The art of social engineering

The desire to change society for the better is a driver for many people. It takes many forms and whether expressed through writing, politics, media or business, there is a constant push-and-pull of conflicting aims that we all have deal with. What results is a messy social hotchpotch, built of superstars, super-villains, those that aspire to emulate their heroes and those that renounce the whole crazy show.

The forces of Globalisation make the shape of society all the more complex. Taking a coherent snap-shot that explains social hierarchies depends very much on your position within its folds. However, it is possible to identify dominant trends and by considering the direction they lead, it is sad to acknowledge that the outlook for the majoritydecision population seems pretty bleak.

A criticism often levelled at social malcontents is that they never propose an alternative vision. If seems that if you want to denounce the evils of the world, the expectation is for a Utopian vision to be proposed in its place, despite the fact that Utopian visions are often gross-simplifications that when pushed to their logical extremes, can result in yearnings for a Master Race, divine law or New World Order. However, if something needs to be proposed, what could be more desirable than a society where everyone can expect a long, healthy and productive life?

In 2015, research conducted by Groupon found that 37% of British adults now either run their own business or are planning to start their own business with 12% of 16-24 year-olds saying they started or are planning to start a business rather than attend university. The superstar hedge-fund manager, financial deal-maker or technology whizz-kid is a hero in British society, especially to the government managing the British state as these ‘heros’ in London’s financial services generated £66.5bn in taxes during the last financial year, the highest level since before the banking crisis.

The decision to create the conditions needed to produce a society of dynamic, aggressive, entrepreneurs can be traced back over 60 years to the heart of a giant blast-proof bunker 30 miles north of New York at he height of the Cold War.

As the film maker Adam Curtis explains in ‘The Trap’:

Built in the late 50s it housed the largest computer in the world. Linked to a system of radars around the world which constantly watched the Soviet Union. Every second thousands of pieces of information poured into this room to be analysed for signs of danger. [The American military]knew they were dealing with a completely new type of conflict that neither side could let get out of control because of the terrifying consequences. So the strategists wanted to find a way of using this information to understand what the Soviets might be about to do. And to do this they turned to a new idea called Game Theory.

Game Theory had been developed as a way of mathematically analysing poker games. It looked to the game as a system where the players are locked together, each trying to work out what the other thinks they will do. From that, Game Theory showed rationally what the best moves were for each of the players.

The centre for developing nuclear strategy was a military think tank called the RAND Corporation. The strategists at RAND used Game Theory to create mathematical models to predict how the Soviets would behave in response to what they saw the Americans doing. And out of this came the fundamental structure of the nuclear age. Hundreds of missiles protected in silos underground, just as in a game, they were strategic moves to convince the Soviets that if they attacked, America would always have enough missiles to destroy them in return.

And in the rules of this game, fear and self-interest stop the Russians from attacking. But it created a stable equilibrium called the delicate balance of terror.

At the heart of Game Theory was a dark vision of human beings who are driven only by self-interest, constantly distrustful of those around them. There was a mathematician at the RAND Corp. who would take this dark vision further, He set out to show that one could create stability of suspicion and self-interest not just in the Cold War but in the whole of human society. He was the mathematical genius, John Nash.

Nash was portrayed in the Hollywood film beautiful mind as a tortured hero. In reality Nash was difficult and spiky. He was notorious at RAND for inventing a series of cruel games, the most infamous he called, FUCK YOU BUDDY in which the only way to win was to ruthlessly betray your game partner.

Nash took game theory and try to apply to all forms of human direction. To do this he made a fundamental assumption that all human behaviour was exactly like that involved in a hostile competitive world of the nuclear standoff. In a series of equations for which he would win the Nobel Prize was the notion that a system driven by suspicion and self-interest did not have to lead to chaos. He proved that there could always be a point of equilibrium in which everyone self-interest was perfectly balanced against each other’s.

