Burke: Connections

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James Burke, Connections. Boston : Little, Brown and Company, 1978. 304 pages; illustrated.

In the late 1970s the BBC produced a documentary series written and presented by James Burke. The series, called Connections, was shown on the American PBS network in the fall of 1979. To some of us of a certain age, seeing that original broadcast was a revelation. To others of a younger age who have seen the program during its many rebroadcasts on cable networks, it has remained an eye-opener that seems fresh and relevant with each airing. This book was the volume written by Burke as a companion to the series. While it echoes and reminds the reader who has seen the televised program of the video original, it is a valuable work in its own right.

In presenting his historical threads visually, Burke had a propensity for the quick cut: from looking at a piece of electronics he held in his hand he would whirl around, the camera would refocus, and the viewer would be flung back into a Medieval battlefield. It was a style of presentation that highlighted his thesis of about the connectedness of ideas in the development of technology. In the book as well, Burke's pace is breathtaking but he deftly avoids imprecision, glib conclusions, and gross generalizations; his high-velocity presentation is a result of his excitement and enthusiasm about sharing all the connections he finds in history, as though the covers of his book can barely contain all the interesting stories he wants to tell.

And does he have stories to tell. In a series of ten chapters that parallel the episodes of the televised series, he chooses seemingly random end-points of modern technology: a jumbo jet, the telephone, the atomic bomb, television; then shoots back in history to an unexpected starting point: medieval warfare and the invention of the stirrup, astrology and the roots of astronomical observation, how the shapes of fortifications around towns responded to the introduction of gunpowder, social changes following the plague, and traces one path through the bewildering forest of ideas and inventions that contributed (not led, at least not by themselves) to the modern ending point. Each one of these mental rambles through history adds depth to the modern invention the way that musical variations on a theme alter our original perception of the tune.

It's a way of telling stories about history certainly, and it's engaging, but Burke has a larger purpose in mind. He describes it this way in the final, summarizing chapter:

Clearly, a preference for the cause and effect argument governs the approach to history expressed in this book. The process of innovation is shown to be influenced by several factors recurring at different times and places; although these may not be repeated exactly each time, the observer becomes aware that they may recur in his own future, and is therefore more able to recognize them should they do so. The structural device used here is to examine an event in the past which bears similarity to one in the present in order to see where such an event led. Thus we return from the modern ballistic missile to the development of cannon-balls, from the telephone to medieval church postal services, from the atomic bomb to the stirrup, and so on. The purpose of this approach is to attempt to question the adequacy of the standard modern schoolbook treatment, in which history is represented in terms of heroes, themes or periods.
These [heroes, themes, or period] approaches to the study of history tend to leave the layman with a linear view of the way change occurs, and this in turn affects the way he sees the future. Most people, if asked how the telephone is likely to develop during their lifetime, will consider merely the ways in which the instrument itself may change. If such changes include a reduction in size and cost and in increase in operating capability, it is easy to assume that the user will be encouraged to communication more frequently than he do at present. But the major influence of the telephone on his life might come from an interaction between communications technology and other factors which have nothing to do with technology. [pp. 287--288]

He's succeeded magnificently in a presentation that has altered at least my view of history. If there were a handbook for Scienticity, this would be an important part of it.

One thing that's interesting to note: this book about modern technology and history was written before the invention of the pocket calculator, the personal computer, the compact disc, the cell phone, and the World-Wide Web, among other everyday, taken-for-granted bits of technology. And yet, given its long view of the connections between ideas in history, it doesn't seem out of date or incomplete, but still as valid and vigorous as when I first approached it over 25 years ago.

-- Notes by JNS

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