Tuesday, November 17, 2015

HistMedia: Connections - Past & Future: Mr. Burke & His Connections Approach to History (U13-P1) Fa15

Previously we took Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions and applied it to the study of communication broadly and international communication specifically.  That is, we used the theory as a way of understanding the history of these fields of study.  According to the theory, first this happens and then that happens.  There is a pattern in the histories.

In a similar fashion, here we are going to use James Burke's ideas of scientific and technological development to understand the history (and prehistory?) of media technologies.

But, first who is James Burke?

To start to understand his approach, let's first recall our much earlier discussion on why we study history.

Note the reason that is in boldface.  That will start to get us thinking like Burke.

Burke: "If you don't know how you got somewhere, you don't know where you are" (ep. 10, Connections).

With that reason in mind, let's next look at Burke's concept of the "Trigger Effect."
What's the "Trigger Effect" of which Burke speaks?

Burke laid out some of his ideas, including the Trigger Effect, in his TV series Connections from the late 70s.

Play video from 0:00 to about 4:50.

NOTE: If the video is not available online then see this transcript.

Now let's take a look at some of Burke's further thoughts on technological change.  In the 10th episode of Connections, Burke...  outlines....explains...

As you watch the beginning of episode 10 of Connections ("Yesterday, Tomorrow and You"), here are some questions to answer.

What did the plow triggers?   The plow lead to what which lead to what?  See what Burke means by connections?

As the title of the episode implies, what will be our technological future?  Can we look at the trigger technologies around us and figure what the key triggers are?  In what ways are these key triggers likely to act?

Is there anything we can learn from the past that would help us understand possible technological change in the future?

As Burke points out, this may be difficult to figure the future because of the way we've been taught the history of technological development.

The history has been presented to us as happening in a linear, discrete fashion.  We are told history...

  • in packaged units (e.g. the history of agricultural technologies).
  • as the story of the "lonely genius in the garage with a light bulb" creating all by themselves (Eastman, Edison, etc.) 
  • as sets of "Golden Ages" that began on such and such date and ended on such and such date.
According to Burke what is the problem with each of these ways of thinking?

These ways of thinking about the history of technological development makes you think in straight lines, when indeed, as Burke stresses that history is web of inter-connections.

Now, with this understanding of Burke's ideas, what do you see in terms of technological change in your future?  What would think Burke would say of today's technologies, especially communication technologies?


Now with a good understanding of Burke's alternative approach to change, I'd encourage you to watch episode 9 of Connections in which Burke applies his ideas to tell a history (and prehistory?) of some media technologies.

As you watch episode 9 of Connections ("Countdown"), here are some questions to answer.

How are cannon balls connected to film and television?  What is the path?  What's the process?  Can you list the steps and briefly explain each step in the process?  Can you make the connections using Burke's approach?

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