Colombo, Sri Lanka: 16 December 2010

Dear Sir Arthur,

I write this on your 93rd birth anniversary. Just over a thousand days have passed since you departed.

Like all true rationalists, you didn’t believe in any afterlife. So I don’t expect you to be somewhere there, ‘keeping an eye on us’. You did enough of that during your 90 years on this planet! But as the first decade of the Twenty First Century draws to a close, I find it helpful to address this to you, and to reflect on some of your timeless ideas.

You not only had remarkable powers of prescience and imagination, but also remained upbeat that humanity will survive its turbulent adolescence. As you were fond of saying, you had great faith optimism as a guiding principle, “if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Three years ago this month, I worked with you in drafting and filming your 90th birthday reflections on YouTube. In just nine minutes, you outlined your vision and aspirations for the key areas of your prolific life: space travel, communication technologies and writing. We had no idea at the time that you had only 100 days left, or that this short video would soon become your public farewell…

Every one of those 900 words is worth another careful read, but I find these to be particularly timely: “Communication technologies are necessary, but not sufficient, for us humans to get along with each other. This is why we still have many disputes and conflicts in the world. Technology tools help us to gather and disseminate information, but we also need qualities like tolerance and compassion to achieve greater understanding between peoples and nations.” (Emphasis mine.)

Easier said than done! Of course, you’d been saying this for several decades about information and communications technologies (ICTs). Few individuals have played a greater role than you in shaping today’s information society. Part of it involved proposing the geosynchronous communications satellite (comsat) and inspiring the world wide web. You also helped build that information society by mentoring technical professionals, advising the United Nations agencies, and gradually preparing humanity to live in an always-connected, transparent world.

For all these reasons, techies worldwide idolised you: some of the planet’s best known geeks were your ardent fans. Among the numerous tributes that poured out after your departure, I found one especially poignant. It was a Joy of Tech cartoon, showing the sentient computer HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) shedding a single tear in your memory…

In fact, researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) are still trying to create a real-life HAL, which remains the ‘Holy Grail’ in their line of work.

Technology, not politics

Meanwhile, the rest of us are happy (most of the time) with our everyday ICTs. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which keeps track of such matters, says the total number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide will exceed 5 billion by end 2010. There now are 2 billion Internet users in the world, more than half of them in the developing world. Several countries, including Estonia, Finland and Spain, have already declared Internet access as a legal right for all citizens.

For sure, we still have disparities among the connected: for example, between narrowband and broadband, or between 2G and 3G. With so many people getting connected to global telecom networks during the past decade, we are only just beginning to tackle the many legal, social and cultural implications. In finding our way forward in this always-on, multi-channel world, we can do no better than to look up your substantial writing on the subject.

One such profound idea, which many people have been citing in recent weeks, reads: “In the struggle for freedom of information, technology, not politics will be the ultimate decider.”

Wow! In 15 words, you summed up a whole debate that has been raging on for centuries. I recall how you were amused to hear that Rupert Murdoch was fond of quoting these words as he consolidated his ‘Empire of Eyeballs’. You might be intrigued to know that right now, your words are being cited in relation to another Australian: Julian Assange.

The co-founder and editor in chief of WikiLeaks has suddenly become one of the planet’s top newsmakers. He is the public face of this entirely web-based, volunteer driven effort to end secrecy in governments and corporations. Whistle-blowing is as old as the media; what WikiLeaks has done is to provide a digital platform where public-spirited individuals can ‘leak’ secrets safely and anonymously.

We might argue about their modus operandi, but WikiLeaks must be doing a few things right to have rattled many centres of power around the world! The more he is demonised as a criminal or terrorist, the more Assange is attracting the sympathy of millions of ordinary people (not to mention some intellectual and legal heavyweights).

I wonder how you might have reacted to this whole WikiLeaks issue. You cheered every time ICTs enabled the free flow of information and empowered defenders of human rights and democracy, for example, when the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Berlin Wall fell, or when mobile phones rallied around millions of Filipinos for ‘people power’. You were openly gleeful when government censors were undermined first by the comsats and then by the web. (They have since struck back, albeit clumsily.)

Well, you did warn the world’s governments about the coming Age of Transparency. Speaking at the UN headquarters during the World Telecommunications Year 1983, you quoted an unnamed statesman as saying “A free press can give you hell, but it can save your skin”. Our usually reliable friend Google can’t help me on this, but I vaguely remember you saying that it was uttered by Charles De Gaulle.

