Saturday, March 22, 2008

Appreciating Clarke

I liked this comment from Chris "Chris" Williams regarding Arthur C. Clarke:

What future? A better one than we’ve got: a worse on than we’d have had without him. Several million fanboys and girls grew up exposed to clear prose, opposition to nationalism, scepticism about organised religion, faith in technology, faith in humanity, and some great comedy.“The guest of honour pressed a button (which wasn’t connected to anything). The chief engineer threw a switch (which was).” - or thereabouts. From Travel by Wire. All there at the start.

Which amused me; especially as the same post got linked by the Adam Smith Institute. Ha, I can't imagine two technologies that got commercially deployed whose development had less to do with Teh Market than satellite communications and GSM. Even though there is fierce competition in both fields, a lot of it is down to the fact that the GSM founding engineers designed it in, working for ASI-tastic organisations like nationalised Nordic telcos and the European Commission.

Satellites, do know Bell Labs (itself hardly the most Thatcherite operation, and one Reaganism killed off pretty sharpish) actually considered launching the first comsat on a Soviet rocket? Beyond mockery, what I'm driving at is that Clarke delivered a solid disrespect for ideology as well as religion and nationalism and Western arrogance - surely, the Indian-engineer archetype must have something to do with all his Dr Chandras, next to the IITs and the unintended consequences of IBM being kicked out of India in the 70s? (And what would the ASI make of *that*?)

The political landscapes he delivered were always nicely sceptical of state bureaucracies (2001: A Space Odyssey can be read as an attack on the security-bureaucratic complex) and also of big business. He missed the revival of small business, but then, who didn't. And his major political flaw was that he was too optimistic about technocratic cooperation - he seemed to believe that politics stopped in low earth-orbit, and Space Station One is essentially the European Union at L-5. Just as you can't have non-political bread, you certainly can't have non-political spaceflight; but of all the political mistakes you could make, it's a pretty minor one compared with some of the others on offer during his career.

From the 1930s to today, he could have variously believed in die-hard opposition to Indian autonomy, to say nothing of independence, that Stalin was an honourable gentleman, that what we really need is a strong leader to discipline the feminine masses, that white people were smarter than other people, that the US intelligence services were engaged in a conspiracy to downplay Soviet power and that therefore we need many more nuclear weapons, that burning the North Sea oil reserves in order to support sterling at an exchange rate high enough to flatten the export sector was a good idea, that the UN is a secret Zionist conspiracy to take your guns, that what we really need is a restored Caliphate, or that invading Iraq was wise. And this is far from an exhaustive list. Literally no other period of human history has offered a richer cornucopia of delusions; as George Orwell said, no ordinary man could be such a fool.

The Clarkean vision was that perhaps, we might be able to imbue reality with the inspiration and excitement various groups of us applied to the list of ideological manias above. Rather than pluricontinentalism or bimetallism or conservatism, we might consider the renal parasites of cephalopods, the neurological basis or otherwise of psychoanalysis, or viewing the surface of Venus in the infrared. Nothing is mere; so said Richard Feynman. It finally poses the question; is a sceptical utopia possible?


ejh said...

There's a paragraph on one of his novels, can't remember which one, in which it turns out that nobody is black or white any more because nobody's cared about that for generations past and everybody's mixed-race as a result. I suppose it would be possible to view that as bizarre and naïve optimism. But it would also be possible to view it as a statement Clarke would have known was optimistic - but he felt it an optimism worth airing.

I was reading your posting and suddenly remembered, almost vividly, sitting in my mother's car, maybe thirty years ago now, and, while wwaiting for her to come out from a meeting, listening to a Radio Four adaptation of Childhood's End. You know - all the libertarians on the internet, spending all their time trying to think of ways to close down everything that's not privately paid for, they must really hate Radio Four (even though it must have provided a good part of their educations). Well - Clarke, presumably, wouldn't have blamed the internet for the people who make use of it. I think he conceived of technology as a tool of liberation, but not, perhaps, of liberation from one another. But then, he'd be a product of postwar optmism, along with most of the things which are most valuable about Britain. While they last.

hardindr said...

ejh, I think you mean 3001: The Final Odyssey.

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