Some 15 years ago, a friend recommended I check out a vintage BBC science documentary series called Connections: “I just think it will resonate with how your mind works.” He was right. I was immediately hooked and devoured every available episode, following host James Burke down countless fascinating historical rabbit holes before arriving at an unexpected final destination—although in retrospect, the haphazard journey somehow made perfect sense. Connections was the science documentary series for compulsively curious people who weren’t necessarily drawn to more traditional science and nature documentaries. And now Burke is back and better than ever with six new episodes of a rebooted Connections, thanks to the folks at Curiosity Stream.
The series had been around for decades before I made my belated discovery. The BBC first aired Connections to the UK back in 1978, expanding to the US the following year. Produced and directed by Mick Jackson, each episode would start with some past innovation or event—the invention of the cannon and subsequent changes to castle fortifications to eliminate blind spots, for example. Then Burke would spend the remainder of the episode tracking a path through a series of seemingly unrelated events—maps, limelight, incandescent bulbs, substituting guncotton for ivory in billiard balls, the zoopraxiscope, the telegraph—to demonstrate how they all connected to produce a modern-day breakthrough: the movie projector.
Much of the delight came from all those surprising and unexpected connections. But Burke also had an overarching philosophy about the nature of change and innovation, arguing that rather than progress occurring in a conventional linear fashion, it occurred nonlinearly via an intricate web of interconnected events. In short, one simply could not understand a new modern scientific breakthrough or technology in isolation. That’s why the series was subtitled “An Alternative View of Change.”
This alternative view has some significant implications. First, since history is driven by people who act only on what they know at the time, one can merely speculate about how science and technology will progress into the future. As surprising as Burke’s connections might be, future audiences will be equally surprised by where today’s actions and events will have led. The downside is that, over time, there will be an increasing number of possible connections. So the process of innovation can accelerate too rapidly, to the point where human beings simply can’t adapt quickly enough. Eventually, only an elite few will have requisite knowledge and expertise to navigate an incredibly complicated technological world built on all those interconnected innovations; the average person will simply be out of our depth.
It’s a conceptual framework that has remained relevant over the ensuing decades. The Learning Channel (TLC) revived Connections for two subsequent seasons in 1994 and 1995. And now Curiosity Stream has taken up the mantle, keeping everything we loved about the original series—including its legendary host. This time around, Burke explores such links as the death of Rene Descartes in 1649 and virtual reality, for instance, or Napoleon’s toothpick and Nielsen TV ratings. And he’s still an active participant, jumping into a sensory tank with dolphins for an episode connecting outbreaks of syphilis in the French aristocracy to nano fabrication and its implications for the value of things.
“Increasingly today, change happens too fast for most of us to handle,” Burke said. “Connections shows how this happens: because when things come together in new ways, 1+1= 3. The connective approach offers a way to second-guess that process—and predict the future.” Ars spoke with Burke to learn more.