Your advice at the UN also contained these words: “Exposures of political scandals or political abuses…can be painful but also very valuable. Many a ruler might still be in power today, or even alive, had he known what was really happening in his own country…”

So is Julian Assange simply continuing, in his own style, what people like Sir Tim-Berners Lee (who invented the World Wide Web) and you set in motion in the last century? And isn’t it highly ironic that this latest info-tsunami hits the US government under the watch of a President who himself rode the new media wave to the White House just two years ago?

President Obama must wonder whether the marvels of social media tools are better suited for campaigning than for actual governing. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, hasn’t shown much understanding of the new media realities when reacting to WikiLeaks’ dumping thousands of classified diplomatic cables. She apparently doesn’t mean to practise the principles of internet freedom so loftily preached to foreign countries and governments.

Cablegate is only the latest reminder that we are living in a world where few, if any, secrets can be guarded. Governments have long argued they had a right to track and probe the private lives of us citizens, apparently for our own good. Now, a few geeks have turned the tables…

Welcome to the Global Glasshouse!

Surely, there must be at least a few Digital Natives at the State Department to advise their bosses that the Age of Transparency is now unstoppable? And was there no Arthur Clarke fan to remind the mandarins of diplomacy of your time-honoured advice when confronted with new ICTs: ‘Exploit the inevitable’?

Shooting the messenger never worked in the world of old media (even though exposed parties in our part of world keep trying!). With the new media, such action is worse than ineffective — in the WikiLeaks case, it has turned the former computer hacker into an overnight global hero.

These are the times, Sir Arthur, when we want to repeat your celebrated question (asked in relation to the US space program): Is there intelligent life in Washington?

Surviving info deluge

There are many other lessons we can learn from WikiLeaks. For instance: just how can anyone cope with so many secrets disclosed at once?

WikiLeaks is not a bunch of geeks going it alone. Its strength is in working with some reputed media outlets to make sense of the flood of secretive information. Journalists are trained to ‘connect the dots’, and fast. But can anyone process so much new information unleashed by WikiLeaks?

Again, we find you’ve anticipated this many years ago. A thoughtful essay you wrote for Index on Censorship in November 1993 ended with these words:  “The real challenge now facing us through the Internet and World Wide Web is not quality but sheer quantity. How will we find anything — and not merely our favourite porn — in the overwhelming cyber-babble of billions of humans and trillions of computers, all chattering simultaneously? I don’t know the answer: and I have a horrible feeling that there may not be one.”

Your caution was made when less than 20 million people worldwide had Internet connectivity. A decade later, on the eve of the first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003, you told me in an interview that ‘humanity will survive the information deluge’. By that time, the world’s online population had grown to 700 million.

You were not only being characteristically optimistic, but reminded us that we’d been at such crossroads before: “There are many who are genuinely alarmed by the immense amount of information available to us through the Internet, television and other media. To them, I can offer little consolation other than to suggest that they put themselves in the place of their ancestors at the time the printing press was invented. ‘My God,’ they cried, ‘now there could be as many as a thousand books. How will we ever read them all?’”

In that interview, you cited discernment as an essential survival skill in the Information Society. Well, the knee-jerk reaction to WikiLeaks has once again shown how that is still in short supply…

Tomorrow’s News?

So if Murdoch was yesterday’s news and Assange is today’s, who might be creating tomorrow’s news — and indeed, shaping tomorrow’s world? This is where we most miss your informed and pragmatic guidance. You used to be our reliable and amiable tour guide to the future.

We can, of course, continue to explore your literary and scientific output in search of possible answers. Two concepts that always interested you were the Global Brain and Global Family.

In your later years, you were intrigued by the phenomenal rise of search engines. As you wrote in 2005: “If comsats are an integral part of the nervous system of humankind, Google must provide part of its brain. Of course, it’s still in early stages of evolution under the watchful eye of its founders. But the future can hold any number of different scenarios.”

Since then, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have continued their quest for online domination. Occasionally, they face spirited challenges from other geeks, notably Apple’s Steve Jobs. You would have applauded Google’s belated decision earlier this year not to put up with mainland China’s internet censorship laws and regulations.

I’m not so sure what you might have made of this thing called Facebook. With more than 500 million active members, the social networking website is the largest of its kind (well ahead of its nearest rival Myspace, owned by your friend Rupert).

