James Burke – “A Matter of Fact”

Day-the-Universe-Changed-1Earlier this semester, I watched the above episode of The Day the Universe Changed, hosted by James Burke. I am not quite sure why my classmates characterized Burke as having a monotonous and boring style. I thought he was rather engaging, even if he is a stuffy British academe. In other words, he can be rather wry and condescending at times. But if you can get past that facet of his personality, the things he has to say in “A Matter of Fact” are rather erudite and profound, I think. Right away, the premise of “A Matter of Fact” caught my attention and resonated with me. Burke’s argument is threefold: (1) Technology has taken away our memory, (2) Technology has created an artificial way of living, and (3) Technology has cut us off from direct contact with the world. I happen to agree with these statements. I like the way Burke stated that “The natural world has been mechanized, processed, [and] packaged. . . Science and technology have taken away the real thing from everything we do, because five-hundred years ago, something happened that gave us today’s artificial way of living, took away our memories, and cut us off from direct contact with the world.” To a large extent, I agree with Burke’s premise. But I would not be so quick to place the blame in 1440 AD, with the invention of the printing press.

Before the advent of writing, the known world did, one could argue, operate in a much more romantic sense. Burke says that, “People were intimate with every sound and smell in nature.” Of course, life was a lot more uncomfortable then too with poor hygiene and diseases running amok. But the standards by which medieval persons went about their daily business were much different than our own standards today. For those individuals who could not read or write in Latin, nature was their constant interlocutor. The language of the day was circadian and interpersonal; not subject to the stultifying effects of abstraction and personal disconnection wrought by technology. The fact that news and information was shared through art and sound, and troubadours “could repeat a thousand words after hearing them once” is something that – if not slightly exaggerated – is a fantastic indication of what writing has done to dull the working memory. Do not get me wrong though. As a History major, I have studied a bit of medieval history, and the medieval period would have been a horrible time to live in. Not just because of the Black Death either. Sanitation was basically non-existent, and individuals slept with barn animals.

Burke treated the topic of the Black Death with apparent disregard for its victims. For Burke, the event was ultimately a footnote in the overarching theme of his presentation. It may seem irreverent treating the subject of the Black Death as a “passing phase,” when in fact it was the premier event of the Middle Ages; carrying 33% of Europe’s population away to the grave (just during the principal outbreak of the Black Death). But the “benefits” of the plague are usually spoken about in retrospect by economic and social historians. I tend to dislike this view, but it is a necessary evil in describing systems of change, and how institutions – economic, social, and political – were impacted by exogenous factors like weather, famine, disease, and war. Unfortunately, since the printing press came into existence after the Black Death, there are many source critical problems with medieval history. But Burke was focused on systems of change, which required him to deal with the dreary topic in broad, albeit slightly insensitive, strokes.


At any rate, as a History major, Burke’s historical lessons seemed accurate to me, at least in terms of what I have been taught. The printing press was first used for deceptive purposes. Leave it up to the Church to figure out some of the nastiest ways to use the printing press. Indeed, the indulgences were basically a payment that gave people the right to sin. But in principle, Luther’s theses were a sound condemnation of the Church that needed to be heard. However, when talking about the Protestant Reformation, I thought Burke contradicted himself. He said that “Luther gave people something they never had before: the chance to have their say, in safety, to a wide audience, on the printed page.” Clearly, Luther’s literate outpouring did not give people a chance to have an opinion in safety, because a form of State terrorism followed that saw many people burned for heresy. Anyways, after a sloppy period in history, intellectual ideals flourished and humankind became less taken in by superstition, and more interested in Science. But the sum total of all of this was the end of romanticism and the natural ebb and flow of life.

Nothing really disturbed me in this documentary. It was mostly historical lessons that were already buried somewhere in my subconscious mind. I think that Burke was perhaps a little too brazen in his assertion that all things could be traced back to the printing press, like Capitalism, state bureaucracies, technology, etc. These things, of course, required human agency, and the fact that one followed the other is not necessarily contingent on the technology itself. Indeed, these changes depended on human motivations and whims. But the way the documentary ended was perfect, I thought. The “real thing,” which Burke said had vanished at the sight of science and technology, has now become questionable five-hundred years later. We inhabit mostly a world of simulacra now; a world that is “fluid,” “transient,” and almost instantaneously “obsolete.” This is why there is a lot of sentiment in regards to the old world in some fringe movements, and is one of the central themes of postmodern and post-structural writers.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that, because of technology, we are worse off. The point of the documentary was to show that the invention of writing created a new, profoundly reflexive sense of self. Where once being literate meant committing news and information to working memory, writing made it possible to conveniently forget things, because it was written down to be referred to. One of my classmates brought up a great point, asking “How far will technology develop and how much, as a species, will we lose?” I am scared about the trajectory of our history as well, as technology continues to imprint itself on our minds, and across the environment. While I was watching the documentary, I was juxtaposing the monks transcribing the Bible with people spending most of their lives in cubicles and on computers. Is it really all that different? I mean, there is no sunshine in either place. Indeed, I do think that technology has cut us off from direct contact with the world. I try to be sensitive to the fact that we humans are not the only ones inhabiting this planet. In terms of total species count, we are by no means exclusive. For instance, what has technology done to the extinction of species, or to the degradation of the environment? I think you will find that technology has been incredibly destructive, and continues to be. After all, Capitalism is addicted to growth, and there is a finite amount of space on our globe to exploit resources. So I think the larger eco-social issues are more important than the temporary benefits we perceive from the use of technology.


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