Arthur C. Clarke has died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. To commemorate Sir Arthur’s passing, I’d like to highlight yet another of his predictions that has come true: the World Wide Web.
In his 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Clarke describes a device called the home communications console, or Comsole for short. Its elements are quite familiar: “the blank gray screen, the alphanumeric keyboard, the camera lens and speaker grille.” But what does it do? In a diary entry, main character Duncan Makenzie describes how his daily routine begins with the Comsole: “I dial the Comsole for any messages that have arrived during the night — usually there are half a dozen. . . . Then I set the news abstractor to print out anything that’s happened in my area of interest, and scan the result.”
But that’s just a small part of the Comsole’s capabilities. A later passage provides an overview:
Duncan walked to the Comsole, and the screen became alive as his finger brushed the ON pad. Now it was a miracle beyond the dreams of any poet, a charmed magic casement, opening on all seas, all lands. Through this window could flow everything that Man had ever learned about his universe, and every work of art he had saved from the dominion of Time. All the libraries and museums that had ever existed could be funneled through this screen and the millions like it scattered over the face of Earth. Even the least sensitive of men could be overwhelmed by the thought that one could operate a Comsole for a thousand lifetimes — and barely sample the knowledge stored within the memory banks that lay triplicated in their widely separated caverns, more securely guarded than any gold.
On this particular occasion, Duncan is merely trying to locate an old friend who is somewhere on Earth, so he uses the online directory to look up her contact information and then uses the Comsole to call her and have a sound-and-video conversation.
We take all of this for granted today, but when I first read Imperial Earth 32 years ago, the first home computers — the kind you had to build from a kit — had just come on the market. The idea that personal computers would connect to a global information network and provide instant audiovisual access to everything and everyone was stunning, and utterly beyond anything I had previously read. Clarke even predicted when it would happen: “The home communications console — or Comsole — had reached its technological plateau in the early twenty-first century.” We haven’t reached that plateau yet, but the Web is only a little more than a decade old, and almost all of what Clarke described is already available.
Imperial Earth begins with an incident from Duncan Makenzie’s youth, as a ten-year-old living in an underground city on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Attempting to use his Comsole to call his grandmother, he enters the wrong number and ends up connecting to something else:
There was no ringing tone, and no picture. . . . Duncan guessed that he had been switched into an audio-only channel, or had reached a station where the camera was disconnected. In any case, this certainly wasn’t Grandma’s number, and he reached to break the connection.
Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. . . . He was listening to the voice of the wind, as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head. . . .
Somewhere — perhaps in an abandoned construction project or experimental station — a live microphone had been left in circuit, exposed to the freezing, poisonous winds of the world above. It was not likely to remain undetected for long; sooner or later it would be discovered and disconnected.
When I read those words in 1976, the idea of using a computer terminal connected to a global information network to listen to the sounds of wind in the atmosphere of Titan was pure science fiction. But less than thirty years later, I did exactly that. Sir Arthur was right on the money.