Monday, January 28, 2013

James Burke's Connections

First shown in 1978, James Burke's amazing 10-part history of science, Connections – an Alternative View of Change, is up on YouTube to watch in full. It's an extraordinary piece of work, full of brilliant insight and gutsy pieces-to-camera, such as this one that I've gibbered at before:

The main problem with science documentaries (having made a short one, “Entropy Explained”, that, despite a well-qualified and engaging presenter, I think doesn't quite work) is how to illustrate the argument without distracting from it. A personal bugbear is documentaries that show pretty pictures of space or CGI that aren't even connected to what's being said. At the same time, just having a talking head addressing the viewer can get dull very quickly – telly is all about moving pictures.

That's why Brian Cox gets sent all round the world, spelling out the science in a way that's visually appealing – and related to what he's saying (if also riffing off this). In the 1970s, Jacob Bronowski was commissioned to link science to art, which makes for better visuals in the amazing The Ascent of Man (1973). Later, Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) dramatised lots of moments from history – and at great expense – while Carl himself hosted the show from the inside of spaceship (I can't help thinking it looks like the inside of the Pinky Ponk from In the Night Garden...).

But James Burke is quite the master at thrilling, engaging and boggling ways to put across his ideas. He cut his teeth presenting Tomorrow's World and the Apollo Moon landings. You can see a little of this early work at the BBC Archive's Tomorrow's World collection, while the excellent Apollo 11: A Night to Remember DVD features clips of Burke putting a spacesuit through its paces or testing the rocket escape system. All this shows his flair for simple and direct ways of talking technology in a way that we'll remember. 

But Connections is something altogether more impressive: a 10-hour thesis on the history of and our dependence on technology.

The first episode reminds me, in terms of strategy, a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That film consists of four separate but related stories: early man making a discovery; something happening on the Moon; something happening in a spaceship; a journey into the unknown. Each sequence is visually and aurally stunning, and each sequence ends with a startling, gosh-wow revelation that takes us somewhere new. As a whole, it aims to simply and vividly boggle our sense of where we come from, how we got here, and where we're going next.

Connections' first sequence is remarkably simple. Burke addresses us directly:
“Would you do me a favour? I'd like to stop talking for a minute and when I do, take a look at the room you're in and above all at the man-made objects in that room that surround you – the television set, the lights, the phone and so on – and ask yourself what those objects do to your life just because they're there. Go ahead.”
Watching it now, it's striking how much more dependent we are on clever telephonic and electronic devices since the series was made, so it makes the point even harder: we don't know how these things work and yet we're in their thrall.

To make that case, Burke then spells out what happened in the New York City power blackout in 1965, dramatising scenes and speaking to witnesses. It's as fascinating for its depiction of human behaviour – passengers on a tube train sharing birthday cake and wine as they waited in a dark tunnel – as for the explanation of how a single protective relay caused chaos.

Burke shows us the offending relay before telling us what is, inviting us to guess. It's a very effective way of drawing us in. The point is that we are reliant on gadgets and networks we barely understand.

Next, he spells out a nightmare scenario of how long we'd survive in a world where technology stopped working, making the brutal choices horribly vivid – we'd need food and shelter, but would we be prepared to kill someone to take their house, or protect our own? Again, he gets in our heads, and plays to 70s concerns about how far we removed ourselves from the means of production and essential skills, played out earlier in Terry Nation's Survivors (1975-7).

But this is all merely a prelude. Burke is then in Egypt to trace the origin of our dependence on technology. I gather from my in-house expert that what follows is based on the work of the archaeologist Flinders Petrie

About 10,000 BC, at a result of climate change, mankind's behaviour radically altered. Around this time, the glaciers receded and the temperature rose, and water became scarcer. The hunting nomads had to come down from the high grasslands in search of food, and did so, says Burke, in northern India, central America, Syria and Egypt (and possibly also Peru). In Egypt, where Burke bases his argument, they found a lucky accident of nature. A yearly flood of the river Nile created a very fertile ribbon of land stretching some 750 miles, in the midst of what was otherwise scrubland and desert. This fertile land supported plants the nomads could eat. About 5000 BC they settled permanently in the area. They dug and sowed crops, irrigating them by hand and perhaps with basic tools for nearly 1,000 years, and then an odd-shaped bit of wood transformed everything ever after.

