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Pandora's Box, subtitled A fable from the age of science, is a six part 1992 BBC documentary television series written and produced by Adam Curtis, which examines the consequences of political and technocratic rationalism.

The episodes deal, in order, with communism in The Soviet Unionmarker, systems analysis and game theory during the Cold War, economy in the United Kingdommarker during the 1970s, the insecticide DDT, Kwame Nkrumah's leadership in Ghanamarker during the 1950s and 1960s and the history of nuclear power.

Curtis' later series The Century of the Self and The Trap had similar themes. The title sequence made extensive use of clips from the short film Design for Dreaming, as well as other similar archive footage.


The Engineer's Plot

This part chronicles how the Bolshevik revolutionaries who came into power in 1917 attempted to industrialize and control the Soviet Unionmarker with rational scientific methods. The Bolsheviks wanted to transform the Soviet people into scientific beings. Aleksei Gastev used social engineering, and even a social engineering machine, to teach people to behave in a rational way.

There was an ongoing power struggle between bourgeoisie engineers and Bolshevik politicians. Lenin is quoted as having said "The communists are not directing anything, they are being directed". In late 1930 Stalin had 2000 engineers arrested, and eight of the most senior were accused and convicted in the Industrial Party show trial. Engineering schools were set up to train party faithfuls in only limited engineering knowledge to not threaten Stalin's political powers.

Americamarker was seen as a model for the industrialization of the Soviet Union. The city Magnitogorskmarker was modelled on Gary, Indianamarker to be the perfectly planned industrial steel mill city. A former construction worker describes how they imagined a magnificent city with palaces, houses and parks, and how workers created a park with trees made of metal because trees wouldn't grow on the steppe.

In the late 1930s Stalin arrested and purged more engineers, this time old Bolsheviks. The beneficiaries of these purges were engineers who were faithful to Stalin, and were now put in charge throughout the Soviet industry, among them were Leonid Brezhnev, Alexey Kosygin and Nikita Khrushchev. They had only narrow specialist training, and were completely unquestioning of Stalin's political aims. They set out to plan the Soviet Union as though it were a piece of engineering, with technical solutions to everything.

Gosplan, was the central organization where engineers worked with planned indicators, rational predictions of what they knew society needed. Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk, from the USSR Academy of Sciencesmarker, describes how everything was planned in absurdum: "Even the KGBmarker was told the quota of arrests to be made and the prisons to be used. The demand for coffins, novels and movies was all planned."

Planners discovered that what seemed like rational assessment could lead to odd outcomes.Trains travelled thousands of miles for no other reason than to fulfill a plan that measured success in tonnes carried per kilometer. Sofas and chandeliers were made larger and larger because the plan measured material used.

Stalins successor, Nikita Khrushchev, tried to reform the plan and among other things he insisted that planners must take the price of things into account. The head of the USSR State Committee for Organization and Methodology of Price Creation is shown with a tall stack of price logbooks declaring that "This shows quite clearly that the system is rational".

Academician Victor Glushkov saw cybernetics as the solution to the issues with the complexity of the planning.

In the mid 60s Leonid Brezhnev and Alexey Kosygin took over from Khrushchev. They tried to use computerized economic planning to vitalize the failing economy. A group of three economists tell of how they assess demand using a nation-wide network of consumer correspondents, consumer panels and surveys, data which is then processed by computers. One of the ecominist explains: "The problem is industry responds very slowly to our scientific forecasts. For instance, we decided people wanted platform shoes. By the time the industry got around to increasing production they were out of fashion. Nowadays the Soviet consumer knows that if there is enough of a particular item in the shops it's a sure sign it's out of fashion."

In the late 1960s there were years of economic stagnation, and in 1978 stagnation turned into economic crisis. By the mid-1970s the Soviet leadership gave up attempts to reform the plan and the industry degenerated into pointless, elaborate ritual. Quote the narrator: "What had begun as a grand moral attempt to build a rational society ended by creating a bizarre, bewildering existence for millions of Soviet people".

To The Brink of Eternity

This episode outlines how the USmarker government attempted to use systems analysis and game theory to develop strategies to control the nuclear threat and nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

The focus is on the men of the on whom Dr Strangelove was allegedly based: Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter and John von Neumann. These were people who believed that the world could be controlled by the scientific manipulation of fear - mathematical analysts employed by the American RAND Corporation. In the end, their visions were the stuff of science fiction fantasy.

Features several interview segments with Sam Cohen outlining his experiences at RAND. He is the inventor of the neutron bomb and was with RAND 1947-1975.

Also features George Ball, the Under-Secretary of State in the Kennedy administration 1961-1966, and William Gorham, RAND Corporation Asst. Sec. Dept. Health, Education & Welfare 1956-68.

Also features an interview with science fiction author Larry Niven, who was instrumental in the creating of the Star Wars policies of Ronald Reagan.

Also features Robert McNamara, Thomas Schelling, Edward Teller and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratorymarker.

Similar material is also covered in the "Fuck You Buddy" part of Curtis' later series, The Trap, but To The Brink of Eternity has the focus entirely on the nuclear and military aspects of Cold War strategy. John Nash is not mentioned and the psychological and economical aspects of game theory are not included.

The League of Gentlemen

A programme on post-war economic management in the United Kingdom, and attempts to prevent relative economic decline and the perception of the 1960s Wilson governments that devaluation would jeopardize against national self-esteem.

