Geostationary Satellites, the Internet and Other Prophecies of Arthur C. Clarke
The funny thing about science-fiction is that, whatever it wants to project about the future, it ultimately reflects everything that’s dated and idiosyncratic about its own time. Watch five minutes of any vintage Star Trek episode (I’m talking about the William Shatner days). Or any B science-fiction film from the fifties. Or something like Michael Crichton’s Westworld from the seventies, which was essentially Jurassic Park, but with murderous, cybernetic cowboys in place of dinosaurs. If you want more contemporary examples, consider the cancer allegories within the Deadpool comic book series, or the degree to which a film like The Terminator was a commentary on military technology.
Just think about the disparity between the musings and speculations of science-fiction writers from the past, and the technology that we actually have access to today. We engage with complex and compact interfaces every day, whether we’re watching TV shows, reviewing our checking account balances, or looking up where to go for lunch.
Harken back to a time (not so long ago!) when all of this technology would have been inconceivable to the average person. Now, people base their careers around compact personal devices, some which fit on their laps, and some which even fit in their pockets. It wasn’t that long ago that a single computer often occupied an entire room! Who could have imagined, back then, that we’d end up in a technological world like the one we know today?
Somehow, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke imagined nearly all of today’s technological marvels, decades before any of them would become a reality. Although he will perhaps be best remembered for authoring his 2001 book series (and the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation), Clarke made tremendous contributions to the scientific/academic communities of the world. One occasionally hears him referred to as the “prophet of the space age” because of his uncanny ability to predict future technology, including the personal computer and the internet.
Clarke gave a televised interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1974, standing in a room that housed an enormous, primitive computer. The TV reporter brought along his young son, and asked Clarke how the world would be different fin 2001 — how would the world have changed by the time the reporter’s young son was an adult? Clarke said that in the year 2001, the reporter’s son would have “in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but a console through which he can talk to the…local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations…all the information you need… living in a complex modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house. He’ll have a television screen and a keyboard, and he’ll talk to the computer and get information from it — and he’ll take it as much for granted as we take the telephone.”
When asked about the risks of society become overly dependent on computers, Clarke said that this technology would enrich our society: “It’ll make it possible for us to live anywhere we like. Any businessman or executive could live almost anywhere on earth, and still do his business… And this is a wonderful thing. It means we won’t have to be stuck in cities. We can live out in the country or wherever we please.” In Clarke’s vision, people would have greater levels of professional and personal autonomy than ever before.
In 1945, Clarke made another astonishing prediction: an advanced communication system that would employ geostationary satellites — which are satellites situated just above the earth’s equator, orbiting the earth in synch with the earth’s rotation. Clarke would pen an article entitled Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?, which elaborated on his ideas about a network of communication satellites. Clarke received the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal in 1963 for his writings on satellite technology. That same year, Howard Hughes founded Hughes Space and Communications Company, and working in tandem with NASA, launched the world’s first geosynchronous satellite – The Syncom 2 – effectively realizing Clarke’s dream. This monumental leap forward in technology would ultimately yield satellite television and satellite internet.
We might be a few decades away from teleportation (assuming it’s even possible outside of fiction), but at least telecommuting is nothing out of the ordinary these days – and it’s all thanks to satellite communications, which have shrunk the world into one large, interconnected place of business where geographic location is no barrier to staying connected. Many business professionals, or professionals within a tech field, are enjoying higher levels of autonomy than ever before, and more employees working from home means that companies can operate with less overhead (less office space), and we can even reduce air pollution thanks to the lower numbers of commuters driving their cars to work. This is hardly news — merely just a staple of modern life.
It’s just a shame that Clarke (who passed away in 2008) isn’t alive to see some of his other predictions manifest themselves: for instance, humans “transferring” their consciousness to computers like data! In a 2005 interview with the BBC, Clarke suggested that this would be ideal for people who were dying to preserve a record of their thoughts and experiences. “When their bodies begin to deteriorate, you transfer their thoughts so their personalities would be immortal,” Clarke said. “Just save it on a CD-ROM and plug it in – simple!” However improbable this may sound, Clarke has a good track record when it comes to predicting these things. Now that Clarke is no longer with us, who knows what the future has in store for us!