Going by the sheer numbers, Facebook is behind only China and India in population terms. But those who compare it to a major league country don’t imagine far enough — it’s really becoming another planet…

While Facebook’s high numbers are impressive, not everyone is convinced of its usefulness and good intentions. Can we trust so much power in the hands of a few very bright (and by now, very rich) twentysomethings? How exactly is Facebook going to safeguard our privacy when we (wittingly or unwittingly) reveal so much of our lives in there?

I raise these concerns not only as a long-time ICT-watcher, but also as the father of a teenager who is an avid Facebooker. I once called Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg a ‘Digital Pied Piper’: might we someday see Hamelin the sequel? (Stop Press: As I was finishing this letter came the news that he is TIME’s Person of the Year 2010.)

But what’s the alternative? Those of us old enough to remember another way of communicating might romanticise about that time past. But do I really want to go back snailmail or fax? Thanks, but no thanks.

It’s not the smart machines and networks we have built, but our intentions and actions that determine what happens next. Again, Sir Arthur, you foresaw us reaching this point and pausing to weigh our options.

You wrote in 1999: “Virtually everything we wish to do in the field of communications is now technologically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal or political. In time, I am sure, most of these will also disappear — leaving us with only limitations imposed by our own morality.”

We need not fear Julian Assange, Mark Zuckerberg or the Google duo — they are merely the ‘midwives’ of the Information Society whose birth cries are now receding into the past. As we discover the enormous powers we have bestowed upon ourselves through ICTs, there is somebody else we need to come to terms with.

It’s the man or woman in the mirror.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur Clarke as a research assistant, and in later years as co-author and media coordinator. He blogs on media, society and development issues at http://movingimages.wordpress.com

  • //exactly is Facebook going to safeguard our privacy when we (wittingly or unwittingly) reveal so much of our lives in there?//

    As the name states ‘Facebook’ can’t safeguard our privacy. Thanks for your article and views.

  • JonfromAustralia

    Nalaka…this is beautifully written and I wish that it would get more of a global audience.

    I particularly like the ‘we need not fear’ quote. Greater transparency will challenge us all and that is a certainty.

    Last year I didn’t know who Zuckerberg was. The year before that I didn’t know who Assange was.
    And goodness knows who will be in the news next year. With the rapid progression of technology comes the rapid changing of heralds. It is the technology itself that drives this. Something is invented and something new and different can be done with it and it could very well be anybody that takes the idea and runs with it. But to be ahead of the curve and to be a front runner of technogical useage is morally challenging…aka the Google maps scouting vehicles and facebook data collection controversies.

    So I am looking forward to another year, other innovations, other controversies and all the technical advances that will go with that bell curve. And they are going to be controversial because they often challenge our financial, legal,social and political systems to build new ways of utilising this technology without limiting technical advancement. Sometimes this is hard to get right. Sometimes it is a coinflip over changing the above systems or imposing limits on technical progress. And our technical future and its possibilities are thus changed immeasurably.

  • eureka

    …..
    “In the struggle for freedom of information, technology, not politics will be the ultimate decider.”
    (Stop)
    [NOT in some places around the world, eg Northeast Sri Lanka.]
    (Start)
    ……..
    ”The only limitations are financial, legal or political. In time, I am sure, most of these will also disappear — leaving us with only limitations imposed by our own morality.”
    (Stop)
    [That’s better]
    (Start)
    …..

  • David damario

    I think Nalaka is a lot like Julian Assange. He is a brave journalist that has exposed things most leave in the shadows. Nalaka and Julian force a transparent world….and the establishment doe not appreciate this. Both are amazing individauls that can and will change this world forever.
    Don’t stop for anything.

    • @David Damario,

      Many thanks for your kind remarks, but I have no illusions about who I am and what I do. Years ago, I adapted this line to describe my work: “Those who can, do; those who cannot, write!”. All I do is to sit back and watch the creative and courageous men and women do good things and then write about them. I hope my writing encourages them and occasionally helps them sharpen focus. But I’m just a critical cheer-leader to cyber activists, environmentalists, scientists and others whose work I watch and comment on. I’m just a thoughtful mirror which will be lost in the darkness if there was no ‘light’ coming from the people I write about.

  • The Mervyn Silva

    The Nalaka,

    I am aso thinking you are very brave man, not for what you are writing but to who you are writing. The Clark as you are knowing very well, is dead, fully and completely. Very few people having the courage to be writing to dead people these days. Very few people in fact, having the courage to be writing to even live people who are likely to be dead soon.

