There are those who have aim for darts or fairground shotguns and there are those who have it for history. How served the novelist Arthur C. Clarke was in the first is something that, as far as I know, has not transpired. What there is not much doubt about is his talent for the latter.
Throughout his life the author of the sentinelstory in which it is inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey, gave ample evidence of his ability to anticipate his time; but rarely did he hit the target so much and with such accurate aim as in 1974, when he answered questions from a reporter from the ABC television network who invited him to speculate on what would the world be like in 2001.
– With 2001 it projected us into the 21st century —starts the journalist in a room full of computers the size of built-in cabinets—. I have brought my son Jonathan, who in 2001 will be the same age as I am now. Perhaps he is better suited to this world you are trying to portray.
Once upon a time…
Predicting what the future will be like 30 years from now is not easy. Clarke could have simply shrugged, pinched the boy’s cheek and smiled at the camera… Or jumped into the pool and pondered out loud what, in his opinion, the world of the 21st century would be like, a horizon that not everyone saw not only with optimism, but directly with clarity through the mists of the Cold War.
He opted for the latter.
Clarke begins by slipping that in 2001 people would have their own computers home personals, computers smaller than the kind of purring wardrobes that surround him during that interview. And he goes one step further: he anticipates that these teams will be connected and will be key on a day-to-day basis, both personally and professionally.
“You will be able to get all the information you need for your daily life: bank statements, theater reservations… All the information you need for your life in a complex modern society will be in a compact form in your own home. You will have a screen like the TV and a keyboard,” the writer comments in a description that looks uncannily like what we know today as the Internet. He doesn’t name it that, of course; but the resemblance is striking.
In the early 1970s, when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still two teenagers and Xerox PARC was shaping the Xerox Alto computer, Clarke thus anticipated personal computers and Web-like use. So convinced He was sure that we would use them in our day to day, that he was sure that they would end up being a daily instrument:
— He will take it so much for granted like us the phone. He explains, looking at the boy.
His answer seems to disturb the reporter, who asks him about one of the great debates that are still going on today, nearly a third of a century later: How do computers and their possibilities influence society? Do they unite or separate us as individuals? To what extent is it a risk that we end up being excessively dependent on computers?
Clarke acknowledges that “in some way” we can become more dependent, but clarifies: “it will also enrich our society because it will make it possible for us to live wherever we want“.
“Any executive could live anywhere in the world and still do business through a device like this. And that’s wonderful. It means we don’t have to be stuck in cities. We can live in the country or wherever we want. And continue to carry out full interaction with human beings, as well as other computers”, Clarke reflects in another almost prophetic nod to the benefit that today, and especially as a result of the pandemic, we get from teleworking.
The 1970s interview wasn’t the first time Clarke hinted at her fine ability to anticipate her time. Some time before, in 1964, he had drawn something very similar to the Internet in a documentary. The author already pointed out how transistors and satellite communication would transform our conception of space, and warned, with stunning clarity:
“These things will make possible a world where we can be in instant contact wherever we are. We will be able to contact our friends anywhere on Earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. Perhaps in 50 years it will be possible for one man to run their business from Tahiti or Bali as well as from London”, says the novelist before reeling off how it would affect medicine or even predict the future 3D printing.
Not bad at all, considering that it would take two and a half decades for the young researcher Tim Berners Lee to prepare his report for CERN on the hypertext transfer protocol, the seed of what would end up being the World Wide Web.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism