There is no longer any need to argue that the communications satellite is ultimately going to have a profound effect upon society; the events of the last ten years have established this beyond question. Nevertheless, it is possible that even now we have only the faintest understanding of its ultimate impact upon our world.
There are those who have argued that communications satellites (hereafter referred to as “comsats”) represent only an extension of existing communications devices, and that society can therefore absorb them without too great an upheaval.
I am reminded rather strongly of the frequent assertions by elderly generals immediately after August 1945 that nothing had really changed in warfare because the device which destroyed Hiroshima was “just another bomb”.
Some inventions represent a kind of technological quantum jump which causes a major restructuring of society. In our century, the automobile is perhaps the most notable example of this. It is characteristic of such inventions that even when they are already in existence, it is a considerable time before anyone appreciates the changes they will bring. To demonstrate this, I would like to quote two examples, one genuine, one slightly fictitious.
For the first I am indebted to the Honorable Anthony Wedgewood Benn, now UK Minister of Technology, who passed it on to me when he was Postmaster General.
Soon after Mr. Edison had invented the electric light, there was an alarming decline in the Stock Exchange quotations for the gas companies. A Parliamentary Commission was therefore called in England, which heard expert witnesses on the subject; I feel confident that many of these assured the gas manufacturers that nothing further would be heard of this impractical device.
One of the witnesses called was the chief engineer of the Post Office, Sir William Preece – an able man who in later years was to back Marconi in his early wireless experiments. Somebody asked Sir William if he had any comments to make on the latest American invention – the telephone. To this, the chief engineer of the Post Office made the remarkable reply: “No Sir. The Americans have need of the telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”
The second example is due to my friend, Jean d’Arcy, Director of Radio and Visual Information Services Division of the United Nations. He has reported to me the deliberations of a slightly earlier scientific committee, set up in the Middle Ages to discuss whether it was worth developing Mr. Gutenberg’s printing press. After lengthy deliberations, this committee decided not to allocate further funds. The printing press, it was agreed, was a clever idea, but it could have no large-scale application. There would never be any big demand for books for the simple reason that only a microscopic fraction of the population could read.
If anyone thinks that I am labouring the obvious, I would like him to ask himself, in all honesty, whether he would have dared to predict the ultimate impact of the printing press and the telephone when they were invented. I believe that in the long run the impact of the communication satellite will be even more spectacular. Moreover, the run may not be as long as we think. The human mind tends to extrapolate in a linear manner, whereas progress is exponential. The exponential curve rises slowly at first and then climbs rapidly, until eventually it cuts across the straight-line slope and goes soaring beyond it. Unfortunately, it is never possible to predict whether the crossover point will be five, ten or twenty years ahead. However, I believe that everything I am about to discuss will be technically possible well before the end of this century. The rate of progress will be limited by economic and political factors, not technological ones. When a new invention has a sufficiently great public appeal, the world insists on having it. Look at the speed with which the “transistor revolution” occurred. Yet what we now see on the technological horizon are devices with far greater potential, and human appeal, even than the ubiquitous transistor radio.
It must also be remembered that our ideas concerning the future of space technology are still limited by the present primitive state of the art. All of today’s launch vehicles are expendable, single-shot devices which can perform only one mission and are then discarded. It has been “recognized for many years that space exploration, and space exploitation, will be practical only when the same launch vehicle can be flown over and over again, like conventional aircraft. The development of the reusable launch vehicle, the so-called “space shuttle” will be the most urgent problem of the space engineers in the 1970s.
It is confidently believed that such vehicles will be operating by the end of the decade, the end of the 1970s. When they do, their impact upon astronautics will be comparable to that of the famous DC-3 upon aeronautics. The cost of putting payloads and men into space will decrease from thousands, to hundreds, and then to tens of dollars per pound. This will make possible the development of multipurpose manned space stations, as well as the deployment of very large and complex unmanned satellites which it would be quite impractical to launch (from Earth) in a single vehicle.
