Pandora's Box (TV series)

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Pandora's Box
Pandora Box titles.jpg
The Pandora's Box titles
Written by Adam Curtis
Directed by Adam Curtis
Starring Adam Curtis (narrator)
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 6
Producer(s) Adam Curtis
Running time 276 min
Original channel BBC
Original release 1992

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 Union, systems analysis and game theory during the Cold War, economy in the United Kingdom during the 1970s, the insecticide DDT, Kwame Nkrumah's leadership in Ghana 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 Engineers' Plot[edit]

This episode details how the Bolshevik revolutionaries who came into power in 1917 attempted to industrialise and control the Soviet Union with rational scientific methods. The Bolsheviks wanted to turn the Soviet people into scientific beings. Aleksei Gastev used social engineering, including a social engineering machine, to make people more rational.

But Bolshevik politicians and bourgeois engineers came into conflict. Lenin said: "The communists are not directing anything, they are being directed." Stalin arrested 2000 engineers in 1930, eight of whom were convicted in the Industrial Party show trial. Engineering schools gave those loyal to the party only limited training in engineering, to minimise their potential political influence. Industrialised America was used as a template to develop the Soviet Union. Magnitogorsk was built to closely replicate the steel mill city Gary, Indiana. A former worker describes how they went so far as to create metal trees since trees could not grow on the steppe.

By the late 1930s, Stalin faithful engineers like Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Nikita Khrushchev grew in influence, due to Stalin eliminating many earlier Bolshevik engineers. They aimed to use engineering in line with Stalin's policies to plan the entire country. At Gosplan, the head institution of central planning, engineers predicted future rational needs. Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk, from the USSR Academy of Sciences, describes the level of detail as absurd: "Even the KGB 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." The seemingly rational benchmarks began to have unexpected results. When the plan measured tonnes carried per kilometers, trains went long distances just to meet the quota. Sofas and chandeliers increased in size to meet measurements of material usage.

When Nikita Khrushchev took over after Stalin he tried to make improvements, including considering prices in the plan. 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 proposed the use of cybernetics to control people as a remedy for the problems of planning. In the 60s computers began being used to process economic data. Consumer demand was calculated by computers from data gathered by surveys. But the time delay in the system meant that items were no longer in demand by the time they had been produced.

When Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin took over in the mid-1960s, the economy of the Soviet Union was stagnating. By 1978 the country was in full economic crisis. Production had devolved to "pointless, elaborate ritual" and endeavours to improve the plan had been abandoned. 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[edit]

This episode outlines how the United States government and its departments attempted to use systems analysis and game theory to develop strategies to control the nuclear threat and nuclear arms race during the Cold War, and, more specifically, to manage the "loss of control" crises encountered during events such as the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.

The focus is on the men 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 to examine issues of America's national security in the nuclear age. One problem however was the seemingly unpredictable and irrational nature of politicians, societies, and individuals, which rendered elements of the theory difficult to apply, as well as the challenge of finding accurate, impartial, and unmodified data to base concise predictions on. In the end, their visions became obscured and the stuff of science fiction fantasy.

The episode 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. It also features George Ball, the Under-Secretary of State in the Kennedy administration 1961-1966, and William Gorham,[1] RAND Corporation Asst. Sec. Dept. Health, Education & Welfare 1956-68. There is also an interview with science fiction author Larry Niven, who was instrumental in the creating of the Star Wars policies of Ronald Reagan, as well as featuring footage of Robert McNamara, Thomas Schelling, Edward Teller and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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, such as planning for and against preemptive war. John Nash is not mentioned and the psychological and economical aspects of game theory are not included.

The League of Gentlemen[edit]

This film focuses on how both the Conservative and Labour governments of the 1960s attempted to use economists to engineer economic growth to specific targets, as well as programme 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 jeopardise 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 stagflation of the 1970s catapulted the then obscure economic theory of Monetarism to the forefront of political thought. By the late 1970s Milton Friedman had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics and even some Labour politicians were claiming that government attempts to grow the economy by injecting capital was causing more harm than good by driving up inflation. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher came to power and began to implement these new economic theories to drive down inflation by cutting government spending and raising interest rates, thus tightening the money supply. However, this both failed to end inflation and caused widespread job loss and industrial decline. By the early 1980s unemployment had risen to 2.5 million, British industrial output had declined by 1/6, and large scale riots had begun to break out in Britain. The Conservative Government decided to abandon the Monetarist project and lowered interest rates in an attempt to create jobs. In fact, by the mid-1980s Ms. Thatcher claimed in a television interview that she had "never subscribed" to the theories of Milton Friedman.

