Arthur C. Clarke: Communications in the Second Century of the Telephone (1977)

Predictions of the future from 42 years past

While researching for our magazine we sometimes find nuggets buried by time that have been forgotten by the Internet. This particular nugget was found in the May 1977 issue of Creative Computing. Science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions of the future are fascinating, both for what he got right, and what he got wrong…

This article was taken from an address by Mr. Clarke at the “Convocation on Communications in Celebration of the Centennial of the Telephone,” sponsored by American Telephone and Telegraph Co. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is reprinted here because of its historic worth and its otherwise inaccessibility to the general public.

Man is the communicating animal;

he demands news, information, entertainment, almost as much as food. In fact, as a functioning human being, he can survive much longer without food — even without water! — than without information, as experiments in sensory deprivation have shown. This is a truly astonishing fact; one could construct a whole philosophy around it.

So any major advance in communications capability that can be conceived can be realized in practice, and that same advance will come into widespread use just as soon as it is practicable. Often sooner; the public can’t wait for “state of the art” to settle down. Remember the first clumsy phonographs, radios, tape recorders? And would you believe the date of the first music broadcast? It was barely a year after the invention of the telephone! On April 2, 1877, a “telegraphic harmony” apparatus in Philadelphia sent “Yankee Doodle” to sixteen loudspeakers — well, soft-speakers — in New York’s Steinway Hall. Alexander Graham Bell was in the audience, and one would like to know if he complimented the promoter — his now forgotten rival, Elisha Gray, who got to the Patent Office just those fatal few hours too late…

Gray was not the only one to be caught out by the momentum of events. When news of the telephone reached England through Cyrus Field’s undersea telegraphic cable, the chief engineer of the Post Office was asked whether this new Yankee invention would be of any practical value. He gave the forthright reply: “No, sir. The Americans have need of the telephone — but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

Before you laugh at this myopic Victorian, please ask yourself this question: would you, exactly a hundred years ago, ever dream that the time would come when this primitive toy would not only be in every home and every office, but would be the essential basis of all social, administrative and business life in the civilized world? Or that one day there would be approximately one instrument for every ten human beings on the planet?

Now, the telephone is a very simple device, which even the 19th century could readily mass produce. In fact, one derivative of the carbon microphone must be near the absolute zero of technological complexity: you can make a working — though hardly hi-fi — microphone out of three carpenter’s nails, one laid across the other two to form a letter H.

The extraordinary — nay, magical — simplicity of the telephone allowed it to spread over the world with astonishing speed. When we consider the very much more complex devices of the future, is it reasonable to suppose that they too will eventually become features of every home, every office? Well, let me give you another cautionary tale.

The Comfortable Console

In the early 1940s, the late John W. Campbell — editor of Astounding Stories , and undoubtedly the most formidable imagination ever to be flunked at M.I.T. — pooh- poohed the idea of home television. He refused to believe that anything as complex as a TV receiver could ever be made cheap and reliable enough for domestic use.

Public demand certainly disposed of that prophecy. Home TV became available in the Early Neo-Electronic Age — that is, even before the solid-state revolution. So let us take it as axiomatic that complexity is no bar to universality. Think of your pocket computers and march fearlessly into the future . . . trying to imagine the ideal, ultimate communications system — the one that would fulfill all possible fantasies.

Since no holds are barred, what about telepathy? Well, I don’t believe in telepathy — but I don’t disbelieve in it either. Certainly some form of electronically-assisted mental linkage seems plausible; in fact, this has already been achieved in a very crude form, between men and computers, through monitoring of brain waves. However, I find that my mental processes are so incoherent, even when I try to focus and organize them, that I should be very sorry for anyone at the receiving end. Our superhuman successors, if any, may be able to cope; indeed, the development of the right technology might force such an evolutionary advance. Perhaps the best that we could manage would be the sharing of emotional states, not the higher intellectual processes. So radio-assisted telepathy might merely lead to some interesting new vices — admittedly, a long-felt want.

