Arthur Clarke’s optimistic guide to surviving the information Age.
The advent of the computer has given us an invaluable, though often exasperating, assistant in tasks that once seemed could be performed only by human beings. It is hard to believe that only 50 years ago, the then chairman of IBM famously declared that the world market for computers was about six. Well, I now have more in my house alone, each incomparably more powerful than the room-sized mainframes of the 1950s. Ironically, about the last thing they ever do is ‘compute, in the classical sense of the word. Rather they download e-mail, process text, access CD-ROMs, look at new images from Mars on the JPL web site, play video games, and explore the infinite universe of the Mandelbrot Set. It’s a humbling thought that every item in that last sentence would have been totally meaningless just a few decades ago.
To understand how today’s information technology would have seemed like magic as late as the 1960s, consider this: would anyone back then have believed in the possibility of a text in which the print could be changed instantly from the largest to the smallest point-size, the typeface itself could be altered equally quickly from roman to italic to you name it — and any word or phrase could be located in seconds? Yet we now take these for granted as we insert Microsoft’s latest silver disk into our computers. A disk that can contain not one book, but an entire library. (The greens should give Bill Gates an award for saving more trees than anyone else in history. On second thoughts, some of those manuals…!)
Predicting the future is an impossible task and this is equally true of information technologies. All we can do is extrapolate from what is currently known, and outline the limits of the possible, bearing in mind that these limits are often exceeded by unanticipated technological developments. The history of communications is littered with failures of imagination and failures of nerve. I am fond of reciting the story of a mayor from a small town in the US who, when confronted with an early demonstration of the telephone, became wildly enthusiastic. He thought it was a marvellous device and ventured a stunning prediction. “I can see the time,” he said, “when every city will have one.”
Science fiction has rendered the invaluable service of providing an ‘early warning system’ to humanity. Even so, it seems to me that technological reality can bring with it implications that can surprise even the most imaginative of us. In 1964, when I was writing 2002: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick, people thought I was really taking things a little too far by proposing a computer capable of such a high level of artificial intelligence as HAL. In retrospect, I have to say that my most obvious error was underestimating the extent to which miniaturisation would overtake the computer industry. Our challenge, then, is to strike a balance between fantastic future scenarios and current realities.
On the occasion of the World Telecommunications Day, 17 May 1983, I was honoured by an invitation to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. The sentiments I expressed in that speech are, to me, even more valid today as we stand on the threshold of the next millennium
The communications revolution —or perhaps that should be evolution — carries with it a promise that is, at the same instant, both exciting and frightening. Which of these alternative ‘futures’ we realise will depend on how responsibly the human race is able to face its obligations to its fellows.
As I said before the United Nations:
Communications satellites have created a world without distance and have already had a profound effect on international business, news-gathering and tourism – one of the most important industries of many developing countries. Yet their real impact has scarcely begun: by the end of the century, they will have transformed the planet, sweeping away much that is evil, and, unfortunately, not a few things that are good.
The slogan “A telephone in every village” should remind you of that American mayor so don’t laugh. It can be achieved now that millions of kilometres of increasingly scarce coper wire can be replaced by a handful of satellites in stationary orbit. And on the ground we need only a simple, rugged handset with a solar-powered transceiver and antenna, which could be mass produced for tens rather than hundreds of dollars.
I suggested that the “Telephone in the Village” would be one of the most effective social stimulants in history, because of its implications for health, weather forecasting, market advice, social integration and human welfare. Each new telephone installation would probably pay for itself, in hard cash, within a few months. I would like to see a cost-effectiveness study of rural satellite telephone systems for the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. But the financial benefits, important though they are, might be insignificant compared with the social ones.
However, long before the global network of fixed telephones is established, there will be a parallel development, which will eventually bypass it completely — though perhaps not until well into the 21st century. It has already started, with cellular networks, portable radiophones and paging devices, and will lead ultimately to our old science fiction friend – the wristwatch telephone.co
The proliferation of these communications technologies will have a profound effect not only on how individuals communicate with each other, but also on how swiftly and effectively news is gathered and disseminated. International news gatherers will no longer be at the mercy of censors or inefficient (sometimes non-existent) postal and telegraph services. It means, quite simply, the end of closed societies.
