[tv] Charlie Brooker on Adam Curtis’s The Trap – What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom? (on BBC2, tonight, 9 PM) … ‘Curtis has an uncanny knack for hovering coolly above recent world history and spotting huge, sweeping, disturbing trends, then recounting them in a way that feels subversive and playful, thoughtful and entertaining, all at once. He has an incredible eye for archive footage, assembling one haunting montage after another, apparently from thin air. His programmes unfold like a series of revelations; watching one is like having all your slumbering suspicions about the world – suspicions so dormant you didn’t even realise they were suspicions – confirmed and explained for the very first time.’

Charlie Brooker on Adam Curtis’s The Trap

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 11th, 2007 at 7:52 am and is filed under Adam Curtis, Charlie Brooker, TV.

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I have published a synopsis and critique on my site ( but basically I thought it was very interesting but for three flaws:

1) The first episode did not conclude anything, and was ultimately unresolved

2) Curtis’s analysis is not always correct – he is stronger on his psychiatric home-ground than on other topics.

3) I fear that his intention is to question much of what has happened in the past thirty years. While there have undoubtedly been mistakes, there have also been successes and benefits. If the programme suggests that deregulation and liberalisation have been accompanied by a creeping centralisation and rising state power, then it is correct. But if it argues that we would all be better off returning to the age of collectivism and public duty, of trusting citizens and paternalistic administrators, then Curtis is simply swapping a flawed concept of freedom for no freedom at all.
I will watch avidly next weekend.

first sight of this programme – unaware of series

seemed poorly publicised as NONE of my friends/family were aware –
this was a shame since, no matter the possibly flawed arguments, the issues raised are exceptionally important and challenging


This was a terrific programme and verified much of what I had already suspected about about the new kind of politics which has become almost universally accepted.

Tom Papworth’s comments about the programmme end on a note which I think is missing something quite important. Far from going forward with the neo liberal application of modern Darwinism to society, we have actually gone backwards, as I think the programme acknowledged.
One interesting side effect of a return to nineteenth century laisez faire has been the recent fashion tren for all things Victorian.

In my opinion, it is not Adam Smith that we should look to for inspiration but his dejector, Karl Marx. Dielectic materialism offers a far more promising tool when combined with modern social science than Darwinism alone which the as the programme showed, fails to deal with the complexities of human social relationships.

The question is, can new labour rediscover its roots ? I suspect that such a turn of events would be highly unlikely and new vehicles for democratic socialism must emerge before the slide towards greater inequality can be halted.

Mr Papworths comments at the end of this contribution is very depressing. What is wrong with public duty, trusting citizens and paternalism. What is wrong with having strong controls on business practice because it appears they will continue to do whatever they can get away with unless there some controls. When accountancy firms fear loss of business from the huge, enormously rich and powerful companies they will, unless there are stricter controls, manipulate the figures to give a sometimes completely false impression of the company’s success. Our pension providers are investing in the companies. Be afraid be very afraid !!

I now understand why I have felt so alienated over the past 15 years. At the age of 18 I chose to train as a teacher – partly because I wanted my working life to be interesting, and partly because I wanted the purpose of my work to be to the benefit of society. I made a conscious decision not to be a “slave to capitalism” – not to work so that a company, or shareholders could get rich. Since the mid- eighties the ideals which I thought were shared, have been eroded. I couldn’t believe how fellow teachers could be so taken in by league tables and test results. I couldn’t believe that the vague and piecemeal national curriculum level descriptions, could be accepted by all as accurate assessment tools. Children actually now talk about themselves as “I am a level 2,3,4,5″ as though these are absolute fact. Like most others I have come to accept the imposition of targets – because I would lose my job otherwise – but what is depressing is that we waste vast amounts of time setting and talking about meaningless claptrap. I am embarrassed by the content I have to include in parent interviews and school reports. When I have tried to stand up for human values in the workplace I have been quite distressed by the robotic way in which management and some colleagues perceive their role.

