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Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 - 2008

March 18, 2008

Before there was Ray Kurzweil, there was Arthur C. Clarke; author and visionary.  Today it seems appropriate to share another short excerpt from his 1965 essay collection, Voices From The Sky.

“I would not care to predict how many of today’s professions will survive a hundred years from now.  What happened to the buggywhip makers, the crossing sweepers, the scriveners, the stone breakers of yesteryear?  (I mention the last because I can just remember them, hammering away at piles of rock in the country lanes of my childhood.)  Most of our present occupations will follow these into oblivion, as the transistor inherits the earth…”

(For my own part, the job I have today simply did not exist when I graduated from college.  A few long-haired visionaries in Switzerland and Illinois and a few other places, were laying the deep foundations for it though.)

For as computers become smaller, cheaper, and more reliable they will move into every field of human activity.  Today they are in the office; tomorrow they will be in the home.  Indeed, some very simple-minded computers already do our household chores; the device that programs a washing machine to perform a certain sequence of operations is a specialized mechanical brain.  Less specialized ones would be able to carry out almost all the routine operations in a suitably designed home.

Because we have so many more pressing problems on our hands, only the science-fiction writers – those trail-blazers of the future – have given much thought to the social life of the later electronic age.  How will our descendants be educated for leisure, when the working week is only a few hours?…  No one who contemplates the rising curve of technology from the Pilgrim fathers to the Apollo project dare deny that this is not merely possible, but probable.

For most of history, men have been producers; in a very few centuries*, they will have to switch to the role of consumers devoting their energies 100 percent to absorbing the astronomical output of the automated mines, farms and factories. 

Does this really matter, since only a tiny fraction of the human race has ever contributed to artistic creation, scientific discovery or philosophical thought, which in the long run are the only significant activities of mankind?  Archimedes and Aristotle, one cannot help thinking, would still have left their marks on history even if they had lived in a society based on robots instead of human slaves.  In any culture, they would be consumers of goods, but producers of thought.

We should not take too much comfort from this.  The electronic computers of today are like the subhuman primates of ten million years ago, who could have given any visiting Martians only the faintest hints of their potentialities, which included the above mentioned Archimedes and Aristotle.  Evolution is swifter now; electronic intelligence is only decades, not millions of years, ahead. 

And that – not transister radios, automatic homes, global tv – is the ultimate goal of the Electronic Revolution.  Whether we like it or not, we are on a road where there is no turning back; and waiting at its end are our successors.

- Arthur C. Clarke, 1965


  • Arthur Clarke, author of scores of books, stories, and articles both fiction and nonfiction, and credited with the fundamental idea behind the communications satellite, died today at 90 years age.  Though he never profited directly from his groundbreaking 1945 article, Extra Terrestrial Relays, he often joked that the communication satellite was invented not by Arthur C. Clarke, but by another man of the same name.

  • Visit the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation to read articles by and about Sir Clarke, see his biography, and browse his full bibliography.
  • * Based on Moore’s law, Clarke later revised “few centuries” to a few decades.
  • Clarke notes that he would not care to predict how many of today’s occupations will survive a hundred years.  Nonsense!  He made a living doing just that.
  • I have a couple dozen of his books, but quote from this one for a second time because it’s fun to see what the visionary said in 1965.  Here’s the previous excerpt from VFTS.
  • Clarke is distinguished among science fiction authors not only by his true scientific acumen (a distinction shared by Heinlein and to the greatest extent, Asimov), but because like Asimov he was not at all subversive and yet still managed to be entertaining.  If you have a child in sixth grade, give them Dolphin Island; if in high school, Fall Of Moondust.  If they thought The Matrix was cool, give them 2001; A Space Odyssey.  If they’re interested in WWII, Glide Path (a semi-fictionalized account of Clarke’s real life as a radar technician in the super-secret Ground-Controlled Descent research program).  If they like short stories, give them the collection; The Nine Billion Names Of God.  Of course, if you have not read these books yourself, your spawn will not mind if they are slightly used when they get them…
  • More Clarke eulogies at The Intersection, A Blog Around The Clock (has video), Gene Expression offers Why Clarke Matters, and Voltage Gate (with some great quotes). GrrlScientist has an essay in SEED about Clarke’s Magic.
    Many have noted that he was not a great writer and this is true: his books and stories moved by sheer force of ideas.


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  1. EdK
    March 18, 2008 at 21:13 | #1

    I was both hoping you would eulogize Sir Arthur today, and trying to think of something to add (since I knew you would).

    “Childhood’s End” – it quite simply made me want to read more science fiction.  Wish Spielberg would make a movie true to the book.

  2. Ted
    March 19, 2008 at 08:58 | #2

    I enjoyed his stories, but wherever I read them, I realized that this was a man that (knowingly*) contributed to the militarization of space, and bore responsibility, at least in passing, in the way his ideas were used. His intellect must have known that profit, marketing, consumption would pervert his ideas into something ugly when separated from the idealistic chaff.

    Such is the burden of being famous and with big ideas. Others take them to create a cesspool.

    Comparing Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, PKD, RAW, Brunner & Herbert, I’d choose Brunner and Herbert with dollops of Phillip K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson. They knew the ugly in the human psyche that inevitably shows up with technology and highlighted it to warn us.

    * Because he was smart enough to know.

  3. March 19, 2008 at 10:13 | #3

    I think he knew that Clarke or no Clarke, satellites were going up there.  Presenting a better vision of humanity is as valuable as warning us about our flaws.  And the warning is well-covered by other authors.

    “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.”
    - Sir Arthur C. Clarke

  4. March 20, 2008 at 17:16 | #4

    He sounds like a brilliant man. Damn am I behind in my readings. You old timers have quite a heads up on me as I have only heard of Asimov before I met DOF.

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