Burke's explanation of what happened as a result of the invention of the plough is quite long but well worth following. It's a brilliant, eye-popping series of consequences, just as gosh-wow as 2001.
“Initially the surplus [food] produced by irrigation and ploughing permitted non-foodproducers to operate within a community, and in the beginning these may have been the men who dug and maintained the irrigation systems, and those who organized them. These administrators would have derived their authority from their knowledge of astronomy which gave them alone the magic ability to say when the flood would come, when to sow on the land wet from the receding waters, and when to harvest. The grain needed storage room out of the weather, and dried clay daubed on woven reed baskets gradually gave way to more permanent containers as the demand for them increased with the crop. Fire-hardened clay pots, made from spiralling loops of wet earth, came to be used, and the first evidence of solid burning is of piles of these pots heaped together to form a form of central granary. The need to identify the ownership and amount of grain contained in a pot or a granary led to the development of writing. The first picture-words came from before 3000 B.C and comprise lists of objects and totals of figures contained in pots and chests. The surplus grain paid for craftsmen: carpenters, potters, weavers, bakers, musicians, leather-workers, metal-workers, and those whose task it was to record everything – the scribes. The need to ensure regularity of harvest in order to support those members of the community demanded a taxation system, and so that it should be operated fairly skills were developed to assess each man's due. Initially this may have started with the measurement of field boundaries destroyed each year by the flood, but as time passed and the irrigation systems grew more complex, the process demanded greater sophistication, calling for mathematics to handle the measurement of distance, area and cubic amount. 
These early forms of arithmetic and geometry grew from the demands of canal building: how long, how wide and how deep? It may have been the need for tools to do the job which spurred interest in the copper deposits across the Red Sea in Sinai, and this in turn would have stimulated the use of metal for weapons. Weapons were needed by those whose task it was to protect the land and crops from invasion, as the surplus food and the goods financed by its production began to be used as barter with neighbouring communities, some of which looked with envy on the riches of Egypt. Metal tools gave the Egyptians the ability to work stone, initially, perhaps, in blocks for strengthening the irrigation ditches. The Nile is bordered for 500 miles south from Cairo by limestone cliffs, and it is from this stone that the first pyramid was constructed. 
A mere hundred and fifty years after the first use of stone for the construction of buildings, the massive step pyramid of King Djoser was erected. It rises out of the desert as Saqqara, south of Cairo. Built by the king's chief minister, Imhotep, it is the oldest extant stone structure in the world, dating from around 2800 B.C. It was constructed using the tools and the theoretical knowledge developed by the canal builders, and it shows a high degree of precision in the use of both. By the time Djoser was being laid in his pyramid, Egyptian society had developed a form that is little changed today. At the top came the Head of State, served by his cabinet of advisers; these were aided by a civil service which organized every aspect of life in the state, gathering taxes from craftsmen and farmers to support themselves and the army. The regulation of the state's business was effected through the application of laws, which rested for their observance on the availability of an annual calendar, by now divided into twelve months or thirty days each. By 2500 B.C. the Egyptians (and their neighbours the Mesopotamians) had a developed and sophisticated society operating with a handful of essential tools: civil engineering, astronomical measurement, water-lifting machinery, writing and mathematics, primitive metallurgy, and the wheel. With these tools the Egyptians administered am empire whose power and influence was unparalleled in the ancient world, based on an agricultural output made possible by the plough. Its use had ensured the continued survival and expansion of the community and set in motion the changes that resulted from that expansion. 
The first man-made harvest freed mankind from total and passive dependence of the vagaries of nature, and at the same time tied him for ever to the very tools that set him free. The modern world in which we live is the product of that original achievement, because just as the plough served to trigger change in the community in which it appeared, each change that followed led to further change in a continuing sequence of connected events.” 
James Burke, Connections (Macmillan London Limited: 1978), pp. 10-12. 
 The final sequence in this first episode sees Burke in Kuwait, showing how oil transformed the country in a single generation, so that people whose parents were nomads (as people were in Egypt before the invention of the plough) are now millionaires, racing through the desert in the latest Rolls-Royce. It's an awe-inspiring thesis, that a single invention or discovery can so transform our lives, and in ways the inventor or discoverer could never have predicted.

In each of the next eight episodes, Burke traces the discoveries that led to a key invention that he says define modern life – such as nuclear weapons, the space rocket and television. It's a shrewd and often very funny series drawing together myriad threads. Burke has a dry wit and love for historical irony. We learn, for example, that in the hunt for the cause of malaria (literally “bad air”), Napoleon ordered a bad smell map of Egypt.

