Thursday, 21 May 2015

Prophesying the Cyber-Sangha

This week I found a stunning quarter-column in an ancient Life magazine, dated 18 July 1962. In it, an uncredited writer summarises a Horizon magazine article (whether the British or American version is unspecified) by Arthur C. Clarke, in which the famous engineer and author meditates on the then-recent launch of Telstar I, Earth's first communications satellite.

The new technology, Clarke said, would continue to develop and spread until at last it had revolutionised virtually every aspect of human life. Among the changes he saw coming (quoted verbatim from Life):
  • High-riding (22,000 miles up) nuclear-powered transmitters in synchronized orbit which will make absolute privacy impossible. Completely mobile person-to-person telephone facilities will mean individuals can no longer escape from society, even in mid-ocean or on a mountaintop. This has, Clarke concedes, "its depressing implication."
  • An orbital post office handling transocean correspondence by instantaneous facsimile, and orbital newspapers dialled onto a high-definition screen in your home.
  • An electronic library – just in time, Clarke thinks, to keep libraries from collapsing under the weight of their own books – which can flash any piece of reading matter in existence from a central "memory bank" onto a home screen.
  • A powerful impulse to develop a world language – almost surely, he thinks, English. 
  • A complete breakdown of censorship, since communications satellites eventually can reach every living person on earth. Despite the possibilities for scatter-shot sadism and pornography, Clarke is on the whole optimistic since, as he wrote in Horizon, "no dictatorship can build a wall high enough to stop its citizens' listening to the voices from the stars."
Incredible to observe that over half a century ago, Clarke, while slightly off-mic on the precise nature of the coming technology (the Internet being primarily terrestrial), got 4 1/2 out of 5 points dead-on, in both principle and detail. I dispute his prophecy that English would become "Earthese", despite the desperate claims of contemporary speakers. But there's no doubt it has become much more widespread; is in fact the default auxiliary in much of the world; and that it rode the Information Age to that position.

More astounding are his bang-on predictions of the primacy of pornography and sadism in our world; the extinction of privacy; the negative spiritual aspects of perpetual connectivity; and the debilitating effect that connectivity would have on authoritarians and their regimes.

The unnamed Life reporter concludes with this advice:
In ways largely unpredictable now, Telstar and its successor will surely change the life and thinking of all nations. They challenge us to take full advantage of our awesome opportunities.
I wish I could claim we've done that. But at least I'm doing my part; Arthur C. Clarke, at any rate, would have no trouble understanding the concept of a cyber-monk.

(Photo of Thor Delta rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral on 10 July 1962, bearing the Telstar I communications satellite, courtesy of NASA, Wikimedia Commons, and a generous uploader.)
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