Monday, November 30, 2015

James Burke: Balanced Anarchy – The Day the Universe Changed

by G. Jack Urso


The search for truth, the discovery of nature’s secrets’, as Decartes put it, is an idiosyncratic search for temporary truth. One truth is replaced by another. The fact that over time science has provided a more complex picture of nature is not in itself final proof that we live by the best, most accurate model so far.
 James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (book)

If Aeolus 13 Umbra has a testament of faith it can be found in the closing segment from James Burke's classic 1985 documentary mini-series The Day the Universe Changed, which surveyed those moments in human history where our technology and knowledge forced our society to accept new world views – new “truths,” if you will.

As Western civilization has evolved, there have been small movements away from a belief in absolute truth, where religion and faith in a deity defined and determined what we know, to a more relativist view; however, any conclusion that society is largely determined by relativist values is, to be frank, wrong.  In fact, politically and socially the world is as polarized and ideologically competitive with alternate world views as it ever has been, and we need look no further than the daily news reports to see how people of all political and religious viewpoints have seemingly become more intractable in their positions.

The relativist view is generally shunned. It is supposed by the Left to dilute commitment and by the Right to leave society defenceless. In fact it renders everybody equally responsible for the structure adopted by the group. If there is no privileged source of truth, all structures are equally worth assessment and equally worth toleration. Relativism neutralizes the views of extremists of all kinds. It makes science accountable to the society from which its structure springs. It urges care to judgment through awareness of the contextual nature of the judgmental values themselves.
 James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (book)

Religion and faith provides what Burke calls “certainty.” In an ever-changing world, and a dangerous one, belief in the supernatural provides an explanation for why things go bad, why they go wrong, and who is to blame or give credit to. The problem with this perspective is that the faithful must philosophically bend over backwards to explain why a god who is supposed to be in control of creation can permit horrible disasters and tragedies to exist. Explaining that it is simply part of some grand scheme beyond our knowledge to comprehend is what it appears to be on the surface – a pacification to allay fears that no one is really in charge up there. A whole religious industry has grown to squelch those fears and keep the tithe-paying congregations in line.

But, ironically the latest product of that way of doing things is a new instrument, a new system, that while it could make conformity more rigid, more totalitarian, then ever before in history, could also blow everything wide open. Because with it we could operate on the basis that values, and standards, and ethics, and facts, and truth all depend on what your view of the world is – and there may be as many views of that as there are people. And with this [holds up a computer chip] capable of keeping a tally of millions of opinions being voiced electronically we might be able to lift the limitations of conforming to any centralized representational form of government originally invented because there was no way for everyone’s voice to be heard. We might be able to give everybody unhindered, untested access to knowledge.
 James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (TV episode 10)

Burke is proposing that the next phase in human development will move beyond the confines of pigeon-holed ideological positions to a more fluid, constantly changing playing field. The catalyst for this evolutionary step, a as Burke perceived it in 1985, was the humble computer chip. While the Internet was in use during the 1980s, its use was largely limited to so-called “elite users” in academia, government, and industry. Indeed, it was not until the development of the Internet’s “killer app” the World Wide Web in 1989 that its use began to spread to the general public.

Burke’s and other futurists’ claim that such an evolution in communications technology would lead to telecommuting, a move away from urban areas, and a subsequent decrease in automobile traffic has only partially come true. While the Internet has allowed for many people to work and study at home, urban population density and traffic congestion has only increased. Nevertheless, the power the Internet has made available to the layperson is considerable. Individuals are now empowered to communicate with the world, and earn money, on a scale never before possible. Academic research that would take days to complete before the Internet I can now complete in a matter of hours. Individuals and small businesses now have easy access to worldwide markets. Patients can look up their own diseases and consult with their doctors more informatively about their treatment.

Even so, one must also concede that the darker gifts of such mass and instantaneous communication were not fully anticipated. Individual isolation tends to increase. Financial scams are rampant. Racist beliefs are more widely spread. Cyberbullying has become a social phenomenon.  Criminals and terrorists more effectively recruit and fund their activities. While some may place the blame on technology, all it has done has been to shine a light on what was already there. It is up to all of us, both individually and collectively as a society, to balance our gifts with our propensity for anarchy.

James Burke's “Balanced Anarchy” from The Day the Universe Changed: