James Burke recently presented at BYU, where I earned my undergrad degree, and thanks to my brother catching it, I was able to see a rebroadcast this past week. The presentation impressed me to where I feel compelled to share at least some of the ideas covered over a set of upcoming posts, followed by reactions to how Burke's presentation hit my various info architecture, constructivist education, and computer supported learning switches.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Burke was the mind and the voice behind the PBS series Connections, which focused on the connecting threads that led to some of the innovations that changed the world, however unlikely those connections may seem on the surface.

The BYU presentation appeared to cover topics from both his Staying Ahead and The Knowledge Web presentations. Seeking methods for predicting innovation and its secondary effects provided the primary focus of the presentation, and the Knowledge web provided a tool for making those predictions and fostering innovative, interdisciplinary thinking.

Predicting secondary effects

Burke presented the problem of predicting secondary effects by noting technologies whose secondary effects proved detrimental despite the high value we placed on their primary effects. Items like asbestos, thalidomide, chlorofluorocarbons, nuclear power, and carbon emitting machines were all invented and/or used with the intent of making our lives better. It was after adopting them that we discovered that asbestos fibers caused respitory illness and cancer, thalidomide caused birth defects and deformities, CFCs depleted stratospheric ozone, etc.

These secondary effects move beyond disciplinary barriers as well, as seen in one of the secondary effects of the invention of the stirrup in Afghanistan: the modern English language.

By adapting the medieval Afghani stirrup, the French enabled their horsemen to fight more effectively and defeat the Anglo-Saxon British in the battle of Hastings in 1066. French Norman rule over the British Isles brought changes to the language spoken in Britain, as the Anglo-Saxons sought to prove their refinement by learning the Anglo-Norman language of their French rulers. This contributed to the shift from Anglo-Saxon "Old English" to Middle English, which later developed further into the English we use today on either side of the pond.

Barriers to innovation

Our intellectual boxes

We would clearly have liked to avoid the unexpected problems associated with these and other technologies, or found the way to predict the problems before we encountered them. The problem is, these secondary effects aren't often visible to us until we adopt a technology. We see things from within the "box" of our current understanding, and it requires effort to see outside of it.

Burke points out that this can even be true in our hindsight, citing a story told about Ludwig Wittgenstein in a conversation on Copernicus.

Somebody apparently went up to [Wittgenstein] and remarked what a bunch of morons we in Europe must have been (800 years ago before Copernicus told us how the solar system works) to have looked up there and thought that what we were seeing was the sun going around the earth, when as any idiot knows the earth goes round the sun, and you don't have to be Einstein to understand that.

To which Wittgenstein is said to have replied... "But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been going around the earth." The point being of course that it would have looked exactly the same.

What he was saying is that in any decision about what to do next, you're stuck with your view of things. If, as an astronomer, the contemporary paradigm says the universe is made of omlette, you make instruments looking for traces of intergalactic egg...

We're all in a box.

And incidentally, you're right. The box you're inside and the box I'm inside may be very different. So I may have trouble buying into how you see things from your box, and you may have trouble buying how I see things from mine.

In the end, we have to get over ourselves and our boxes or we'll paralyze our natural ability to connect ideas and innovate.