It must also be remembered that comsats are only one of a very large range of applications satellites; they may not even be the most important. The Earth Resources satellites will enormously advance our knowledge of this planet’s capabilities, and the ways in which we may exploit them. The time is going to come when farmers, fishermen, public utility companies, departments of agriculture and forestry, etc. will find it impossible to imagine how they ever operated in the days before they had space-borne sensors continually scanning the planet. The economic value of meteorological satellites and their potential for the saving of life has already been demonstrated. Another most important use of satellites, which has not yet begun, but which will have an economic value of thousands of millions of dollars a year, is their use for air-traffic control. It appears possible that the only real solution to the problem of air congestion, and the mounting risk of collisions, may be through navigational satellites which can track every aircraft in the sky.
Arthur C. Clarke predicts the internet, creative commons video from ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company):
In dealing with telecommunications problems it is convenient and often indeed essential to divide the subject according to the type of transmission and equipment used. Thus we talk about radios, telephones, television sets, data networks, facsimile systems, etc. as though they were all quite separate things.
But this of course is a completely artificial distinction; to the communications satellite, which simply handles trains of electric impulses, they are all the same. For the purposes of this discussion I am therefore looking at the subject from a different point of view, which may give a better overall picture. I am lumping all telecommunications devices together and am considering their total impact upon four basic units in turn. Those units are the Home, the City, the State, and the World.
Note that I start with the home, not the family, as the basic human unit. Many people do not live in family groups, but everybody lives in a home. Indeed, in certain societies today the family itself is becoming somewhat nebulous around the edges, and among some younger groups is being replaced by the tribe – of which more anon. But the home will always be with us.
There was once a time when homes did not have windows. It is difficult for those of us who do not live in caves or tents to imagine such a state of affairs. Yet within a single generation the home in the more developed countries has acquired a new window of incredible magical power – the TV set. What once seemed one of the most expensive luxuries became, in what is historically a twinkling of an eye, one of the basic necessities of life.
The television antenna swaying precariously above the slum dweller’s shack is a true sign of our times. What the book was to a tiny minority in earlier ages, the television set has now come to be for all the world.
It is true that, all too often, it is no more than a drug like its poorer relative, the transistor radio seen pressed to the ears of the blank-faced noiseaddicts one sees walking entranced through the city streets. But, of course, it is infinitely more than this, as was so well-expressed by Professor Buckminster Fuller when he remarked that ours is the first generation to be reared by three parents.
All future generations will be reared by three parents. As René Maheu, Director-General of UNESCO, remarked recently, this may be one of the real reasons for the generation gap. We now have a discontinuity in human history. For the first time there is a generation that knows more than its parents, and television is at least partly responsible for this state of affairs.
Anything we can imagine in the way of educational TV and radio can be done. As I have already remarked, the limitations are not technical, but economic and political. As for economic limitations, the cost of a truly global satellite educational system, broadcasting into all countries, would be quite trivial compared with the long-term benefits it could bring.
Let me indulge in a little fantasy. Some of the studies of educational comsat broadcasts — let us call them EDSATS — to developing countries indicate that the cost of the hardware may be of the order of $1 per pupil per year.
I suppose there are about a thousand million children of school age on this planet, but the number of people who require education must be much higher than this, perhaps two thousand million. As I am only concerned with establishing orders of magnitude, the precise figures don’t matter. But the point is that, for the cost of a few thousand million dollars a year, a few per cent of the monies spent on armaments could provide a global EDSAT system which could drag this whole planet out of ignorance. Such a project would seem ideally suited for UNESCO supervision, because there are great areas of basic education in which there are no serious disagreements. The beauty of television, of course, is that to a considerable extent it transcends the language problem. I would like to see the development, by the Walt Disney studios or some similar organization, of visual educational programmes which do not depend on language, but only upon sight, plus sound effects. I feel certain that a great deal can be done in this direction, and it is essential that such research be initiated as soon as possible, because it may take much longer to develop appropriate programmes than the equipment to transmit and receive them.
