Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Century of the Self

The other day I watched the BBC documentary "The Century of the Self" by director Adam Curtis. I had downloaded it on a whim, thinking it sounded rather boring. A documentary about the rise of advertising and public relations in the twentieth century? I figured it would be fairly mundane and obvious. Was I ever wrong.

The Century of the Self clearly explains the history and politics behind the psychological tools big business and government are using to manipulate us. Maybe it sounds very basic, but it was astonishing how this documentary puts so many of the pieces of the puzzle together. You could call it bread and circuses. Or mind control, brainwashing and mass hypnosis. It's something we all know about but tend to put out of our minds.

Episode 1 is called "Happiness Machines." It explains the rise of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis in the period between the wars - how fitting into the little boxes society creates for people can supposedly lead to their happiness and well-being.

Episode 2 is "The Engineering of Consent." After the holocaust, politicians thought that the need to control the darkest elements of human nature was greater than they had previously believed. Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, decided to use his theories to create advertising propaganda to tame the dangerous forces he saw lurking beneath the surface of a seemingly happy and contented America. Because the word "propaganda" had become associated with the Nazis, Bernays renamed his brand of mass manipulation and coined the term "Public Relations."

Episode 3 brings in a much-needed element of fun. Named "There is Policeman Inside all our Heads He Must Be Destroyed," this episode explains the uprising against the Freudian theories by Reichian psychologists. The Reichians thought that it was the repression of peoples' feelings that was dangerous, and that the way to salvation was through free expression. Energy from orgasms, called orgone energy, giant guns pointed at UFOs, and radical lesbian nuns all make an appearance here.

Episode 4 brings us back down to earth with a thud. "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering" explains how big business realized that this new desire for individualism was their biggest marketing opportunity yet. They divided people into different consumer groups, marketed products to their vanity. At the same time, the rise in computer technology made it easier for manufacturers to create smaller runs of their products - and these small runs were perfect for consumers who wanted to be individuals instead of having the exact same things as their neighbours.

Finally, government got in on the action with highly targeted opinion polls. Here we relive the campaigns and leadership of Reagan, Thatcher, Blair and Clinton through the eyes of the opinion polls and their subsequent reactions. Instead of using these polls simply to gauge public reactions to their campaigns, politicians actually began to tailor their domestic and foreign policies to reflect what the public wanted.