Don’t say you weren’t warned

In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke published a collection of prophetic writings called Profiles of the Future. His intent, he wrote in an introduction, was not “to describe the future, but to define the boundaries within which possible futures must lie.” In one chapter he predicted the creation of a high-speed worldwide communications network (he thought it would be satellite-based) and discussed some of its probable consequences. The physical mail system, he wrote, would be replaced by “an orbital post office,” which “will probably make airmail obsolete in the quite near future.” The new system will “of course” raise “problems of privacy,” though these “might be solved by robot handling at all stages of the operation.”

The revolution in communication won’t be limited to correspondence, though: “Perhaps a decade beyond the orbital post office lies something even more startling – the orbital newspaper.” News reports would come to be transmitted to video screens in homes. To get “your daily paper,” you’d need only “press the right button.” Moreover, each reader would be able to create a personalized bundle of stories: “We will select what we need, and ignore the rest, thus saving whole forests for posterity. The orbital newspaper will have little more than the name in common with the newspaper of today.”

“Nor will the matter end here,” Clarke continued. “Over the same circuits we will be able to conjure up, from central libraries and information banks, copies of any document we desire … Even books may one day be ‘distributed’ in this manner, though their format will have to be changed drastically to make this possible.”

The technology would transform the publishing industry, Clarke warned. “All publishers would do well to contemplate these really staggering prospects. Most affected will be newspapers and pocket-books; practically untouched by the coming revolution will be art volumes and quality magazines, which involve not only fine printing but elaborate manufacturing processes. The dailies may well tremble; the glossy monthlies have little to fear.”

He ended on a jauntily apocalyptic note: “How mankind will cope with the avalanche of information and entertainment about to descend upon it from the skies, only the future can show. Once again science, with its usual cheerful irresponsibility, has left another squalling infant on civilization’s doorstep. It may grow up to be as big a problem child as the one born amid the clicking of Geiger counters beneath the Chicago University squash court, back in 1942.”

12 Comments

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12 Responses to Don’t say you weren’t warned

  1. I’ve come to believe that prophetic writings are overrated, except for certain very narrow exceptions. As a general rule, it doesn’t help much to know about a problem years in advance, as the institutional politics is a far greater factor than knowledge – see global climate change as a literally world-class example.

    Pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs. I remember talking myself hoarse in 1996 at a computer conference, trying to raise awareness about upcoming Internet issues. It didn’t do me any good, was even negative. And looking back, I greatly regret not spending that time trying to grab a piece of the dot-com bubble (another complicated knowledge issue).

    And businesses typically don’t plan beyond the next quarter, so forget about the next century.

  2. Why does most English litterature after Shaekespeare has to be Irish, or at least Catholics ?

    Arthur C Clarke is utterly boring, as any reference to mechanism and other ignorant stupidities

  3. Omair Sani

    @”Once again science, with its usual cheerful irresponsibility, has left another squalling infant on civilization’s doorstep”

    may be science should be reconnected to Philosophy like it used to be till the end of 19th century. One of the books by Newton, is known as “Principle Mathematical of natural Philosophy”. A Scientist might be a little more concerned about the impact of scientific work on society.

  4. Books, newspapers and letters are not the first or only way knowledge is packaged and passed on. Nor will they be the last, so while I admire AC Clarke’s foresight it’s hard to get in a lather about it.

  5. I remember trying to read Profiles of the Future when I was 11. It was too hard for me at the time. I remember sitting at my dad’s desk and struggling with it. I sensed it had an important message but I couldn’t stick with it. Funny what one remembers. Thanks for the post, much appreciated.

  6. 1962, I was 19 and in progress between high school and what followed (navy, garbageman, student, etc.). My studies in math included such inward (versus forward) thinkers as Gödel and Zeno. My reading was science fiction. I can see the conjunction only now between abstract math and sciFi. None of what I studied compares with Clarke’s articulation, at least within your articulation and summary, of a future state. I’ve chosen to be surprised, so what would I know? Nicely done, both of you.

  7. Clarke definitely made a number of predictions that were more or less accurate, but good science fiction is about imagining how the future will unfold.

    Still, to predict the internet, modern communication and media distribution and the decline of the post office back in 1962 is impressive!

  8. I am a new reader… but the topics here are just great! Always been impressed by Arthur Clarke’s perspective. And knowing how goofy future-predictions can be, his vision has been nothing short of profound…

    On a separate note, I really enjoyed my recent reading of “The Shallows”… And actually used the content in my own occasional blog at http://bit.ly/y2L9Wl Not sure where to leave my feedback, but would appreciate Mr. Carr’s comments on my perspective on Shallows.

  9. Paul Maguire

    Nick, thanks for the post. Clarke certainly thought technology through and through. Why don’t your blog posts have any share buttons? Is there no way to add them? Thanks again.

  10. “Share” buttons are also tracking buttons, so I’ve decided it’s best to let readers share stuff manually if they’re so inclined.

  11. These comments are missing an important point. The remarkable thing about what Clarke’s perspecitve was he was helping us see the evolution of the collective mindset. Why is this important? If you want to ride the crest of the world’s changes you can “catch the wave” as it rises. Other options are scrambling to get on board when the wave is still building or perhaps be at the effect when its already a full reality.

    People are often talking about being surprised. It isn’t necessary since the future is always right in front of us if we know where to look.

  12. I’m a bit shocked by a couple comments. How can anyone call Arthur Clarke boring? His literature spanned ideas broader than most people can contemplate in original and astonishing ways.

    How are scientists be able to contemplate the impact of their inventions on society? How could Bardeen, Shockley and Brattain foresee Siri after building the first transistor? And how is a scientist qualified to decide what’s good or evil? A scientist can only tell you what is true or false, not what’s right or wrong.

    Clarke’s predictions, like everyone else’s, often fall victim to the whims of technological development. Watching my 16 year-old buy playing with friends scattered all over the country or imagining my soon to be born daughter growing up leaves me with the sad taste of Childhood’s End rather than starry eyed idealism of Star Trek. Or the feeling of obsolescence of Accelerando.