Pandora's box is a set of six documentaries concerning the impact of science and technology and society the 20th Century. Each episode is a story of how leaders of different societies strove to create a better, more controllable world based on science and technology but in the end their efforts failed when they came in contact with human desire, emotion and politics.
Although the premise sounds deadly dull, Adam Curtis' documentaries are always entertaining. The irreverent use of fifties music and clips from old movies serve to enliven otherwise dry subjects such as Keynesian economics versus Monetarism (Episode 3 "The League of Gentlemen") or the story of DDT (episode 4 "Goodbye, Mrs Ant"). The story behind the story is another constant theme and it is here that the documentaries really shine, there is lots of footage and material and interviews with key people showing that a great deal of work went into the researching of this series. The interviews in particular are of real historic interest and could never be repeated, as many of the individuals and institutions have since passed away.
Where he tends to fall down is that he sometimes makes some very tenuous links and comparisons. For instance in comparing the causes Three-Mile-island Disaster with Chernobyl, ("A is for Atom", Episode 6) Curtis seems to ignore the obvious point that in the Soviet Union safety standards were looser and life was cheaper than in the US. In episode 5 ("Black Power"), Curtis relates the story of the Volta Dam in Ghana and how the dreams of its leader Kwame Nkrumah to industrialize fell apart when big business got involved forcing him to accept poor business terms to get the dam built and the country descended into corruption. Curtis seems far too soft on Nkrumah's own responsibility for the mess his country ended up in.
Although decidedly left-wing, Curtis is no communist and even if your political views are right wing you will find this series thought provoking. For example Episode 1 ("The Engineer's Plot") on the Soviet Union is the best expose of the failures of state planning that you will see. Curtis has footage from the last days of the Soviet Union's planning system with interviews with the poor benighted Russians actually trying to make it work. Taxi drivers have to drive in circles to meet their mileage quota. Shoe manufacturers discover that their customers want platform shoes but by the time the factory is built, the shoes are out of fashion. The story of DDT (Episode 4 "Goodbye Mrs Ant") showed how the sciences of entomology and ecology were abused for political means by the environmental movement. The lawyer behind the case gleefully showed his strategy of showing that even minuscule amounts of chemical can be harmful. When it was subsequently proved that DDT was detectable in mothers milk, the public outcry was sufficient to get it banned. The fact that DDT itself is actually harmless to people is demonstrated rather shockingly by one advocate actually eating the stuff. Curtis is careful not to say that DDT is good or bad per se, just that when politics and business got involved, genuine science was drowned out.
You definitely get the feeling there is a moral to each of these stories but it is hard to say precisely what that message is. Perhaps it is we should be more skeptical about science. Perhaps it is that rationality is impossible outside science. In any case this is not unbiased history, Curtis has very particular and even unique slants on the stories that he tells. Despite this it does not suffer from being opinion. It is both entertaining and informing, whatever side of the argument you prefer.
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