Let’s stick, therefore, to the recognized sense channels, of which sound and sight are by far the most important. Although one day we will presumably develop transducers for all the senses, just because they are there, I suspect that the law of diminishing returns will set in rather rapidly after the “feelies” and ‘*smellies.” These may have some limited applications for entertainment purposes, as anyone who was pulverized by the movie Earthquake may agree. (Personally, I’m looking forward to the epic Nova, in which the theater’s heating system is turned on full blast in the final reel…)

The basic ingredients of the ideal communications device are, therefore, already in common use even today. The standard computer console, with keyboard and visual display, plus hi-fi sound and TV camera, will do very nicely. Through such an instrument (for which I’ve coined the ugly but perhaps unavoidable name “corn- sole” — communications console) one could have face- to-face interaction with anyone, anywhere on earth, and send or receive any type of information. I think most of us would settle for this, but there are some other possibilities to consider.

For example: what about verbal inputs? Do we really need a keyboard? I’m sure the answer is “Yes.” We want to be able to type out messages, look at them, and edit them before transmission. We need keyboard inputs for privacy, and quietness. A reliable voice recognition system, capable of coping with accents, hangovers, ill-fitting dentures and the “human error” that my late friend HAL, the computer from 200/, complained about, represents something many orders of magnitude more complex than a simple alpha-numeric keyboard. It would be a device with capabilities, in a limited area, at least as good as those of a human brain.

Yet assuming that the curves of the last few decades can be extrapolated, this will certainly be available sometime in the next century. Though most of us will still be tapping out numbers in 2001, I’ve little real doubt that well before 2076 you will simply say to your console: “Get me Bill Smith”. Or if you do say: “Get me 212-345-5512,” it will answer, “Surely you mean 212-345-552 7.” And it will be quite right.

Now a machine with this sort of capability — a robot secretary, in effect — could be quite expensive. It doesn’t matter.

Contrary to the edicts of Madison Avenue, the time will come when it won’t be necessary to trade in last year’s model. Eventually, everything reaches its technological plateau, and thereafter the only changes are in matters of style. This is obvious when you look at such familiar domestic objects as chairs, beds, tables, knives, forks. Oh, you can make them of plastic or fiberglass or whatever, but the basic design rarely alters.

It took a few thousand years to reach these particular plateaus; things happen more quickly nowadays even for much more complex devices. The bicycle took about a century; radio receivers half that time. This is not to deny that marginal improvements will go on indefinitely, but after a while all further changes are icing on a perfectly palatable cake. You may be surprised to learn that there are electrical devices that have been giving satisfactory service for half a century or more. The other day someone found an Edison carbon filament lamp that has apparently never been switched off since it was installed. And until recently, there were sections of Atlantic cable that had been in service for a full century!

Now, it’s hard to see how a properly designed and constructed solid-state device can ever wear out. It should have something like the working life of a diamond, which is adequate for most practical purposes. So when we reach this state of affairs, it would be worth investing more in a multi-purpose home communications device than in an automobile. It could be handed on from one generation to the next — as was once the case with a good watch.

Plugging in to the Future

It has been obvious for a very long time that such audiovisual devices could complete the revolution started by the telephone. We are already approaching the point when it will be feasible — not necessarily desirable — for those engaged in what is quaintly called “white-collar” jobs to do perhaps 95 per cent of their work without leaving home. Of course, few of today’s families could survive this, but for the moment let’s confine ourselves to electronic, not social, technology.

Many years ago I coined the slogan: “Don’t commute — communicate!” Apart from the savings in travel time (the real reason 1 became a writer is that I refuse to spend more than 30 seconds moving from home to office) there would be astronomical economies in power and raw materials. Compare the amount of hardware in communications systems, as opposed to railroads, highways and airlines. And the number of kilowatt hours you expend on the shortest journey would power several lifetimes of chatter, between the remotest ends of the earth.

Obviously, the home comsole would handle most of today’s first-class mail; messages would be stored in its memory waiting for you to press the playback key whenever you felt like it. Then you would type out the answer — or alternatively call up the other party for a face-to-face chat.

Fine, but at once we have a serious problem — the already annoying matter of time zones. They are going to become quite intolerable in the electronic global village — where we are all neighbors, but a third of us are asleep at any given moment. The other day I was woken up at 4:00 a.m. by the London Daily Express , which had subtracted 5 V 2 hours instead of adding them. I don’t know what I said, but I doubt if my views on the Loch Ness Monster were printable.

The railroads and the telegraph made time zones inevitable in the 19th century; the global telecommunications network of the 21st may abolish them. It’s been suggested, at least half seriously, that we’ll have to establish a Common Time over the whole planet — whatever inconvenience this may cause to those old-fashioned enough to gear themselves to the day-night cycle.

