Thursday, August 24, 2006


During the 1970s the BBC produced some of the most interesting and challenging series. Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man, David Attenborough's Life on Earth and Kenneth Clark's Civilization were all thoughtful televisual essays and many of them continue to have a resonance to this day.

In the same mould was a series that focused on complexity theory in history. James Burke, the BBC's science correspondent created a series called Connections .

To a great degree, Burke, by talking about the random walk of historical progress underlined the fact that few, if any, could truly understand the path that their actions would lead to. The interconnectedness of science, politics and culture reflected Burke's view of history as being driven by isolated events, which by circumstances become connected. This increase in possible connections causes the process of innovation to not only continue, but to accelerate. Burke poses the question of what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly change itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.

For me, the only way to respond to an increasingly connected world is to rely on a set of fundamental principles that limit the ways that groups may influence or control individuals. For example, on principle, Liberals oppose ID cards. On principle we believe that the controls of the state should be strongly limited, which is why we oppose ID cards -they are an unwarranted intrusion into private privacy. When I hear the "since you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" argument, I tend to lose my temper. Individual liberty is not the gift of the state, rather the state is a concession by free individuals with the aim of greater liberty and prosperity. If the state fails to serve the individual it quickly becomes a tyranny.

Burke understood, a generation ago, that privacy and liberty could be challenged by technology and that new ways would be required to protect both. Connections was acclaimed in its time, now it begins to look prescient.


Tristan said...

For me, the only way to respond to an increasingly connected world is to rely on a set of fundamental principles that limit the ways that groups may influence or control individuals.

Similarly for me. The greatest reason for liberalism is the fact that people cannot predict the consequences of their actions fully. This is even more so the case with groups of people acting, hence the need to restrict the influence or control of groups (or other people) on individuals.

On a similar note to your final paragraph: I read an article which talked about the lack of mention of privacy in the US Constitution. This it was argued was because it was taken for granted, the technology to violate people's privacy has increased so much since then

neuralgourmet said...

Excellent post. James Burke and Douglas Hofstadter (cf. Godel, Escher and Bach) were probably the two greatest influences on me intellectually. To this day I can watch the original Connections and The Day The Universe Changed and still get so much out of it.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I couldn't get a trackback to work, but I was pleased to include this post in the Carnival of Liberals.

Marcella Chester said...

I found you through the Carnival of Liberals and I'm glad I did. Great post.

Richard Carter said...

Funny, I was watching the Ascent of Man on DVD last week, and flicking through my Connections book only yesterday.

People rightly object to ID. cards and government control freakery, but they seem far less bothered about the information companies like Tesco, Google and Amazon hold about us and consider theirs. The latest Gillmor Gang podcast (episodes 1 2 3) is particularly interesting on this subject (skip the first 5 minutes of each episode to avoid Gillmor's tedious ads).