The ideal of public duty has simply been lost – teachers are now there to climb up the ladder and push up exam results. Lets hope the tide will change again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a sense of public duty – it is simply caring for others as we would be cared for ourselves.

Saw last night’s programme by accident and found it riveting. Promptly managed to delete it by trying to set up a link for next week’s programme!! Is there any way I can get a copy of the series to use in teaching Humanities, Economics, Business, Citizenship etc?

Is there anyone who has a copy of last night’s programme. I recorded it for use in school and promptly deleted it by accident!

Thank you Adam Curtis and the BBC for a rare gem. At last someone who has thoughtfully given form to what we instinctively know is happening to society. It is stricking how far from the mainstream such programming is today and what crap the mainstream pump out instead.

When will this programme be repeated? I think is essential viewing for anyone who feels that they alienated.

Bravo ! & all Hail to Adam Curtis, the BBC & to Charlie Brooker – I hope and trust that you find my own Tower of Ba’bel zBlog an interesting “rabbit hole” to further supportive perspectives.

As a Dutch civil servant, confronted with a cut of 15.000 staff (out of app. 110.000) over the next 4 years as recently announced by our new Cabinet, I would recommend our supremos watching The Trap (and of course Yes Minister’s episode The Economy Drive) before taking any further action. Has The Trap been sold to any Dutch TV station yet?

Two variations on a theme:

1. I too, managed to fail to record the 2nd programme ~ for some reason I have the sound but no picture!

2. Please tell us when it will be repeated.

This was / these were very interesting programmes.

Most unusually it / they drew together quite a number of academic references. For myself I have yet to find a more compelling exposition of politics than that expounded by Hyeck in “The Road to Serfdom”. But where, please, will I find a suggested reading list to allow me to follow-up this particular series.

For Nigel Stephen (No6 above ~ I have a copy of programme 1)

I enjoyed the first programme in Adam Curtises series on the control that governments use on the people. The piece about Prozac being subscribed to anyone who couldnt move to the beat of modern life was quite an eyeopener. I will be watching the third instalment with great interest.

Curtis puts over what I already suspected in a very well packaged film. For years I’ve had pub chats on how modern politics seem to use obsolete management theory Management By Objectives (targets) and psychological effects of Asch conformity. Last year a civil servant who showed me how they process statistics, they get values and fit them to a binomial curve, I pointed out this is junk maths, he said well that’s procedure. Curtis showed a clip on Quality Mgt guru Tom Peters, what was not shown and what politicians failed to grasp was that actual target is meaningless, it was the process improvement that counted ie how the actual job was improved, the target metrics are only ever a by-product, this was why Mgt by Objectives failed in industry, hopefully politicians will wake up and learn that this idea went out in the 70′s. Concentrate on the system, not its outputs. Our attention should not be for improving any of these metrics directly. Merely modifying the primary variables associated with each of these outcomes will never yield improvement. The concern should be to optimize the system of government, since these outcomes are its products. Government have targets, but no method. i.e. no sound theoretical basis for the actions taken. The basic approach to reduce a target has been to close the gap by primary variables, e.g. timescales, revenues, costs etc. In industry this always led to bad practice which led to corporate stagnation or worse, complete failure, not something to apply to nations.

The presentation of The Trap, and indeed the programme following it on BBC2 on the problematic issues of alcohol in Nottingham (and elsewhere), confirmed to me the need for, and benefit of, an independently funded TV organisation and should be a positive answer to all those who complain about the licence fee. The ability of Adam Curtis to highlight the links between the financiers and marketeers,academia, and our political system must be applauded as should the decision of the BBC to show it. It certainly exposed the antics of those who claim to have some insight into the activities of our species and again highlighted for me the total absense of a conceptual framework related to behaviour and in particular the nature/nurture interaction with it. Given the present state of our society, and of the relationships which give rise to it, I would suggest that a debate designed to explore and develop such a framework within a political schema is crucial to the progressive evolution of our species … if we are not already too late. The Trap is certainly a positive contribution to this process. As with many of your commentators I hope it will be available for use as part of a renewed behavioural exploration process.

