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.