Saturday, November 07, 2009
Alternate View Of Change
Have you ever got hooked on a mini-series?
I was reading through one of my bookclubs notes and someone asked the question...What movie version of an history did you feel was a great adaptation?"
One of the most influencial for me...was a BBC program I watched when I was growing up. It totally had me hooked and addicted...and every installment had me feeling a paradigm shift. I just remember being completely blown away by each segment. The show utterly affected how I looked at life and how I began to develop my own way of looking at history and ways to live and think.
The secret to this show Connections was it's hosts interdisciplinary approach to viewing history.
This approach fed me in all ways and influenced what books I began to look for, and how I made art and how I lived and thought about the world. I would say it changed my entire life. I would even go as far to say that the sensation I first felt watching Burke's show Connections is physiologically identical to the first time I began surfing the internet. All connected...
Connections was a ten-episode documentary television series created and narrated by science historian James Burke. The series was produced and directed by Mick Jackson of the BBC Science & Features Department and first aired in 1978 (1979 in the USA). It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention and demonstrates how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events built off one another in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology. The series is well-known for Burke's impeccable narration (especially its dry humour), historical reenactments, intricate working models, skillful use of classical music (most notably Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, or "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana), and shots on location as far afield as Penang (Malaysia).
The popular success of the series led to two sequels, Connections² in 1994, and Connections³ in 1997, both produced for TLC. KCSM-TV produced Re-Connections, comprising an interview of Burke and highlights of the original series, in 2004 for the 25th anniversary of the first broadcast in the USA on PBS.
Connections explores an "Alternative View of Change" (the subtitle of the series) that rejects the conventional linear and teleological view of historical progress. Burke contends that one cannot consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation. Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own (e.g., profit, curiosity, religious) motivations with no concept of the final, modern result of what either their or their contemporaries' actions finally led to. The interplay of the results of these isolated events is what drives history and innovation, and is also the main focus of the series and its sequels.
To demonstrate this view, Burke begins each episode with a particular event or innovation in the past (usually Ancient or Medieval times) and traces the path from that event through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world. For example, the "The Long Chain" episode traces the invention of plastics from the development of the fluyt, a type of Dutch cargo ship.
Burke also explores three corollaries to his initial thesis. The first is that, if history is driven by individuals who act only on what they know at the time and not because of any idea as to where their actions will eventually lead, then predicting the future course of technological progress is merely conjecture. Therefore if we are astonished by the connections Burke is able to weave among past events, then we will be equally surprised by what the events of today eventually lead to, especially events we weren't even aware of at the time.
The second and third corollaries are explored most in the introductory and concluding episodes, and they represent the downside of an interconnected history. If history progresses because of the synergistic interaction of past events and innovations, then as history does progress, the number of these events and innovations increases. This increase in possible connections causes the process of innovation to not only continue, but to accelerate. Burke poses the question of what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly change itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.
Lastly, if the entire modern world is built from these interconnected innovations, all increasingly maintained and improved by specialists who required years of training to gain their expertise, what chance does the average citizen without this extensive training have in making an informed decision on practical technological issues, such as the building of nuclear power plants or the funding of controversial projects such as stem cell research? Furthermore, if the modern world is increasingly interconnected, what happens when one of those nodes collapses? Does the entire system follow suit? "
If you've never seen the documentary Connections I highly recommend it. I suppose it isn't as innovative now so many decades later...but Burke's interdisciplinary approach to history is every bit as relevant today.
You can watch the entire series at YouTube...here is one good link...but there are more. Do you have a documentary mini-series that you loved? A concept that gave you a new sense of the world?