James Burke
Historian and futurist James Burke

No one who spends their time thinking about the technological possibilities of the future should do so, without thinking deeply upon the observations of historian James Burke. Burke gave us a way of looking at our technological history that opened our eyes to the incredibly, naturally non-linear nature of human science, technology and invention that should never be forgotten or taken for granted.  James Burke, through his book and TV series Connections, showed us how the world really works.

When I was first introduced to Connections, I was in college, taking a course in the History of Technology.  I was immediately fascinated to discover that the class would be working from the book, Connections, along with filmed chapters of the book’s material, one for each chapter, and narrated by the same man who’d written the book.  A book and matching TV show: What a concept! (Hey, it was 1978.  Climb off.)

Even better than that media coup, was James Burke himself.  Burke had carefully studied technological history, had discovered how progress really happened in this world, and used his book and series to present the real world to us, in a wonderfully engaging way.

Using clever personal narration, well-planned camera work and visuals, and quality historical reenactments, he showed us a world in which technological development was not a clean, linear process—that is, a need for transportation leads to the creation of the car, which leads to improvements in engine technology, which leads to improvements in gasoline refinery, etc—but a series of unpredictable connections, often by developments in technology that caused a change in culture and thereby a change in living priorities, which led to a development in another discipline altogether… or developments in one area that another inventor realized would solve a completely different problem in another area.  For instance, that the automobile carburetor was inspired by a medical device, an atomizer… while the cylinder’s ignition mechanism was taken from a device designed to measure swamp gas.  These developments could also sever possible connections, such as people whose expected futures were altered by a change in technological development, forcing their technological development to change focus or location, or cease altogether.

Burke’s overall lesson was that invention was random, much different than following a predictable set of steps to achieve a predetermined goal… the way most people tend to think of technological development.  In Burke’s view, any series of steps could have easily been altered, and given us almost inconceivable changes to the way we live, work, play, travel, eat, stay healthy or communicate… and even more inconceivable changes to disciplines we can’t even think of.

Burke had a way with the camera, being fully capable of telling funny, serious and compelling stories about the people and events of our past; delivering his lesson’s point, or punchline; and quickly moving on, while the point was still fresh.  His enthusiasm for the wonders of technology was equally plain, giving him the gravitas to match another great televised teacher, Carl Sagan, and his enthusiasm for science.  In short, you could watch this cool guy all day long.

Connections titleConnections turned out to be so popular, in schools and on television, that it spawned new series (really, reboots of most of his original material, along with some new technological elements that had become significant since the 70s): Connections2, and The Day the Universe Changed.  And in 1989, Burke used his understanding of the past to create After the Warming, an examination of how human history had been impacted by climate change over the past few thousand years, with additional conjecture on how continued global warming will likely impact our near future.

James Burke’s observations should be foremost in the mind of anyone trying to divine the future of technology, and how related and seemingly unrelated elements can impact future development.  I’ve applied his lessons myself, most notably in Sarcology, Chasing the Light and As the Mirror Cracks to develop a future that feels more authentic, grounded and possible.

In an era that seems to desperately need scientists and scholars who can readily communicate the awe and wonder of science and technology… an era where the likes of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have to fight to capture the minds of students, other “science personalities” on TV come off as too artificially smug about their own credentials to warm up an audience, and “science education shows” tend to be much more polished than they are engaging… we need more people like James Burke.  Connections, and Burke’s later programs, stand alongside both the new and original Cosmos as among the most powerful and valuable teaching tools for our future scientists, technologists and inventors.  We need more Connections, and more people to show us the truth about science, and about ourselves.

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