This week we're reading: Connections by James Burke
After filleting a couple of modern tomes in the last few weeks, our bookworm Matt Boffey today dusts down James Burke's 1978 title Connections to see whether its forward thinking subject matter has stood the test of time.
Why have we chosen this book?
Because the popular stereotype of inventors – lone geniuses making their imagination into reality – is way off the mark. Burke surveys the history of innovation – taking in everything from astrolabes (which the Ancient Greeks used to measure the movement of planets) to nuclear missiles – and reveals that it’s all about multiple small answers to social needs, not sudden eureka moments.
Connections author James Burke
What’s the original thought or argument?
That the reason you can’t predict the future of innovation is because it’s all about unexpected collisions between different industries and cultures. Take the thermometer: it only came into existence thanks to experiments in draining water out of mines in the sixteenth century. One thing Burke does predict though is that as communication gets easier, productive collisions are will happen far faster – and at scale.
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Chapter 10, ‘Inventing the Future’, where Burke explains that by looking at how past innovations occurred we can guess where future innovations will come from, even if their exact nature is impossible to predict. Writing in 1978, Burke warns of a future where we’ll be unable to fully understand the sheer volume of available data – unless our intellectual ability to interrogate it is matched by our technical ability to capture it. Sound familiar?
You might want to skip
The technical and historical detail of many chapters. Understanding the finer points of how to construct a sixteenth-century Venetian galleon is interesting, but not vital to grasping Burke’s wider argument.
Why trust this author?
As well as producing countless documentaries on the history of science and technology, Burke has an uncanny knack for imagining our future. As early as 1973 he envisioned an era where computers make business decisions and personal information is stored in vast metadata banks. More recently Burke has said that by 2043 he expects nanofactories to have made goods and services universally available.
Once you’ve read this you don’t need to read
Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Burke joins the dots between landmark inventions whilst MacGregor studies them in isolation – offering up dusty cultural artefacts rather than waypoints in a journey.
Why should this stay on your bookshelf?
Because it’ll push you to get your thought leadership out into the open. Innovation is enabled by free information exchange (so Burke argues) and sharing your knowledge is often the best way to push your ideas the next level. Platforms like Github (open-source code sharing) embody the philosophy that shared knowledge is more mutually profitable than information-hoarding.
What’s the one thing you should do differently after reading this book?
If you’re looking for an answer to a problem, look way beyond your industry for the answer. The earliest data-entry computers (dating from 1890), for example, were based on technology that operated automatic church bells in the 12th century and silk looms in the 18th century. Innovation always spans industries.
Best quote in the whole book?
“The key to success will be the use we make of what is undoubtedly the vital commodity of the future: information. It seems inevitable that, unless changes are made in the way information is disseminated, we will soon become a society consisting of two classes: the informed elite, and the rest.”
Matt Boffey is the founder of London Strategy Unit, which you can follow on Twitter @LSUsocial