Humanity will survive information deluge – Sir Arthur C Clarke

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Humanity will survive information deluge – Sir Arthur C Clarke
By Nalaka Gunawardene
OneWorld South Asia
05 December 2003

Sir Arthur C Clarke is acknowledged as the greatest living science fiction writer and an outstanding visionary of our times. His writing over the past six decades – more than 100 books, 1,000 articles and short stories – have not only helped humanity find its way in times of rapid change, but also discussed the social and cultural implications of key technologies.

In 1945, while still in his late 20s, he was the first to propose the concept of using a network of satellites in the geo-synchronous orbit for television and telecommunications. His vision became a reality in the mid 1960s, and within a generation, humankind has come to rely critically on the network of comsats placed, in what is now called the Clarke Orbit, some 22,300 miles above the earth.

His science fiction books and science facts have inspired generations of astronauts, scientists and technological innovators. Among them is Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer engineer who invented the World Wide Web, inspired by a Clarke science fiction story (‘Dial F for Frankenstein’) in his adolescent years.

On the eve of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and days before his 86th birthday, Sir Arthur Clarke spoke with science writer Nalaka Gunawardene at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

You invented satellite communications and inspired the WWW through one of your short stories. Do you wonder about the forces and processes you helped unleash?
As I have pointed out, if I had not proposed the idea of geo-synchronous communications satellites in 1945, some one else would have done so very soon. It was such an obvious concept. I didn’t expect to see comsats to become a reality in just two decades. But we as a species have a deep urge to communicate – so if something is technologically feasible, we will accomplish it sooner rather than later. If you doubt this, just think of how fast the Internet has spread.

I sometimes wonder how we spent leisure time before satellite television and Internet came along….and then I realise that I have spent more than half of my life in the ‘dark ages’! Satellite television, Internet, mobile phones, email – all these are technological responses to a deep-rooted human desire to communicate and access information. Having achieved unprecedented progress in the field of communications during the past half century, we now have to pause to think of social, cultural and intellectual implications of what we have created.

You have been an ardent supporter of using satellite television for education and information. Do you see today’s satellite channels fulfilling these expectations?
I have no doubt at all that television is the most marvellous medium of communication ever invented - it can be used to educate, inform, entertain and even inspire. But it’s a mixed blessing and much of television content rightfully earns the medium its dubious label, the ‘Great Wasteland’.

But I’m not impressed by the attacks on television because of some truly dreadful programmes. I believe that every TV programme has some educational content. The cathode ray tube – and now the plasma screen - is a window to the world. Often it may be a very murky window, but I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that, on balance, even bad TV is preferable to no TV at all.

Obviously, we need to work very hard to improve the content of television programmes. Not too long ago, I had the enjoyable task of using satellite links to address both Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner (though not at the same time!). I gave them some advice on the use and misuse of satellite TV.

Recalling that many years ago, a British Prime Minister had accused newspaper magnates of enjoying ‘the privilege of the harlot throughout the ages – power without responsibility’, I said today, the TV screen is more powerful than newsprint, and whatever the bean-counters may say, responsibility should always be the bottom line.

Do you advocate stricter regulation of satellite television and the Internet?
I think it is technologically impossible for any one government to (directly) control, let alone ban, transmissions coming from earth orbit. Some countries have banned personal satellite dish antennas, others have experimented with Internet blocking, but in the long term, people will find ingenious ways to circumvent these controls.

No, banning is not the answer. Because we frequently suffer from the scourge of information pollution, we find it hard to imagine its even deadlier opposite – information starvation. I get very annoyed when I hear arguments – usually from those who have been educated beyond their intelligence – about the virtues of keeping happy, backwards people in ignorance.

On the idea of keeping television out, let me quote from an unexpected source. During the late 1950s, South Africa was the only wealthy country in the world that did not have a national television service. The minister in charge of broadcasting adamantly refused to permit one. “Television will mean the end of the white man in Africa,” he said. That was an extremely perceptive remark. From his point of view, the minister was perfectly right.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, the camera can be mightier than both. No wonder that all governments, whether they are liberal or otherwise, make some attempt to control – or manipulate – what appears on television. But comsats and Internet have made it a lot harder for governments to engage in censorship.

Are you completely opposed to any form of censorship?
Censorship is a complex phenomenon, and it is difficult to pass a generalised judgement on it. There are instances when, in the interests of the majority, some censorship may be used for a period of time. Indeed, there is material which virtually everyone would agree should be kept out. Sadistic pornography, incitement to violence against racial or ethnic minorities are just two examples.

But we cannot strive for an information society without allowing the free flow of information which is a pre-requisite. We just have to become better managers, navigators and users of information – let’s just say we need information maturity.

The Information Age has opened many doors for our eager minds to explore. Now the question is not so much ‘What information do I want?’ as ‘What information do I not want?’. Never before in our history have we been able to enjoy such a tremendous amount of that simple human freedom - choice.

