Documentaries I Like: Connections

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Connections - James BurkeConnections was a documentary series produced for the BBC in 1978. It sought to explain human history through an "alternative view of change" in which multiple aspects of history, including technology, religion, and finance combine to bring about social change. This mode of analysis moves beyond conventional linear narrative, and as a result embraces complexity. Each episode is an essay connecting several seemingly disparate events or technologies through an extended web of logic -- it's great fun to follow.

Connections was hosted by James Burke, whose dry humor pervades each episode. The fifth episode, for example, starts with a fullscreen view of a punchcard. Burke narrates: "What you're looking at is a bit of paper with holes in it. How's that for a spectacular way to start a program? But this may be the most important bit of paper with holes in it since the hole was invented." Burke goes on to explain -- via a discussion of astronomy, calendaring, clockwork, Sheffield steel cutlery, sea navigation, mechanized manufacturing, guns, John Kenneth Galbraith, and much more -- how computers came to be. Burke also spends some time explaining why computers will be important to the future of humanity (this was 1978, after all), and his discussion remains relevant and interesting thirty years on.

More, including a YouTube clip, after the jump.

Here's a YouTube clip from the fourth episode, "Faith in Numbers":

(Note: YouTube user JamesBurkeFan has posted tons of clips from various Burke series, including a few complete episodes of Connections, broken up into ten-minute segments.)

Connections is a lot of fun to watch. It's definitely family-friendly, though your kids may find it a little slow. If you enjoyed Carl Sagan's Cosmos or you like trips to science museums, you'll really dig this series.

After the success of the first ten-episode Connections series, Burke created two more series: Connections² 1992 (twenty episodes) and Connections³ (ten episodes) in 1997. You can read more about the series at Wikipedia or rent the it from Netflix (link is to the original series, but the other two are also available). Your local library is also likely to have the DVD sets on the shelf -- all three series are out on DVD, but are nearly $150 retail, so I'd recommend renting them. If you're a major James Burke junkie, don't miss the James Burke Fan Companion site, packed with content for Burke-aholics.

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May 13, 2008 - 9:38am
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