In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the Internet, 3D Printers and Trained Monkey Servants

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Arthur C. Clarke Nar­rates Film on Mandelbrot’s Frac­tals; David Gilmour Pro­vides the Sound­track

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today — in 2014

Free Sci­ence Fic­tion Clas­sics on the Web: Hux­ley, Orwell, Asi­mov, Gaiman & Beyond

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.


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Comments (4)
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  • JMW says:

    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.

    *Record­ing* Thank you for call­ing Time Warn­er Cable. All our oper­a­tors are busy. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered -


    Time Warn­er tech: Ook

    Cus­tomer: Hi, I’m hav­ing trou­ble down load­ing the movie “Cre­ation” and

    Time-Warn­er tech: Ooh Ooh Ah Ah!!

    Cus­tomer: Um…hello?

    Time-Warn­er tech: Eee eee eee Ah!!!

    Cus­tomer: Can I talk to a human being, please?

    Time-Warn­er tech: Ooh Ohh eee eee eee Ah!!!

    Cus­tomer: Sigh. Can I down­load Rise of the Plan­et of the Apes?

    Time-Warn­er tech: It’s com­ing through now. Just turn on your TV. Ooh Ah.

  • Pet says:

    Plan­et Of the Apes came out in 1963 (includ­ing the eng­lish trans­la­tion).

  • sleet says:

    Why are the ice caps hilar­i­ous? As soon as I got to that, I turned you off. Reli­gion.

  • Roderick Stewart says:

    I think Ein­stein is wrong in say­ing light is the con­stant I would sug­gest Grav­i­ty is the con­stant and light adheres to the grav­i­ty in space — when light trav­els in a void it slows down and takes a greater time to trav­el across and we see time that is sub­ject to grav­i­ta­tion­al forces all things being equal we see some things before we exist­ed
    but maybe some things are in now our exis­tence and we are just see­ing them for the first time

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