James Burke


James Burke: It’s raining like hell. It’s cold and I should be in the south of France.

Russell: Oh, my goodness. That sounds like a much better place to be. I was in England at Christmas actually, last year. It was my first time ever there.

James: You chose the wrong time (laughing).

Russell: It only rained twice for the two weeks I was there.

James: Oh, yeah?

Russell: I think I got in town roughly around the 15th or 16th and I left on the 30th.

James: Mind you, I guess, in Calgary it’s like going to the tropics.

Russell: I was coming from…at that time I was living in Prince Rupert, B.C., which is one of the rainier places in Canada.

James: You’re born with an umbrella.

Russell: In Prince Rupert, apparently, it’s a code of honor to not carry one, so they always spot the tourists by the umbrellas. I’m originally from Newfoundland, so I’ve lived a little bit all over the place.

James: Yeah, I like Newfoundland.

Russell: Yeah, it’s a lovely place, eh?

James: Yeah, good people there. I like them.

Russell: Well, lots of the British traditions are still in place there.

James: [Rum 0:01:00]

Russell: Because of our time zone debacle, we used to get a lot of BBC programming when I was growing up, so I kind of grew up on The Two Ronnies and Monty Python and stuff like that.

James: It’s bad for you (both laughing).

Russell: If you’ll bear with me, I have a longish introduction. I have the formal CBC one. Then I have one that’s kind written more or less with you inspiring it, so we’ll just kind of plow through it and then we’ll get to the main questions if that’s all right.

James: And remind me: you’re gonna edit this down and what’s your ideal…? If I’m worth broadcasting, how much am I worth?

Russell: Oh, as much as we can get.

James: No, I’m not offended.

Russell: I’ll tell you what. When I put together the idea for the show, it’s gonna air on January 2nd. It will be airing between 4 and 6 p.m. local times across Canada. When I put together the idea for this show, I wanted to end with you, so I’m starting at the end and working my way back in terms of putting the show together.

James: Good way to do it. Sure. So it’ll be as long as a piece of string.

Russell: It’ll be as long as it is. Some of the musical things we talked about, I may try and help you work some of that in to help the narrative. We’ll have some fun with it.

James: I’ll try not to go on at length.

Russell: (Laughing) It’ll be brilliant. Thank you, sir. Here we go. A naval disaster in 1707 leads to the invention of the toilet roll. A man trying to give the world artificial diamonds instead gives the world artificial fertilizer. And if you’ve ever been grateful to see the Coast Guard ship, well, you can actually thank the anti-vivisection movements of the 1800s for inspiring its creation. If you find it hard to see how those things are connected, you may never have seen the work of James Burke. Burke is a historian of science who first came to prominence covering NASA’s expeditions to the moon for the BBC. His seminal television series Connections in 1978 established him as a journalist of the innovation process and how it’s happened over time. He’s followed with books like Twin Tracks and The Pinball Effect, and his Internet project, The Knowledge Web, encourages the innovative use of educational technology. James Burke is currently working on a new book called The Culture of Scarcity and he joins me today from his home in London. Good afternoon, sir.

James: Hello there.

Russell: How are you doing?

James: I’m okay, except I’m in London (both laughing).

Russell: A little rainy?

James: The weather is pretty dismal.

Russell: That introduction that I just read, it’s kind of that linear view of your own history, which I know is a concept which you’ve kind of railed against from time to time, so before we begin our actual interview, do you mind if I just quickly read an introduction that’s maybe more in line with your own way of explaining things?

James: Go ahead. I may walk away (both laughing).

Russell: Okay, here we go. In 1986, I was listening late at night to CBC radio. They were playing a radio play of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It was like nothing I’d heard before. It really hooked me on radio and I wound up picking up novelizations of his radio plays and became a huge fan of Douglas Adams’ work. He followed Hitchhikers with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency about a private investigator who solves mysteries because of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, no matter how random two things seem to be. The book’s main idea was crystallized perfectly for me when The Learning Channel was introduced to Canadian cable TV in the late 1990s. They ran a series called Connections, where host James Burke did a bit of a [Marshall 0:04:38] tour of science and innovation over the last 10,000 years. It showed how we’re all connected back to the innovation of the plow and it posed some questions as to where we’re heading next. When I started to put together this radio show about change, he was the first person I could thing of to interview. How are you doing? Is that sort of along the lines?

James: Douglas and I used to argue all the time because I used to say he stole the idea from me and he used to say, “Who’d YOU steal it from?” (both laughing)

Russell: There’s no new idea under the sun, as they say.

James: When I was preparing Connections a long time ago, I got involved with a very, very, very senior history of science guy at UCLA and I was a young person then and I said to him, “Professor, I wonder if I could use one of your ideas.” He said, “Sure, I stole it. You steal it.” I said, “You stole it, Professor?” and he said, and I’ve never forgotten this, “Young man, you don’t think we’re born with ideas, do you?” (both laughing)

Russell: When you copy from one, it’s plagiarism. When you copy from many, it’s research?

James: Absolutely, and when you copy from the right kind of person, it’s a compliment.

Russell: We’ve been talking a lot about change over the course of this program, and it seems we started on the program by talking about how Western society seems to have been consumed by the concept of change during 2008. What’s your take on change in our current context?

James: Oh, that’s an easy question (chuckles). Two things: let me start by saying I think change is something that has consumed our interest for hundreds of years in the West because our fundamental approach to the way we lead our lives, I suppose ultimately, really, some people would say got from the Bible, is one where we, as it were, own the earth and it is up to us to make our life better as we go along. The Western canon kind of encourages innovation, but to go to the more immediate part of your question, we’re consumed with change right now, I think, because the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And it’s because fundamentally, I think…and you see the response to Obama’s phrase, “Time for change,” and everybody went ape and voted him to be president. I think people are urgently in need of a reappraisal of the situation because our institutions are out of step. Technology brings change to our lives so fast that we want the problems they create solved quickly and the institutions cannot do it because institutions were established in the past to solve the problems of the past using the technology and the values of the past. Education hasn’t really changed since it was set up to train Medieval monks. The banking system hasn’t really changed since they did it on a table on a square in Florence. The government hasn’t changed since it was the answer to lousy roads and there was no telecommunications so you found a couple of fools with a horse and you sent them to the capitol to represent you. And of course, they didn’t come back the next day because the roads were so lousy. So every four or five years they’d come back and say, “We’ve changed your mind,” and this became known as representative democracy. We have telecommunications out the yin yang today, and the same kind of lumbering, inherently non-representative, government today. My representative doesn’t represent me. He doesn’t know me. We now live in a world so immensely complex, how on earth can a few hundred guys in a capitol city represent the entire community? Of course they can’t. I think people are becoming more and more aware of the shortfall, if you like, of the failures of the institutions. It’s not their fault. They weren’t designed to run the world we live in, but people are becoming more and more impatient and recognizing that as information technology tells them things, it tells them stuff that makes them realize they don’t know enough. One, people want more, and two, they want institutions to be modernized, updated, or indeed, done away with in some cases.

Russell: It’s been said that a week in politics is a long time, and someone who looks like their fortunes are down one week could the very next week be looked at as the saviors. We see people like Gordon Brown in England, for example, that turn around their fortunes for a little while with the economic crisis.

James: Wait till next week.

Russell: That’s right. It sounds like government needs some fundamental change, but at the same time, how do you find change that works versus just going along with whatever the whim of the day happens to be?

James: Well, okay. I have to preface my remarks by saying what I’m about to say is something that has to come [from 0:09:19] the other side of a revolution in education, because what I’m talking about is an educated franchise, an educated population that can become part of what I would regard as a direct electronic democracy. What you do is – and this is a few years down the pike – but what you do is you set up a situation in which every individual’s voice is heard and the mix produces a decision which is carried out by a number of bureaucrats or whatever you want to call them, who simply do what public opinion wants. You say, well, that’s gonna change every ten minutes. So what? Either it’s vox populi, vox [dei 0:09:59] or it isn’t. Either we truly represent the wishes of the population or we don’t. And if you say that’s unstable, well, that’s because the old institutions can’t keep up with this kind of switcheroo. However, if you design systems that can work fast enough to keep up with this fast-changing public opinion, then there is a means of returning to what I suppose democracy was supposed to be in the very first place. That is to say every person had their view heard, measured, valued and added to the mix. This is not to say that everybody has to sit by a computer listening and thinking about every political decision 24 hours a day, because they won’t do that. But there are already developed forms of early electronic agents which, using techniques such as a thing called a Kelly Grid which is a complicated way of finding out if a person’s views have internal inconsistencies in it so that you can work your way through over a number of days with the person’s view of the world to arrive at a point where you get up very, very close to what their real view of the world is. The agent looks at every issue that’s coming up, and in the light of this view of the world that the individual has, votes one way or the other. That’s what I suppose I’m talking about when I suggest that there are ways of dealing with this that will not change every week. They will change every second. But the resultant decisions will be more representative, more democratic and there is no reason on earth why a mass of people – if you ask most people what their view of one particular issue or another is, they’re not likely to change their minds that fast. I think what happens in the world of politics is people stab each other in the back in the Houses of Parliament. That’s what causes change. I don’t think it’s the general populace at large switching its opinion every ten minutes.