Even the addition of language, of course, does not pose too great a problem since this requires only a fraction of the band-width of the vision signal. And sooner or later we must achieve a world in which every human being can communicate directly with every other, because everyone will speak, or at least understand, a handful of basic languages. The children of the future are going to learn several languages from that third parent in the corner of the living room. Perhaps looking further ahead, a time is going to come when any student or scholar anywhere on Earth will be able to tune in to a course in any subject that interests them, at any level of difficulty they desire. Thousands of educational programmes will be broadcast simultaneously on different frequencies, so that any individual will be able to proceed at his own rate, and at his own convenience, through the subject of his choice.
This could result in an enormous increase in the efficiency of the educational process. Today, every student is geared to a relatively inflexible curriculum. He has to attend classes at fixed times, which very often may not be convenient. The opening up of the electromagnetic spectrum made possible by comsats will represent as great a boon to scholars and students as did the advent of the printing press itself.
The great challenge of the decade to come is freedom from hunger. Yet starvation of the mind will one day be regarded as an evil no less great than starvation of the body. All men deserve to be educated to the limit of their capabilities. If this opportunity is denied them, basic human rights are violated.
This is why the forthcoming experimental use of direct broadcast EDSATS in India in 1972 is of such interest and importance. We should wish it every success, for even if it is only a primitive prototype, it may herald the global educational system of the future.
It is obvious that one of the results of the developments we have been discussing will be a breakdown of the barrier between home and school, or home and university, for in a sense the whole world may become one academy of learning. But this is only one aspect of an even wider revolution because results of the new communications devices will also break down the barrier between home and place of work. During the next decade we will see coming into the home a general purpose communications console comprising TV screen, camera, microphone, computer keyboard and hardcopy readout device. Through this, anyone will be able to be in touch with any other person similarly equipped. As a result, for an ever increasing number of people in fact, virtually everyone of the executive level and above, almost all travel for business will become unnecessary.
Recently, a limited number of the executives of the Westinghouse Corporation in the United States who were provided with primitive forerunners of this device, promptly found that their travelling decreased by 20 per cent. This, I am convinced, is how we are going to solve the traffic problem and thus, indirectly, the problem of air pollution. More and more, the slogan of the future will be, “Don’t Commute – Communicate”. Moreover, this development will make possible and even accelerate another fundamental trend of the future.
It usually takes a genius to see the obvious, and once again I am indebted to Professor Buckminster Fuller for the following ideas. One of the most important consequences of today’s space research will be the development of life-support, and above all, food regeneration systems for long duration voyages and for the establishment of bases on the moon and planets. It is going to cost thousands of millions of dollars to develop these techniques, but when they are perfected they will be available to everyone.
This means that we will be able to establish self-contained communities quite independent of agriculture, anywhere on this planet that we wish; perhaps one day even individual homes may become autonomous closed ecological systems producing all their food and other basic requirements indefinitely.
This development, coupled with the communications explosion, means a total change in the structure of society. But because of the inertia of human institutions, and the gigantic capital investments involved, it may take a century or more for the trend to come to its inevitable conclusion. That conclusion is the death of the city.
We all know that our cities are obsolete, and much effort is now going into patching them up so that they work after some fashion, like thirtyyear-old automobiles held together with string and wire. But we must recognize that in the age that is coming. The city – except for certain limited applications – is no longer necessary. The nightmare of overcrowding and traffic jams which we now endure is going to get worse, perhaps for our lifetimes. But beyond that is a vision of a world in which man is once again what he should be, a fairly rare animal, though in instant communication with all other members of his species. Marshall McLuhan has coined the evocative phrase “the global village” to describe the coming society. I hope “the global village” does not really mean a global suburb, covering the planet from pole to pole. Luckily, there will be far more space in the world of the future, because the land liberated at the end of the agricultural age now coming to a close after ten thousand years will become available for living purposes. I trust that much of it will be allowed to revert to wilderness, and that through this new wilderness will wander the electronic nomads of the centuries ahead. It is perfectly obvious that the communications revolution will have the most profound influence upon that fairly recent invention, the nation-state. I am fond of reminding American audiences that their country was created only a century ago by two inventions. Before those inventions existed it was impossible to have a United States of America. Afterwards, it was impossible not to have it.
