This is the interview with James Burke from episode 020 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
James Burke is a legendary science historian who created the landmark BBC series Connections which provided an alternative view of history and change by replacing the traditional “Great Man” timeline with an interconnected web in which all people influence one another to blindly direct the flow of progress. Burke is currently writing a new book about the coming age of abundance, and he continues to work on his Knowledge Web project.
David McRaney: We were talking earlier about how Connections is something that everyone comes up to you and talks about how it really changed their lives, but also how it’s lead people to different career paths and shown them how the world is different. But what’s neat about that is how we all have, at a certain age, everyone has seen Connections, and as you get younger and younger, the pop culture that you used to talk about gets more and more fragmented. So, I would imagine that further back in time, everyone would just talk about Shakespeare, Milton, or whatever. Now we all talk about Sesame Street, Connections, and stuff. So, how do you see that altering people socially, as the world that we all are familiar with gets more fragmented, that we don’t all have that same foundation to begin a conversation with a stranger?
James Burke: I’m a bit concerned in the short term about the fact that this fragmentation you speak of will move people further and further away from what used to be a common culture, a limited form of expressing ourselves as a society to which everybody subscribed. The further back you go in history, the simpler that subscription becomes. Way, way back, it is do what the shaman tells you, and what the paintings on the side of the wall of the cave tell you to do. And in the 18th century or the 17th century in Britain, it’s to be a Catholic or a Protestant, or whatever.
There’s been an explosion in the last 40 or 50 years in the fragmentation that you speak of in the sense of tools becoming rapidly more available, with which individuals can… indulge themselves; I was going to say communicate, but I don’t mean that. Individuals are beginning I think, because of this new technology, to recognize that it doesn’t matter anymore if they don’t conform to the five rules that society requires of them, like be brilliant, go to a good school, get into a good university, blah, blah, blah. But that with the new technology, you can express yourself as well as anybody else, and therefore, in a sense, you no longer feel that those old fashioned virtues have any value anymore.
And, it seems to me that the more people begin to see themselves as autonomous, culturally autonomous, the less value they will place on the common cultural infrastructure that we used to live by, and the problem there is that the common cultural infrastructure is what held us together and kept us safe, in the crudest possible sense of the word. Before a society with police, you walk down the street, you’ll get killed. After a society without police, the same thing occurs. So, are we heading for that? Are we heading for even more dangerous streets? That’s a problem, which will be solved one of two ways. One is that the technology itself makes it more possible for society to be even more regulated than before, never mind what people do in the privacy of their own homes, which will become even less regulated. We’re already not shocked by knowing that 11 year olds see and send each other pornographic material. Once upon a time, you would be burned at the stake for even saying such a thing.
So, what’s happening in the privacy of people’s own homes is becoming more and more and more cut off from the raw infrastructural rules of how society functions, like the police and driving the speed limit and not getting drunk when you get in a car and getting an education that gives you a degree that is recognized by various people around the world. With the Internet, this fragmentation, it seems to me, dangerously moves everyone, creates this massive dichotomy between what you do in the privacy of your own home, which of course is no longer your own home because you’re talking to people around the world, anybody you like, anywhere you like, and what happens in the street outside where the police still patrol and the laws still obtain.
I’m concerned that we are not… if I have a single major concern, it’s that our educational systems are absolutely refusing to recognize the need to move as fast as possible, to deal with this problem, because the problem of people getting total freedom without a sense of responsibility comes from the fact that they haven’t been educated to realize that they ought to have a sense of responsibility. Not that they have to behave in certain ways, they do what they do, that’s up to them, but they do it aware that the community exists around them and they have to fit into that community. Or, when they get out in the streets, they get a terrible shock, because the police will… they’ll stop being totally self indulgent, whatever they like with their friends in Ouagadougou, and they’ll walk down the streets of whatever it is and they’ll…
So, it seems to me the answer lies in this intransigence on the part of the educational system to use the technology to become entirely different. Our educational system goes all the way back to Mesopotamia, to the scribes under Hammurabi – two, three, whatever thousand years before Christ. It hasn’t really, essentially changed – it’s crude, limited, Draconian, top-down, authoritative, if you’re not a round peg you don’t fit in the round whole – and if that’s the case, then you’re a failure.