Russell: One of the things, though, that you’ve discussed in your own writing and your own broadcasts is the idea of getting a populace to care about what’s happening around them and what they vote for and what they don’t vote for, and whether or not we can really understand the complexity of what it is we’re voting on. How does some sort of direct democracy like you’re talking about there play into it when sometimes people aren’t even sure if they should go out to vote at all? How do you get them to buy into a program where they can vote directly on things of the moment?

James: Right. Well, sure as hell I wouldn’t go out to vote half the time if I didn’t think somebody had to, because the idea that things are too complicated for you to understand or for you to worry yourself about – leave it to me. Just vote for me and I’ll do it because I have a very simple, straightforward view of the world. Follow me and everything will be okay. That’s an idea [hucksted 0:12:45] by the people who want to be in power and want to be politicians, and we get [? 0:12:49] the government we deserve. If we don’t get involved, we get the kind of guy who’s more interested in staying in power than actually doing anything. I believe that to be true about most politicians on the globe. What you do to get people interested – I don’t think you have to get people interested. I think you have to show people how issues are relevant to their daily lives and then they’ll sure as hell care. Of course they care. If you say, “The price of food is rocketing. How do we do something about this?” Instead of saying, “My view is the only right one. Follow me and my party will take you down the road to plentiful food,” you show people why that issue matters in a way in which any decision you make will then have [knock-on 0:13:29] effect elsewhere in the world, which will come back and bite you in some cases. In other words, what I’m saying is, the key thing is to make issues relevant to people. I think this is true about all forms of educative interaction. Kids at school aren’t stupid. They are let down by a system that isn’t efficient enough or affectable enough to get the material to them in a way that they will see the relevance of. So I think it comes back to getting the populace at large to see the relevance of the ramifications of any decision they would make about one thing or another.

Russell: Let’s take a look at the issue of the environment, which is sort of the buzz word over the last little while. It was a big issue during the American campaign. It was a bit of an issue during the recent Canadian campaign as well. It seems like this is a movement [along the lines of 0:14:16] the ecology movement of the 1960s. Now, through the efforts of people like Al Gore, it’s moved to the forefront. A lot of people who used to deny the science of it seem to be on side with it, but yet it seems like it’s taking us a long time to realize change has got to happen. The options seem to be so multitudinous that nobody can decide which direction to go in.

James: I think this takes us back to the fact of the institutions; all the political institutions are not adequate to the requirements. I remember I did a program about 25 years ago about climate change and we got hammered by people because they said, “This is not happening.” The oil and gas lobby, above all, said, “You’re biased.” I said, “No, I’m trying to present some possibilities.” The thing is I think that the institutions move so slowly that it has taken since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s till now A) to come up with what might be good alternatives and above all, of course, the trouble with the general public is it thinks if a scientist disagrees, if a scientist says, “I can’t tell you with certainty,” about something, then none of what he’s trying to tell you is true, when in fact, of course, no scientist will ever tell you anything with certainty because the principle behind science is always try to fortify what theory has been put out, because if you can knock it down, obviously it was no good in the first place. The public understanding of what a scientist is saying is then modified. The politicians have their own personal agendas involved. I think that’s the main reason we’ve been dragging our feet and why it’s taken so long to get almost nowhere. That is not to say that we could solve the problem if we were able to see these issues quickly, that we wouldn’t be able to solve them tomorrow. The answers are as long term as the problem.

Russell: How do you think this compares to the computer revolution that we saw about 30 years ago? For example, we saw the personal computer come along. It impacted industry. It impacted the jobs we do. Some people lost their jobs, but other people found different types of work. The environmental revolution, as I guess it could be called, seems to have the same type of potential, but there is still so much resistance to changing the way we go about business.

