Imagine that you’re in an elevator when the power goes out. The systems that made it possible for you to easily travel between floors without even being aware of them are suddenly very obvious by their absence. You’re trapped – all by things you never even bothered to notice were all around you all the time. All you can hope is that these systems are re-started before you starve to death. Sound familiar? It’s how James Burke opened up his landmark BBC series Connections in 1978. This series challenged us all to look at the way our world was constructed a bit differently, a bit less at the contributions of one person and more at the connections that made it all possible.
The basic premise is a simple one: throughout history, the people who advance the technology of their time never made their discoveries in isolation. They had around them all of the bits and pieces that were necessary to make something happen in order to fill a need. Since everything was present, it was only a matter of time before someone put them all together. How did James Watt come up with the idea for the steam engine? Actually, Watt only improved the engines made by Thomas Newcomen, and he got the idea from existing mine pumps. All of this was only made possible by accurate metal borings originally developed for cannons.
This premise doesn’t appear to say a lot about the technology that’s around us now, but Burke knows that the best way to understand where you are is to know how you got there – a sort of technological dead-reckoning. Seeing the history of technology as a series of connections across many disciplines shows how we developed a world that is highly inter-dependent and almost entirely man-made. His final conclusion is even more chilling; just as each of the people who assembled what was around into a technological advance knew and cared little about the lasting consequences, we too are hurtling on into a world where the web of connections that make our world have no idea what will ultimately come of it.
This often sounds ridiculous to people. We can say, for example, that the internet will continue to connect more people as every communications technology advance before it has done. That may sound like a solid prediction, but it’s not. Those new connections made by the internet will introduce ideas from various disciplines that were never before matched up, sparking new technologies we can’t imagine now. In the short term, some things will obviously get done as soon as someone has a good reason to put it all together. In the long run, the connections made will blow what we know now away.
The irony of this is that the only parts of Burke’s series that looks like 1978, apart from his wide collar shirts, are the computers that eat and spit out punch cards. The internet was the one technology he didn’t have at his fingertips.
Burke is also concerned with over specialization, which is to say the narrow focus on one field of study at the expense of all others. If technology advances through connections, the more someone is able to make connections the more they will be able to come up with new things. History shows us that personal gain and seeing across the interconnected web of our world are the key motivations for change, so naturally the more individuals with broad sets of tools there are the faster the connections can be made.
Burke is strictly Western and Reductionist in his approach, at one point going out of his way to say that a belief in Tao made it impossible for the Chinese to take their early advances to their logical conclusion. That’s not to say he isn’t eventually holistic, though, in fitting the pieces back together in a grand web. I have to say that as a 13 year old entranced with his explanation of nearly everything, I was bound for engineering school before the television was even switched off.
What does all of this mean to us? The only hope we have of understanding our world is to stop worrying so much about individuals who appear to have invented great things. We need to see the connections around us as the major forces in our lives. It’s the spaces inbetween that matter the most, the voids that are filled by imagination. It’s how we got where we are, after all, and it’s how we’ll go on into the future. If we want any hope of understanding where time will lead us, we need to understand our connections.
Sometimes it’s as simple as reading the instructions on the elevator that tell us how to escape from the top when we get in – that’s a connection to the rest of the world we never think about until it’s essential.