See things clearly

When you are growing up, some television programmes bury themselves deep into your brain and just stay there.


For me, one such was the BBC series “Connections”, by the science historian, James Burke.


First broadcast in 1978, the documentary explored the ways our modern technological world came into existence.


As a kid, I would watch fascinated, as Burke would weave a thread through historical eras, making “connections” between seemingly unrelated figures, events and technologies, and explain the impact these ‘combinations’ had on the modern world.


Despite high acclaim, for some reason the series has been rarely repeated (if at all), and, mysteriously, it remains unavailable on DVD in the UK, although it can be purchased in the US.


So, last week, I was absolutely delighted to discover by chance that the full series is available on YouTube, and I immediately settled down to re-watch part one on my computer.  It might be in 10 minute chunks, but after waiting 33 years, I was ecstatic to take it any way I could get it!


As I was loading up the page, a news item flashed across my browser’s ticker tape - a huge power outage had hit Southern California.


I switched on the news.  In California, and some parts of Mexico, people were trapped in lifts.  Traffic lights failed and there was gridlock in some places. Aeroplanes were grounded.  Sewage was spilling into the sea.  Nuclear power stations were shut down.  There was no refrigeration or air conditioning.


As I sipped my coffee, I was thinking that the people over there were in for a rough few days.


I muted the news, hit the ‘play’ button on my browser, and the Connections theme music burst into life.


It suddenly dawned on me that I could remember nothing about precisely how James Burke began the series – I was intrigued.


Ahhhh...there was my hero.  Wearing a trench coat and sporting dark, thick-rimmed glasses, just as I remembered him.


As he made his way to the top of a skyscraper to deliver some of his wisdom, he spoke of the ‘the warm blanket of technology...infiltrating every aspect of our lives...a life-support system without which we can’t survive’,

“The things around us, the man-made inventions we provide ourselves with, are like a vast network each part of which is interdependent with all the others...change anything in that network and the effects spread like ripples on a pond...”

In Burke’s view, each ‘major high-density population centre’ can be considered a ‘technology island’.  They can ‘neither feed, nor clothe, nor house, nor warm inhabitants, without supplies from outside’.


Without those supplies these centres, and their populations, would die,

“and yet in cities everywhere we act if that were not so.  We have no choice...the pace of life... is set by the pace of the technology that serves [these centres].  We just have to hope it will stay that way”

Burke demonstrates our dependence on technology we take for granted, by describing how in 1965 the failure a single piece of equipment in a power generating station resulted in a cascade effect of failure through the power supply system in the north eastern U.S.  A lengthy blackout was caused in New York and surrounding areas:


  • 30 million people were in darkness
  • all of NY’s elevators had stopped
  • 800, 000 people were trapped in the NY subway
  • a Scandinavian Airlines jet descending at 2000ft, suddenly could see no landing lights and had to veer away


As I continued watching Connections, in the upper corner of my monitor the news channels were showing images of San Diego in darkness.


By now I was a little stunned; I believe this is a case of what is known as synchronicity.


When Connections was made, the digital revolution was still in its infancy.  What was noticeable in the programme was how much of the technology shown was mechanical.


Nevertheless, in today’s ultra-complex, data driven world, Burke’s arguments still apply.


We are even more reliant on technology to work and to live our lives – and when data doesn’t flow, we have a problem.  Yet in comparison to the 1970s, in my opinion, we have proportionately less understanding of interconnectivity and critical interdependencies.


Assets will always fail at some point, and with any asset failure there is a chain of consequential loss which is triggered by an originating event.  That is why it is critical to model business services in order to create clarity about the “downstream” impact of failure or change, and to make the best decisions about how to manage risk.


The above power outages demonstrate that, even in regulated industries, where standards have been in place for decades, serious failures will arise from time to time.


While it was great to see my favourite programme again, (and I recommend it highly, especially if you have family interested in science/tech) it was a strange experience to watch in ‘real-time’ as two slices of time were connected by almost identical events.


That wasn’t the only thing that spooked me though.


The skyscraper Burke ascended back in 1978 was one of New York’s twin towers.  And the plane that couldn’t land was flight 911.



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