James: I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure about that at all. I think technology moves a great deal faster than we are led to believe. I think, first of all, clearly, wind power isn’t going to solve the problem. What you described to me in one of your letters as curly light bulbs won’t just solve the problem by itself. We need concerted effort at a very low level by every single person. However, I think what we should be considering – and I think ultimately this means we will not need to change our lifestyle so terribly. It will be modified, but in ways that we will hardly notice. Nanotechnology presents the opportunity in the next maybe ten years of a kind of photovoltaic cell that will be orders of magnitude cheaper than the ones that exist at the moment, to the point which it will be extremely competitive with present fossil fuel use. Once you have that, you have…energy is the ultimate currency. Once you have that, you’re rich in a sense that anything we might want to do to clean up the planet to solve the problem of climate change, solve the problem of pollution, all the other material social problems that occur in our world, are all dealt with by the use of energy in one way or another. If you can make solar energy very, very, very cheap, then you have a tool with which to solve most of these problems. The great thing about photovoltaic energy is the sun doesn’t have to shine on you. There just has to be light in the sky at that level of efficiency. I think that’s no more than ten years away and we should be thinking about what we’re going to do when that’s possible rather than looking backwards at can we maintain our old style of life and how do we fight to stop it changing or how do we fight to make it change. We should look ten years forward and say, “Suppose we didn’t have to change, but suppose everywhere on the planet had all the energy it needed. What kind of world would we have to run then?” because that would be a very different world.

Russell: I mentioned toilet roll off the top of this and you once referred to that as second-level technology, but you also said, “Who knows what someone is out there doing with a toilet roll right now?” (both laughing). How much of our future are things that we, the public, haven’t even seen yet if you catch my meaning?

James: I suppose the area of science and technology, which is generally referred to as nanotechnology, and also that refer to generally as genetic, are two areas about which the public is most ignorant and which I think will have the most fundamental effect in changing the way we live our lives in the next 10, 20, 30 years. Consider this, I think, fascinating possibility: 10 years ago a couple of guys at Cornell succeeded in bonding, using a nano approach, a carbon monoxide molecule to an atom of iron. 5 years ago, a couple of guys I can’t remember where else, succeeded in what’s called submolecular assembly of atoms. Ultimately, 10 years, 15 years, maybe 20 years from now, these kinds of techniques may make it possible for us to assemble anything from the constituent raw materials. When I say anything, I’m talking about the Philosopher’s Stone. You want gold? Make it. You want water? Make it. You want food? Make it. The whole of our history has consisted of people slaughtering each other to get their hands on and control resources. Those resources have never been as much as we would want and they’ve never been maybe where we wanted. So we went out to parts of the world and set up colonies and stripped them of their raw materials so that we could live better. If everywhere on the planet were able to make every raw material it needed, how would we organize our lives, because the entire history of humankind has been structured according to the kind of society you have to have when things are rare or scarce and only a few people can have them. Those few people have power over the vast majority of the population who don’t have them and you run your society based on that fundamental premise. That, I think, with nanotechnology and the life sciences working together is going to change radically in the next generation, two generations maximum.

Russell: You speak of humankind, but at the same time it seems like with a lot of the decentralization that’s going on, and I know you’re going to address a lot of that in your new book, it seems like so much of what’s happened with Internet technology over the last 10, 15 years has done a lot to separate us. A lot of computer work is done on an individual level. People surf the net alone. It’s not so much…I don’t get the sense that we’re all in this together. Even in Canada we try and figure out ways to differentiate ourselves from the Americans or the English, that kind of thing. How do we all get together on this knowing that we all have this common problem or common challenge, I should say?