McRaney: And, that’s true in other aspects of our culture as well.
Burke: Absolutely. We have these extraordinarily limiting constraints from a past in which we did not have the tools to have anything other than extraordinarily limiting constraints. But, now we do have the tools, and the tools are running away with us faster than the social institutions can keep up. It seems to me that we urgently need to set up… Well, I’ve been toying with an idea, which I don’t know whether it will go down very well or not, but I think that a country, any country, but let’s say America or Britain, I think countries ought to set up Departments of the Future. We now have big data and nanotechnological promises of computing capabilities that make what we can do now look like hacking something in stone, in terms of capabilities. We are on the edge of having the technology to be able to say, let us run a constant, dynamic, updated review of everything that science and technology is thinking about in terms of what may or may not be the kind of innovation coming down the road. And, then let us use the same techniques to ask the public in general, not politicians, whether they like that idea, whether they feel that they could live with that idea. And then, like a Delphi technique, re-run it until everybody stops changing their mind, when they hear a bit more, a bit more. You know, the old Delphi technique is you go on telling them and they say, oh shit, then I better…
Well, once they’ve stopped changing their minds, it tends to mean that the community has arrived at a decision with which it can live. So, there are techniques that allow you to do that. We almost have the technology already to set up a Department of the Future, run by, for the moment anyway, a government. Which, let’s pretend at a very simple level, you had centers all around the country, each one of which looked at the work of major research laboratories, both private and public, both university and commercial, without breaching commercial secrecy to say these are areas that look promising. Collate all those all together and process them using stuff like big data to see what the pattern looks like becoming, and then layering on top of that social media analytics to say, if this was coming, would you like it, and if not, why not? In other words, to have a sort of 24 hour a day referendum…
McRaney: A conversation…
Burke: Yes, on what the future is going to be. And, then make it happen, because after that, I mean, if we were able to say to a corporation that was about to produce DDT – well in fact, most people don’t think it’s a great idea and they won’t buy it. The company’s going to say, fine, shareholders don’t want to create something that will not be bought. And they won’t make it. Now, people say that’s Draconian and it’s… yes and no, the market always decides what it wants. If people don’t buy it, forget it. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you think the idea is, if nobody buys it, forget it. So, it’s always been going on, it used to be the king, now it’s the market that says you can or can’t do something. All I’m saying is this might move things to the stage where it’s the populace in general that say you can or can’t do something. And after all, vox populi vox Dei, either the voice of the people is the voice of God, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, why have we got this so-called democracy crap going? So…
McRaney: Right, and you mentioned earlier, we were talking about it, and you’ve said this a couple of times today that, democracy in and of itself has some… as we move forward and as things are changing for us culturally and technologically that there are many elements of democracy that seems almost subject to being either done away with or altered drastically and there seems to be no move to do that. You were talking about the binary system of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, could you sort of elaborate on your views on that?
Burke: Well, the two and three party system, which most Western countries have hasn’t really changed since the 18th century, in spite of the fact that the rest of the world has changed; I mean the rest of the society around it has changed. It used to be that a representative democracy is you have somebody to stand up there and think about the things that you would think about if you had the time, but you haven’t got the time. Somebody said in our discussion, “I don’t want to make up my mind, I want somebody else to do it for me.” That kind of thinking comes from not having the tools that make it easy, very quickly and in the privacy of your own home when you have a moment to be told the data that that politician is being told – these are the facts, make up your mind, decide, and then punch a button and put it in, put your view into the machine.
Representative democracy is neither representative nor democratic. It’s not democratic because it doesn’t represent every single view, because every single view is boiled down to one of two views. It’s not representative because my representative doesn’t know me, how can he represent me? He can represent me as a number, when I go to the ballot box, if I go to the ballot box, and increasingly people don’t. And it’s like the educational system, we have these institutions that are like tankers, it would take one hell of an effort to change them, change the course. And we need to change very fast. The dangers of anarchy are too great; the fragmenting you were talking about earlier, the dangers inherent in a dichotomy between what society pretends it is, which is political structures and institutions doing their daily work, and here come the police and blah blah blah… And people in the privacy of their own homes, talking to Ouagadougou or anywhere else and living this crazy insane parallel universe, which is what it will become.
McRaney: That’s true in my hometown, I think that many people my own age, we feel that we live in a world that’s online, we communicate online and we interact with media that has nothing to do with our local government, and there are older people who interact with local government, but we… I live there in body, but not in mind.
Burke: Absolutely! And, we have the same kind of problem. Right now, for example, there are massive floods in London, and it’s becoming clear that the political elite who live in London have no idea what the real world is about, because they’re too busy debating points of order. I mean, look, don’t get me wrong, points of order are very important, but there are moments when there is a dysfunction there because the system is not flexible and fast enough and doesn’t, like the example you talk about, where there are two universes going on. And the real universe where people get flooded and suffer and whatever, I mean, I can do no more than say what I said before, I think that we are rapidly moving towards a separation of the two. And all these lunatics in the privacy of their own houses are gonna come out one day, and then, God save us all.
McRaney: Has there been a similar cultural shift in history to one like this or one likened to it in any way?
Burke: Print, I suppose.
Burke: Print. And, I think the Bishop of… I forget… the Bishop of Saint Albans, said printing will make reading the infatuation of people who have no business reading. And what he meant was, don’t let those guys get these books because if they do, it’s the end. And sure as hell it was, it’s called Protestantism. I mean, Protestantism happened, not because Luther stuck up some hand written things on a church door, but because his stuff was printed and sent around Europe, within weeks! And the entire world fell apart, it’s that powerful, and when these loonies in their private houses come out onto the streets with these ideas, I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something will happen.
McRaney: Right, Clay Shirky has written about, and I’m sure he got it from many different sources, but the world before the printing press and after the printing press are so different…
McRaney: Because the book was something that was passed down the generations, mainly it was a bible in Latin. Now all the sudden you have pornography and you have books about the circulatory system…
Burke: Yes, but the amazing thing is, it seems to me, two big things: A – old people stop having authority, because it doesn’t depend on how old a guy is and how much he remembers, you can read it in a book, so young people get authority… world turned upside down. And the second thing is, you can’t tax people… suddenly you can tax people. You print it and stick it on the village green, this is your tax and you will pay it on this day. And it goes all over the country instantly and all over the country, instantly, everybody knows they have to pay. You run society in a totally different way with print than you did before.
McRaney: It requires, and Clive Thompson has written about this, he says after the printing press, you need a new civics and then people have to be educated in that new civics. And so now with the Internet and the web making it possible for a person to… it doesn’t matter where you live geographically, you can have your message heard, there’s a meritocracy, all these other things… that requires a new civics.
Burke: This is what I was saying earlier, about education… Absolutely…
McRaney: People will have to learn that at some point. So we’re kind of in that weird transition…
Burke: Yeah, I know, but the trouble is you see, where the hell are they going to learn it?
Burke: I mean, they could learn it on the Internet, because you can learn everything on the Internet, but will they know how? Because, as I was saying earlier, learning to learn is the most important thing about learning, learning to know how to find out stuff. And it’s not necessarily true with our educational background that we will go to this new Internet and say, hooray, I know what to learn! We don’t.
McRaney: Because you can find someone to support whatever you already believe.
Burke: Exactly! Nobody has taught us critical facilities; we need to have critical faculties to do this. And that’s why I go back again to the educational system, which is mired in the 17th, no 12th century.
