Do you feel confident about the future? Nope? We understand. Would you like to know what it was like to feel a deep certainty that the decades to come were going to be filled with wonder and fantasy? Well, check out this clip from the BBC Archive YouTube channel of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke predicting the future in 1964.
Although we know him better for having written 2001: A Space Odyssey, television audiences in 1964 would have known him for his futurism and his talent for calmly explaining all the great things to come. At the end of the 1940s, he had already predicted telecommunications satellites. In 1962, he published his collection of essays, Profiles of the futurewhich contains many ideas from this clip.
Here he correctly predicts how easily we can be contacted anywhere in the world we choose, where we can contact our friends “anywhere on earth even if we don’t know their location”. What Clarke isn’t predicting here is how “location” isn’t a thing when we’re on the internet. He imagines people working as well from Tahiti or Bali as from London. Clarke sees this advance as the downfall of the modern city, because we don’t need to travel to the city to work. Now, as so many of us do our work from home post-COVID, we’ve also discovered the dystopia in that fantasy. (It certainly didn’t bring down the cost of rent.)
Then he predicts advances in biotechnology that would allow us, for example, to train monkeys to work as servants and laborers. (Until, he jokes, they form a union and “we’d be back where we started.) Maybe, he says, humans stopped evolving — which comes next. is artificial intelligence (although that phrase has yet to be used) and machine evolution, where we would be honored to be the “stepping stone” to that destiny. know you might think it would be cool to have a monkey butler, but hey, think about ethics, not to mention the cost of bananas.
It’s too easy to show where Clarke is wrong, no one is wrong all the time. However, it’s fascinating that some things that never happened – being able to learn a language overnight or having your memories erased – have managed to resurface over the years in the form of fictional films, like Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. His cryogenic suspension ideas are staples of many hard-hitting sci-fi movies.
And we are still waiting for the “Replicator” machine, which would make exact copies of objects (and thus cause a collapse into “greedy barbarism” because we would want unlimited amounts of everything.) Some commentators call it a precursor to printing in 3D. I would say otherwise, but something really close might be around the corner. Who knows? Clarke himself agrees on all of these guesses – it’s doomed.
“That’s why the future is so endlessly fascinating. Try as we may, we’ll never guess.
Listen to Arthur C. Clarke read 2001: A Space Odyssey: a vintage vinyl recording from 1976
Isaac Asimov predicts the future in The David Letterman Show (1980)
How Previous Decades Predicted the Future: The 21st Century as Imagined in the 1900s, 1950s, 1980s, and Other Eras
Octavia Butler’s four rules for predicting the future
Ted Mills is a freelance arts writer who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmillsand/or watch his films here.