Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Arthur C. Clarke And His Orbital Newspaper

By Ray X

Five decades ago Arthur C. Clark predicted the present decline of print publishing, books and newspapers.  This disruption would be caused by a new communications medium: satellites.

Besides SF Arthur C. Clarke also wrote nonfiction, extrapolating about future inventions based upon scientific and technological developments at the time.  His book, Profiles of the Future (Bantam edition 1964), includes portions of articles  previously published in magazines like Science Digest during the late 1950s - early 1960s.

Chapter 16, Voices from the Sky, discusses future changes in the delivery of media via satellites.  How far advanced was such technology when Clarke was extrapolating?  Check out this footnote: "This chapter was written before the launching of Telstar.

(You young non-nerds will have to Google Telstar.)

Relay satellites would bring the world together, he wrote.  Information could be transmitted to any spot on the globe.  In the 21st century people wouldn't be required to work in an office.  They could conduct business "through computer keyboards and information-handling machines in their homes." 

Advanced descendants of reproducing and facsimile machines found in a modern (1960s) office would lead to the invention of "the orbital newspaper."  Such a device would work with a TV, explained Clarke, making a permanent record of the screen image on demand via printing.

He continued:  

"Thus when you want your daily paper, you will switch to the appropriate channel, press the right button—and collect the latest edition as it emerges from the slot. It may be merely a one-page news sheet; the editorials will be available on another channel—sports, book reviews, drama, advertising, on others. We will select what we need, and ignore the rest, thus sav­ing whole forests for posterity."

But more than newspapers could be accessed through such a system.  Everything from a copy of the Manga Charta to the latest Earth-Moon passenger schedule would be available.  He predicted that books might be distributed the same way but with a drastic formatting change.

This lead to a warning.  Clarke observed:

"All publishers would do well to contemplate these really staggering prospects. Most affected will be news­papers and pocketbooks; practically untouched by the coming revolution will be art volumes and quality magazines, which involve not only fine printing but elaborate manufacturing processes. The dailies may well tremble; the glossy monthlies have little to fear."

Clarke also wondered how mankind would handle the avalanche of information.

"For will there be time to do any work at all on a planet saturated from pole to pole with fine entertain­ment, first-class music, brilliant discussions, superbly executed athletics, and every conceivable type of in­formation service? Even now, it is claimed, our children spend a sixth of their waking lives glued to the cathode-ray tube. We are becoming a race of watchers, not of doers."

Of course, Clarke did miss a few fine details.  He didn't foresee that the big distraction wouldn't be fine entertainment via satellite: it would be internet porn.