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Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It (openculture.com)
152 points by ColinWright on Sept 2, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

I really wish there was more information available on the meeting that Arthur C. Clarke, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and some rocket boffin had in an Oxford pub to discuss the morality of interplanetary colonization - Lewis and Tolkien opposing, Clarke and Val Cleaver in favour.

Clarke wrote of the meeting:

Needless to say, neither side converted the other, and we refused to abandon our diabolical schemes of interplanetary conquest. But a fine time was had by all, and when, some hours later, we emerged a little unsteadily from the Eastgate, Dr. Lewis’s parting words were "I’m sure you are very wicked people but how dull it would be if everyone was good."


[Edit: Link to some details on Val Cleaver: http://www.bis-space.com/what-we-do/the-british-interplaneta...]

This is not entirely related, but Lewis and Tolkien belonged to an interesting group of authors who often held discussions at pubs near Oxford.


And, completely unrelated, having studied in Oxford for 4 years, and having been in that (and many other) pub in Oxford, I can categorically state that discussions of themse varying from the philosophical and scientific to the mundane are regularly held throughout all the pubs of Oxford.

Shame Heinlein didn't tag along.

One of the things Clarke got wrong was his contention, expressed in at least a few of his books, that instant global telecommunications would eliminate the need for people to live in close proximity in cities. Despite the proliferation of low-density sprawl around many North American (and some European) cities, density is still a principal driver of innovation and big cities are, if anything, even bigger and denser than they were when Clarke made this prediction.

Edit to add - One more thing: in case anyone here doesn't already know, Clarke invented the concept of geostationary communications satellites in a 1945 article he wrote for Wireless World. http://lakdiva.org/clarke/1945ww/

Wait for robotic cars, and the subsequent explosion of time-shared rent-a-cars (imagine if ZipCars could be really truly computer-scheduled), robotic public transport and mixed transport (freely intermixing various transport types), even cheaper robotic delivery services, and the still-improving telepresence software and cheaper hardware. We're still at the beginning of that moreso than the end. Driving to the city half-an-hour away is annoying when it carves half-an-hour out of your day, but if you just click to order a car, get in and continue doing whatever it is you were doing before, and just arrive half-an-hour later it'll feel much less like it was An Event to go to the city. Or going from the city to something half-an-hour away.

Agreed, and we're also just at the beginning of teleconferencing. Once teleconferencing can approximate more of the nuances of being in a room or building with a group or people (Google Huddle's automatic focusing on the speaker in a group chat is a nice example), it will become increasingly possible to run an organization of remotely connected workers.

Robotic cars will make it even easier to live in cities. Cabs will actually go robotic and be the preferred use of cars because they will actually get much cheaper than owning one.

In fact cabs are already cheaper than owning a car where parking space is very expensive, but robotic cabs will reach a whole new level of cheapness.

Cars and engines are going to get a lot smaller when you don't need to accommodate a driver or the need to speed. Think rickshaw size with a top speed of 35 mph.

Mopeds get 120 mpg. That's like 4 cents a mile. Door to door for a dollar a trip will be a reality and make mass transit AND the traditional automobile industry increasingly irrelevant.

Some interesting points, but I think robotic cars will/would be a bigger enabler for exurbs than for actual city dwelling. Get yourself some acreage at the edge of some teeming metropolis, have 60-90 minutes of uninterrupted time each way in your little cocoon to do as you please, have face time in the office once you get there.

Use the commute time to telecommute and shorten (or extend!) your in-office work day, or spend it pursuing solitary leisure activities and work a normal-length day at the office.

This would be awesome.

All this talk about robotic cars carrying people long distances reminds me of Robert Heinlein's short story "The Roads Must Roll". Huge, underground moving sidewalks running at 100 mph replace highways and railways as the dominant transportation method in the United States.


Interesting, I'd always thought that idea was due to Asimov in The Caves of Steel, but apparently the Heinlein predates the Asimov by 14 years.

Unfortunately, fast-moving underground moving sidewalks sound like an incredible waste of energy.

or tiny gears that only move when vehicles arrive and mesh with the bottom of them, carrying them along.

