Don’t say you weren’t warned!

13 Feb

In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke published a collection of prophetic writings called Profiles of the Future. His intent, he wrote in an introduction, was not “to describe the future, but to define the boundaries within which possible futures must lie.” In one chapter he predicted the creation of a high-speed worldwide communications network (he thought it would be satellite-based) and discussed some of its probable consequences. The physical mail system, he wrote, would be replaced by “an orbital post office,” which “will probably make airmail obsolete in the quite near future.” The new system will “of course” raise “problems of privacy,” though these “might be solved by robot handling at all stages of the operation.”

The revolution in communication won’t be limited to correspondence, though: “Perhaps a decade beyond the orbital post office lies something even more startling – the orbital newspaper.” News reports would come to be transmitted to video screens in homes. To get “your daily paper,” you’d need only “press the right button.” Moreover, each reader would be able to create a personalized bundle of stories: “We will select what we need, and ignore the rest, thus saving whole forests for posterity. The orbital newspaper will have little more than the name in common with the newspaper of today.”

“Nor will the matter end here,” Clarke continued. “Over the same circuits we will be able to conjure up, from central libraries and information banks, copies of any document we desire … Even books may one day be ‘distributed’ in this manner, though their format will have to be changed drastically to make this possible.”

The technology would transform the publishing industry, Clarke warned. “All publishers would do well to contemplate these really staggering prospects. Most affected will be newspapers and pocket-books; practically untouched by the coming revolution will be art volumes and quality magazines, which involve not only fine printing but elaborate manufacturing processes. The dailies may well tremble; the glossy monthlies have little to fear.”

He ended on a jauntily apocalyptic note: “How mankind will cope with the avalanche of information and entertainment about to descend upon it from the skies, only the future can show. Once again science, with its usual cheerful irresponsibility, has left another squalling infant on civilization’s doorstep. It may grow up to be as big a problem child as the one born amid the clicking of Geiger counters beneath the Chicago University squash court, back in 1942.”


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