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.


Anonymous Stuart Mudie said...

Energy from orgasms? Sounds a lot like this!

12:18 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

That's fantastic! I've marked my calendar.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After you've watched this documentary, it certainly gives you a lot more awareness of what advertisers are trying to do ie (a lot... most of the time) trying to humiliate you - if nothing else works - into trying to buy their products. Take the Mac v PC ads. That's a good place to start. I even saw an advert for a drive-away-the-winter-blues bright light the other day referred by a very eco-friendly site. Again the message: you're a loser if you have a full spectrum light bigger than ours. C'mon, already, people! You can do better than this. :-)

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Nougatboy said...

Can we go to lunch yet?

12:16 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

How (a)pathetic! And no, I've already eaten.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Leighton Cooke said...

Good post. I certainly agree with the point about opinion polls and their influence on public policy. Mob rule and thus the logic of the flight to individuality. It is scary but also creates opportunities as the internet gives more of us a chance to participate in the prosumer lobby. Wikinomics will evolve into wikipolitics.

7:48 PM  
Blogger CoCo said...

Interesting post. I love docs like this. I always end up walking away thinking: I KNEW IT!!!! And feel so justified, and -- dare I say it -- above it all, esp. when I look around and see people out with their mobiles. (The absolute bane of my existence!) Have you ever noticed a couple on the street -- clearly on a date -- each on their cell phone to someone else?! Talk about skewed connections. Really quite sad, actually.

Thanks for this info. I'm going to check to see if I can get it on BBC-America...

9:50 PM  

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