Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Connections" Revisited

The above video "The Trigger Effect" is the first episode of the seminal BBC-TV series "Connections" created by James Burke in 1975, about technological change. In closing, Burke strikes the theme of his series with a quote "... Our modern world affects us all. If you understand something today, that means it must already be obsolete. Or to put it another way -- never have so many people understood so little about so much." He describes the series as "detective story" looking at selected inventions which acted as "triggers" because they stimulated the production of further inventions which cumulatively changed "the way things are".

My twenty-five year old son watches this series on YouTube in the same way as we used to read National Geographic together as a bedtime story. When I fired "Connections" up today, I too found it fascinating. For me it is a COABC nexus that supports my growing conviction about the trans-generational nature of the issues arising from the search for a balanced use of technology.

This series was first aired over thirty years ago - four years after I graduated with my first university degree, and seven years before my son was born. My son had heard about this series a few years ago, and had even priced the DVD's before he found the cost too high to request the set as a Christmas present from his dad and myself. He reports stumbling upon the series while surfing on YouTube and found this one-hour episode is now available for free.

I am intrigued. In this first show, Burke's jumping-off point is to ask the viewer to look around them where they are sitting, and to reflect upon how their lives would change if the technology around them disappeared. Then he uses re-enactments of the "technology traps" revealed by the 1965 New York City blackout to point out how dependent we are on using technologies that, as individuals, we don't understand sufficiently that we could replicate them. Over the course of one hour he brings in subjects which were, at the time, theoretical ... like the effects of climate change, water shortages and natural disasters that precipitate mass evacuations. Thirty years before Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquakes in China, this mixture of cultural theory and history also predated the Internet. When Burke creates disturbing scenarios about the losses implicit in the disruption of networks, he is talking about electricity.

Both my son and myself enjoy the combination of well-presented and disturbing scenarios with inadvertent cultural artifacts -- like the passengers stubbing out their cigarettes as their airplane, Flight 911, approached the NYC landing strip at precisely the moment the lights went out. We also agree that the questions that James Burke posed now seem prescient, and are even more relevant today for both those who came of age before and after computers.

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