McRaney: When I talked to you earlier about this, we came to a similar point, which is it’s almost as if you have to roll everything back to teach logic and critical thinking and start there and then people can be let loose to…
Burke: Yes, yes! I mean, very important point you just made, because it’s no longer important to teach people to be chemists or physicists or anything ‘ists because those jobs are gone, and if they’re not gone today they’re gone tomorrow. And unless we know the old tools of critical thinking and logic and such, we will not be able to handle what follows. So, we’re wasting our time training people to be things that will no longer exist in 10, 15, 20 years time – the so-called specialties, specialization domains.
McRaney: Right. I wanted to take an opportunity to talk with you about… you are working on maybe a new book, maybe a new project, and you’ve spoken about it, and if you don’t mind repeating yourself a little bit for the recording… tell me a little bit about what you see when it comes to scarcity and abundance, and how you’re thinking about that right now.
Burke: Well, I don’t know what I’m thinking about it right now because, I don’t know about you, but when I’m doing a book, I tend to say, I know what this book is about. Then I do a lot of research and I think, I don’t know what this book is about. Then I do, I sort of, I review and I think, no it’s about this. And then I think, no wait a minute, I’ve dumped some stuff and I really shouldn’t have dumped it, and it goes on being like that. It’s like trying to catch fish with a net and you’ve got the net in the right or the wrong place. So, at the moment I have this big pile of stuff, some of which went off in another direction… you know what it’s like, it’s chaos. So, what I have to say about it is… unformed. Otherwise, I would have written the book.
But generally speaking, I’m interested in looking at the ways in which our present culture has been shape by millennia of experience with living with the need to manage the problem of scarcity. In some form or other, somewhere at some point in time, there was always not enough of something; enough for it to be critical and enough for somebody to have to do something about it – pharaoh, church, government, individual, whatever. And that during the course of history, these different moments of crises have occurred and triggered the establishment of some kind of social infrastructure – institutions, way of doing things, set of values, set of behaviors – that would handle this particular aspect of shortfall that was worrying society at the time. And this accretion of these behavior sets and institutions and ways of doing things and ways of thinking and values to aim for, which all were set up at different times throughout history in response to different specific problems regarding scarcity have all fed into what we are now. And what we are now is probably terrifically good at dealing with scarcity, unless you’re in Africa these days or one or two other people, because, well, that’s a different matter.
So, what we have done is taught ourselves over history to be extremely proficient in dealing with the problem of scarcity. We’ve not dealt with it totally because we have scarcity, and there always has been scarcity, but we’ve mitigated the worst effects because our society hasn’t fallen apart. So, that is proof that we have mitigated the worst effects, because enough of us have survived.
The nanofabricator, making anything you wish from the molecular level up, atomic level up really, with raw material consisting mainly of dirt, air, and water, and a lot of carbon, which you get from acetylene gas. And of course, the minute you have a fab-or, you make your own acetylene gas, you just need the first bottle.
McRaney: Like a home fabrication device?
Burke: Yes, a home fabrication device.
McRaney: They’re calling them 3D printers right now.
Burke: The 3D printer is a different thing…
Burke: Because a 3D printer uses material and shapes it, but you have to put the material in. This thing works at the atomic level; I mean there’s no such thing. You make the molecules you want in order to the molecules together to make stuff; once you’ve got the stuff then you shape it.
McRaney: Like a Star Trek replicator.
Burke: Exactly! Exactly, you say I want a cup of coffee you get a cup of coffee. I want a Mona Lisa, I want a bar of gold and whatever… And the general opinion is about 40-50 years from now – working to produce anything you want, and not costing anything, because the first thing a fabricator does, as I said in my talk, is make itself, make a copy of itself. So, the general thinking is a fabricator for everybody on the planet within two years of the first one. Because the first one makes another one, so it goes one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty… I mean, it takes no time at all, and you send out the information for structuring the thing by Wi-Fi or some online means, and of course, to build the thing is easy because the raw material is everywhere – dirt, air and water. So, it’s going to happen awfully fast and it’s going to happen much faster than we can deal with because we’re still looking backwards dealing with the business of handling scarcity. So, the book says, is there anything we’ve learned from handling scarcity that would help us handle abundance, and at the moment, I think the answer is no, nothing at all.