Those inventions, of course, were the railroad and the electric telegraph. USSR, China – in fact all modern states could not possibly exist without them. Whether we like it or not, and certainly many people won’t like it, we are seeing the next step in this process. History is repeating itself one turn higher on the spiral. What the railroad and the telegraph did to continental areas a hundred years ago, the jet plane and the communications satellite will soon be doing to the whole world. Despite the rise of nationalism and the surprising resurgence of minority, political and linguistic groups, this process may already have gone further than is generally imagined. We see particularly among the young, cults and movements which transcend all geographical borders. The so-called “jet set” is perhaps the most obvious example of this transnational culture, but that involves only a small minority. In Europe at least, the Volkswagen and Vespa sets are far more numerous and perhaps far more significant. The young Germans, French, and Italians are already linked together by a common communications network, and are impatient with the naive and simple-minded nationalism of their parents which has brought so much misery to the world.
What we are now doing – whether we like it or not – indeed whether we wish to or not – is laying the foundation of the first global society. Whether the final planetary authority will be an analogue of the federal systems now existing in the US or the USSR I do not know. I suspect that, without any deliberate planning, such organizations as the world meteorological and earth resources satellite system, and the world communications satellite system (of which INTELSAT is the precursor) will eventually transcend their individual components. At some time during the next century they will discover, to their great surprise, that they are really running the world.
There are many who will regard these possibilities with alarm or distaste, and may even attempt to prevent their fulfilment. I would remind them of the story of the wise English king, Canute, who had his throne set upon the sea-shore so he could demonstrate to his foolish courtiers that even the king could not command the incoming tide.
The wave of the future is now rising before us. Let us not attempt to hold it back. Wisdom lies in recognizing the inevitable – and cooperating with it. In the world that is coming, the great powers are not great enough.
Let us look at our whole world – as we have already done through the eyes of our moonbound cameras. I have made it obvious that it will be essentially one world – though I am not foolish or optimistic enough to imagine that it will be free from violence and even war. But more and more it will be recognized that all terrestrial violence is the concern of the police – and of no one else.
And there is another factor which will accelerate the unification of the world. Within another lifetime, this will not be the only world, and that fact will have profound psychological impact upon all humanity. We have seen in the annus mirabilis of 1969 the imprint of man’s first footstep on the moon. Before the end of this century, we will experience the only other event of comparable significance in the foreseeable future. Before I tell you what it is, ask yourselves what you would have thought of the moon landing, thirty years ago. Well, before another thirty have passed, we will see its inevitable successor – the birth of the first human child on another world, and the beginning of the real colonization of space. When there are men who do not look on Earth as home, then the men of Earth will find themselves drawing closer together. In countless ways this process has already begun. The vast outpouring of pride, transcending all frontiers, during the flight of Apollo 11 was an outstanding indication of this process.
Whether or not one takes it literally, the myth of the Tower of Babel has an extraordinary relevance for our age. Before that time, according to the book of Genesis (and indeed according to some anthropologists) the human race spoke with a single tongue.
That time may never come again, but the time will come, and through the impact of comsats, when there will be two or three world languages which everyone will share. Far higher than the misguided architects of the Tower of Babel ever could have imagined – 36,000 kilometres above the equator – the rocket and communications engineers are about to undo the curse that was then inflicted upon our ancestors.
So let me end by quoting the relevant passage from the 11th chapter of Genesis, which I think could be a motto for our hopes of the future: And the Lord said: “Behold they are one people and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do, and nothing that they propose to do now will be impossible for them.”
A 1970 text by Arthur C. Clarke from The UNESCO Courier, originally published online at the UNESCO website under a creative commons license: CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO