James Burke: Connections

One of my favorite shows on PBS was Connections, by James Burke. Burke had a breezy, familiar style
that truly annoys some people. Since he was making a science popularization, he tends to skip over things that don't fit the narrative neatly, but the gist of it is generally pretty good. This series made an indelible impression on me at a young age, and I think I have been affected by it ever since. I have a tendency to see everything as connected in strange and unusual ways, and I have an interest in a great many different fields of inquiry.

Connections probably also played a part in my interest in the Victorian era, because a seemingly disproportionate amount of my memories of the show center on technology of the Victorian era. It really was an amazing time with an unsurpassed rapidity of technological change.

The beginning of episode 1 of Connections also shows a bygone era of mechanical switches. There is a sequence demonstrating the controls of an elevator, that relies entirely on mechanical relays. I can't think of any object I have worked in the guts of recently that actually used a mechanical relay. Everything is solid-state electronics now. No moving parts, which is nice, but when those little things break, they are usually broken forever. You can't repair them easily. Its often cheaper to discard consumer objects with this kind of controls than fix them, which makes me sad in a vague way.

In the modern survivalist movement there is also a passion for XIXth century technology. The advantage to this is much of it does not depend on very much outside assistance or electricity. And also it is more easily repairable if it breaks. Thus, all sorts of books are sought, chemistry, horticulture, medicine, all from this period or shortly thereafter. Many of these books are available for free on the internet, since their copyright has long since expired. Thus, in true James Burke fashion, the internet is now enabling the spread of XIXth century technology. For example: Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes, a collection of soaps and elixers and whatnot made from things you can easily find in nature.

I've sometimes pondered this, and wondered how long it would take to reestablish a XIXth century level of techology after an apocalyptic event. The knowledge is all out there, the trouble is getting hold of it when you need it. A thing that has been done once can be done again. For example, every village used to have a blacksmith. The level of technology you need to start making iron and steel is pretty low, the problem is finding someone who knows how to do it!

Watching this first episode of Connections again, I can really see where the whole zombie phenomenon comes from. There is a part near the middle where Burke is walking down a highway littered with abandoned cars that reminded me strongly of Zombieland. Really the whole first episode does, because it is about a technological apocalypse: flickering lights and chaos. Burke was trying in this episode to call to mind our utter dependence upon modern technology. Perhaps at the time, no one thought of this much. Well, Burke got what he was looking for. Now it is much more commonplace for people to express anxiety about the fate of modern technological civilization. Zombies are just one popular manifestation. Survivalists another.

I suppose that it is really a doubt about the ability of our civilization to sustain itself. 50 years ago, Western Civilization still had a great deal of residual self-confidence in itself, but now much of that has dissipated. So I suppose the question is whether that confidence can be restored. Thus my interest in metahistory. So in true Connections style, James Burke is ultimately responsible for everything you see here.

For more on James Burke, check Knowledge Web, a project of the James Burke Institute.