James: Well, I think the first thing to do is to recognize that it’s not a problem. It’s a challenge. Let me start that again. I think what’s coming down the pike is technology that will make it possible for us to talk to each other in any language instantly, easily, with automated intelligent software that translates whatever you’re saying instantly to the other person. Second of all, we will move away from these devices. I’m sitting in front of one now and I bet you are, too. In fact, you’re probably in a room full of the stuff. These clunky boxes will no longer be here. These things where you have to hunt and peck the way people did when the typewriter was invented – we’ll be able to talk instantly with maybe something minute stuck in your ear, or something on the wall, or something in your clothing, so that you are, as it were, constantly in touch with everybody, or everybody you wish to be. The key thing for me is not that people will or will not be brought together, but in what kind of way their lives will be organized. Here we are – this revolution that has brought us all in front of our little clunky machines in basements under the light talking to people across the world for the first time ever. I do it. You do it. Everybody’s very excited about it, but then we walk out into the street outside and the world is still run with 19th century machinery and 19th century institutions, 18th century nation-states fighting each other or not fighting each other: national identities around the world all competing for these rare raw materials. What we need to do, I think, is to marry those two things. We need to recognize that we are going to be immensely closer to everybody on the planet in the next two or three generations. We are gonna be right up against those people and the concept of the nation-state and everything that goes with it will become obsolete and it’s time now to start thinking of what else we’ll have if we don’t have that. I go back to what I said in the beginning: the very first step in all of this is education. Just one sentence about that: in five to ten years, there’s marvelous work going on at university in your country, at Simon Fraser. There will be avatars, that is to say imitation human beings on your computer screen, capable, semi-intelligently, of interacting with you as an individual, and of molding what it is they say to you according to your likes and dislikes and your own personal predilections. No kid will ever be taught by a boring teacher again. Every kid will be excited because they will be taught the material in a way that makes them excited. It will be tailored for them. When a kid does that, it releases the brain that’s been held back by these institutions that say, “You do it this way or you fail.” Every brain has more linkages in it than there are known atoms in the universe and we don’t use them most of the time.

Russell: (laughing) I’m sort of drawn back to…

James: Sorry about that.

Russell: No, it’s hard to know where to go from there. Let me just see if I can get around to it this way. In the late ‘60s, it seemed like the whole world was wrapped up in what the Americans were doing with the moon expedition. It was probably the last time the world kind of came together that way, at least all sort of mesmerized by a common purpose. It seemed like we had a similar experience with the election of Barack Obama, where people from all over the world seemed to be focused on the election of this one man. As we start to move towards these technologies that can bring more of us together, are we starting to get the sense of moving together more in commonality?

James: No, and that’s a 19th century view of life. It’s part of the institutions I’ve been criticizing. Barack Obama, whatever, a nice man he may be, is a 19th century figure saying, “I am the way. Follow me.” The moon landing was a country saying, “We know what we’re doing. Look at us.” We should not be coming together seeking commonality, but coming together celebrating diversity. It seems to me that as we sit in front of our little machines these days and talk to each other across the planet, as this becomes easier, more and more and more we will begin to understand the diversity of the planet and the fantastic potential that lies in that diversity, rather than being conned into thinking there is a single central commonality to which we should all conform. That’s the past and it’s dead.

Russell: How much of a factor in that diversity is the election of someone like Barack Obama?

James: It’s a minor blip. The fact that Barack Obama is black or is of tremendous importance to Americans in the sense that Martin Luther’s dream has finally happened maybe. But shortly thereafter, President Obama will face the problem every president does and he will react the way presidents do to solve a problem and it will have nothing to do with whether he’s black or not. I’m not talking about as simple an issue as that. I’m talking about the fact that there are 10,000 languages on the planet, for God’s sake, 10,000 world views. Never mind the world view of the individuals who speak those languages, and we don’t know anything about it. If we’re not very careful, I’m happy to say, actually, this computer revolution has made it less probable that the old idea that we would all become one, united together by the international power of television – thank heaven that’s not going to happen. Looking back to that book I wrote all those years ago, one of the things I thought in 1975 would be of tremendous importance to us was television. Thank heavens we managed to get out from under.

Russell: Where do you see this diversity taking us in the next five to ten years? Where do you think that we’ll be? What kind of society do you think we’ll be looking at in five to ten years if some of these things come to pass that you’re talking about?

James: I think in the next five to ten years we have to hang on. It’s going to be a hell of a ride. I think it’s going to be extremely turbulent. Islamist fundamentalism is only one aspect of what’s gonna happen. I think as this technology spreads, it will spread unevenly. Some people will get the kind of capability to do things quicker than others. The educational systems in all countries will work at different rates. I think we’re in for a bit of a ride. I would say we’re going to go through a period of transition lasting at least two, if not three, generations. It’s going to be a time of considerable testing.

Russell: It will be a time. James Burke, thank you.

James: Not at all, thank you.

Russell: I think that’s a good place. Thank you very much.


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