McRaney: It would require a complete reboot?
Burke: A complete reboot. Exactly. Every single value structure is meaningless… including so-called truth and all those other fancy words people are chucking around. I mean everything is meaningless. The so-called free market, capitalist, whatever you want to call it, society – commercial society will be destroyed at a stroke. The trouble is the transition period, and that’s what I think I want to concentrate on most. How do we get from here to there? There, utopia, blah blah – anybody can right stuff about that; the hard stuff, and I haven’t really tackled the problem seriously yet is to deal with how we get from here to there. The vested interests, I mean, we’re going to have to shoot every one of them – nobody, nobody is going to give way to this.
McRaney: No, of course not.
Burke: Because it’s everything.
McRaney: And, there are so many cultural values that will have to change.
Burke: Everything! All cultural values relate to scarcity, ultimately. And, when there are no cultural values, what do you have? Do you need any, if you live entirely autonomously on a mountain in Antarctica? What do you need for cultural values? And, if you interact with 3D holograms, everybody else… There are all kinds of cultural problems to be solved before you can do that. You can see the kind of microcosm of the problem when today, as I said earlier, 11 year olds are swapping pornographic views of themselves. 23 years ago, we would have been horrified to even think of saying those words in a conversation. Now, it’s happening. So, all of a sudden, we have these little kids doing things that were unthinkable, and they’re doing them, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. So, what is happening to them, and as a result, what will their lives be like, and when they interact with the community, what will the community be like? So, they’re already… I want to say poisoning the world, because I’m an old fogy. Somebody in the future would say bringing the truth or whatever.
McRaney: Right, or they’re just different…
Burke: Or just doing it, yes. Because the thing about, it seems to me about abundance is just doing it. There’ll be no can I, may I, should I do anything? As long as it doesn’t – will there be a rule that says don’t – what do they say in medicine?
McRaney: Do no harm.
Burke: Do no harm. First of all, do no harm. Will that be the only rule?
McRaney: Will we be – will human beings be noble enough to meet a world of that kind of abundance?
Burke: Well, you could have asked that in the middle ages and said no, we’ll never stop chopping people up and pulling their vitals out while they’re… you know, string them up and hang, draw and quarter them… I mean, if you had said to people, pulling the guts out of some poor bastard who had been hung long enough to be nearly dead but alive enough to know his guts were being pulled out then you chop his head off – people would say it never happened. So, yes people can get noble enough to do better things. We did, we don’t do that anymore.
McRaney: Of course! I think I’ve read that during the middle ages, the chances of dying at the hands of another human being were 25% or something, and now that’s down to like around 1%.
McRaney: Ok, so food used to be very scarce and then people would have these banquets to show off how much money they had or that they were able to hunt or whatever, and then in modern society, food is so insanely abundant, that now the task becomes can you stay your hand and not eat the food? So, now what’s valued culturally is a person who is able to not eat too much and remain healthy and they can show that off to people. And it seems, that transitional period you’re talking about… you’re going to see a lot of moments where all of the sudden we have this abundance and we don’t know… if I can make a diamond just by pressing a button, the diamond has absolutely no culturally ascribed value ever again, that all these things we’re used to having value ascribed to them, because of abundance will now have zero value, and we’ll have to come up with completely new value systems for what we appreciate other human beings for.
Burke: Yeah, why do we have to have a system, you see, at all? I mean, sorry, I don’t mean to be rude to you but…
McRaney: No, no, no, that’s fine…
Burke: …but is a value system an old fashioned think?