Would be nice to expend only the energy required to move people and things and anything needed to take care of them (safety systems)

You still have to power the thing. Declining oil production and the limitations of battery power are going to be a severe limiting factor that will influence the way we roll out self-driving automobiles.

Fleets of self-driving vehicles nearly eliminate the problems with battery power; they can easily schedule when they need to return to the station to swap out their battery packs for fresh ones.

I still think technology is winning the resource depletion race, even if we ignore the fact that it's really starting to look like oil production isn't actually near the end of its road yet. And if we don't ignore that, the likelihood that gas (or more broadly "energy") will just be "too expensive" for people to want to jaunt about anytime in the next 20 years seems to be decreasing rather than increasing. A great deal of our current apparent shortages of various things are 100% self-imposed.

Presumably a robot could also connect to overhead or embedded wires, reducing the size of batteries to that needed for areas without that infrastructure.

Buses in SF run totally with overhead wires. You see the drivers having to reconnect to them when they pop out.

It's still half an hour, whether or not you're able to do something else during that period of time. I think the cost of oil and, in time, energy in general will work to increase rather than decrease population density in the long run.

Environmental concerns aside for a moment, a half-hour or more in a self-driving car is actually more productive/convenient than many city-dweller's commutes - most people could essentially begin their workday in the bubble of a car with a 4G connection and VPN.

Can't you have much the same environment today in a commuter train with assigned seats and WiFi, at least in terms of ability to get work done?

Private space is important. So is freedom from interruption. And of course, the fact that trains don't always run on time, and never go from exactly where you are to exactly where you want to be.

"... big cities are, if anything, even bigger and denser than they were when Clarke made this prediction."

Big cities are definitely bigger and denser, see the BBC special report on urbanisation: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/world/06/urbanisation/...

Cities may have become denser but cities in the developed world became far nicer places now than they were in 1945. Plenty of rich people live in city's not becase they need to but becase they like it there. What changed was not the removal of people from cities but industry from cities. There are plenty of great things about being near other people, and plenty of horrible things about being near industry. Indoor plumbing and the catalitic converters changed what people think of a city's that only contain people from toxic dumps to livable space.

It appears he was wrong about it. If anything, the cities are not just getting bigger and denser, they are starting to "specialize". (Geeks tend to congregate in the SF area, investment bankers in the NY city, ...) Anyhow, he described the rest of the changes brought about by the revolution in telecommunication technology rather well.

Looking back it looks obvious, but I wonder how many people at that time agreed with his vision of the future? That brings the question, how many "Arthur C. Clarke"s lives today that we are dismissing as lunatics?

He certainly got that wrong, at least for now.

However there may come a trend to move out of the cities sooner or later. For example even now a lot of people get tired of 'busy city life' and would like to move to the land and have some more space. If you can work remotely, why not.

As a Detroit http://goo.gl/hyOts suburbanite, Clark's prediction certainly seems to be very relevant for me right now.

I live in a relatively sparsely populated area. I often work remotely. When I do go into the office, I'm headed for another suburb. I'm about as removed from urban life as you can get, and still have a major hospital within 5 miles. I've not had to visit downtown Detroit since I worked their 11 years ago.

I much prefer the deer eating our hastas in the garden vs. drive-by shootings in the next neighborhood.

If Clark's prediction isn't true yet, I do see a time when it would be more typical.

Your problem isn't cities; it's Detroit.

Maybe cities are the problem, and Detroit is the solution.

Lots of people happily live in cities that aren't Detroit. Lots of people even prefer to live in cities over suburbs.

Maybe. There are more things in a large city than jobs that can move anywhere. Friends. Potential new friends. Entertainment. Recreation. Concentration of goods and their presumably cheaper prices. Scenery. Yes, all of those things can be had elsewhere, but each individual has his own mix of things for which nothing will do but the specific instance available in a specific location.

Most of the biggest cities have been losing population over the 20th century. The population of Manhattan peaked around 1920, for example, and a lot of other metropolitan inner-cities peaked in population around the 1950s (such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore, etc.) That trend has only started turning around very recently, and only in some places.

