Today, the connections problem. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Last week I read some remarks by a
distinguished historian -- an expression of disdainful
contempt for James Burke's TV series Connections.
And that has sent me off to ponder the delicate -- even
treacherous -- issue of historical cause and effect.
Burke pursued causal threads across centuries in his
series. In one case he began with Jacquard's invention of
an automated loom in 1801. Jacquard used a chain of cards
with holes punched in them to program the loom. That led
to Charles Babbage's unfinished punched-card-driven
computer and then to Herman Hollerith's use of punched
cards to organize the 1890 census. Hollerith formed the
company that became IBM. When IBM finally began making
digital computers, they used Hollerith-type punched
cards. And so forth!
That chain of events did occur, and the
connections among them are valid. Fortunately, PBS
viewers are savvy enough to see that countless other
causal trains run through any event as well.
For example, one might begin when eighteenth-century
landlords brutally replaced most of the Scottish
highlanders with lucrative sheep farms, creating a new
supply of wool. That leads to weaving processes and to
Jacquard. Next, think about the Luddites and their
assault on the new textile factories. From there, we
might go to the emergence of labor movements. Keep that
up and we could find ourselves connecting the highland
clearances with the Russian Revolution -- passing through
the Jacquard loom along the way.
Any such chain can be valid, but none is unique. The
obvious problem is that a thousand causal chains pass
through any event. What caused the Civil War? Abolition?
Economics? Or a macho urge after too many years of peace?
Kenneth Clark began his TV series, Civilization,
in the dog days of the Roman Empire. Since he couldn't
ignore the fall of Rome, he simply said,
"It took Gibbon six volumes to [explain Rome's] decline and [fall]. I shan't embark on that."
One current theory says that, by
eating on lead dishware, wealthy Romans sterilized the
aristocracy. I'd have to be pretty gullible to put the
decline of Rome to rest that easily. But it does offer
one causal factor in a terribly complex event.
We get into trouble when we try to treat history with the
unique causal chains that make good detective stories. We
humans are information hubs, acted upon by a thousand
forces, conscious and subcutaneous. If any one force is
dominant, we're unlikely to know which one it is. History
does ultimately deal with causation, but it'd better not
offer simple answers to complex questions.
So what about James Burke and his connections? I believe
he gave his viewers more credit than that historian did.
Any fool knows that many chains of connection flow
through any event -- that no chain is unique. Follow one
chain, and we catch a glimpse of history. Follow another
one, and we catch a different glimpse. Follow enough
chains, and we might finally start to see history whole.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.