    However, if you are having problem with technology, I am telling you very seriously, please be writing to the government rather than the Clark. Government is always there to be helping, His Majesty is always doing that, helping himself first, then his family and then other peoples families. If His Majesty is knowing how much you are worrying about technology I am sure he is appointing peoples to look after that side also. Maybe a ministry even. Maybe several minisries, one for the gooogle, one for the facial book and one for the twitter also.

    By the wayside, I am reading what you are sayng about coming to terms with the man or woman in the mirror and saying it to His Majesty. He is running to his mirror, looking inside, probably thinking some diaspora Tamil getting inside trying to make film for channel 4 and then coming back happily and saying, Mervyn I am looking very carefully in the mirror but I am not seeing no man or woman but only myself. I am bowing until my head is hitting the ground with big thud and saying Your Majesty, the Conueror of all the Tamils except those who are in the Oxfordside, is there any wonder that you are well and truly the wonder of the Asian side?

  • longus

    The Mervyn Silva

    I like to be reading your comment and thank you, Sir for the un-countable laughters you bring to my mouth. The Clarke is a Sir too, as he was nighted by the Queen and she too hesitated and hesitated to give that night to him, but finally she nighted with him! It’s a good thing the queen did to honour one of our citizens who was known as the ‘father of the satelite communication’, although he was no father of any children!

    When I first read Clarke’s books as a small boy-I don’t know whether you were small too- I thought that by 2010 we will be smoking and drinking beer on Mars with intelligent aliens (like you) and computers thinking like peoples like Silva and doing good governance, and religions going bankrupt like an old co-operative shop and so on.
    But some of those that the Clarke predicted did not happen and the US is struggling and struggling to go to moon again. That makes hyper-intellectuals to the thinking whether they ever went there! Because at that time too some peoples told that that man Amstrong or any human peoples can never go to moon or any planet because the God will curse them and put them to hell.It is only God who made the planets and peoples are sinners and not allowed to go there!Even Buddhists told me that god Sakra drew the figure of the hair or hare on the moon because in ‘Sasa Jathaka’ the rabbit who was the Bodisathwa offered his flesh to the hungry man who was disgusted, sorry disguised to be by Sakra.

    The Clarke told that the world religions will slowly and slowly and very slowly disappear like Our Majesty’s grey hairs, but that did not happen and more and more people are killing in the name of the religions and converting to their religion thinking that they will be given a good package when the Judgement day is coming and not giving anything to heretics and non-believers but fires of the hell. That’s why Clarke was a rationalist, but as Nalaka say he is also dead now.

    And also the Clarke advised the Sri Lankan King not to change the time advanced by half an hour by the former lady President Chandrika. But Our Majesty didn’t listen to him and went ahead and changed the time. That shows that Our Majesty is in fact more of a visionary than the Clarke. But no recognition from the world. No nights by the Queen or the speeches! What to do?

    And another thing the Clarke said was that he hates cricket and it is a waste of time and during the world cup he did had no programmes to watch on TV and also when the Clarke was small he went to see a cricket match only once at Lords and he fell asleep, and started to reading a novel. That is because it was a boring novel, I think. But Sri Lankan peoples didn’t like the Clarke for that comment because we are patriotic to our cricket and we don’t like anybody scolding our cricket!

    But if you had powers like now, Sir, I know for sure that you would have tied even the Clarke to a mango tree, even if he was the biggest Knight in the world!

  • The Mervyn Silva

    The Longus,

    You were a small boy? I was small boy too! Oh my goodness me! What a small world! I am telling my wife this and she is vey jealous! She was never small boy!

    I am also using to be rationalist. Those days I am putting the two and teh two together and coming up with the four. But now I am not rationalist anymore. I am nationalist. So I am taking the two and the two to His Majesty and the Majesty is telling me what it is and it is not always the same thing. I am coming back home wondering why it is the clark who is getting the night with the queen and not His Majesty when his Majesty is doing so much with just the two and the two.Instead they are not giving him the freedom of the speech in the Oxfordside. Must be because His Majesty is in the Black.

    Thank you for your commentings. I am liking them very much.

  • Unplugged

    Some comments to this essay illustrate what happens when people who have nothing to say get in front of an internet connected computer and decide to unleash their emptiness on everybody else. This is part of the problem of information pollution. Spammers and airheads will suffocate us all.