There is no need for me to live in a city. I work from home and telecommute. I travel to a city that is 45 minutes away for pleasure. He was 100% on from my perspective.

Yet, you are still an outlier. I also work from home and telecommute, but I enjoy living in a city because of the diversity of choice available for nearly every endeavor, be it schooling, dining, or cultural.

If telecommuting does become the defacto mode of work, I expect people will live in a greater variety of places. For instance, I wouldn't mind living a few years in Europe and Asia.

You don't live in a City because your job requires it. That is what he is saying. You live in a City because you "enjoy living in a city"

But you never know when you're going to be in a city, go to bar, meet someone who says something that gives you an idea that makes you go, "Hey, we should try doing that." And when you do it, suddenly you have an opportunity you wouldn't have had if you lived in a distant exurb.

Cities open more of what Steven Berlin Johnson calls "the adjacent possible" in Where Good Ideas Come From. As I said above, if you're interested in knowledge spillover effects promoted by cities, see Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City.

Shit man, where I'm from I live in a city and travel 45 minutes to get to a different part of the city.

Everybody in this discussion seems to be focusing on the problem of work, but how many of us would want to move out to some remote location even if we could perfectly telecommute?

I know I wouldn't. I'd go crazy being alone all the time, and video chat is a piss-poor substitute for actually being in a room with somebody, whether it's a friend or a colleague. Besides, I like the fact that within 20 minutes' drive of my house there's hundreds of restaurants, hundreds of bars, dozens of theaters, thousands of shops, et cetera.

City's have advantages independent of a location to work. For example, do you know where the individuals with the lowest carbon footprint in the entire USA live?

New York city.

If you're curious about this, see Edward Glaeser's book Triumph of the City. Cities appear to promote knowledge dissemination and overflow better than other forms of living, which is why Manhattan rents have gone from basically reasonable in 1980 to insane today.

Virtual cities are just starting to form. Many other commenters have pointed out working remotely, but it is still in its infancy. Once fully immersive VR gets cheap/effective enough, and it's as common as iPhones, there will be no need whatsoever for people to physically be next to each other.

E. M. Forester (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970) predicted the Internet. Right down to blogs, and the crappy compressed quality of many voice comms and video chat.


s/Forester/Forster/ please.

Regarding ability to predict the future: There is a huge amount of survivor bias involved. Given how many people predicted incorrectly (just look at 1950s Pop Sci covers), somebody was bound to be somewhat correct. We only know his prediction because it came true; how many other predictions of his haven't?

Clarke was an amazing writer, and there is no question he had an eye for possible futures. I wish I could write half as well.

I found interesting that most predictions of the future always focus in the technological high-end.

For the very big majority of people in 1964 the really big change was moving from rural environments to the slums of Mexico City, Kinshasa, Mumbai or other 3rd world big town.

That prediction by clarke means that today million of relatively poor indians work for companies in the U.S. and make better living.

Another terribly interesting sci-fi author was Jules Verne. He made many predictions about the future in several of his works.



There's a fuller version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT_8-pjuctM&feature=relat...

The next prediction gets a bit more far-fetched, by suggesting bio-engineering chimpanzees as some form of slave labour.

In 1964 he predicted the concept of ape slave labor which was the basis of the plot of the novel "La planète des singes" (Planet of the Apes) by Pierre Boulle printed in 1963.

No time to research this myself, but are those dates around the wrong way?

He is a novelist at heart. On the communications, did this sound so far fetched? Long distance phone calling was available at the time.

In truth, I only say "far fetched" in the context of fifty years of hindsight. I don't know what was perceived as relatively far-fetched in 1964.

Clarke was right, about the technology. He was, unfortunately but rather predictably, so very wrong about people's willingness to adopt the technology. Currently, I'm looking to move from one very large city to another, even larger, city and all I want is a job that is willing to let me work remote from my new home. Unfortunately, because the new city is not one of the "blessed" cities where people expect software developers to work, I'm having an extraordinarily difficult time finding a good opportunity.

Even when there is no financial reason, no technological reason, people are still, inherently, unfortunately wary about people working from "just anywhere"...

He just didn't factor in some human tendencies that limit the adoption of the remote work model. To get around those another 50 years could not be enough.

