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Foreseeing the Future

September 2018

Sir Arthur Clarke predicted that a revolution in communications would bring electronic mail, telecommuting, the Internet, and inexpensive long distance calls in a seminal but forgotten 1962 essay, published by American Heritage more than half a century ago.

Today, Arthur Clarke is remembered as a writer of science fiction and the screenplay for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Clarke was also a serious futurist and one of the first writers to suggest that rockets could be used for communication, not just military purposes.

In the 1962 essay reprinted below, Clarke made extraordinary predictions about the coming communications revolution.
In the 1962 essay reprinted below, Clarke made extraordinary predictions about the coming communications revolution.

During World War II Clarke had served in the Royal Air Force as a physicist working on early-warning radar defense. In 1945 he wrote a seminal essay in Wireless World pointing out that a German rocket could get into orbit around the earth with a little more fuel (and no heavy bomb).  "It will be possible in a few more years to build radio-controlled rockets which can be steered into orbits beyond the limits of the atmosphere and left to broadcast scientific information back to the earth." Subsequently, he wrote a number of books on the subject including Interplanetary Flight (1950) and The Exploration of Space (1951).

After Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, American Heritage asked Clarke to write about how our efforts in space would affect daily life. The resulting essay was published in our sister magazine, HORIZON, in February, 1962.

Who would have then believed that the coming communications revolution would so completely change our lives? Clarke seemed farfetched when he predicted "instant mail without mailmen," telecommuting, cheap long-distance calls, and many other implausible ideas.

Earlier, in 1958, American Heritage had published an essay by Clarke on the trans-Atlantic cable.

       —The Editors

 

The Social

Consequences

of the

Communications

Satellites

 

The writer who first proposed them foresees:

·             The ten-cent phone call to anywhere

·             The decline of travel

·             The death of the printed newspaper

·             Every library book on your home screen

·             Instant mail without mailmen

·             The end of censorship

·             A universal language (but which one?)

In the ability to communicate an unlimited range of ideas lies the chief distinction between man and animal; almost everything that is specifically human arises from this power. Society was unthinkable before the invention of speech, civilization impossible before the invention of writing. Half a millennium ago the mechanization of writing by means of the printing press flooded the world with the ideas and knowledge that triggered the Renaissance; little more than a century ago electrical communication began that conquest of distance which has now brought the poles to within a fifteenth of a second of each other. Radio and television have given us a mastery over time and space so miraculous that it seems virtually complete.

Yet it is far from being so; another revolution, perhaps as far-reaching in its effects as printing and electronics, is now upon us. Its agent is the communications satellite.

Levine cartoon on communications satellites.
HORIZON commissioned David Levine to create a cartoon showing the possible uses of communications satellites.

The suggestion that satellites might be used for relaying radio and TV apparently originated in a technical paper I published in 1945 ["Extra-Terrestrial Relays," in Wireless World]; the idea was first realized in December, 1958, when President Eisenhower broadcast his Christmas message to the world by means of a transmitter in an orbiting Atlas missile. Since then, an immense engineering effort has been devoted to communications satellites, and many experimental versions have been launched. Some—like the giant ECHO balloon, which has been seen by millions as a slowly moving star—are merely passive reflectors or radio mirrors, scattering back to Earth a small fraction of the energy that falls upon them. Others, like COURIER, are active; that is to say, they receive, amplify, and rebroadcast the signals beamed up to them from ground stations. Both types will be used increasingly, until they girdle the world with an invisible cat's cradle of radio and TV circuits.

Until today, the reliable range of radio has been limited because radio waves—like light—travel in straight lines and cannot bend round the curve of the Earth.

It is not necessary to go into technicalities to appreciate why such satellites can transform our communications. Until today, the reliable range of radio has been limited to a few score of miles, for the simple reason that radio waves—like light—travel in straight lines and so cannot bend round the curve of the Earth. The only thing that makes long-distance radio possible at all is the existence of the ionosphere, that reflecting layer in the upper atmosphere which bounces back the so-called short waves so that they reach the ground again at great distances from the transmitter. In the process they usually acquire considerable distortion and interference; though they may be adequate for speech, they are almost useless for music, as anyone who has listened to a concert on the short-wave bands knows.