  • longus

    The Mervin Silva You too to be better to be taking that
    unplugged advice and unplug your computer because you and I will
    have more air in our already empty pint size heads and most of all
    the enraged publis or rather public will be coming after to shut
    down our computers. But I must tell those peoples that my computer
    cannot be shut down so easily! Sometimes I remove the battery, but
    still he refuse to be shutting down! Then I am used to be giving
    him a nice thud to shut him. I think that is because he understand
    the value of my ideas distributing to the world public.But as a
    minister who is waking peoples you don’t have to listen to them and
    shut your computer! Because yours is a service to the country wide
    people. I am happy that even the unplugged guy read the scriptures
    though he don’t like to show it! Otherwise he can well be skipping
    these names like ‘longus’ and ‘Mervyn’, no? No they can’t do
    it!They are scolding to it after reading it, no? This is what the
    Clarke dream when he pioneered the telecommunication age. He wrote
    that famous article to the ‘Wireless World’ in the fifties as it
    came to his head as a fancy idea.When he says that you can station
    three satellites 22,000 miles from the earth and you can connect
    the whole world, the peoples like unplugged thought he is wasting
    the papers of the magazine. The peoples like unplugged would be to
    tell that his head was empty if he was reading that article. Now we
    need more and more clarks to do our works, because in gourmet
    offices the files are building aky high, and we need more and more
    ideas like yours to bring that pile down! I am sure that you can be
    the next clark when you retire servicing the peoples to bring
    prosperity to our motherland!And I know that you will be doing the
    Clark job free of charge too! Long live Sir!

  • The Mervyn Silva

    Ha ha Longus, I am not even reading the unplugged story
    unles you are mentioning it. I am thinking these peoples should be
    doing to us what we are doing to them – ignoring!

  • From some comments posted so far, it looks like WikiLeaks has provided some comic relief to certain readers. There is nothing wrong in that, and in fact, professional cartoonists, comedians and satirists have been doing the same thing since WikiLeaks Cablegate started on November 28.

    One website I found especially funny is The Juice Media, which presents short, punchy ‘news reports’ in rap music! Their Rap News is written and created by Hugo Farrant and Giordano Nanni in a home-studio/suburban backyard in Melbourne, Australia. For links to three of their hilarious spoofs on WikiLeaks, see my blog post at: http://movingimages.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/rap-news-on-wikileaks-the-truth-is-out-there-huh/

  • eureka

    Some people in this world have been progressing by using
    the advancing technology. But the oppressed people in the world
    have been denied the most basic of their needs and have been
    regressing – they are unaware of, or inaccessible to, the advancing
    technology.

  • Little Miss Curious

    “Julian Assange, Mark Zuckerberg or the Google duo — they are merely the ‘midwives’ of the Information Society…”
    How and why is it that all these so-called midwives are MEN? Where are the women who must also have played some part?

  • Davidson

    Dear eureka The oppressors are helped by technology to
    degrade the oppressed more and more easily. That outrages
    me.

  • Little Miss Curious is both perceptive and right: we don’t
    hear/know about women pioneers and innovators in the history of
    computers and telecommunications. That’s partly because there have
    been more men than women in this field where women were not
    encouraged to pursue careers until a generation or two ago. But
    there have been, and continue to be, women pioneers and innovators
    in information technology. Indeed, the world’s first computer
    programmer was a woman: Ada Byron King (Countess of Lovelace, 1815
    – 1852) worked on the early forerunner of today’s computer, and she
    blazed the trail for other women in computing.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace She was followed by
    others such as Edith Clarke, Grace Murray Hopper, Margaret Fox,
    Alice Burks and Joan Margaret Winters. Here are two links were more
    info is available: Women in the world of computing
    http://www.34sp.com/hosting-library/women-in-the-world-of-computing
    Women In Computer History
    http://www.pcbargainhunter.com/articles/women-in-computer-history.html
    Pioneering women in computer science
    http://www.accessmylibrary.com/article-1G1-16350791/pioneering-women-computer-science.html
    An interesting aside: After the United States joined the second
    World War in 1942, there were many women who were employed as
    “computers” themselves. They were put in charge of making
    calculations, solving complex equations, and producing tables which
    played a major role in guiding soldiers during the war. These
    calculations are done using micro-computers today. Read more at:
    http://www.educause.edu/blog/gbayne/HiddenHerstoryTheTopSecretRosi/168089
    Despite all this, the world of computer geeks is predominantly male
    — it’s hard for many people to imagine a female geek, although
    there are some very bright ones. Feminists have been urging the
    industry regulators, equipment manufacturers and education planners
    to address this gender disparity.

  • yichaelle from Canada

    “the overwhelming cyber-babble of billions of humans and trillions of computers, all chattering simultaneously” Amazing article! Sir Arthur C Clarke was a prophet indeed. Thanks so much for this Nalaka.