We are now faced with the responsibility of discernment. Just as our ancestors quickly realised that no one was going to force them to read the entire library of a thousand books, we are now overcoming the initial alarm at the sheer weight of available information – and coming to understand that it is not the information itself that determines our future, only the use we can make of it.

So you are confident that humanity will survive the current deluge of information?
Undoubtedly. There are many who are genuinely alarmed by the immense amount of information available to us through the Internet, television and other media. To them, I can offer little consolation other than to suggest that they put themselves in the place of their ancestors at the time the printing press was invented. ‘My God,’ they cried, ‘now there could be as many as a thousand books. How will we ever read them all?’

Strangely, as history has shown, our species survived that earlier deluge of information, and some say, even advanced because of it. I am not so much concerned with the proliferation of information as the purpose for which it is used. Technology carries with it a responsibility that we are obliged to consider.

What about the Digital Divide that ICTs have helped create?
A major concern is that not every one of us benefits equally from these technologies. The communications revolution has bypassed tens of millions of people, and something needs to be done about it.

We are now reaching the point in our technological evolution when we can – and must - commit more time and resources to solving the problems of poverty, deprivation and inequality.

Virtually everything we wish to do in the field of communications is now technologically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal or political. In time, I am sure, most of these will also disappear - leaving us with only limitations imposed by our own morality.

Do you really expect today’s political and business leaders to make morally correct decisions and choices?
Well, let’s hope they do, in everybody’s interest! I have often described myself as an optimist. I used to believe that the human race had a 51 per cent chance of survival. Since the end of the Cold War, I have revised this estimate to between 60 and 70 per cent. I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information – in the sense of raw data – is not knowledge; that knowledge is not wisdom; and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.

Isn’t there a danger that technological tools can mesmerise decision-makers into believing that gadgets can fix all problems?
Indeed. ICTs should be part of a wider solution that needs to be applied with care and caution. Information and communications technologies should be part of the solution, and not the only solution.

There have always been disparities in this world – the digital divide is just the latest manifestation. I think we need to take a few steps back from the digital hype and first try to bridge the ‘Analog Divide’ that has for so long affected the less endowed communities and countries.

A computer in every classroom is a noble goal – provided there is a physical classroom in the first place. A multimedia computer with Internet connectivity is of little use in a school with leaking roofs – or with no roof at all. The top priorities in such cases are to have the basic infrastructure and adequate teachers.

And we have to be careful that we don’t create new problems while solving existing problems. The information age has been driven and dominated by technopreneurs – a small army of ‘geeks’ who have reshaped our world faster than any political leader has ever done. And that was the easy part. We now have to apply these technologies in saving lives, improving livelihoods and lifting millions of people out of squalor, misery and suffering. In other words, our focus must now move from the geeks to the meek.

What technological improvements do you anticipate in the near future in ICTs?
It is difficult to think of anything we won’t be able to do in ICTs in the near future – when all our current hardware is linked together with orbiting constellations of satellites. Of course, as memory and bandwidths continue to increase, we will be able to do the same functions faster and better, but some bottlenecks need to be sorted out.

I see voice recognition as the next major step forward – which will also overcome current limitations of literacy and make ICTs truly accessible to millions of people.

Voice recognition systems that are now coming into use enable users to bypass the keyboard and dictate inputs directly. But these systems still have some limitations: while they are very valuable for those working alone, imagine the chaos that a whole officeful of talkers could produce!

Besides, the software has to cope with a huge diversity of accents in which the same language is spoken. I cannot resist quoting from my own first attempts to train one of the best current systems. When I said, ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party,’ the programme revealed its impressive vocabulary with a startling display of political incorrectness: ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of apartheid.’

But it’s only a matter of time before this capability will improve and VR applications will proliferate. Better and more sensitive voice recognition systems will iron out current difficulties and make us less dependent on keyboards.

What lies beyond - direct inputs to the brain?
Yes, the ultimate input-output device would bypass all the body’s sense organs and provide signals directly into the brain. Exactly how this would be done I leave to biotechnicians to figure out, but in 3001: The Final Odyssey, I described precisely such a device, which I called the ‘Braincap’. One factor that might delay its general adoption is that the wearer would probably have to be completely bald to use the tightly fitting helmet. So wig-making could become really big business in a few decades….

Finally, as a writer, how do you see ICTs changing the way we use language?
The changes are more pervasive and more dramatic than we realise. I don’t do text messaging on mobile phones, but understand that it has already given rise to a whole new set of abbreviations in English!

Computers have introduced words and phrases into our language, which would have been utterly meaningless only a few decades ago. Could your grandparents have understood your anguished cry “My laptop has crashed?” And what would they have made of `megabytes’, `hard drives’, `back-ups’ or ‘Googling?’

Take, for example, the principal current use of the word ‘boot’. According to IT legend, the noun ‘boot’ was transformed into a verb when it became necessary to kick a recalcitrant computer in the right spot.

And here is another example of a familiar word which has changed its meaning completely – what would an early twentieth century mother have thought if you told her that her grandchildren would be spending most of their waking hours - at work and at play - fondling a mouse?