For the still shorter waves, which alone can carry television and other sophisticated types of telecommunication service, the situation is even worse. These are not reflected back from the ionosphere at all, but slice straight through it and out into space. They can be used, therefore, only for what is called line-of-sight transmissions; you cannot (except under freak conditions) pick up a television station from much farther away than you could see it in perfectly clear air. This is why television transmitters, and the microwave relays now used to carry hundreds of simultaneous telephone circuits across the country, are all sited on towers or mountains to obtain maximum range.

Clarke's essay was published in the January 1962 issue of HORIZON. American Heritage has begun to digitize the issues of his extraordinary magazine.
Clarke's essay was published in the January 1962 issue of HORIZON. American Heritage Publishing has begun to digitize the issues of his extraordinary magazine.

Satellites allow the communications engineer to place his equipment, in effect, on the top of a tower hundreds or even thousands of miles high. A single satellite-borne transmitter could broadcast to almost half the Earth, instead of to an area fifty miles in radius; three of them, spaced equally round the equator, could provide any type of communication service between any two points on the globe. This is something that has never before been possible, and it is going to happen within the next few years, for every major firm in the electronics business is now preparing to get into orbit. This is the great Gold Rush of the 1960's, for on the ultrashort radio—and even light—waves which the satellites can flash around the world there is room for millions of television and billions of telephone channels.

 

What effect will the new types of communications services, and the vastly increased numbers of existing ones, have upon our society and our culture? Before we attempt to answer that, it is worth remembering that it is never possible to foresee the full impact of a major invention, or even of a minor one. Look, for example, at the effect of the humble typewriter, which liberated one half of the human race from centuries of subservience. We males have conveniently forgotten just how few were the occupations—and fewer still the respectable ones—open to women a lifetime ago. Mr. Remington changed all that, and the revolution he wrought was trifling compared with that produced by Henry Ford a little later with the Model T.

Communications satellites will abolish a vast amount of the traveling and commuting that now seems an unavoidable part of our lives.

Yet communication affects us even more vitally and directly than transportation. A man can live a full and rich life without ever stirring from one spot, so long as he has sufficient channels of information. It is only our age that has made a fetish of rushing around the world; if I remember correctly, it was Aldous Huxley who remarked that speed is the only new vice invented by modern man. Communications satellites, though they may themselves be moving at fifteen thousand miles an hour, may have a remarkably stabilizing influence on the human race. They will abolish a vast amount of the traveling and even of the day-to-day commuting that now seems an unavoidable part of our lives.

For communications satellites will enable us, in effect, to move almost instantaneously to any part of the world. A few figures should be enough to demonstrate this point.

The oceans have always been a major barrier to communications. It required a gigantic effort of technology to provide a telephone cable between Europe and America, carrying only thirty-six voice circuits at a cost of more than a million dollars each. Later cables can carry about a hundred circuits, but there is not much room for further improvement—and it would take ten cables, costing perhaps a quarter of a billion dollars, to provide a single television circuit.

Today, we can build a satellite that could provide a thousand voice channels or a single television circuit across the Atlantic.

Yet a fairly modest satellite, which we can build today, could provide a thousand voice channels across the Atlantic, or alternatively a single television circuit. Looking only a decade or two into the future, one can foresee the time when a network of advanced satellites will bring all points on the Earth into close contact so far as telephony is concerned. It will be as quick and easy to call Australia from Greenland, or South America from China, as it is now to put through a local call. Indeed, by the end of this century all terrestrial calls may be local calls and may be billed at a flat standard rate.

How much traveling would really have to do if you had in your home a few simple information-handling machines and wide-screen, full-color television through which you could be in face-to-face contact with anyone on Earth?

This may have as great an effect on business and social life as the invention of the telephone itself. Just how great that was, we of today have forgotten; perhaps we can remind ourselves by imagining that the telephone was suddenly abolished and we had to conduct all business face to face or else by correspondence carried by stagecoach and sailing ship. To our grandchildren we will still seem in that primitive level of development, and our present patterns of daily commuting a fantastic nightmare. For ask yourself how much traveling you would really have to do if you had an office in your own home equipped with a few simple information-handling machines and wide-screen, full-color television through which you could be in face-to-face contact with anyone on Earth. A good nine tenths of the traveling that now takes place could be avoided with better communications.