Consider what this means. No government will be able to conceal, at least for very long, evidence of crimes or atrocities – even from its own people. The very existence of a myriad of new information channels, operating in real time and across all frontiers, will be a powerful influence on civilised behaviour. What I am saying, in fact, is that the debate about the free flow of information which has been going on for so many years, will soon be settled – by engineers, not politicians. (Just as physicists, not generals, have now determined the nature of war.)
When I first offered these thoughts more than 15 years ago, I could not have foreseen how vividly —or how quickly —my words would be illustrated by actual developments. During the momentous years since, the world has watched and listened as the communist world crumbled, along with its harshest symbol, the Berlin Wall. Millions, if not billions, around the world watched the Gulf War from the comfort of their homes. From sporting events to celebrity weddings and funerals, global television broadcasts regularly bring together a substantial proportion of humankind across time zones and boundaries
Just as satellite television swept across the globe in the 1980s, the Internet — until recently, a network used mostly by academics and military personnel —began to spread rapidly in the 1990s. It is now on its way to becoming a truly global information medium, heralding a new age of interactivity and mass media convergence. And just as some governments and guardians of public morals perceived satellite television as a threat to their cultural diversity and national sovereignty, some are already up in arms against the Internet.
While I share the concerns of those who are anxious to preserve individual cultural heritage, I lose patience with some of the complaints levelled by the patronising ‘worthies’ at the effects of such media. Because some of us suffer from the scourge of information pollution, we find it difficult to imagine its even deadlier opposite: information starvation. I get very annoyed when I hear arguments, usually from those who have been educated beyond their intelligence, about the virtues of keeping happy, backward peoples in ignorance. Such an attitude is like that of a well-fed man preaching the benefits of fasting to a starving beggar.
We have to admit that electronic cultural imperialism has the potential to sweep away much that is good, as well as much that is bad. Yet it can only accelerate changes that are, in any case, inevitable. And on the credit side, the new media will preserve for future generations the customs, performing arts and ceremonies of our time, in a way never possible in any earlier age. Of course, there are a great many present-day customs that should not be preserved, except as a warning to future generations. Slavery, torture, racial and religious persecution, treatment of women as chattel, mutilation of children because of ancient superstition, cruelty to animals —the list is endless and no country can proclaim total innocence.
I would, therefore, argue that our response to the new communications technologies and the new information media should be a mix of pragmatism and caution. It would be futile —even stupid —to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that these rapid developments do not affect us. We should instead explore ways of how we can turn (perceived or real) threats and challenges into opportunities. To use one of my favourite phrases, we must exploit the inevitable.
There are many who are genuinely alarmed by the immense amounts of information available to us through the ever-expanding Internet. To them, I can offer little consolation other than to suggest that they put themselves in the place of their ancestors at the time of the invention of the printing press. “My God,” they cried. “Now there could be as many as a thousand books. How will we ever read them all?” Strangely, as history has shown, our species survived that earlier deluge of information, and some say, even advanced because of it.
I am not so much concerned with the proliferation of information as the purpose for which it is used. Technology carries with it a responsibility that we are obliged to consider. Seeking information from the Internet is rather like a parched man endeavouring to quench his thirst by putting his head into Niagara Falls. The Information Age has opened many doors for our eager minds to explore. Now the question is not so much “What information do I want?” as “What information do I not want?”.
Never before in our history have we been able to enjoy such a tremendous amount of that simple human freedom—choice. We are now faced with the responsibility of discernment. Just as our ancestors quickly realised that no one was going to force them to read the entire library of a thousand books, we are now overcoming the initial alarm at the sheer weight of available information — and coming to understand that it is not the information itself that determines our future, only the use we can make of it
The next millennium will be, I am sure, more amazing than the last. As a species, we are ‘hard-wired’ to explore our environment and our imagination. We should never underestimate the capacity of our own ingenuity to take us by surprise. New technologies offer new avenues of exploration. I must confess that I had never considered myself incomplete without the ability to enjoy the world’s great composers while sitting on my favourite beach — until someone in the Sony Corporation came up with the Walkman.
