Technology has been a principle area of interest for me for about as long as I can remember. A formative experience along the way was James Burke’s Connections TV series.
On the show, he globe-hopped from one scene to the other, always wearing the same white leisure suit. This was the 1970s. From scene to scene he would bound, telling a tale of technological invention that would span disparate events. He might show how the Napoleonic semaphore system led the way to the fax machine, or how the Jacquard loom led to the IBM mainframe. Burke’s capacity for wonder was astounding.
And his imaginative series, which led to a book, set the stage for much that was to come in terms of science writing. It’s hard to pick up a popular science book these days that doesn’t owe something to Connections. Over the years we’ve had such as Longitude, The Weather Experiment, Cod, Against the Gods, that took similar tacks.
What Burke the Brit showed was the bit of serendipity that can set a mighty technology wave in motion. In Connections, when things happen, “the triggering factor is more often than not operating in an area entirely unconnected with the situation which is about to undergo change.”
This seems to me especially pertinent in recent years. The Internet, TCP, the Web, distributed cloud computing, peer-to-peer communications, electronic bulletin boards, NoSQL, music and video streaming, XML, RSS, Atom and other elements glommed together and miraculously upchucked Social Media – described in short-hand as Facebook and Twitter. The world beyond Silicon Valley is still working to understand the ramifications.
I had the good fortune to cover events that Burke keynoted. There was OOPSLA in Tampa in 2001. There was O’Reilly Strata West in Santa Clara in 2013, at which he held a press conference. I recall Burke as adamant that inventors do not understand all the ramifications their inventions will have in society in practice. I also recall him asking for a glass of wine, as it was cocktail time in the island from which he traveled.
He gave great credit to Descartes for spurring forward the scientific method. With the reductionist method, Burke said, Descartes “froze the world.” That has value, but, as forecasters, pundits, analysts and horserace handicappers have found, it “doesn’t tell you how all the parts work together.” This is often our job today.
Said Burke: “For the future, we have no paradigm.” Of course, most of the editors I have ever worked for would not run “a paradigm” if it were biting them on the rear. Too fancy a term! But I think Burke sums up the state of things: What we are left with is the daily task to reduce things to their basics, put them back together, and to watch for that outlying influencer that is going to change the status quo, and create progress — hopefully.
But back to Social Media. When Social Media in its turn came into intimate contact with meme-making Post-Soviet-Era agitprop, the residue was a highly scalable, near-instantaneous, global cauldron of caustic commentary, distrust, and confusion. This mystic combination seemingly defies technical analysis. Today it is our lot in life.
But, not to worry, rationalists are coming up with explanations, which in their turns can be tweeted and liked. As Burke might say, recalling Mark Twain, “in the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place and the right time. It is the job of journalists and historians to make it appear that it has.” – Jack Vaughan
Here are some of Burke’s rules of innovation, as I collated for a story on innovation that ran wayback in Application Development Trends.
-Innovation occurs as the result of deliberate attempts to develop it.
-The attempt to find one thing leads to the discovery of another.
-Unrelated developments have a decisive effect on the main event
-Motives, such as war and religion, may also act as major stimulant to innovation.
-Accident and unforeseen circumstances play a role innovation
-Physical and climate conditions play their part. [To that we add economic conditions.]