bored narration. It’s not a case of bored equals boring, more a case of bored means “you really should know this and I feel aggrieved that I’m actually having to tell you this at all”. Such a technique evokes a sense of hypnotic guilt in the viewer that they really should watch this, else founder in a sea of stupidity for the rest of their lives.

• One of Curtis’ great skills is to gather up all the loose threads of political lies and shape them into a coherent argument that exposes the schemes by which governments seek to control the population. Game Theory is based on the work of Friedrich Von Hyk, a post WWII theorist who believed all human actions are based on self-interest. This was adapted first as a way for the US to manage the Cold War, which essentially boiled down to creating an impasse between the Super Powers as each could only ever achieve a pyrrhic victory with nuclear weapons.

• The Trap then went on to elucidate how John Nash (played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) sought to extrapolate Game Theory to the general populace through showing how all human interaction is just a succession of strategies for everyone to selfishly get what they want from any given situation.

• Nash’s work was expanded upon by Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing whose pioneering work with patients in asylums led him to conclude that all family and social interactions were simply ways to control one another, so that a kind act was not done out of altruism but so the receiver of the kind act could be better controlled. Ultimately, Laing reduced all human thought and emotions to a mathematical formula.

• Laing caused psychiatry in the US to pretty much collapse, and he was helped by the work of one of his disciples, David Rosenhan. Rosenhan and eight students went to asylums and said that they heard a voice that simply said the word “thud”, but otherwise acted perfectly normally. All nine were sectioned and eventually had to agree that they were ill and then ‘get better’ for them to be released. Upon his release three months later, Rosenhan publicised his ruse. An indignant hospital challenged him to send them more fakes who they would root out with their fail-safe procedures. It later claimed to have uncovered 41 of Rosenhan’s ‘fakes’ – Rosenhan revealed that he had actually sent no ‘fakes’ to the hospital at all.

• This resulted in mental illnesses being diagnosed in a completely different way through number systems – adapted from Game Theory – and it gave birth to the conditions we know today such as ADH and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Which may seem like progress until a survey in the 70s showed that about 50% of all Americans suffered from such an illness. The shockwaves still reverberate to this day as perfectly normal people believe they are suffering from one of these innumerable conditions and demand that they are made ‘normal’.

• Margaret Thatcher exploited Game Theory when she renovated/wrecked the NHS. She did so by revising how Game Theory had been inflicted on politicians so they no longer acted in the ‘public interest’ but in their own interest and towards their own goals, thus removing the inevitable conflict and to promote greater efficiency.

• NHS workers were encouraged by performance incentives in the form of money rather than gaining pleasure from the joy of helping the sick and infirm. It was argued that this freed workers from the “oppression” of the medical establishment and that they could work towards their own goals and “objectives” – with the downside that they no longer cared about the public good.

• New Order’s Age of Consent bizarrely popped up for no reason whatsoever.

What was bad about it?

• Should The Trap have been shown on television? In one sense the answer must be ‘no’ as it was too complex to be crammed into a one-hour episode. It would be better-suited being drawn up in a dusty academic tome in which all the source material could properly be explained.

• And furthermore, the screen was often a show reel of confused Western citizens from the 40s to the 80s who all looked as of they were pondering the futility of their existence. Whether young men in the 50s styling their hair, teenagers in the 60s dancing as if merely killing time until they filled a hole in the ground, a young black man stating intensely into the middle-distance on a 70s bus, or an officious over-smart businessman with an umbrella – the imagery all served to compound the dogma of The Trap, of populations unwittingly in the thrall of nefarious governments.

• However, how many people would have learned about Game Theory and its role in 20th century politics and society if it had been entombed in an obscure corner of a university library. Ten? Twenty? By appearing on TV it immediately would reach about two-three million, and provoke a proportion of them to study Game Theory further. So in that conclusive sense, The Trap is suited to TV.

• As The Trap crystallises all those vague feelings of injustice that many people feel towards Western governments, there is the sense that it is too easy to swallow whole any such detail presented as fact as it pinpoints an unconscious sense of outrage.

• One such instance was that Game Theory was abandoned as a strategy in the Vietnam War as it was partly based on bodycount incentives where US soldiers would be rewarded for the more enemy kills they made. It was abandoned, the programme claimed, because US soldiers were murdering Vietnamese civilians to hit their targets (helpfully illustrated by a number of dead Vietnamese civilians).

• Were all, or indeed any, Vietnamese civilians shot because of Game Theory? Other than Curtis, there was no independent testimony; and what better way to turn the viewer against the ‘evils’ of Game Theory than to blame it for soldiers murdering civilians?

• And another inference the viewer seemed to be subjectively invited to draw was that Mrs Thatcher’s policy on the NHS in 1988 is solely responsible for the mess it’s in now. Because many people, certainly not us, will not remember what it was like almost 20 years ago it’s too facile for The Trap to suggest it was full of sunny, bright clean wards with Carry On-style matrons prowling the corridors while junior doctors and nurses had so much spare time they had intimate liaisons in the linen closet and that it was only as the fetid shadow of Thatcherism passed over Britain that in one fell swoop beds became full to bursting, wards resembled WWI trenches through which cockroaches march like a Red Square parade and operating theatres came under the stewardship of accountants.

• It’s bloody difficult to dilute the philosophies examined in The Trap without reducing them to GMTV-sized idiot sound bites or making it as convoluted as the academic theories upon which they are based.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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