13 March 2007

"All our problems stem from game theory!"

Milhouse: "The Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people ...
... under the supervision of the reverse vampires ...
[… and with the cooperation of the writers of Yes, Minister …]
... are FORCING our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner!"
(The Simpsons, Episode 113 — with a small addition)
Thanks to Jeremy for drawing the BBC's The Trap to my attention. More comments will follow, when I've finished watching it. (Link to an online copy can be found in one of the comments to this Samizdata post.) Off-the-cuff reaction: anti-intellectual nonsense.

One thing which writer/producer Adam Curtis has definitely got topsy-turvy is the attitude of the intellectual establishment to the Prisoner's Dilemma. As I said in a comment on Samizdata:

The Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) model has been used in the social sciences primarily to 'prove' the opposite point from the one Curtis is associating it with. Pro-intervention economists (i.e. the majority of British economists, in my experience) love PD because it's supposed to illustrate a type of market failure. I.e. because the two prisoners can't cooperate to generate the best possible outcome for their mini-society of two, the government has an excuse to intervene in analogous cases.

From my cynical point of view, this love of PD explains a good part of the popularity of game theory in economics, with all the negative fallout (in terms of gobbledygook-ing economic theory) which that has had.


Jeremy Jacobs said...

Will be interested in your opinion.

Mister Anonymous said...

Where did you get the idea for that Simpsons quote? It's so insightful - pitch perfect insight - it's quite frightening!

But then again that's why you have a PhD after all. Gushing over.

Fabian Tassano said...

Well thank ye kindly sir.

I don't know whether you caught the Curtis programme, but the Rand Corporation features as a major baddie. The analogy was just too good to pass up.

And there is something seriously paranoid about the style and tenor of the programme. (Those evil scientists have infected us ordinary folk with a malignant theory. Get out your pitchforks!)

Mister Anonymous said...

"Get out your pitchforks!"

More like Dada Meinhof!

I was thinking the other day about how strange it was that science, an abstract subject, had been personified/humanized in one way or another. I.E. A dehumanizing, controlling, earth destroying, amorphous napalm spraying, Cthulu entity thing.

Anonymous said...

Why the predictable paranoia charge? Curtis has constructed a narrative based on a series of observable events and linked them through the usual social and historical interaction of ideas. Since when has an attempt to explain the experience many people living under modern western democracies are having been paranoia?

This series has been a very helpful explanation for the real sense that while we are killing for democracy abroad, our own definitions of freedom at home are becoming increasingly narrow.

Fabian Tassano said...

I’m not sure how it’s relevant that my impression of the programme as having the flavour of conspiracy theory is “predictable”. I watched it without preconceptions. I hadn’t seen any of the reviews, though later gathered that some of them took the same line.

Yes, Curtis strung together a lot of disparate phenomena and made an interesting narrative out of it. I probably would have found myself bristling less if the whole thing had been prefaced with some statement like “we wish to make it clear that the views expressed in this programme are the personal views of Mr Curtis”. But with (instead) the imprimatur of the BBC stamped on it, it was hard to avoid the feeling that we were being lectured by the establishment on the correct way to look at things. And there was clearly an ideological agenda, very hostile to intellectuals labelled as "right wing" - in some cases, for no better reason than the fact they weren't obviously left wing.

I would probably have been more sympathetic to the whole thing if one of the central contentions hadn't been so glaringly wrong. If Curtis had argued that the robotic view of the individual stemmed from biology or even from economics, that would have been more persuasive. But it simply isn’t true that game theory has been a contributory factor. If anything, it’s the other way round: the success of game theory may be an effect of the dominance of the selfish-individual model. Although, personally, I think there are other more important ideological reasons why game theory has become so fashionable.

Anonymous said...

My sensitivity to your 'paranoia' remark stems from the popular - and therefore predictable - habit of attacking ideas (particularly these days when they run counter to the current ruling political ideology) by labelling them 'paranoid', a 'conspiracy theory', or frequently both in the same sentence.

