“If by some miracle some prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everyone would laugh him to scorn.”
That was Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction author best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, describing the inherent folly of predicting the future in a 1964 BBC documentary. Of course, he then goes on to do exactly that – with remarkable, unnerving accuracy. Part one of the documentary is above. Part two is below.
The piece opens with a generic narration that describes a diorama of future society at the GM pavilion at the 1964 World Fair. Perhaps because it was a more innocent time or maybe because it was sponsored by an automaker, this vision of the future is touchingly oblivious to anything related to climate change. Machines with laser guns will clear jungles in hours flat and people will live in domed communities on the ice caps. (Ice caps in the future. Hilarious.)
Then the reedy, bespectacled author appears and starts to describe how he thinks the world in fifty years (i.e. 2014) will look. And this is where the movie starts to feel uncanny. He talks about how the advancement of transistors and satellites will radically alter our understanding of physical space.
These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact wherever we may be. Where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, possibly 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.
For the record, I’m writing this post in a coffee shop in Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the massive Open Culture headquarters in Palo Alto, but I could just as easily be writing this on a beach in Sri Lanka or a hotel room in Dubrovnik. Clarke sounds here less like some pie-in-the-sky futurist than an aspirational lifestyle guru like Tim Ferris.
Clarke then describes how medicine might change. “One day, we might have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand.” The long-distance virtual surgery first was pioneered back in 2001 and it continues to improve as internet speeds increase.
And he predicts that at some point science will invent a “replicating device” that would create an exact copy of anything. That sounds an awful lot like a 3D printer. Clarke warns that this invention might cause massive societal disruption. “Confronted by such a device, our present society would probably sink into a kind of gluttonous barbarism. Since everyone would want unlimited quantities of everything.” In other words, 3D printers might turn the world into Black Friday at Walmart.
Some of his other ideas are just weird. Clarke proposes to tame and train armies of chimpanzees to cook, clean and do society’s grunt work. “We can certainly solve our servant problem with the help of the monkey kingdom. “ Planet of the Apes wouldn’t come out for another four years so Clarke could be forgiven for not realizing that that is one terrible idea. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how hiring monkeys could possibly make the customer service at Time Warner Cable any worse than it already is.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.