James Burke: Connections

DVD Box set

Just recently, mostly because of the recent release of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Archive (which I recently mentioned), I seem to have developed an interest in documentaries from that time, especially when talking about societal and technological change. As it happens, I’ve just been listening to an old episode of the superb Adam Buxton Podcast, wih Adam Curtis. which talks about a lot of the same issues from a slightly different perspective. It’s certainly worth a listen.

When I was watching The Silicon Factor, I remembered seeing some footage of James Burke talking about the dawning of the so-called Information Age that seemed to permeate a lot of the media of the time. And then I thought about Connections, the programme that footage came from. I remembered how much of an impression it had made on me as a nerdy eight-year old sitting in my bedroom in Middlesbrough (oh yes, I knew how to party!). I had a powerful urge to go and buy the DVD and see if my childhood memory was fooling me, or whether it still had something to say.

The answer? YES. It does. And quite strikingly so.

The first nine episodes are in themselves fascinating as historical and analytical content, and cover the development of parts of the modern world from first principles. For example, in episode 1, we start with the great 1965 Northeast Blackout, and work backwards to the plough. As the series goes on, Burke talks about telecommunications, air travel, the financial system, and the coming infromation age and ties them into the complex nexus of inventions and events that brought us to these points.

And this, in fact, is the theme of the whole series: connnections, hence the name. Burke’s main thrust is that our world is built on a complex, ever-evolving set of connections. How things got to be the way they were was not a simple linear sequence, or the work of huge towering genius, but a huge, entangled web of cause, effect, cross-pollination and coincidence. Of people building mostly incrementally on the work of others, adding a little new thing at a time, or repurposing something that already was in. new place or way. There are many that fail to understand that. Perhaps that explains the instrumental, linear way that public funding for science and technology is working now, for example.

Some of it is certainly quaint, and of its time (not least Burke’s dress sense), but the world pictured is not that different to ours, though it’s forty years distant. It’s one we can mostly recognise (or recall). And the major changes are, as Burke gets mostly right, about computing, though it was difficult to see then just how speedy and all-pervading the changes might be.

The very last episode, Yesterday, Tomorrow and You, recaps the whole series, but goes further, and asks some very awkward questions about the kind of world we want to live in.

The clip below is quite startling, really. It suggests a world that is possibly a continuation on the principles of Enlightmentment, on the thinking of people like Immanuel Kant. A world that is mostly founded on rationality, and the tentative, if not always enthusiastic, acceptance of the forces of progress.

What is scary is that we aren’t in that world. We find oursleves in a world where the leader of what is, for now, the world’s most economically and politially powerful nation, is an imbecile, surrounded by a coterie of people willing and eager to deny the kinds of truth that Burke talks about. A world where every semblance of progress seems to have those forces wishing to roll them back as aggressively as they can. This is a world of religious zealotry, of climate change denial, flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers. The forces of unreason are circling all around us.

for that reason, those questions are worryingly pertinent, because forty years on, we simply haven’t even begun to grapple with them.

Unlike The Silicon Factor, Burke explicitly identifies the growth of mass communication as the principal agent accelerating the pace of change, and asks if we have truly understood the shifts about to happen. The comparison to the epochal shift of Gutenburg was seemingly quite apposite. The state of the modern world seems, as Adam Curtis says in his podcast interview to be one of flux, with a significant number rejecting the rationalism of the technocracy and of modern institutions, seemingly in an echo of the reaction of Romanticism to the Enlightenment. It really doesn’t help that the convulsions have been made worse by the after-effects of 2008 and the trust in many of those same institutions have been eroded as a result.