2001 A Cyber Odyssey

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…!)

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Himal Southasian