If you're actually interested in what Arthur C. Clarke thought about the future, may i suggest his book "Profiles of The Future", from whence we get Clarke's 3 laws, including the well-worn "any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic."

Not only does it contain lots of predictions like the ones in this video, but also fascinating analysis about the whole future-predicting business, including gems like this:

"Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough."

It's not that hard to make predictions like this and have them be eventually confirmed true. In fact, the weakest predictions often seem the most prescient since they are achieved the farthest into the future.

I'll just go on the record here with flying cars, 300 year lifespans, portable holograms, human-embedded electronics that give superhuman sensory abilities, etc...

The site appears to be down. Here's a slightly more in-depth article from Singularity Hub from this time last year: http://singularityhub.com/2010/09/01/retro-futurism-arthur-c...

It's working here, but in any case, the crux of the article is this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOaZspeSBZU&feature=playe...

In Imperial Earth, Clarke's minisec pretty much describes the ipad.

Was that also the inspiration for the flat screen used to watch the BBC in 2001?

The references to Clarke and Friedman in the same blog post makes me cringe. One is a writer, the other one isn't, by any critical metric.

So what are your predictions for 2050?

1. I'll be dead.

2. Government and corporate surveillance of the individual will be so common place that it will seem weird that people in the past went through most of their lives unobserved.

3. Corruption in American government will be beyond rampant, and no one will even bother to complain about it anymore. It will be almost like Indian society where individuals have to pay bribes for any government contact, except the bribery will still only be available to corporations and individuals rich enough to operate as corporations.

4. Access to health care/health insurance (they amount to the same thing here) will be worse than it is now, and we will still crow that ours is the best healthcare system in the world.

5. The reported unemployment numbers will be at or above 20%.

6. Public schools will have deteriorated so badly that only the poorest of families will educate their kids there. That group will however be more than 50% of kids.

7. The car culture will have disappeared. Most of us will use public transportation, which will cost about what it costs now to operate a car.

8. 2050 will be the Year of the Linux Desktop.

By 2050 we are likely to have achieved at least one of smarter-than-human artificial intelligence or sped up computer uploaded brains. If the resulting superhuman intelligence makes it a priority to make itself even smarter, it's very difficult to predict what will happen since we'd be predicting the actions of the being that's much smarter than we are.


This is kind of like the futurist trump card--if it plays out, it will render predictions in many other fields (geopolitics, demographics, sociology and most kinds of technological advancement) null and void.

The US will have not have 50 states. Some states might secede, some states might split (e.g. Northern and Southern California), or some territories might be granted statehood (so their natural resources and cheap labor can be more readily extracted). Of course, some combination of the above could bring the state count full circle to 50, but I think that's unlikely.

2050 is only 39 years away... as far away as 1972.

While Puerto Rico may become a state (for reasons having nothing to do with "natural resources and cheap labour") I can't see anything else happening.

There's no strong demand for secession or splitting of states, quite apart from the major legal problems with either of those scenarios. And as for external territories Puerto Rico is the only sizeable one left. (What else? Guam?)

I guess it's a good thing he's been wrong about the equalisation of the sexes - both men and women may not commute today.

I don't think he said anything about the equality of the sexes. In the 1960's it was still widely understood to use the term "men" to refer to human beings in general in this kind of context. In 1964 there were certainly many women in the workforce, albeit not in the same kinds of roles men had.

"Man"/"men" is the neuter (unsexed) pronoun for people in English. "He" is neuter for all animate objects (animals and people), and "she" is neuter for inanimate objects.

> "she" is neuter for inanimate objects.

I had never considered that English has genders for objects. Airplanes, ships, and cars can be feminine objects (by convention of calling them "she"), but I can't think of other (common) examples inanimate objects referred to by "she". My telephone is an "it", not a "she". Perhaps "she" only applies to anthropomorphic inanimate objects?

Nope, it works for anything. You don't have to anthropomorphize a boat to call it "she". Countries are also referred to as women in general. But these are all just defaults. You can use masculine pronouns for any object, boat, or country, if you want to emphasize some masculine traits.

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