I expect Douglas Adams was watching that first episode the night it was broadcast on 17 October 1978. He'd soon be working on a Doctor Who story about an alien who forced the progress of mankind. An episode first broadcast on 13 October 1979 – a little less than a year later – includes this from the alien:
Achievement? You talk to me of achievement because I steal the Mona Lisa? Can you imagine how a man might feel who has caused the pyramids to be built, the heavens to be mapped, invented the first wheel, shown the true use of fire, brought up a whole race from nothing to save his own race? 
“David Agnew” (David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams), Doctor Who: “City of Death”, part three (1979) 
Connections is certainly of its time. Burke not unreasonably assumes the viewer remembers the launch of Apollo 11 and the stirring of emotions that went with it. There's the irony, for a series about technology, that he could never have predicted how this show would be watched or by who all these decades later. And in some ways it feels prehistoric.

Burke addresses himself to a straight male audience, and makes a whole load of other assumptions, too. At one point he asks us not to be distracted by a pretty girl in shot. Later, he asks us to recall his argument, “the next time your wife asks you to change a plug”. I imagine a few chums would find the patrician tone too condescending and arrogant, but that's a shame because there's so much to enjoy. For example, in discussing the Apollo programme and the criticism that it cost too much, he says, “in the same period, American women spent the same amount on cosmetics”.

But there are other things that seem from another age. For all this talk of technology feeding into our lives, computers are things that only affect us in the workplace. Yet when he talks about the relatively new-fangled credit card and how it will change “future” transactions, it seems prophetic. He explains in episode 8, that the credit card is more than just a substitute for cash. The magnetic strip on the back is a moral judgment on you, your life and your credit worthiness. The powers that make these judgments are secret and immutable, based on patented algorithms and business practices. More than that, they drive you to behave in certain ways which were, until recently, thought wholly immoral: encouraging you to live outside your means. As he says, chillingly, at the end of this sequence,
“What will happen when being in debt all the time is the normal way to live?”
Burke is also good at looking for connections between the different stories and episodes, to understand what aids progress and what stands in its way.

In episode 3, he argues that many inventions key to industrial development in the West – gunpowder, paper, magnets – had existed commonly in China for hundreds or even thousands of years. What made the West different, he says, is that China was a Taoist state, and believed that everything and everyone had their rightful place. In Europe, however, there was more social mobility and competition, so people were constantly looking for any advantage that might make them rich and lift them up the social order.

It's interesting to join that up with the BBC's other seminal, authored series of the time. Kenneth Clark in Civilisation (1969) argued the essential element for civilisation was the courtesy to discuss new ideas without fear of reprisals or death. Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man made the case for knowledge over certainty – good evidence is key not just to science but law and history, too. To this, Burke adds opportunity which allows and encourages experiment and play, so that those who make discoveries or find new ways to apply them can fully reap the rewards. Effectively, without social mobility progress grinds to a halt.

Finally, in episode 10, Burke tries to sum up all we've seen: the surges of communications technology through letters, a postal system, telegraphy, satellite phones. He concludes that,
“The faster you can communicate, the faster change happens.”
He predicts – and more accurately than he could ever have imagined – that the near future would depend on,
“Information... what you do with the facts”. 
 He argues that the defining question in the technological arms race will be,
“How easy is it for knowledge to spread?” 
 He also says that lack of access to this information will equal powerlessness, just as if someone were deaf and dumb and blind. Watching it now, that all feels chillingly right.

And yet Burke's also under no illusions about how difficult it is to predict the future. After all, the inventions he's covered in the series led to things no one could have predicted. And he concludes by connecting up the eight inventions from the series to one that will (he thinks) dominate our future – the bomber carrying nuclear bombs. Luckily, he was wrong.

There's a Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch that parodies Burke, with him telling us something, then contradicting it and then contradicting that contradiction. That's unfair, and though he does something a little like that in this last episode it's to make a serious point. He says he can't predict what will happen, or what developments will dominate our lives. In effect, he's saying, “It's more complicated than that” - itself a paraphrasing of all of science.

And he leaves us with something more potent and compelling than a dodgy prediction. Because the last moments of the series are an even more effective gosh-wow. Again, he directly appeals to us, telling us to become discoverers ourselves. He tells us that new discovery depends on challenging authority, religion and ideology that keep us in our place. As he says, science is sometimes seen as hard and emotionless because it “removes the reassuring crutches”. But he's not calling for some kind of revolution or new dawn of atheism. Instead, he simply spells out that all we need for progress is to ask the right questions.
“Ask for explanations. And ask yourself if there's anything in your life you want changed.”
I know what I'd like changed. I'd like a souped-up Region 2 DVD or Blu-Ray of Connections, please. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw "Connections" on TV many years ago when I was still in high school. This programme, more than anything else, is what switched me on to learning and allowed me to realise how reading factual books could be just as engaging as fiction.

I have always been disappointed that this has only ever been available from the USA, as NTSC or region 1. The show is way, way, way overdue for a PAL/R2 release.