During the course of the day — whatever that may be — you will use the home console to call your friends and deal with business, exactly as you use the telephone now — with this difference: you’ll be able to exchange any amount of tabular, visual or graphical information. Thus if you’re an author, you’ll be able to wave that horrid page-one type in front of your delinquent editor on Easter Island, or wherever he lives. Instead of spending hours hunting for non-existent parts numbers, engineers will be able to show their supplier the broken dohickey from the rotary discombobulator. And we’ll be able to see those old friends of a lifetime, whom we’ll never again meet in the flesh.

Which raises an interesting problem. One of the great advantages of Mr. Bell’s invention is that you can converse with people without their seeing you, or knowing where you are, or who is with you. A great many business deals would never be consummated, or even attempted, over a video circuit; but perhaps they are deals that shouldn’t be, anyway…

I am aware that previous attempts to supply vision — such as the Bell Picturephone — have hardly been a roaring success. But I feel sure that this is due to cost, the small size of the picture, and the limited service available. No one would have predicted much of a future for the very first “Televisors,” with their flickering, postage- stamp-sized images. Such technical limitations have a habit of being rather rapidly overcome, and the large-screen, high-definition Picturephone-Plus is inevitable.

I could certainly do with such a device. For several years, Stanley Kubrick has been talking wistfully to me about another space project. But there’s an insoluble problem — I won’t leave my home in Sri Lanka for more than a couple of weeks a year, and Stanley refuses to get into an airplane. We may both be too old, or too lazy, before the arrival of home comsoles makes another collaboration possible. So the present backwardness of electronics has spared the world another masterpiece like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clearly, when we do have two-way vision, there will have to be some changes in protocol. You can’t always pretend to your wife that the camera has broken down again. . . Incidentally, some of the changes that would be produced in a society totally orientated to telecommunications have been well discussed by a promising local writer, in a novel called The Naked Sun. The author’s full name escapes me at the moment, but I believe it begins with “Isaac.”

Infomaniacs Rejoice!

The possibilities of the comsole as an entertainment and information device are virtually unlimited; some of them, of course, are just becoming available, as an adjunct to the various TV subscription services. At any moment one should be able to call up all the news headlines on the screen, and expand any of particular interest into a complete story at several levels of thoroughness — all the way, let us say, from the Daily News to the New York Times … I hate to think of the hours I have wasted, listening to radio news bulletins — for some item that never turned up. Nothing is more frustrating — as will be confirmed by any Englishmen touring the United States during a Test Match, or any American in England during the World Series (how did it get that ridiculous name?). For the first time, it will be possible to have a news service with immediacy, selectivity, and thoroughness.

The electronic newspaper, apart from all its other merits, will also have two gigantic ecological plusses. It will save whole forests for posterity; and it will halve the cost of garbage collection. This alone might be enough to justify it, and to pay for it.

Like many of my generation, I became a news addict during World War II. Even now, it takes a definite effort of will for me not to switch on the hourly news summaries, and with a truly global service one could spend every waking minute monitoring the amusing, crazy, interesting and tragic things that go on around this planet. I can foresee the rise of even more virulent forms of news addiction, resulting in the evolution of a class of people who can’t bear to miss anything that’s happening, anywhere, and spend their waking hours glued to the corn- sole. I’ve even coined a name for them — Infomaniacs.

Continuing in this vein, I used to think how nice it would be to have access, in one’s own home, to all the books and printed matter, all the recordings and movies, all the visual arts of mankind. But would not many of us be completely overwhelmed by such an embarassment of riches, and solve the impossible problem of selection by selecting nothing? Every day I sneak guiltily past my set of the Great Books of the Western World, most of which I’ve never even opened. . . What would it really be like to have the Library of Congress — all the world’s great libraries — at your fingertips? Assuming, of course, that your fingertips were sufficiently educated to handle the problem of indexing and retrieval. I speak with some feeling on this subject, because for a couple of years I had the job of classifying and indexing everything published in the physical sciences, in all languages. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Physics Abstracts for 1949-51, you’ll know who to blame.

With the latest techniques, it would be possible to put the whole of human knowledge into a shoe box. The problem, of course, is to get it out again; anything misfiled would be irretrievably lost. Another problem is to decide whether we mass-produce the shoe boxes, so that every family has one — or whether we have a central shoe box linked to the home with wide-band communications.