This progamme explained to me in the context of a GP why Labour has introduced Quality aspiration points in our method of payments. We were expected to hit targets. When GP’s over performed ;that is got higher targets than the Goverment expected and had budgeted for ; the consequence was they had to pay out more money and went over budget . The recent propaganda in the media to vilify GP’s as greedy is a way to claw back this money . This year GP’s have been given zero increase in pay to help the goverment get the money back.
The ideas of how people motivated like gene controlled robots was interesting . People will cheat in any game if they think they can get away with it . This was the main point I felt the programme had to say to me. I did not see the first one but will watch the last one.

A superb series so far. I particularly liked Adam’s final few sentences in the second episode.

“A new discipline called behavioural economics has been studying whether people really do behave as the simplified model says they do. Their studies show that only two groups in society actually behave in a rational, self-interested way in all experimental situations. One, is economists themselves. The other is psychopaths.”

To those asking where they can find it. The first episode is available to watch on Youtube.

Or it can be download completely below
(the second should be on the networks before too long)

Joanne Telfer: “we should look to for inspiration but his dejector, Karl Marx”

I make the point in my precis of the second episode, at, that it requires “the lack of hindsight that only a shift of generation can provide, [to] ignore the bleakness of the last period of interventionist government and the abject failure of Statist solutions.” Any suggestion that we should apply Marxism after the horrors of the Eastern European experience is shocking and very sad.

Jean Aldcroft: “What is wrong with …trusting citizens and paternalism.”

Sadly, trusting citizens are all-too-often taken advantage of. Paternalism is patronising arragonce on behalf of elected officials who believe they are better able to manage our lives from Whitehall than we are individually. It leads to tragic blunders on a vast scale. It also creates a generation of dependent people who look to the state to solve their problems rather than taking on the responsibility for ourselves. The result is the attititude that “They must do something about” every problem we face, rather than asking “What can I do about this?”

André Rodenburg: “As a Dutch civil servant, confronted with a cut of 15.000 staff (out of app. 110.000) …I would recommend our supremos watching The Trap…”

This sounds like a good example of the Public Choice Theory that the programme was talking about. Either your supremos are working in the public interest, in which case The Trap is wrong and you should accept your lot for the greater good, or they and you are trapped in a self-motivated battle to reduce taxes or preserve civil service jobs.

Jim McCorry: “…The Trap, and indeed the programme following it on BBC2 on the problematic issues of alcohol in Nottingham (and elsewhere)…”

That programme was as spoof, Jim.

I thought The Trap offered a very good dialectical analysis, involving a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of ideas and critiques. I thought that some of it was a bit simplistic, and that certain other areas were not covered much, such as how the West has created Islamic Fundamentalism and terrorism, but overall I thought it was a good series and hope it will be repeated.

An excellent series. Thought provoking. I merely watched and listened intensly. A fascinating documentary that didn’t go over my head too much. Gave me food for thought and left me wanting to know more. This is a world in chaos. Understanding how we got to this state is very important. I would like to see more programmes like this. I am now going to seek explanations for: the words ‘democracy’ and ‘rehetoric’ and why do we have to live in such a ‘postcode’ lottery of existence in our ‘little’ Britain? Every joke has a punchline somewhere? Doesn’t it.

Adam Curtis’s “The Trap” is a very unsettling piece of work. Brilliant but unsettling. Surely humanity is worth more than this? And yet…. the series points the way to answers that we are all curious about, even if we are unable to ask the right questions. Is that really how it all works??? How sad. We know that people are starving to death on this planet…. so…. why am I not doing something about it right now? Erm… perhaps Nash was right.

