Back in the early/mid 1980's PBS reran a 10 part 1978 BBC history documentary written and presented by James Burke. It was one of the most engaging and informative programs that I'd ever seen. Connections did just what it's name implied – connecting us with the past through a series of seemingly unrelated steps backwards in time to the genesis of an idea. Each episode followed a modern (at least by 1978 standards) technological advance that we all took for granted and deconstructed its evolution from a simple idea to a intricate part of a much-larger present-day system. What sounds boring was anything but. Each episode was mesmerizing. Two subsequent series were produced much later, Connections 2 in 1993 and then a third and final series in 1997, but the first one remained the best.
30 years on, I finally coughed up the $500 for the complete Connections series. I don't know why it's so damned expensive and I wondered whether it would hold up all these years later (or whether I would be staring at the screen in utter horror as I did with another film fav from that era – Remo Williams). I watched the first two episodes of Connections 1 tonight and was stunned by just how well it's aged. If anything, Burke's research and the yarns he spins are more relevant today than ever before. This is a must see documentary about our world and where it (and by association - we) came from. The opening episode, entitled The Trigger Effect, is a haunting cautionary tale about the vulnerability of our massive and complex cities. In an early scene, standing on top of the then-much-taller World Trade Centre, Burke explains that all the people below are virtually unaware of their exposure to danger and chaos if even one small part of the system breaks down. He uses the eastern seaboard blackout of 1965 to show how a tiny electric relay in Niagara Falls tripped and plunged the entire eastern seaboard into darkness. 200 planes were scheduled to land in and around New York that evening and a Scandinavian plane was on final approach when the runways went dark. The flight number?.... 911.
These technological “traps”, as Burke calls them, have grown exponentially since the original broadcast of this program way back in 1978 and our increased reliance on, and belief in, technology makes us ever more vulnerable to a simple system crash. In the 1965 blackout, at least the phones still worked – they didn't a few years ago in our big blackout. What's astonishing to consider is just how quickly a society collapses when technology fails and as we continue to increase the complexity of the systems around us, how we become further ensnared by it.
Don't get me wrong, Connections doesn't dwell on end-of-days doom and gloom. It's mostly an engaging and often humorous exploration of the odd associations between everyday things and the fascinating role historical coincidence, fate and even blind luck had in their eventual arrival in our time. This might be the best historical documentary the BBC has ever put out. Do yourself a favour and give the first couple of episodes a try. Jesus Kadas... you've seen The Dark Knight enough times right?