Probably we’ll have both, and there are also some interesting compromises. Years ago I invented something that I christened, believe it or not, the Micropaedia Brittanica. My Micropaedia would be a box about the size of an ordinary hard-cover book, with a display screen and alpha-numeric keyboard. It would contain, in text and pictures, at least as much material as a large encyclopaedia plus dictionary.

However, the main point of the electronic Brittanica would not be its compactness — but the fact that, every few months, you could plug it in, dial a number, and have it up-dated overnight. . . Think of the saving in wood pulp and transportation that this implies!

The Next Best Thing to Being There…

It is usually assumed that the console would have a flat TV-type screen, which would appear to be all that is necessary for most communications purposes. But the ultimate in face-to-face electronic confrontation would be when you could not tell, without touching, whether or not the other person was physically present; he or she would appear as a perfect 3-D projection. This no longer appears fantastic, now that we have seen holographic displays that are quite indistinguishable from reality. So I am sure that this will be achieved some day; I am not sure how badly we need it.

What could be done, even with current techniques, is to provide 3-D — or at least widescreen Cinerama-rype — pictures for a single person at a time. This would need merely a small viewing booth and some clever optics, and it could provide the basis for a valuable educational- entertainment tool, as Dennis Gabor, inventor of holography, has suggested. But it could also give rise to a new industry — personalized television safaris. When you can have a high-quality cinema display in your own home, there will certainly be global audiences for specialized programs with instant feedback from viewer to cameraman. How nice to be able to make a trip up the Amazon, with a few dozen unknown friends scattered over the world, with perfect sound and vision, being able to ask your guide questions, suggest detours, request closeups of interesting plants or animals — in fact, sharing everything except the mosquitoes and the heat!

It has been suggested that this sort of technology might ultimately lead to a world in which no one ever bothered to leave home. The classic treatment of this theme is, of course, E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops , written more than 70 years ago as a counterblast to H. G. Wells.

Yet I don’t regard this sort of pathological, sedentary society as very likely. “Telesafaris” might have just the opposite effect. The customers would, sooner or later, be inspired to visit the places that really appealed to them. . . mosquitoes notwithstanding. Improved communications will promote travel for pleasure ; and the sooner we get rid of the other kind, the better.

The Moveable Information Feast

So far, I have been talking about the communications devices in the home and the office. But in the last few decades we have seen the telephone begin to lose its metal umbilical cord, and this process will accelerate. The rise of walkie-talkies and Citizen’s Band radio is a portent of the future.

The individual wrist-watch telephone through which you can contact anyone, anywhere, will be a mixed blessing which, nevertheless, very few will be able to reject. In fact, we may not have a choice; it is all too easy to imagine a society in which it is illegal to switch off your receiver, in case the Chairman of the People’s Cooperative wants to summon you in a hurry. . . But let’s not ally ourselves with those reactionaries who look only on the bad side of every new development. Alexander Graham Bell cannot be blamed for Stalin, once aptly described as “Genghis Khan with a telephone.”

It would be an underestimate to say that the wrist- watch telephone would save tens of thousands of lives a year. Everyone of us knows of tragedies — car accidents on lonely highways, lost campers, overturned boats, even old people at home — where some means of communication would have made all the difference between life and death. Even a simple emergency S.O.S. system, whereby one pressed a button and sent out a HELP! signal, would be enough. This is a possibility of the immediate future; the only real problem — and, alas, a serious one — is that of false alarms.

Now, the invariably forgotten accessory of the wrist- watch telephone is the wrist-watch telephone directory. Considering the bulk of that volume for even a modest-sized city, this means that our personal transceivers will require some sophisticated information-retrieval circuits, and a memory to hold the few hundred most-used numbers. So we may be forced, rather quickly, to go the whole way, and combine in a single highly portable unit not only communications equipment, but also something like today’s pocket-calculators, plus data banks, plus information processing circuits. It would be a constant companion, serving much the same purpose as a human secretary. In a recent novel I called it a “Minisec.” In fact, as electronic intelligence develops, it would provide more and more services, finally developing a personality of its own, to a degree which may be unimaginable today.

Except, of course, by science fiction writers. In his brilliant novel, The Futurological Congress , Stanislaw Lem gives a nightmare cameo which I can’t get out of my mind. He describes a group of women sitting in complete silence — while their handbag computers gossip happily to one another. . .