McRaney: That’s a great idea…
Burke: I mean, a value system means let’s all share something. Well, one of the big problems of abundance it seems to me is we won’t be sharing anything. I mean, why [would we]? We only share things because we have to. We only share – it’s bad to hit somebody, it’s bad to steal, it’s good to be good looking, it’s good to have a good education – these things may not matter at all, in the sense that nothing communal may matter. If you are entirely autonomous what value system do you want except your own?
McRaney: Hmmm. It’s so strangely solipsistic, you can be a universe unto yourself and what does that mean? Or you can have a small group of people who are so self-sufficient they don’t have to interact…
Burke: Well, yeah, but the trouble there you see – with 3D holograms and the kind of computer capabilities that might be possible, you can create that universe for yourself. So you can have all these friends and all these people and all these interactions and live like people are doing in your town now in their own homes in their lunatic world – you create your own world you create your own cyber universe and live in it. What’s the difference between that and living in – except you don’t go out and get wet?
McRaney: Right. I don’t know…
Burke: Well, it’s a problem we have to think about, because in transition we’ve got to get there.
McRaney: Yeah. I’m a little bit comforted by the fact that most people can’t, have never been able to predict the future very well…
McRaney: …so whether it’s good or bad…
Burke: Yeah, but I think the trouble about nanotechnology is that it could very, very good or horrendously bad, and I think we have to think about which one we want – because I don’t think people want it to be horrendously bad. One of the things nanotechnology seems to make possible is for you to build your own nuclear device – easily, very easily…
McRaney: Yeah, what is a world where anyone can build a nuclear bomb?
Burke: Exactly! I mean, a nuclear bomb in every back yard – what?
McRaney: I don’t trust my uncle with a gun…
Burke: Yeah, so do we have to have – will there have to be some kind of cultural behavior that is to say there will be a… I don’t know what it would be… some kind of software police that says there are certain things the machine will not do. Now, of course, what you might be able to do is to program… but then the trouble is I come back on myself and say the hacker will do something… that’s the problem, because you could easily make sure that the network of imbedded, trillions of imbedded dust mote sized computers on the planet running the place… like Asimov’s 3rd Law, was it?… won’t do that kind of stuff. Well, yeah, until the first hacker says, well I know how to do it. And then…
McRaney: You just can’t stop the hackers…
Burke: And there’s a nuclear explosion in Iowa and everybody says Christ, how did that happen? So, I don’t know. These are problems we’ve got to think about. All I’m saying is, “Help, help! The ship is sinking guys!”
McRaney: Right. I don’t want to keep you any longer…
Burke: Yeah, I’ve got to go…
McRaney: One last thing…
McRaney: That is, I love that you… many people come up to you and say how did you make all these connections, how did you do this? You seem to be this fantastical mind to do all these things, and you always counter it with… that anyone can do this, you just happen to be the first person on TV to do it…
Burke: Well, yeah, that’s right. I mean, I just happened to do it when the BBC was offering money to go and do a series of programs about it, and I did it and then I became famous and so, everybody says, you did it first. But, there may be hundreds of people, thousands of people who did it before me; I would be surprised if there weren’t. That’s how the brain works, everybody’s got one of these things and they all work like Connections.
McRaney: And you make this point that we’re all on equal footing – it’s all about opportunity…
Burke: Yes, well, more than that, I mean, we’re on an equal footing, and it’s all about opportunity – as long as we all have the same tools. And with our educational system up until now we do not have the same tools. This is the great hope I have for the Internet and for nanotechnology that it will give everybody the same tools, but we sure as hell don’t have the same tools if you look at the schools in Oxford as opposed to Hoboken, or anywhere else you choose, we do not have the same tools. When we get all the same tools, then we’ll see. Come the revolution! [Laughs]
McRaney: [Laughs] Thank you so, so much!
Burke: My pleasure, a great pleasure.