By the mid 1970s, stagflation emerged to confound the Keynesian theories used by policy makers. Meanwhile, a group of economists had managed to convince Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and other British politicians that they had foolproof technical means to make Britain 'great' again. The saga of how their experiments led the country deeper into economic decline, and asks - is their game finally up?

Goodbye Mrs Ant

This part focuses on attitudes to nature and tells the story of the insecticide DDT, which was first seen as a savior to humankind in the 1940s, only to be claimed as a part of the destruction of the entire ecosystem in the late 60s. It also outlines how the sciences of entomology and ecology were transformed by political and economic pressures.

The episode appears to be named after the 1959 film Goodbye, Mrs. Ant. Clips from the 1958 horror movie Earth vs. the Spider and the 1941 grasshopper cartoon Hoppity Goes to Town are also featured.

Insects were a huge problem in the United States and farmers saw whole crops destroyed by pests. Emerging in the 1940s DDT and other insecticides seemed to be the solution. As more insecticides were invented, the science of entomology changed focus from insect classification, to primarily testing new insecticides and exterminating insects rather than cataloging them. But the insecticides had side effects. As early as 1946-48 entomologists began to notice that other species of wildlife, particularly birds, were being harmed by the insecticides.

Chemical companies portrayed the battle against insects as a struggle for existence and their promotional films from the 1950s invoke Charles Darwin. Darwin biographer James Moore notes how the battlefield and life and death aspects of Darwin's theories were emphasized to suit the Cold War years. Scientists believed that they were seizing power from evolution and redirecting it by controlling the environment.

In 1962 biologist Rachel Carson released the book Silent Spring, which was the first serious attack on pesticides and outlined their harmful side effects. It caused a public outcry but had no immediate effect on the use of pesticides. Entomologist Gordon Edwards retells how he made speeches critical of Carson's book. He eats some DDT on camera to show how he'd demonstrate its safety during these talks.

The spraying of DDT in the growing suburbs brought the side effects to the attention of the wealthy and articulate middle classes. Victor Yannacone, a suburbanite and lawyer, helped found the Environmental Defense Fund with the aim to legally challenge the use of pesticides. They argued that the chemicals were becoming more poisonous as they spread, as evidenced by the disappearance of the Peregrine Falcon.

In 1968 they got a hearing on DDT in Madison, Wisconsinmarker. It became headline news, with both sides claiming that everything America stood for was at stake. Biologist Thomas Jukes is shown singing a pro-DDT parody on America the Beautiful he sent to Time magazine at the time of the trial. Hugh Iltis describes how in 1969 a scientist testified at the hearing about how DDT appears in breast milk and accumulate in the fat tissue of babies. This got massive media attention.

Where once chemicals were seen as good, now they were bad. In the late 60s ecology was a marginal science. But Yannacone used ecology as a scientific basis to challenge the DDT defenders' idea of evolution. Similar to how the science of entomology had been changed in the 1950s, ecology was transformed by the social and political pressures of the early 70s. Ecologists became the guardians of the human relationship to nature.

James Moore describes how people try to get Darwin on the side of their view of nature. In The Origin of Species nature is seen as being at war, but also likened to a web of complex relations. Here Darwin gave people a basis for urging us not to take control of nature but cooperate with it. In popular imagination a scientific theory has a single fixed meaning, but in reality it becomes cultural property and is usable by different interested parties.

Twenty years later the story of DDT continues with a press conference announcing the stop of construction in a skyscraper due to a nesting Peregrine Falcon. Ornitologist David Berger criticizes the event for fostering the myth of the sensitivity of nature.

Joan Halifax talks about ecology as a gift to human beings and all species, a moral lesson that gave rise to not utopia, but ecotopia.

Politics Professor Langdon Winner theorizes that social ideals are being read back to us as if they were lessons derived from science itself. The scientific notions of the 1950s, the ideas of endless possibilities for exploitations of nature, are now seen as ill-conceived. And the ideas of ecology today may in 30 or 40 years seem similarly ill-conceived.

The episode ends with a quote from Darwin about seeking divine providence in nature: "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can."

Black Power

A look at how Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Gold Coast (which became Ghanamarker on independence) from 1952 to 1966, set Africa ablaze with his vision of a new industrial and scientific age. At the heart of his dream was to be the huge Volta dammarker, generating enough power to transform West Africa into an industrialized utopia. A scheme was drawn up together with Kaiser Aluminum, but as his grand experiment took shape, it brought with it dangerous forces Nkrumah couldn't control, and he slowly watched his metropolis of science sink into corruption and debt.

A is For Atom

An insight into the history of nuclear power. In the 1950s scientists and politicians thought they could create a different world with a limitless source of nuclear energy. But things began to go wrong. Scientists in America and the Soviet Union were duped into building dozens of potentially dangerous plants. Then came the disasters of Three Mile Islandmarker and Chernobylmarker which changed views on the safety of this new technology. The episode goes into some detail over attempts to find solutions for the China Syndrome hypothesis.

This episode was named after a 1953 General Electric propaganda film explaining nuclear power and features artfully chosen footage from this film.


The series was awarded a BAFTA in the category of "Best Factual Series" in 1993.

Notes and References

  1. RAND | Reports & Bookstore | Authors | G | William Gorham
  2. Internet Archive: Details: Goodbye, Mrs. Ant
  3. TIME
  4. Note: she is named "Joan Fairfax" in the show, subtitled with "The Ojai Foundation", but her real name appears to be Joan Halifax.
  5. Internet Archive: Details: A is for Atom
  6. Past Winners and Nominees - Television - Awards - The BAFTA site

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