Tiptoeing Through the Spectrum

At this point, before I lose all credibility with the hairy- knuckled engineers who have to produce the hardware, I’d better do a once-over-lightly of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is, I think, unique among our natural resources. We’ve been exploiting it for less than one lifetime, and are now polluting much of it to the very maximum of our ability. But if we stopped using it tomorrow, it would be just as good as new, because the garbage is heading outwards at the speed of light. . . Too bad this isn’t true of the rest of the environment.

Do we have enough available bandwidth for a billion personal transceivers, even assuming that they aren’t all working at once? As far as the home equipment is concerned, there is no problem, at least in communities of any size. The only uncertainty, and a pretty harrowing one to the people who have to make the decisions, is how quickly coaxial cables are going to be replaced by glass fibers, with their million-fold greater communications capability. Incidentally, one of the less glamorous occupations of the future will be mining houses for the rare metal, copper, buried inside them by our rich ancestors. Fortunately, there is no danger that we shall ever run out of silica. . .

But I would also suggest that optical systems, in the infrared and ultraviolet, have a great future not only for fixed, but even for mobile , personal communications. They may take over some of the functions of present-day transistor radios and walkie-talkies — leaving the radio bands free for services which can be provided in no other way. The fact that opticals have only very limited range, owing to atmospheric absorption, can be turned to major advantage. You can use the same frequencies — and what a band of frequencies! — millions of times over — as long as you keep your service areas 10 or 20 kilometers apart.

It may be objected that light waves won’t go round corners, or through walls. Elementary, my dear Watson. We simply have lots of dirt cheap — because they are made from dirt! — optical wave guides and light pipes deliberately leaking radiation all over the place. Some would be passive, some active. Some would have very low-powered optical-to-radio transducers in both directions, to save knocking holes in walls, and to get to awkward places. In densely populated communities one would always be in direct or reflected sight of some optical transmitter or repeater. But we must be careful how we use the ultraviolet. People who talked too much might get sunburned. . .

When you are cycling across Africa, or drifting on a balsa-wood raft across the Pacific, you will of course still have to use the radio frequencies — say the one to ten thousand megahertz bands, which can accomodate at least ten million voice circuits. This number can be multiplied many times by skillful use of satellite technology. I can envisage an earth-embracing halo of low-altitude, low-powered radio satellites, switching frequencies continually so that they provide the desired coverage in given geographical regions. And N.A.S.A. has recently published a most exciting report on the use of the very large (kilometer-square!) antennas we will soon be able to construct in space. These would permit the simultaneous use- of myriads of very narrow beams which could be focused on individual subscribers carrying receivers which could be mass-produced for about $10. I rather suspect that our long-awaited personal transceiver will be an adaptive, radio-optical hybrid, actively hunting the electromagnetic spectrum in search of incoming signals addressed to it.

The Electronic Drug?

One of the functions of science fiction is to serve as an early warning system. In fact, the very act of description may prevent some futures, by a kind of exclusion principle. Far from predicting the future, science fiction often exorcises it. At the very least, it makes us ask ourselves: “What kind of future do we really want?” No other type of literature poses such fundamental questions, at any rate explicitly.

The marvellous toys that we have been discussing will simply remain toys, unless we use them constructively and creatively. Now, toys are all right in the proper place; in fact they are an essential part of any childhood. But they should not become mere distractions — or ways of drugging the mind to avoid reality.

We have all seen unbuttoned beer-bellies slumped in front of the TV set, and transitorized morons twitching down the street, puppets controlled by invisible disk jockeys. These are not the highest representatives of our culture; but, tragically, they may be typical of the near future. As we evolve a society orientated towards information, and move away from one based primarily on manufacture and transportation, there will be millions who cannot adapt to the change. We may have no alternative but to use the lower electronic arts to keep them in a state of drugged placidity.

For in the world of the future, the sort of mindless labor that has occupied 99 per cent of mankind, for much more than 99 per cent of its existence, will of course be largely taken over by machines. Yet most people are bored to death without work — even work that they don’t like. In a workless world, therefore, only the highly educated will be able to flourish, or perhaps even to survive. The rest are likely to destroy themselves and their environment out of sheer frustration. This is no vision of the distant future; it is already happening, most of all in the decaying cities.

So perhaps we should not despise TV soap operas if, during the turbulent transition period between our culture and real civilization, they serve as yet another opium for the masses. This drug, at any rate, is cheap and harmless, serving to kill time — for those many people who like it better dead.

Communicate to Educate

When we look at the manifold problems of our age, it is clear that the most fundamental one — from which almost all others stem — is that of ignorance. And ignorance can be banished only by communication, in the widest meaning of the word.