However, we should not lose sight of the ancient truth that “quantity is the enemy of quality”, and temper our enthusiasm with consideration for the larger un-endowed humanity. There are still those in the world who have never seen a Walkman —and probably never will. I must hope that we are reaching the point in our technological evolution whereby we are able to commit more of our time to solving the problems of inequality that still plague the poorer peoples of the earth.
As the century that saw the birth of both electronics and Optronics draws to a close, it would seem that virtually everything we would wish to do in the field of communications is now technically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal or political. In time, I am sure, most of these will disappear, leaving us with only the limitations of our own morality. There will always be those who seek to abuse technology to their own ends, but I can only hope that they will remain, as throughout history, in the minority. In any event, the surest answer to such profiteers is for society to remove the need on which their survival depends.
I have often described myself as an optimist. I used to believe that the human race had a 51 percent chance of survival. Since the end of the Cold War, I have revised this estimate to between 60 and 70 percent. I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy. The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information —in the sense of raw data — is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.
Arthur Clarke and Frankenstein
Science fiction wizard Arthur Clarke has the knack of anticipating many of the technological developments that have transformed life in the second half of this century. His writings over the past 60 years-covering more than 80 books and 500 articles and short stories—have helped humanity find the way at a time of bewildering change. Clarke has also discussed the social and cultural implications of some of these technological advances, especially in communications.In 1945, while in his late 20s, he was the first to propose the concept of using a network of communication satellites in geo-synchronous orbit for global television and telecommunications. His vision became a reality in the mid-1960s, and within a generation it had become impossible to imagine life without communication satellites which circle 22,300 miles above the planet in what is now called the Clarke Orbit.
Trained in physics and mathematics, Clarke’s greatest contribution perhaps has been to discuss science and technology—through his writings and television appearances—in non-technical language accessible to millions. His books of science fiction and science fact have inspired generations of astronauts, scientists and technological innovators. Among them is Tim Bemers-Lee, the British computer engineer who invented the World Wide Web, whose early inspiration was the Clarke science fiction story, Dial F for Frankenstein
Clarke, who will be 82 in December, has lived in Sri Lanka since 1956. The accompanying article, summarising his views on the communications and information technologies, is based on the recently published Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds (St Martin’s Press, New York), a collection of essays written by Clarke between 1934 and 1998. Sri Lankan writer, Nalaka Gunawardene, who has worked with Clarke for over a decade, including in the compilation of the book mentioned above, helped in the preparation of this article.
It is difficult to think of anything we won’t be able to do in information technologies and communications in the near future—when all our current hardware is linked together with orbiting constellations of communications satellites. Of course, as memory and bandwidths continue to increase, we will be able to do the same functions faster and better, but some fundamental bottlenecks will need to be sorted out.
For instance, although the typewriter (remember them?) has now joined T. rex, QWERTYUIOP still lives: is it not a scandal that a keyboard layout deliberately designed to prevent skilled humans from overtaking the clumsy mechanical systems of one hundred years ago has survived into the age of electronics?
Voice recognition systems that are now coming into use enable users to bypass the keyboard and dictate inputs directly. But they have their own limitations: while they are very valuable for those working alone, imagine the chaos that a whole office-ful of talkers could produce. Besides, the software has to cope with a diversity of accents in which the same language is spoken—and they don’t do a very good job of it. (I cannot resist quoting from my own first attempts to train one of the best current systems, Dragon Speaking Naturally. When I said, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party,” the programme revealed its impressive vocabulary with a startling display of political incorrectness: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of apartheid.”)
Better and more sensitive voice recognition systems will iron out these difficulties and make us less dependent on keyboards and typing ability to relate to information technologies. However, it seems obvious that the ultimate input-output device would bypass all the body’s sense organs and pass its signals directly into the brain.
Exactly how this would be done I leave to biotechnicians to decide, but in 3001: The Final Odyssey I tried to describe the operation of the “Braincap”. One feature that might delay its general adoption is that the wearer would probably have to be completely bald to use the tightly fitting helmet. So wig-making could become the really big business of the fourth millennium.
– Arthur Clarke