Do you not have some sympathy with Curtis's efforts to answer the urgent question why the language of freedom is now so explicit, while at precisely the same time, our actual experience of of it seems to be becoming increasingly emaciated?

I find myself asking this question every time I drive past a new sign on an old bend near to my home that tells me at what speed I must legally drive round it. For me, Curtis's idea has helped explain the existence of that new sign.

Fabian Tassano said...

I hadn't noticed myself that it's common to talk about paranoia these days but I'll take your word for it. What do you mean by the "current ruling political ideology"? It seems to me that the ideology conveyed by The Trap isn’t that remote from the current ruling cultural ideology.

I have some sympathy with the attempt to answer the question "why does everyone talk as if we live in a terribly free, 'individualistic' society, when in practice what one sees is increasing conformity and regulation?" I tried to provide an answer myself in my book "Mediocracy". I wrote from what I suppose could be argued to be a libertarian perspective, while Curtis's programme seems to be coming from an Old Labour perspective. My book didn't find a major publisher (which didn’t surprise me), while Curtis finds the BBC providing a willing platform. You'll forgive me if I see some political bias at work here.

I found Curtis’s approach heavy-handed. Perhaps you’re supposed to work awfully hard to make programmes “accessible” these days, even for a BBC2 audience, though I feel most programme makers take this idea further than strictly required, and end up dumbing down their audience. But, especially if you are selling a political viewpoint, you should be wary of making your points by means of gimmicks rather than arguments. (Typical example: footage of Clinton - said to have cut back on welfare because some wicked economists visited him - accompanied by sad music.)

Why do I get the sense that you have some undeclared interest? You aren't a BBC person by any chance? Or perhaps that’s me being paranoid …

Anonymous said...

"Current ruling political ideology": New Labour; Tony Blair; party politics and the notion common in totalitarian politics, advertising and post-modern thinking that the truth is just what you say it is.

It's a cliche, but I think there is still much conflict between the many individuals who are engaged in what is loosely termed 'cultural activity' and the cultural elite who define the cultural norm to politicians and the media who then pass it on to the public.

I have heard Curtis suggest that while the BBC represents a significant part of this cultural elite and still sets much of the cultural tone for this country, the energetic undercurrent of ideas that always exists outside the Establishment and is not normally or easily let through by the gatekeepers for the usual reasons gets a surprising level of indulgence in the BBC. This Curtis has reasoned has more to do with its slightly shambolic organisation than it does with its unusual structure.

While I think Curtis has found a willing ear amongst viewers who are genuinely alarmed and looking to construct an explanation for the unexpectedly rapid draining away of their freedom not just to act, but even to hold thoughts, I don't think he speaks for the very top of the cultural establishment, which New Labour has made great and largely successful efforts to buy up, corrupt and cheapen. I think this helps explain why cultural life has been arguably so dumbed down over the last decade.

I agree that Curtis's approach was clumsy and occasionally innacurate, but I think he has made a genuine contribution to a debate desperate to begin. It seems to me New Labour and for that matter the next Conservative Government and even the US Government, as they now observe the returns to be gained by a population unable to contemplate genuine change, will be increasingly keen to deny this debate any real time. There is a real possibility as Curtis suggested in the last episode that we are heading toward totalitarianism by the back door.

Incidentally, I have no undeclared interest whatsoever. Just an interested artist who values ideas like they are my kids.

I shall enjoy reading your book.

Fabian Tassano said...

"I shall enjoy reading your book."

Well, there's no better way of disarming me than that. I hope you do enjoy it, it's meant to be entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

I couldn't face watching Part 3 and being exposed to more of what I experienced as left wing propaganda. But if you say it drew attention to the possibility that we are heading towards totalitarianism by the back door then perhaps it wasn't all bad.

I suppose part of why I found it exasperating was that it was picking up on the right themes, but seeing the wrong explanation in them. Curtis sees the villains as being science and free market ideology, I see them as being socialism and anti-individualism - symptoms of what Celia Green called the "human evasion".