The best educational arrangement, someone once remarked, consists of a log with a teacher at one end and a pupil at the other. Unfortunately there are no longer enough teachers, and probably not enough logs, to go around.

Now, one thing that electronics can do rather well is to multiply teachers. As you doubtless know, at this very moment a most ambitious and exciting social experiment is taking place in India, where N.A.S.A.’s ATS-6 satellite is broadcasting educational programs to several thousand villages. ATS-6 is the only communications satellite in existence powerful enough to transmit signals that can be picked up on an ordinary TV set, augmented by a simple parabolic dish, like a large umbrella made of wire mesh.

Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the Indian Space Research Organization, which flew in six engineers and half a ton of equipment, I have a five-meter satellite antenna on the roof of my Colombo house, now renamed “Jodrell Bank East.” Since the experiment started on August 1, 1975, I have thus been in the curious position of having the only TV set in Sri Lanka. It’s been fascinating to watch the programs; even though I don’t understand Hindi, the messages of family planning, hygiene, agricultural techniques and national unity come across loud and clear.

Though it is impossible to put a value on such things, I believe that the cost of this experiment will be trivial compared with the benefits. And the ground segment is remarkably cheap, in terms of its coverage. Would you believe 4,000 people round one TV set? Or a 3-meter-diameter village antenna — made of dried mud ?

Of course, there are some critics — as reported recently by Dr. Yash Pal, the able and energetic Director of the Indian Space Application Centre:

‘in the drawing rooms of large cities,” he says, “you meet many people who are concerned about the damage one is going to cause to the integrity of rural India by exposing her to the world outside. After they have lectured you about the dangers of corrupting this innocent, beautiful mass of humanity, they usually turn round and ask: ‘Well, now that we have a satellite, when are we going to see some American programs?’ Of course they themselves are immune to cultural domination or foreign influence.”

I’m afraid that cocktail party intellectuals are the same everywhere. Because we frequently suffer from the modern scourge of information pollution, we find it hard to imagine its even deadlier opposite — information starvation. For any outsider, however well-meaning, to tell an Indian villager that he would be better off without access to the world’s news, entertainment, and knowledge , is an obscene impertinence, like the spectacle of a fat man preaching the virtues of fasting to the hungry.

Unfortunately, on July 31, 1976, the one-year experiment will end; ATS-6 will crawl back along the equator and return to the United States. Originally, it was hoped to launch two satellites; last summer I saw the three- quarters completed ATS-7, sitting mothballed at the Fair- child plant. No one could raise the $10 million necessary to finish it, or hijack one of the Air Force’s numerous Titan 3-Cs to get it into orbit.

And so in a few months’ time, millions of people who have had a window opened on marvellous new worlds of culture and education will have it slammed in their faces again. There will be some heart-rending scenes in the villages, when the cry goes up, however unfairly, “The Americans have stolen our satellite!” Useless to explain, as the frustrated viewers start to refill their six-to-nine p.m. time slot with baby-making, that it was only through the initiative and generosity of the United States that the satellite was loaned in the first place. . . The Ugly American will have struck again.

Yet I hope that this noble experiment is just the curtain-raiser to a truly global educational satellite system. Its cost would be one or two dollars per student, per year. There could be few better investments in the future health, happiness and peace of mankind.

I don’t wish to get too much involved in the potential — still less the politics — of communications satellites, because they can take care of themselves, and are now multiplying rapidly. The world investment in satellites and ground stations now exceeds a billion dollars, and is increasing almost explosively. After years of delay and dithering, the United States is at last establishing domestic satellite systems; the U.S.S.R. has had one for almost a decade. At first, the Soviet network employed wow- synchronous satellites, moving in an elongated orbit that took them high over Russia for a few hours of every day. However, they have now seen the overwhelming advantages of stationary orbits, and several of their comsats are currently fixed above the Indian Ocean. Some are designed for TV relaying to remote parts of the Soviet Union, and I’ve gently hinted to my friends in Moscow that perhaps they could fill the breach when ATS-6 goes home. . .

We are now in the early stages of a battle for the mind — or at least the eyes and ears — of the human race, a battle which will be fought 36,000 kilometers above the equator. The preliminary skirmishes have already taken place at the United Nations, where there have been determined attempts by some countries to limit the use of satellites which can beam programs from space directly into the home, thus bypassing the national networks. Guess who is scared. . .

