the process is the artwork

Us – the end product of centuries of change, that thinks it’s the best there is…just like all the others do

Here is the entire BBC documentary-series “The Day The Universe Changed” (1985) by James Burke,  generously made available on Youtube by The James Burke Institute for Innovation in Education and its flagship project, the Knowledge Web. In a time where everyone clings desperately on to their old ideas concerning availability and copyright, I present to you a breath of fresh air from the eighties.

In this series, Burke explores the evolution of Western scientific thought and argues that what we take as “reality” is merely a construction of the human mind, and at best temporary; waiting to be replaced upon the next great discovery.

“You see what your knowledge tells you you’re seeing (…) That’s what this series is going to be about. How what you think the universe is and how you react to that in everything you do depends on what you know. And when that knowledge changes for you, the universe changes. That is as true for the whole of society as it is for the individual. (…)


Any defence command centre is where we define our boundaries, in which our views operates, and across which any threatening movement will start a war. (…) For everybody, the amount of effort you expend on defence, enhances the value of your way of life (…) Why are we so attached to being the way we are, so attached that all these people are prepared to die for it? (…)

Why did we keep on changing? – Well, because of the kind of people we are. (…) We try to take the universe apart to see how it works. We can’t leave anything alone without knowing what it is. We are insatiably curious. And what we defend here, with all this military hardware – the right to be curious. To ask questions, to get answers. To question authority and to remove it from power if we don’t like what it’s telling us. That’s why we’ve changed constantly throughout history, to become what we are today, because we’ve never stopped asking questions. And what have we got as a result? Answers, a mountain of them, gathered over the centuries. So much, that we’ve had to invent systems just to handle it. So big, information processing itself is now a science (…)

We live with more than physical answers from the past. When any good attitude or concept or system worked well, we hung on to it. We preserved representative democracy, intended for a time when only a few could get to the capital to speak for the many. Modern finance was designed in the 17th century. Literacy as a test of intelligence came in the 15th century. The idea of progress is 19th century. And yet, all those things are part of our mental furniture today because when an answer to a question [or] a solution to a problem suits us, we institutionalize it, so that it won’t change even when we do… The business of questioning itself has been institutionalized like that (…) in university. If we are what we know, then this is where we pass on what we know to the next generation, and in the interest of safety, to keep the boat from being rocked too much, we teach the young to ask questions that have (…) already been answered. To make sure we passed on the view of how things are, unmistakeably, we test. After all, that’s the only way you can be sure they know what they’re supposed to know. And the system has worked well for hundreds of years…you can see how much we value this answer from the past, in the way all education is conservative, cautious. It is as if we wanted to reassure ourselves that in the risky business of asking questions about knowledge, we were confidently working with tried and tested ideas that hadn’t failed us (…)

We live caught between more and more change, and less and less time to adapt to it. We believe in the right of the individual to do his thing. But at the same time, we change what that thing is all the time! So, this is what questioning has brought us: if we are what we know, then what we are in the modern west, is unsure about how long it will be before what we know is out of date (…) the only constant in life is change, not just in the physical shape of the world around; in standards, attitude, ethics, values, morals, all shifting. The inevitable end product of that Greek rationalism (…) is all around you. It’s our world of here today and gone tomorrow. (…)

We, more than most, are split between yesterday and tomorrow, defending a way of life that is by definition a question mark (…)

So here we are, committed by our Greek origins, to a life of asking questions that provide answers that turn out to create more questions, and no end in sight. As our amazing qualities grow more amazing, the more questions we ask. We’re reaching a stage where it’s not a matter of what novelty and change the future will bring next, but what kind of future we care to invent, make happen (…) all because we can’t leave things alone. But why do we go on asking questions? If the point has ever been to find the right answer to explain all this lot, what was wrong with the one the Greeks found? Why didn’t we stick with their view of the universe or any of the other views that have come along since the Greeks? (…) Well, in a sense, we did. Part of the way we view things now, does come from the past. Many of the institutions and attitudes we have originated in the past, born of different answers to different questions in different times with different problems. But they continue to exit (…) modified, but basically the same, still affecting us like living fossils. Even in a system of constant change like ours, many of the systems that control, organize our view of things (…) are outdated. So why do we keep them?”

– James Burke, The Day The Universe Changed (1)



(1) Burke, James. 1985. The Day the Universe Changed: 1: “The Way We Are”. Available on youtube from URL [Downloaded 2013-02-12] Transcripted fragments by Ellen Ringstad.

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