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The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC television documentary series by English filmmaker Adam Curtis, originally airing in the United Kingdom on BBC Two in March of 2007. The series consists of three 60-minute programmes which explore the modern concept and definition of freedom, specifically, “how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today’s neoliberal idea of freedom.”
In part one entitled F***k You Buddy, Curtis examines the rise of game theory during the Cold War and the way in which its mathematical models of human behaviour filtered into economic thought. This episode traces the development of game theory, with particular reference to the work of John Nash (the mathematician portrayed in A Beautiful Mind), who believed that all humans are inherently suspicious and selfish creatures that strategize constantly. Nash invented system games that reflected his beliefs about human behaviour, including one he called ‘Fuck You Buddy‘ (later published as “So Long Sucker”), in which the only way to win was to betray your playing partner, and it is from this game that this episode’s title is taken.
Curtis examines how game theory was used to create the US’s nuclear strategy during the Cold War. Because no nuclear war occurred, it was believed that game theory had been correct in dictating the creation and maintenance of a massive American nuclear arsenal—because the Soviet Union had not attacked America with its nuclear weapons, the supposed deterrent must have worked.
Another strand in the documentary is the work of R.D. Laing, whose work in psychiatry led him to model familial interactions using game theory. His conclusion was that humans are inherently selfish, shrewd, and spontaneously generate stratagems during everyday interactions. Laing’s theories became more developed when he concluded that some forms of mental illness were merely artificial labels, used by the state to suppress individual suffering.
All these theories tended to support the beliefs of economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, whose economic models left no room for altruism, but depended purely on self-interest, leading to the formation of public choice theory. In an interview, the economist James M. Buchanan decries the notion of the “public interest”, asking what it is and suggesting that it consists purely of the self-interest of the governing bureaucrats.
The episode ends with the suggestion that this mathematically quantified society is run on data—performance targets, quotas, statistics—and these figures, combined with the exaggerated belief in human selfishness, have created “a trap” for Western humans.