We are living in Arthur C Clarke’s future

Back when I was a kid I read an awful lot of science fiction – mostly Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein with a fair amount of Niven, Pournelle and others stirred into the mix. All of them portrayed futures in which the engineering problems that still confront us today had been largely solved. Space travel was commonplace in all their futures, usually. But there was something that almost all of them missed: the information revolution, social media, and the democratisation of computing power that enabled it.

The epitome of the ‘super-engineering future’, to me, was Heinlein’s Starman Jones, an early-1950’s ‘juvenile’. Today we’d call it a YA novel. Here he portrayed a future with supersonic trains running through magnetic loops and trucks that levitated from super-highways. His spacecraft were propelled by drives that (somehow) both created artificial gravity aboard and which (somehow) ‘clutched’ at the very ‘fabric’ of space-time itself to ‘impel’ the ship up to light-speed. But they were piloted by astrogators who had to use log-tables and hex-coding to get the on-board computer to solve equations. He had, in short, 1950’s-era computing in a 23rd century setting.

The 1950s vision of the future – in this case Wernher von Braun’s colossal Mars project. Donnerwetter! The budget! Public domain, via Wikipedia.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about this at the time. The vision of the future, as seen from the mid-twentieth century, was very much one of grand engineering projects. Super-cities, Moon bases, Mars colonisation and all the rest were just around the corner. It wasn’t surprising that this is where science fiction generally went. The Second World War, particularly, had been a war of physicists, and it also introduced new technologies that promised to transform the world. Jet aircraft, in particular, appeared to open the way to a new age of fast travel; and, of course, rockets were becoming practical. The sky suddenly appeared to offer no limits.

What actually happened, of course, was that engineering hit the limits of the new technologies fairly quickly. Instead – and thanks, largely, to the Apollo programme which kick-started it – we’ve reaped the benefits of the micro-processor industry that flourished from the 1960s. Our real present – the ‘future’ of the twentieth century – is one where we haven’t much got beyond the big-scale engineering achievements of 50 or 60 years ago, but where we have utterly transformed the intangible world of information flows and communications.

Nobody in the sci-fi community predicted this in every detail. With one exception. Arthur C. Clarke got most of it right – and did so back when everybody else was thinking of supersonic jets, Mars rockets and the rest.

His thinking flowed from his invention of the communications satellite in 1945 – something he never patented – nearly two decades before the first ever flew. And although much of his material was very hard science fiction – sci-fi with proper science in it – this was mere backdrop to his real interest, which was exploring the way societies might evolve. So he put a good deal of thought from the late 1940s into figuring out how free communication would change society. And what did he predict? It’s uncanny: he nailed today’s world of social media, remote-working and (inevitably) the fact that free worldwide communications could also be used to deliver salacious content, something he warned about in a 1960 short story, ‘I Remember Babylon’. This was apparently first published in Playboy magazine. Later it was anthologised in Tales of Ten Worlds, which is where I read it: I have the 1971 Corgi edition.

Here’s Clarke describing his vision of how free communications will change the nature of society – notably enabling remote ‘working from home’, and rendering the location of that home irrelevant – in a BBC Horizon documentary of 1964:

Soon afterwards he came up with one way it might happen. The device he described in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – as seen on film in 1968 – was basically an Apple iPad or Microsoft Surface, with that functionality in terms of being a device to access remote information of all kinds, from news to encyclopaedia entries and the rest. Later he looked to the way computers were developing to further shape his ideas. Here he is in 1974, describing how his vision of a society connected by free communications worldwide might be realised through a desktop computer in every home – a computer on which they can get all the information they need to live in everyday society, even do their own banking.

So yeah. In many major respects, it seems, we’re living the sci-fi future predicted not by Heinlein, Asimov or any of the others – but by Arthur C. Clarke. I like it. Though I do miss the Mars rockets. Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022


9 thoughts on “We are living in Arthur C Clarke’s future

    1. I believe Wolfram Alpha does something like this, though I wouldn’t call it an AI as such. Curiously it was Clarke (again!) who envisaged a global AI emerging, by accident, as soon as all the world’s telephone systems were linked together. Apparently he wrote the story, ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ in honour of his friends at MIT. I always enjoyed Asimov’s robot stories too. The problem with Asimov’s robots was that it’s virtually impossible to frame and apply his ‘laws’, something he knew very well because most of his robot stories were about ways in which they broke down. I did like the way he explored how society might evolve if such law-abiding robots were ubiquitous, though – in essence, a direct control for humanity’s basic violence.

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  1. OMG OMG OMG! Apologies for sounding like a fangirl but I had no idea Arthur C Clarke was so very much ahead of his times. In both videos, he could be describing our reality right now. I particularly loved his idea of a surgeon on one side of the world operating on a patient on the other side of the world. Simply brilliant. I have read a little bit of his work but now I’m going to search out more. Thank you. 🙂

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    1. Clarke was an astonishing visionary. The funny thing is that his vision never got particular traction at the time… and yet, here we all are.

      He was also, incidentally, very good at satire – his ‘Tales from the White Hart’ collection is classic mid-century British comedy in the literary tradition of P G Wodehouse, Jerome K Jerome etc.

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      1. I think Clarke was also something else, a man who understood people as well as tech. I suspect that’s why his predictions have actually come true, and not that far off the time he set for them. I know I was just getting into the internet as a place to ‘live’ in about 2000. Until then, I’d basically used it just for research. He is definitely on my must-read list now. 😀

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  2. Arthur was a true visionary. I met him in 1979, in fact I pushed him in his Wheelchair to a programme item at Seacon 79, that years SF Worldcon. I have his autograph, and fond memories of our conversation. He encouraged me in my career aspirations. When I ended up creating Telecommunications protocols, I used to think of him often. I was helping to create his future.

    Although, I do rather hope he got it wrong in “The nine billion names of god”!!

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    1. That’s an extraordinary experience, meeting him – and what a privilege! Apropos ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ – yeah, hopefully that isn’t how it works… but such a superb story! To me it’s possibly the best sci-fi short of the era and a brilliantly ambiguous last line. Sums up Clarke’s genius as a writer, and the way he captured the essence of the human condition, all in one tale.

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  3. I was introduced to Clarke shorty after graduating from high school and was immediately enamored with his visions of the future. His foresight into society and technology were incredibly advanced for the time, and I think this was because he had an immensely practical vision of what the world was going to look like. And here we are even more advanced than expected in some ways, yet how it looks so much like his predictions.

    I referenced the same ideas you mentioned here in my own article. It’s somewhat related, and you can read it here, if you’d like:

    https://codeandcoda.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/will-an-app-solve-everything/

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