Connections — The Trigger Effect by James Burke

connections-600Connections was an amazing 1978 documentary television series and book created, written and presented by science historian James Burke. It demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events were built from one another successively in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology.

Years later the success of Connections in syndication led to two sequel series, Connections² (1994) and Connections³ (1997).

Connections illustrates The Domino Principle in action over periods of thousands of years. Fortunately, many if not all of the Connections episodes are now viewable online. So over time, I’ll be sharing episodes of this series with our readers.

Today we start with Episode #1 from the 1978 series, “The Trigger Effect,” which details the world’s present dependence on complex technological networks through a detailed narrative of New York City and the power blackout of 1965. Agricultural technology is traced to its origins in ancient Egypt and the invention of the plow. The segment ends in Kuwait where, because of oil, society leapt from traditional patterns to advanced technology in a period of only about 30 years.

From the Introduction to Connections — The Trigger Effect:

Would you do me a favor? 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.
Well, that is what this series is going to be all about. It’s about the things that surround you in the modern world which just because they’re there shape the way you think and behave, and why they exist in the form they do, and who or what is responsible for them existing at all.

The search for those clues will take us all over the world and 12,000 years into the past. Because it is in those strange places and in those long-gone centuries that the secret of the modern world lies. And you’d never believe the extraordinary things that led to us being the way we are today. Things like, for instance:

  • Why a 16th century doctor in the court of Queen Elizabeth did something that made it possible for you to watch this screen right now.
  • Or the fact that because 18th century merchants were worried about ships bottoms, you have nylon to wear.
  • Or why a group of french monks and their involvement with sheep rearing helped to give the modern world the computer.
  • Or what medieval Europeans did with their fire in winter that lead to motorcar manufacture.

The story of the events and the people who over centuries came together to bring us in from the cold and to wrap us in a warm blanket of technology is a matter of vital importance. Since more and more of that technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives, it has become a life-support system without which we cannot survive.

And yet, how much of it do we understand? Do I bother myself with the reality of what happens when I get into a big steel box, press a button, and rise into the sky? Of course I don’t. I take going up in the world like that for granted — we all do.

And as the years of the 20th century have gone by and the things we take for granted have multiplied way beyond the ability of any of us to understand in a lifetime. The things around us, the man-made inventions we provide ourselves with, are like a vast network each part of which is interdependent with all the others. I mean, cross a road, whether or not a car coming around the corner knocks you down may have something to do with a person you have never met fitting the brakes correctly.

Change anything in that network, and the effects spread like ripples in a pond. And all the things in that network have become so specialized that only the people involved in making them understand them. I don’t mean use them — anybody can use them.

Down there is one of the biggest, most complicated cities in the world — full of people using things as if they understood them. And sometimes not even knowing they are doing it. New York City, like all the other major high-density population centers scattered across the earth, is a technology island. It can neither feed, not clothe, nor house, nor warm its inhabitants without supplies from the outside. Without those supplies, the entire massive structure and the teeming millions it encloses would die.

And yet, in cities everywhere, we act as if that were not so. We have no choice. The pace of life in New York is set by the pace of the technology that serves it. We just hope it will stay that way.


Cliff Kurtzman
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One thought on “Connections — The Trigger Effect by James Burke”

  1. Just a great framework of information, I’m sure they’ll be push back with people who feel threatened by the use of some terms as they feel it might apply to them, but if taken objectively you can begin to pierce through the “mist.”

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