As a matter of fact, I tried to frighten the United States with satellites myself, back in 1960, when 1 published a story in 1960 in Playboy about a Chinese plot to brainwash innocent Americans with pornographic TV programs. Perhaps “frighten” is not the correct verb, and in these permissive days such an idea sounds positively old-fashioned. But in 1960 the first regular comsat service was still five years in the future, and this seemed a good gambit for attracting attention to its possibilities.

United States of Earth

Fortunately, in this area there is an excellent record of international cooperation. Even countries who hate each other’s guts work together through the International Telecommunications Union, which sets limits to powers and assigns frequencies. Eventually, some kind of consensus will emerge, which will avoid the worst abuses.

A major step towards this was taken on August 20, 1971, when the agreement setting up INTELSAT (the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) was signed at the State Department. I would like to quote from the address I gave on that occasion:

“1 submit that the eventual impact of the communications satellite upon the whole human race will be at least as great as that of the telephone upon the so-called developed societies.

“In fact, as far as real communications are concerned, there are as yet no developed societies; we are all still in the semaphore and smoke-signal stage. And we are now about to witness an interesting situation in which many countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, are going to leapfrog a whole era of communications technology and go straight into the space age. They will never know the vast networks of cables and microwave links that this country has built at such enormous cost both in money and in natural resources. The satellites can do far more and at far less expense to the environment. . .

“. . .1 believe that the communications satellites can unite mankind. Let me remind you, that, whatever the history books say, this great country was created a little more than a hundred years ago by two inventions. Without them, the United States was impossible; with them, it was inevitable. Those inventions were, of course, the railroad and the electric telegraph.

“Today we are seeing on a global scale an almost exact parallel to that situation. What the railroads and the telegraph did here a century ago, the jets and the communications satellites are doing now to all the world.

And the final result — whatever name we actually give to it — will be the United States of Earth.

The Space Barrier

I would like to end with some thoughts on the wider future of communications — communications beyond the earth. And here we face an extraordinary paradox, which in the centuries to come may have profound political and cultural implications.

For the whole of human history, up to that moment one hundred years ago when the telephone was invented, it was impossible for two persons more than a few meters apart to interact in real time. The abolition of that apparently fundamental barrier was one of technology’s supreme triumphs; today we take it for granted that men can converse with each other, and even see each other, wherever they may be. Generations will live and die, always with this godlike power at their fingertips.

Yet this superb achievement will be ephemeral; before the next hundred years have passed, our hard-won victory over space will have been lost, never to be regained.

On the Apollo voyages, for the first time, men traveled more than a light-second away from earth. The resulting two-and-a-half second round-trip communications delay was surprisingly unobtrusive, but only because of the dramatic nature of the messages — and the discipline of the speakers. 1 doubt if the average person will have the self-control to talk comfortably with anyone on the moon.

And beyond the moon, of course, it will be impossible. We will never be able to converse with friends on Mars, even though we can easily exchange any amount of information with them. It will take at least three minutes to get there, and another three minutes to receive a reply.

Anyone who considers that this is never likely to be of much practical importance is taking a very short-sighted view. It has now been demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that in the course of the next century, we could occupy the entire solar system. The resources in energy and material are there; the unknowns are the motivation — and our probability of survival, which may indeed depend upon the rate with which we get our eggs out of this one fragile planetary basket.

We would not be here, talking about the future, unless we were optimists. And in that case we must assume that eventually very large populations will be living far from earth — light-minutes and light-hours away, even if we colonize only the inner solar system. However, space colony advocate Freeman Dyson has argued with great eloquence that planets aren’t important, and the real action will be in the cloud of comets out beyond Pluto, a light-day or more from earth.

And looking further afield, it is now widely realized that there are no fundamental scientific obstacles even to interstellar travel. Though Nobel Laureate Dr. Edward Purcell once rashly remarked that star-ships should stay on the cereal boxes, where they belonged — that’s exactly where moonships were, only 30 years ago. . .

So the finite velocity of light will, inevitably, divide the human race once more into scattered communities, sundered by barriers of space and time. We will be as one with our remote ancestors, who lived in a world of immense and often insuperable distances, for we are moving out into a universe vaster than all their dreams.

Are There Others?