I thought “The Trap” was interesting, but at times Curtis presented ironic evidence. It was claimed that the model of humans as being rational and self-interested was too simplistic. Yet he then went on to present evidence that they actually are – eg. medical professionals and police doing things that meet the government targets rather than things that more directly for the public good.

Please oh Please where can I get a copy of Adam Curtis The Trap ? I Would gladly pay for it.

I have it on sky+, only watched the first two so far, but looking forward to seeing the third when the last two have sunk into my brain a bit more!

Would gladly share my recordings if I had a DVD writer or someone wants to tell me another way to do it (of course if it weren’t copyright infringement/pirating!).

I should think that eventually it will be released as a DVD or there may be a book on it, but as mentioned, the photo/video montages and music do evoke an atmosphere, perhaps too much in some places, leaving it slightly over dramatic…

In fact here it is already online and can be downloaded:

Absolutely brilliant series, but doesn’t go back far enough in its depiction of where our entrapping ideology comes from. The modern concept of freedom is based on private property and was first properly laid down by John Locke way back in the late C17th, and developed by people like Hayek into an economic theory. The individualist idea of game theory where we all scheme against each other constantly can be traced back as far as Thomas Hobbes in the same century, who said: “the dispositions of men naturally are such that every man will distrust and dread each other”. Interesting how far back these ideas go, and how much of our modern society is based on them. Great series.

Mr Papworth,

Whilst your comments are largely correct, Curtis alludes to the fact that the ‘paternalism’ of the post-war government was indeed under strain and in need of reinvention. I believe what Curtis is arguing is that, an economic system that treats individuals as economic beings without recourse to altruism, morality or ethical awareness is too narrow and partly responsible for issues that implicate, not only Britain, but the global community.

To suggest that Curtis wishes to return to a state based on ‘altruistic governance’ is tenuous, I think rather he argues that the individual take pride in developing their own community and society. He states at the end of the third program, ‘We must realise that Berlin was wrong, not all attempts to change the world for the better lead to tyranny.’

Also, to suggest that the Soviet Union model of ‘Marxist socialism’ is being put forward as an alternative is ridiculous, and misleading since no socialist would suggest that what was taking place in the Eastern Bloc was socialism at all.

The series neatly follows on from his last documentary entitled ‘The Power of Nightmares’ which can be downloaded from various places on the internet, and I recommend that you watch it. In that documentary he discusses the rise of ‘Politics of Fear’ in the neo-conservative world of the US and over here as well. Central to both these arguments it seems to me, is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Society is still coming to terms with this and political structures as well as economic structures do not seem to have adapted particularly successful. Continuing to treat the individual as a selfish, economically driven automaton is does limit the political and ideological discourse, which is never satisfactory in a ‘democratic’ society.

As the program shows, we are not the selfish, paranoid beings of Game Theory suggests we are, government and economics needs to recognise this, as do we. The academic field has begun to acknowledge this, and just as the game theorists of the RAND project went on to influence many aspects of public life, it is reasonable to believe that those who differ in opinion to the likes of John Nash, Issiah Berlin and von Hayek will influence politicians in the future, oblivious to the ideological hangover of the Cold War.

Impressive footage and convincing arguments. I’m looking for contrarian views on the thinking though. Dene Bebbington’s comments resonated at first glance:
“It was claimed that the model of humans as being rational and self-interested was too simplistic. Yet he then went on to present evidence that they actually are”

On analysis though this is flawed reasoning by Dene. The assumption is that we act as we are incentivised. Curtis makes the argument that the flawed/simplistic model gave rise to the targets, and these targets and incentives (carrots/bonuses and sticks/loss of jobs) influenced behaviour, CAUSING the flawed results.

You cannot then use these results as proof supporting the simplistic model! (Picture analogy: Esher’s waterfall: )

The hunt for valid contrarian views goes on… because Tom Papworth’s comments about collectivism and paternalism also being flawed have been proven true.

I think you can get a copy of this at Ian R Crane dot co uk, if this helps..

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