Eventually, letters should never take more than a few minutes to be delivered to any point on the Earth, and correspondence will be sent by direct person-to-person facsimile circuits.

There can be no doubt that satellites will have an especially great effect on the transmission of written and printed information. One idea that has been discussed at some length is the Orbital Post Office, which may make most air mail obsolete in a decade or so. A single satellite, using modern facsimile equipment, could easily handle the whole of today's transatlantic correspondence. Eventually, letters should never take more than a few minutes to be delivered to any point on the Earth, and one can even visualize the time when all correspondence is sent by direct person-to-person facsimile circuits. When that time comes, the post office will cease to handle letters, except where the originals are required, and will concern itself only with parcels.

Half a century from now, newspapers as we know them may not exist, except as trains of electronic impulses. 

Another development that will have the most far-reaching consequences is the Orbital Newspaper; this is inevitable once the idea gets around that what most people need is information, not wood pulp. Half a century from now, newspapers as we know them may not exist, except as trains of electronic impulses. When you wish to read the New York Times, you will dial the appropriate number on your channel selector, just as today you call a party on the telephone. The front page would then appear on your high-definition screen, at least as sharp and clear as on a microfilm reader; it would remain there until you pressed a button, when it would be replaced by page two, and so on.

Of course, the entire format would be completely rede-signed for the new medium; perhaps there would be separate channels for editorials, book reviews, business, news, classified advertising, etc. If you needed a permanent record (and just how often do you save your daily paper?), that could easily be arranged by an attachment like a Polaroid camera or one of the high-speed copying devices now found in all modern offices.

Not only the local paper but all the papers of all countries could be viewed in this way, merely by dialing the right number—and back issues, too, since this would require nothing more than appropriate extra coding.

One can envisage a Central Library, or Memory Bank, which would be a permanent part of the world communications network.

This leads us directly into the enormous and exciting field of information storage and retrieval, which is one of the basic problems of our culture. It is now possible to store any written material or any illustration in electronic form—as, for example, is done every day on video tape. One can thus envisage a Central Library, or Memory Bank, which would be a permanent part of the world communications network. Readers and scholars could call for any document, from the Declaration of Independence to the current best seller, and see it flashed on their screens.

The Electronic Library is bound to come, its development being forced by the rising flood of printed matter. Recently, a storage device was announced that could contain everything ever written or printed on stone, paper, or papyrus during the last ten thousand years inside a six-foot cube. The problem of encoding and indexing all the world's literature in electronic form so that any part of it can be retrieved and played back is a staggering one, but it has to be solved before our libraries collapse under the weight of their books. And when it is solved, any man on Earth who knows how to dial the right numbers will have immediate access to all printed knowledge, flashed from Central Memory Bank up to the nearest satellite and down again to be displayed on the screen of his receiver. If he wishes, he will be able to store it in his own electronic library for easy reference, as we now record music or conversation on tape—although the recording medium will certainly be much more compact and convenient.

The most glamourous possibility opened up by communications satellites is the one which I originally stressed in 1945—global radio and television. This will be something quite new in the world, and we have no precedents to guide us. For the first time one nation will be able to speak directly to the people of another, and to project images into their homes—with or without the co-operation of the other government concerned. Today's short-wave sound broadcasts are only poor and feeble things compared to those which the clear, interference-free reception from satellites will make possible.

The most glamourous possibility opened up by communications satellites is the one which I originally stressed in 1945—global radio and television.

I sometimes wonder if the enormous efforts that most large nations now expend on short-wave broadcasting are worth it, in view of the poor quality of reception. But this will change when the direct and far more efficient line-of-sight services from satellites become available; a Londoner, for example, will be able to tune into NBC or CBS or Radio Moscow as easily and clearly as to the BBC. The engineers and scientists now struggling to establish reliable satellite circuits with the aid of antennas the size of football fields will tell you that this is still years in the future, and they may be right. Nevertheless, most of us will see the day when every home will be fitted with radio and TV equipment that can tune directly to transmitters orbiting thousands of miles above the Earth, and the last barriers to free communications will be down.

