Pandora's Box, E1: The Engineers' Plot





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Published on Apr 28, 2012

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.

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

The Engineers' Plot

This episode details how the Bolshevik revolutionaries who came into power in 1917 attempted to industrialize 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. Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labour (TsIT), Soviet think tank dedicated to the improvement of industrial efficiency.

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 minimize their potential political influence. Industrialized 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 60s, 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".

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