Interview on the Future

Interview with James Burke in

McRaney: That’s true in my hometown, I think that many people my own age, we feel that we live in a world that’s online, we communicate online and we interact with media that has nothing to do with our local government, and there are older people who interact with local government, but we… I live there in body, but not in mind.

Burke: Absolutely! And, we have the same kind of problem. Right now, for example, there are massive floods in London, and it’s becoming clear that the political elite who live in London have no idea what the real world is about, because they’re too busy debating points of order. I mean, look, don’t get me wrong, points of order are very important, but there are moments when there is a dysfunction there because the system is not flexible and fast enough and doesn’t, like the example you talk about, where there are two universes going on. And the real universe where people get flooded and suffer and whatever, I mean, I can do no more than say what I said before, I think that we are rapidly moving towards a separation of the two. And all these lunatics in the privacy of their own houses are gonna come out one day, and then, God save us all.

McRaney: Has there been a similar cultural shift in history to one like this or one likened to it in any way?

Burke: Print, I suppose.

McRaney: Print.

Burke: Print. And, I think the Bishop of… I forget… the Bishop of Saint Albans, said printing will make reading the infatuation of people who have no business reading. And what he meant was, don’t let those guys get these books because if they do, it’s the end. And sure as hell it was, it’s called Protestantism. I mean, Protestantism happened, not because Luther stuck up some hand written things on a church door, but because his stuff was printed and sent around Europe, within weeks! And the entire world fell apart, it’s that powerful, and when these loonies in their private houses come out onto the streets with these ideas, I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something will happen.

McRaney: Right, Clay Shirky has written about, and I’m sure he got it from many different sources, but the world before the printing press and after the printing press are so different…

Burke: Absolutely!

McRaney: Because the book was something that was passed down the generations, mainly it was a bible in Latin. Now all the sudden you have pornography and you have books about the circulatory system…

Burke: Yes, but the amazing thing is, it seems to me, two big things: A – old people stop having authority, because it doesn’t depend on how old a guy is and how much he remembers, you can read it in a book, so young people get authority… world turned upside down. And the second thing is, you can’t tax people… suddenly you can tax people. You print it and stick it on the village green, this is your tax and you will pay it on this day. And it goes all over the country instantly and all over the country, instantly, everybody knows they have to pay. You run society in a totally different way with print than you did before.

McRaney: It requires, and Clive Thompson has written about this, he says after the printing press, you need a new civics and then people have to be educated in that new civics. And so now with the Internet and the web making it possible for a person to… it doesn’t matter where you live geographically, you can have your message heard, there’s a meritocracy, all these other things… that requires a new civics.

Burke: This is what I was saying earlier, about education… Absolutely…

McRaney: People will have to learn that at some point. So we’re kind of in that weird transition…

Burke: Yeah, I know, but the trouble is you see, where the hell are they going to learn it?

McRaney: Right.

Burke: I mean, they could learn it on the Internet, because you can learn everything on the Internet, but will they know how? Because, as I was saying earlier, learning to learn is the most important thing about learning, learning to know how to find out stuff. And it’s not necessarily true with our educational background that we will go to this new Internet and say, hooray, I know what to learn! We don’t.

McRaney: Because you can find someone to support whatever you already believe.

Burke: Exactly! Nobody has taught us critical facilities; we need to have critical faculties to do this. And that’s why I go back again to the educational system, which is mired in the 17th, no 12th century.

McRaney: When I talked to you earlier about this, we came to a similar point, which is it’s almost as if you have to roll everything back to teach logic and critical thinking and start there and then people can be let loose to…

Burke: Yes, yes! I mean, very important point you just made, because it’s no longer important to teach people to be chemists or physicists or anything ‘ists because those jobs are gone, and if they’re not gone today they’re gone tomorrow. And unless we know the old tools of critical thinking and logic and such, we will not be able to handle what follows. So, we’re wasting our time training people to be things that will no longer exist in 10, 15, 20 years time – the so-called specialties, specialization domains.

McRaney: Will we be – will human beings be noble enough to meet a world of that kind of abundance?

Burke: Well, you could have asked that in the middle ages and said no, we’ll never stop chopping people up and pulling their vitals out while they’re… you know, string them up and hang, draw and quarter them… I mean, if you had said to people, pulling the guts out of some poor bastard who had been hung long enough to be nearly dead but alive enough to know his guts were being pulled out then you chop his head off – people would say it never happened. So, yes people can get noble enough to do better things. We did, we don’t do that anymore.

McRaney: Of course! I think I’ve read that during the middle ages, the chances of dying at the hands of another human being were 25% or something, and now that’s down to like around 1%.

Burke: Yes.

McRaney: Ok, so food used to be very scarce and then people would have these banquets to show off how much money they had or that they were able to hunt or whatever, and then in modern society, food is so insanely abundant, that now the task becomes can you stay your hand and not eat the food? So, now what’s valued culturally is a person who is able to not eat too much and remain healthy and they can show that off to people. And it seems, that transitional period you’re talking about… you’re going to see a lot of moments where all of the sudden we have this abundance and we don’t know… if I can make a diamond just by pressing a button, the diamond has absolutely no culturally ascribed value ever again, that all these things we’re used to having value ascribed to them, because of abundance will now have zero value, and we’ll have to come up with completely new value systems for what we appreciate other human beings for.

McRaney: And you make this point that we’re all on equal footing – it’s all about opportunity…

Burke: Yes, well, more than that, I mean, we’re on an equal footing, and it’s all about opportunity – as long as we all have the same tools. And with our educational system up until now we do not have the same tools. This is the great hope I have for the Internet and for nanotechnology that it will give everybody the same tools, but we sure as hell don’t have the same tools if you look at the schools in Oxford as opposed to Hoboken, or anywhere else you choose, we do not have the same tools. When we get all the same tools, then we’ll see. Come the revolution! [Laughs]

McRaney: [Laughs] Thank you so, so much!

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