Those who are already glutted with entertainment and information from their local stations may be less than enthusiastic about this. However, they are a tiny minority of the human race. Most of the world does not even have radio, still less television. I would suggest, therefore, that though the first use of satellites will be to provide increased facilities between already highly developed countries, their greatest political and cultural influence will be upon backward and even preliterate peoples.

For in the 1970's we will be able to put megawatt transmitters into orbit and will also have reliable battery-powered television receivers that can be mass-produced at a cost which even small African or Asian villages can afford.

Quite apart from its direct visual impact, the effect of TV will be incomparably greater than that of radio because it is so much less dependent upon language. Men can enjoy pictures even when they cannot understand the words that go with them. Moreover, the pictures may encourage them to understand those words. If it is used properly, global television could be the greatest force yet discovered for breaking down the linguistic barriers that prevent communication between men.

Nobody knows how many languages there are in the world; estimates run to as high as six thousand. But a mere seven are spoken by half the human race, and it is interesting to list the percentages. First by a substantial margin comes Mandarin, the language of 15 per cent of mankind. Then comes English, ro per cent. After that there is a large gap, and grouped together round the 5 per cent level we find in this order: Hindustani, Spanish, Russian, German, and Japanese. But these are mother tongues, and far more people understand English than normally speak it. On the basis of world comprehension, English undoubtedly leads all other languages.

Few subjects touch upon national pride and prejudices as much as does language, yet everyone recognizes the immense value and importance of a tongue which all educated men can understand. I think that, within a lifetime, communications satellites may give us just that. Unless some synthetic language comes to the fore—which seems improbable—the choice appears to be between Mandarin, English, and, for obvious reasons, Russian—even though it is only fifth on the list and understood by less than 5 per cent of mankind. Perhaps it will be a photo finish, and our grandchildren will be bi- or trilingual. I will venture no predictions, but I would stress again that it is impossible to underestimate the importance of communications satellites in this particular domain.

Just imagine what Dr. Goebbels could have done with a chain of global TV stations.

Television satellites will also present us, and that, soon, with acute problems in international relations. Suppose country A starts transmitting what the government of country B considers to be subversive propaganda. This is happening all the time, of course, but no one complains too bitterly today because the process is relatively ineffective and is confined to radio. Just imagine, however, what Dr. Goebbels could have done with a chain of global TV stations, perhaps capable of putting down stronger signals in many countries than could be produced by the local transmitters—if any.

There would be only two ways of countering such un-wanted propaganda. An aggrieved government might try to prevent the sale of receivers that could tune to the offending frequencies, or it might try jamming. Neither policy would be very effective, and jamming could only be carried out from another satellite—which would probably cause protests from the rest of the world, owing to the interference with legitimate transmissions elsewhere.

Though there are obvious dangers and possibilities of friction, on the whole I am very optimistic about this breaking down of national communications barriers, holding to the old-fashioned belief that in the long run right will prevail. I also look forward, with more than a little interest, to the impact of non-commercial television upon audiences which so far have not had much choice in the matter. Millions of Americans have never known the joys of sponsorless radio or television; they are like readers who know only books full of advertisements which they are not allowed to skip. How would reading have fared, in these circumstances? And how will Madison Avenue fare, when it no longer controls the video channels? Perhaps the apocalypse of the agencies has already been described in Revelation, chapter 18: ". . . And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn . . . for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones . . . and ointments . . . and wine, and oil . . . and chariots . . . and souls of men." This last commodity, I believe, is one expended in massive quantities by commercial television.

I am very optimistic about this breaking down of national communications barriers, believing that in the long run right will prevail.

The old problem of censorship, over which the law and literature have so often come to grips in dubious battle, will certainly be aggravated when all forms of censorship become impossible. The Postmaster General, that traditional guardian of morals, will have no effective control over the ether—nor will anyone else. The possibilities of really uninhibited telecasting from space, if any country was unscrupulous enough to defy normal conventions for the sake of attracting viewers to its channels, are somewhat hair-raising. The crime, bloodshed, and violence for which TV has been so heavily criticized, and the unspeakable "horror comics" that have flooded the Western world in so many millions since the war, show what can happen even in societies that consider themselves enlightened. There will always be people who, to sell their wares or their policies, are willing to appeal to the lowest instincts. They may one day be able to do this across all borders, without hindrance.