A rising tide lifts all boats

But the stability of the equilibrium would only happen if everyone involved behaved selfishly. Because if they cooperated the results became a predictable and dangerous. A famous game was developed at RAND to show that in any direction selfishness always lead to the safer outcome. It was called the prisoner’s dilemma. There are many versions, all of them involve two players having to decide whether to trust or betray each other.

The prisoner’s dilemma
imagine you have stolen the world’s most valuable diamond, you have agreed to sell it to a dangerous gangster. He offers to meet you to change the diamond for the money, but you think he may kill you, so instead you tell him you will take it to a remote field and hide it. While the same time he must go to another field hundreds of miles away and hide the money. Then you will call him and each will tell the other hiding places. But just as you’re about to make the call you realize you could betray him, you keep the diamond and then you go and get the money while the gangsta searches for it was Lee in an empty field. But in the very same moment you realize that he probably thinking the same thing that he could betray you. You have no way of predicting how the other person will behave bad as the dialogue. But what Nash’s equation showed was that the rational choice was always the train the other person. Because that way at the worst you got to keep the diamond at the best you got both the diamond and the money.

What Nash had done was to turn that into a theory of how the whole of society worked. It had enormous implications for politics because it proved that one could have a society based on individual freedom that wouldn’t degenerate into chaos. But the price of that freedom would mean a world in which everyone would have to be suspicious and distrustful of their fellow human beings.

Adam Curtis

Ambitions were quite different in the years following the Second World War. Post-war Britain saw the formation of The New Towns Committee, set up in 1945 to provide a solution to inner-city slum housing and the problems of overcrowding and ill-health that were directly linked. In the committee’s first report it was declared that:

Our responsibility, as we see it, is rather to conduct an essay on civilisation, by seizing an opportunity to design, evolve and carry into execution for the benefit of coming generations the means for a happy and gracious way of life.

With a team of planners and designers from around the world, the committee’s first Chief Architect Hugh Wilson began what they considered a social experiment of epic proportions. Their aim was nothing less than to rebuild a war-torn but victorious Britain as a modern utopia, a perfect society where all the flaws of the past were literally designed-out with the New Towns Act of 1946 cementing this vision. From the 1950s until 1970, considered and modernist ‘perfect’ concrete environments from which their human inhabitants would adapt and eventually emulate emerged. Basildon, Cumbernauld, Cwmbran, Glenrothes, Harlow, Milton Keynes, Runcorn, Skelmersdale, Welwyn Garden City where built, dotted across the UK with Central Lancashire the last to be completed.

This vision spilled into many urban developments and with champions in Britain such as Patrick Abercrombie, JR James and Geoffrey Copcutt and developments and ‘megastructures’ like Thamesmead, Brunswick, Alyesbury, Park Hill, Hyde Park, Norfolk Park, Byker Wall and Cumbernauld’s town centre. While not all thrust upwards, those that did envisaged the inhabitants as living upon streets in the sky, vertical living that elevated humans into the domain of the gods.

Planning had become centralised and driven by the State with the apparent paternalistic zeal of creating a perfect society for us all. As people were moved from slums to the new housing, they had, for the first time internal toilets and bathrooms, space for children to have their own rooms and even balconies with views spanning the whole new society and its promise of health, hygiene and longevity.

The brave new world that emerged was initially well received, but over the following years, problems with poor construction, mismanagement and the British weather blunted the optimistic mood of successive governments. By the 1980s, Margret Thatcher’s Government introduced its Right to Buy scheme, the outcome of which, ultimately passed control of council housing into private hands and so heralded the end of a collective Utopian dream.

The Brutalist legacy and honesty of function-finds-form became the backdrop for all of societies ills and the residents demonised as criminals and self-governing tribes separate from society-at-large and lawless. The fall from grace, from gods to devils was dramatic. In this new-world-gone-bad the only logical choice was to see your neighbours as a threat and take steps to protect yourself, transposing Cold War thinking from a global to local level. With Game Theory very much at the heart of the Dystopian projection of 1980s Britain, the seeds were sown for the aspirations and idols we now have and the ever-growing rift between societies winners and losers.