But it is, surely, not an empty universe. No discussion of communications and the future would be complete without reference to the most exciting possibility of all — communications with extra-terrestrial intelligence. The galaxy must be an absolute Babel of conversation, and it is surely only a matter of time before we can hear the neighbors. They already know about us, for our sphere of detectable radio signals is now scores of light-years across. Perhaps even more to the point — and more likely to bring the precinct cops hurrying here as fast as their paddy-wagon can travel — is the fact that several microsecond-thick shells of x-ray pulses are already more than ten light-years out from earth, announcing to the universe that, somewhere, juvenile delinquents are detonating atom bombs.

Plausible arguments suggest that our best bet for interstellar eavesdropping would be in the 1000-Megahertz, or 30 centimeter, region of the spectrum. The N.A.S.A./Stanford/Ames Project Cyclops report, which proposed an array of several hundred large radio telescopes for such a search, recommended a specific band about 200 Megahertz wide — that lying between the hydrogen line (1420 MHz) and the lowest OH line (1,662 MHz). Dr. Bernard Oliver, who directed the Cyclops study, has waxed poetic about the appropriateness of our type of life seeking its kind in the band lying between the disassociation products of water — the “water-hole.”

Unfortunately, we may be about to pollute the water- hole so badly that it will be useless to radio astronomers. The proposed MARESAT and NAVSTAR satellites will be dunked right in the middle of it, radiating so powerfully that they would completely saturate any Cyclops-type array. Barney Oliver tells me: “Since the Cyclops study, additional reasons have become apparent for expecting the water-hole to be our contact with the mainstream of life in the galaxy. The thought that we, through our ignorance, may blind ourselves to such contact and condemn the human race to isolation appalls us.”

I hope that the next World Administrative Radio Conference, when it meets in 1979, will take a stand on this matter. The conflict of interest between the radio astronomers and the communications engineers will get more and more insoluble, until, as I suggested many years ago, we move the astronomers to the quietest place in the solar system — the center of the lunar farside, where they will be shielded from the radio racket of earth by 3,500 kilometers of solid rock. But that answer will hardly be available before the next century.

Whatever the difficulties and problems, the search for extra-terrestrial signals will continue. Some scientists fear that it will not succeed; others fear that it will . It may already have succeeded, but we don’t yet know it. Even if the pulsars are neutron stars — so what? They may still be artificial beacons, all broadcasting essentially the same message: “Last stop for gas this side of Andromeda.”

More seriously, if the decades and the centuries pass, with no indication that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the long-term effects on human philosophy will be profound — and may be disastrous. Better to have neighbors we don’t like, than to be utterly alone. For that cosmic loneliness could point to a very depressing conclusion — that intelligence marks an evolutionary dead-end. When we consider how well — and how long — the sharks and the cockroaches have managed without it, and how badly we are managing with it, one cannot help wondering if intelligence is an aberration like the armor of the dinosaurs, dooming its possessors to extinction.

No, I don’t really believe this. Even if the computers we carry on our shoulders are evolutionary accidents, they can now generate their own programs — and set their own goals.

For we can now say, in the widest possible meaning of the phrase, that the purpose of human life is information processing. I have already mentioned the strange fact that men can survive longer without water than without information. . .

And therefore the real value of all the devices we have been discussing is that they have the potential for immensely enriching and enlarging life, by giving us more information to process — up to the maximum number of bits per second that the human brain can absorb.

I am happy, therefore, to have solved one of the great problems the philosophers and theologians have been haggling over for several thousand years. You may, perhaps, feel that this is rather a dusty answer, and that not even the most inspired preacher could ever found a religion upon the slogan: “The purpose of life is information processing.” Indeed, you may even retort: “Well, what is the purpose of information processing?”

I’m glad you asked me that. . .

Arthur C. Clarke is author of numerous popular works of science fiction and science fact, including the book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his latest novel, Imperial Earth (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975). He is also credited with conceiving the idea of the communications satellite. Says Mr. Clarke, “Back in 1943, as an extremely callow officer in the Royal Air Force, I was given a mysterious assignment to a fog-shrouded airfield at the southwestern tip of England.

“It turned out I was to work with an eccentric group of Americans from something called the Radiation Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They were led by a bright young physicist named Luis Alvarez, who had invented a radar device that, for a change did something useful. It could bring down an aircraft in one piece, instead of several.

“Luis’ brainchild provided me with the peaceful environment, totally insulated from all the nasty bombings and invasions happening elsewhere, which allowed me to work out the principles of communications satellites in the spring of 1945.”

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