But the ether is morally as neutral as the printed page, and on the whole, censorship does more harm than good.

 

Communications satellites can bring to every home on Earth sadism and pornography, vapid parlor games or inflated egos, all-in wrestling or tub-thumping revivalism. Yet they can also expose lies and spread the truth; no dictatorship can build a wall high enough to stop its citizens' listening to the voices from the stars.

These are some of the obvious and predictable effects of communications satellites, but there will be others much more subtle that will have even more profound effects upon the structure of our society. Consider the automobile once again; when it was invented, the assertion was made that it would be useful only in cities—because here alone were there roads on which it could operate. Well, in our efforts to free the automobile from an urban existence, we changed the face of the world and abolished immemorial ways of life. With that analogy in mind, I would like to suggest that the communications satellite may have as great an effect upon time as the automobile has had upon space.

The communications revolution can bring to every home on Earth sadism and pornography, vapid parlor games or inflated egos, all in wrestling or tub-thumping revivalism. Yet they can also expose lies and spread the truth.

The fact that the world is round and it is thus noon in Washington when it is midnight in Mandalay inconvenienced nobody in the leisurely days before the airplane and the radio. It is different now: most of us have had to take overseas phone calls in the middle of the night or have had our eating and sleeping schedules disrupted by jet transport from one time zone to another. What is inconvenient today will be quite intolerable in ten or twenty years as our communications networks extend to cover the globe. Can you imagine the situation if in your own town a third of your friends and acquaintances were asleep whenever you wanted to contact them? Yet this is a close parallel to what will happen in a world of cheap and instantaneous communications—unless we change the patterns of our lives.

We cannot abolish time zones, unless we beat the Earth into a flat disc like an LP record. But I suggest, in all seriousness, that the advent of global telephony and television will lead to a major attack on the problem of sleep. It has been obvious for a long time that we can't afford to spend twenty years of our lives in unconsciousness, and many people have already stopped doing so. You can now buy in the USSR a little five-pound box that keeps you in such deep slumber, through electronic pulses applied to the temples, that you require only one or two hours of sleep per day.

This suggestion may seem to be fantasy; I believe it barely hints at some of the changes that communications satellites will bring about. What we are building now is the nervous system of mankind, which will link together the whole human race, for better or worse, in a unity which no earlier age could have imagined. The communications network, of which the satellites will be nodal points, will enable the consciousness of our grandchildren to flicker like lightning back and forth across the face of this planet. They will be able to go anywhere and meet anyone, at any time, without stirring from their homes. All knowledge will be open to them, all the museums and libraries of the world will be extensions of their living rooms. Marvelous machines, with unlimited information-handling capacity, will be able to speak directly into their minds.

The communications network will enable the consciousness of our grandchildren to flicker like lightning back and forth across the face of this planet. All knowledge will be open to them, all the museums and libraries of the world will be extensions of their living rooms.

And there's the rub, for the machines can far outpace the capacities of their builders. Already, we are punch-drunk with the news, information, and entertainment that bom¬bard us from a thousand sources. How can we possibly cope with the far greater flood to come, when the whole world —soon, indeed, the whole solar system—will be clamoring for our attention?

There is a Persian legend that warns us of what may come from our efforts to devise a communications system linking all mankind. The story tells of a prince who lost his dearly loved queen and devoted the rest of his life to building a monument that would be worthy of her. He hired the finest craftsmen to raise a palace of marble and alabaster around the sarcophagus; year by year it grew until its towers and minarets became the wonder of the world. Decade after decade he labored, but still perfection eluded him; there was some fundamental flaw in the design.

And then one day, as the prince stood on the gallery above the central aisle of the great mausoleum, he realized what it was that spoiled the perfect harmony. He called the architect and pointed to the now dwarfed sarcophagus that held the queen he had lost so long ago.

"Take that thing away," he said.

So it may be with us. The communications network we are building may be such a technological masterpiece, such a miracle of power and speed and complexity, that it will have no place for man's slow and limited brain. In the end there will be a time when only machines can talk to machines, and we must tiptoe away and leave them to it.

This is an adaptation of a lecture given by Mr. Clarke, the noted British science writer, space student, and novelist, before the XIIth International Astronautical Congress.