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James Burke Interview

March 24th, 2004 · No Comments

[via Yuvaraj] I first heard about James Burke from Atanu Dey in the context of his “Connections” series. Then, I bought a book of his – “Twin Tracks”. So, I was quite fascinated to read this interview from Gartner. What is interesting is how Burke connects seemingly unrelated events and weaves them into a story. Writes Gartner as introduction: “James Burke is best-known to millions worldwide as the award-winning creator, producer and host of the three Connections television series. His wit, unique perspective and wealth of knowledge make the series an imaginative combination of education and entertainment as he leads viewers on a dazzling trip through the history of science, technology and social change.” Excerpts from the interview:

In history, the transition to representative democracy was directly driven by the spread of information due to the printing press. It didn’t start in 1215 with Magna Carta which was a private deal between the king and the barons.

Representative democracy emerged because that’s all we could manage with the technology we had at the time. Think about it: lousy roads and no telecommunications meant the best you can do is send a couple of locals to the capital city to speak for all the others.

Today, information technology is making it possible to think differently. People are becoming dissatisfied with the system in which one person represents the complex and different interests of tens of thousands.

What comes next is a product of information technology – direct democracy. One person, one vote. On all issues. Every second of the night and day. Via electronic agents. What democracy was always supposed to be.

Today’s information technology makes the process of change more horizontal and accelerative because networking brings together things and ideas never brought together that way before. And when that happens, change happens: one and one make three.

This is the greatest of today’s challenges. That the process of change is beginning to affect people’s lives in interactive ways that our old social systems were not built to handle – especially in the way we are no longer separated from one another by time and geography.

Burke also talked about his Knowledge Web project:

The Knowledge Web project is a pro bono, volunteer based, free-to-be-used-online teaching and learning tool. At the present stage, it consists of biographies of 2,200 major figures from history linked about 18,000 ways, linked by the way everybody is linked: to friends, to influences, to people they influence, to people the work with, to the people they collaborate with and so on.

And the name of the game is to get learners – in most cases, that’s going to be children – to take journeys through these connected pathways from one person to another, to another and in doing so, to learn about how change happens. How change is anything but linear. How change through history is like a pinball – it bounces around.

The reason I’ve taken this approach is because that’s the way life happens. What I’m also hoping to do is to get kids to recognize, first of all, how what they are learning interacts with its context. And second of all, that their own lives are the same. That what they are learning is not something separate, isolated, different, boring, but part of their own lives.

I’d also like Knowledge Web users to go away and use the technology to build their own webs, to build webs between them and the rest of their schoolmates, between their school and another school, between their state and other states, between their country and others – because online, they can do that now.

And in this way they can see how everything is interconnected, and see that nobody is an isolated, unimportant individual, that everybody contributes. I think that’s probably the most important thing a young person can learn.

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