'Welcome to tomorrow' seems to be ARTHUR C CLARKE's motto in life. He was the first to hit upon the notion of global broadcasting networks using communication satellites (comsats) in geostationary orbits. Clarke, the versatile visionary par excellence, reveals his views on technology and its role in society in this interview with NALAKA GUNAWARDENE
On what he thinks of global broadcasts using geostationary comsats:
I think their use dearly illustrates how difficult it is to predict the nature of technological advancement and how soon new ideas actualise. Back in 1945, my idea of comsats was one of large space stations with permanent servicing crews. But then came the transistor and microelectronics, which brought an end to manned spaceflights.
On what the next 50 years hold for the field of telecommunications:
It would not be wrong if we were to say that we can now do anything we desire in the field of communications. Any restriction on further developments shall be entirely due to financial, legal or political considerations and not engineering or technological ones.
On whether today's satellite television networks serve the purpose of disseminating education and information:
TV today is much more powerful than the print media. Therefore, responsibility should always be the bottomline. Although I am opposed to any form of censorship, my stomach often turns with the hideous violence shown on so many TV programmes. That Hollywood is a worse offender is no excuse to hide behind. I think that the visual media must share the blame for such obscenities as the Oklahoma bombing. Showing violence as a way of life only panders to the fantasies of feeble-minded, gun-wielding perverts.
On the domination of western programmes and channels in many developing countries:
What has aptly been called 'electronic imperialism', has the potential to not only sweep away that which is good but even the bad. Whichever be the case, it will only accelerate changes which in any case are inevitable.
On whether he would advocate strict regulation or even a ban on satellite television:
I think it is technologically impossible for any government to control transmission, let alone ban it. We might suffer from information pollution but information starvation would be a deadlier scourge. I get very annoyed with arguments from certain quarters which advocate the virtues of keeping backward people in ignorance. Such an attitude can be compared with that of a fit man preaching the benefits of fasting to a starving beggar! So, I have reached the conclusion that bad TV is better than no TV. But, we need to work hard to improve the content of TV programmes.
Let me quote a particular instance that brought out the potency of the medium most effectively. During the late '50s, South Africa was the Only wealthy country in the world without a Tv service. The broadcasting minister adamantly refused to permit one. He justified it by proclaiming that "Television will mean the end of the white man in Africa". I think it was an extremely perceptive remark. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the camera can be mightier than both.
On the difficulty in determining the good or bad nature of information or entertainment and on the fact that it hinges on the specific person taking the decision:
Yes, there are many issues which may invite fundamental disagreements as to whether or not they should be presented to the public. For instance, exposures of scandals by television teams who make rude documentaries could be valuable, even though they may be painful. A wise statesperson once said, "A free press can give you hell, but it can save your skin". In fact, some of the latest tools of communication will soon render censorship virtually impossible.
On his own prediction that issues regarding the free flow of information will hereafter be settled by engineers and not politicians:
In the coming years, more and more people like business executives and travellers will be carrying attach-case-sized units that would make possible direct two-way communication with their homes or offices, via satellite. These units will also provide voice, telex and video facilities.
On the prospect of wiring up a global village in cyberspace and on how humankind will cope with such an information explosion:
Information technologies like the Internet and interactive compact disk read-only memory (CD-ROM), in particular, will prob4bly erase the distinction between leisure and work time. The real challenge facing us is not the quality but the quantity of information. How can we locate anything in the cyberbabble of billions of humans and trillions of computers? I have the horrible feeling that there may not be an answer to that question.
On whether there exists a conflict between his devotion to the promotion of science and technology and his commitment to the betterment of the environment:
No, there need not be, any conflict between technology and environment. I have been a Me noire of the coral miners in Sri Lanka for decades, fighting for the preservation of the coral reefs.
On the likelihood of present-day environmental problems stimulating technological Innovation:
I do think that technology can come to our rescue and offer us the -means to rationally manage our environment. Largescale environmental changes took place a billion years ago. But unlike the earlier era of environmental transformation, technology now gives us an upper hand by giving us the option of controlling and producing the desired effects.
On the fear of technology controlling civilisation, a case of the tail wagging the dog:
There could arise a situation when technology may stretch beyond control. But how do we decide the limit? Like much else in life, it is only one's philosophy, particularly one's faith in human nature, goodwill and intelligence that can avert the condition. What is out of bound is not technology but human greed. And in principle at least, it can be rectified through education. I am optimistic, but I keep reminding myself of H G Wells' famous words: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."