By Dr Rebecca Leach
The BBC's expensive new flagship documentary series Britain from Above hosted by Andrew Marr launched on Sunday 10th August 2008 with a thrilling roller-coaster ride through 24 hours of British life. It was certainly excellent, if slightly terrifying, television: what would happen if the man in charge of sorting out electricity surges when Eastenders finishes were to sneeze at the wrong moment? And should we pity the poor man who has to carry a sick bag in the helicopter while spotting flaws in the overhead wire network, taking six months to do one patch only to have to begin all over again? And, god forbid, how does London cope when a lorry sheds its load on the North Circular: would civilization end?
Actually, it probably would. To be more precise (and sociological), the programme was such great TV because it was a graphic reminder of how dependent we are on each other and on the complex systems which make things, er, go. And stop. Is it a surprise that a series reminding us of how reliant we are upon complex organisations surfaces at a time when the management of risk has become paramount? Britain - like other complex, Western societies - has been more or less quietly gearing up for what the government likes to call new threats. Yes, bombs are still real threats (and a small paranoid bit of me was watching from behind the sofa, thinking 'No! Don't show us where the important buttons are... I don't actually want the general public to know how to switch off the national grid...') but in the current climate, perhaps the more salient risks are social, economic and environmental against which we must develop 'resilience'. Dull but crucial: the road haulage system was highlighted as being the most important and dependent service for our daily well-being. One shock to this fragile system (and we've seen only short and minor ones over petrol prices lately) which leads to food and basic necessities no longer being available and civil disorder may swiftly ensue.
How depressing this situation is. Depressing, first, because our just-in-time delivery system and economic turnover relies on such carbon-heavy resources. And second, depressing because many people who have watched the show experienced it as revelatory: 'I never knew how much went on behind the scenes' they say. Hmm. So you imagined that your exercise in individual consumer choice was just that? With no other implications, dependencies, systems of provision and distribution, costs and risks? I grudgingly accept that the BBC are doing a good educational job of showing these interdependencies, but it is still awful that people don't think about what 'society' and 'economy' really are when they go about their daily economic activities.
Now, more than ever, it seems the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens are being proved right: are societies re-ordering themselves so that relative risks become the key variables (compared to, for example, social class)? And with such high dependency on incredibly complex, technological but fragile systems as the national grid (in which high-tech solutions have to be juggled alongside cultural behaviour such as TV watching), have we truly entered a phase of reflexive modernisation (according to Beck and Giddens, in which the limits of the modern are fundamentally questioned)?