The film ends with many of the economists involved in the ill fated attempts to manage the economy arriving at the same conclusion their predecessors had 30 years before: they could only prevent an economic disaster not engineer growth. Other economists point out that other countries’ successes had more to do with focusing on improving their education systems and industrial bases rather than large scale attempts to engineer the entire nation’s economy. Another economist and adviser to Margaret Thatcher, Alan Budd, worries that the whole Monetarist project might have simply been an attempt to reduce the economic and political power of the working class by raising unemployment and lowering wages, as he puts it "creating a Reserve army of labor."

Goodbye Mrs. Ant[edit]

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 1960s. 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.[2] 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 they often ruined entire crops. 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 as early as 1946-48 entomologists began to notice that insecticides were having a negative impact on other animals, particularly birds.

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 emphasised 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, Wisconsin. 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.[3] 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 1960s 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 1970s. 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. Ornithologist David Berger criticises the event for fostering the myth of the sensitivity of nature.

Joan Halifax[4] 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 theorises 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[edit]

A look at how Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Gold Coast (which became Ghana on independence from the United Kingdom in 1957) 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 River dam, generating enough power to transform West Africa into an industrialised utopia and focal point of post-colonial Pan-Africanism. At first, it was hoped the U.K. would help finance the project, but after the Suez Crisis of 1956, interest was lost. Later, after meeting U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, American backing of the project materialised. A scheme was finally drawn up offering Kaiser Aluminum favourable conditions (including the smelting of aluminium imported from outside Ghana) and the dam was opened to great fanfare in January 1966. Weeks later, in February 1966, while Nkrumah was on a state visit to North Vietnam and China, his government was overthrown in a military coup (possibly CIA backed), and evidence of massive corruption and debt revealed. As of 1992, for many Ghanaians, the promised benefits of the project were still unrealised.

A Is for Atom[edit]

This episode was named after a 1953 General Electric propaganda film that explained nuclear power and features artfully chosen footage from this film.[5] The episode is 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. For business reasons, General Electric and Westinghouse decided that the types sold would be versions based on the reactors used in nuclear submarines, but sold with dubious claims made about their cost effectiveness and safety.

However, in 1964, at AEC it was found that while small reactors were safe, the bigger core sizes as used in power plants were potentially susceptible to Nuclear meltdown—an accident where the reactor core could melt through the bottom of the reactor containment vessel. A study showed that this could potentially happen, and if it did it could damage the reactor. These concerns were largely kept from the public. The episode goes into some detail over attempts to find solutions for the meltdown issue.

In the Soviet Union, reactors were considered too expensive until Brezhnev came to power. Under his reign, Anatoly Petrovich Alexandrov designed cheap reactors that were produced at high speed, with very few safety features, sometimes not even containment vessels. This was publicly criticized by experts, but the experts were sidelined.

In Britain, by 1974, delays of its native advanced gas cooled reactor powerplant caused Britain to adopt the American PWR design of reactors.

However, in America it was being discovered that safety systems that had to work to avoid meltdown could not be guaranteed to work reliably in the complex circumstances in a nuclear reactor. Tests run on the emergency core cooling systems to deal with pipe breaks, performed on AECs test models in Idaho in 1971, repeatedly failed; often the water was forced out of the core under pressure. It was discovered that the theoretical calculations had no correspondence with reality. Nevertheless, they had not necessarily proved that they wouldn't work on a real reactor, so they decided to carry on with mandated safety systems, that the best evidence suggested, may well not function in the event of an accident.

Engineers and scientists and regulators that tried to publicise the potential issues found that their concerns were not published, and these issues remained largely unknown to the public, and nuclear power had a high degree of confidence with the public.

Then came the disasters of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 which changed public views on the safety of this new technology. It revealed that the industry had hid the problems and unpredictable nature of these types of reactors, and that they had imposed risks on the public, without consultation.

The documentary ends with the points that the forms of the reactors were chosen only for business reasons. There are very broad range of scientific and engineering options which were not explored. Therefore, perhaps nuclear power should be led by public decisions and redeveloped, but from a more morality-centred point of view.


The series was awarded a BAFTA in the category of "Best Factual Series" in 1993.[6]

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