March 4, 2013

Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century
rahel aima


July 20, 2019. It's been 50 years since the Apollo 11 first landed on the moon, and celebrations are underway at the lunar settlement of Clavius City. Back on Earth, the Internet of Things has arrived, with intelligent homes that predict and fulfil your every want. Intelligence Amplifiers and self-replicating sentient robots have mostly replaced human employees, who are now hired only as flash status symbols. To relax, you can play spaceminton or take maglev trains, hovercraft or spaceliner to the Holorama Cinema to plug into an immersive 3D cinema experience. TVs allow you to seamlessly replace any character with your own image, and your psychiatrist now helps to design, script, and control your dreams.

It's been 116 years since Ford shipped its first car, and your ride is a sleek, sinuous, and speedy, with a plastic exterior that repairs dents, and an engine that never breaks down. Pre-emptive care and the triumph over terrestrial gravity mean that hospitals more closely resemble 'medihotels' – luxurious spaces for the cultivation of wellness. Homecare and euthanasia are on the rise, and hyperdiagnostics have ushered in an age of eugenics and perfected babies. We're also seeing mechanical robosurgeons, cyborg quadruplegics, and 'portable transcutaneous electrical stimulators' that can rapidly heal broken bones. The deaf will hear; the lame will walk. And unimaginable pleasures await the sexual traveller of 2019.

This is a day in the life of the 21st century, as realised in Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019. The British science fiction author and futurist is probably best known for his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as for his Three Laws of prediction – but more on that later. Clarke is variously credited with presaging the Y2K or Millennium bug, telecommuting, telemedicine, mobile phones, online commerce, touchscreen computing, the Cloud, sea mining, and the formation of a global library. Things that have not – yet – come true include cyrogenics, brain backup, atomic space travel, and the abolition of fossil fuels. To date, he's the only science fiction author to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize[1], for his idea of using an array of geosynchronous satellites to form a global communications network. (Geostationary orbits today are often accordingly dubbed 'Clarke orbits.') Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, he was considered a member of the 'Big Three,' who dominated/presided over much of late 20th century science fiction.

Starting with an introductory letter from a lunar inhabitant, the book dedicates each subsequent chapter to a major institution or sphere of life, speculating what they will become in 2019 – 33 years after its 1986 publication. The hospital, the school, the office, the movies, and the home are joined by sports, transportation, psychiatry and sex. Some chapters – many of which take the form of 'a day in the life of...' – gesture at phenomena yet to come, namely artificial intelligence, interstellar travel, and space stations. Meditations on life, death, the technologically mediated Third World War, and an epilogue on the future of the United Nations close out the volume. For the most part, it succeeds in its retro-speculative framing, although occasional clues do betray its mid-80s era. (When rhapsodising about the teleconferenced future of education, for example, the book enthuses that "smart mics" will be able to distinguish – and privilege – human timbres over the "clatter of a dropped ashtray." That smoking at the conference table, and in public space more generally would soon become largely verboten must have seemed unthinkable at the time.)

The book itself? It's handsome: clothbound in black and screenprinted with a shimmery, rather bombastic fuchisia. The front cover is blank, with only 'Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019' and the publisher printed in block sans serif on the spine. Reanimation Library appears to have acquired it for a single dollar (marked down from four), which seems unusually low. The inside's nice too, with textured blue endpapers and large, full-colour photographs – the kind that are rendered in high-gloss ink, the kind that make you want to tilt the page to see its shifting contours in the light. Most interesting, however, are the acknowledgements, which thank two photo editors, as well as thirteen writers "for their contributions." One per chapter, apart from a T. A. Heppenheimer, who is triply credited with transportation, space, and war.

As it turns out, Arthur C. Clarke didn't actually write this book. Protesting a good review[2] in Publisher's Weekly, he cautioned that it "gives the unwary reader the impression that I am the sole author." His involvement was limited to the introduction and epilogue, volume concept, and critiquing the chapters that were written by others. Despite demanding that the publisher, Macmillan "give due credit to the many distinguished writers who made it possible" the only concession begrudged was the aforementioned acknowledgement. Sure, it was 1986 and Clarke was a household name – arguably one with far more cache than the hardworking Heppenheimer. (Wikipedia describes the latter as "a major space advocate and researcher in planetary science, aerospace engineering, and celestial mechanic," whose books "are on the recommended reading list of the National Space Society. Distinguished, perhaps, but likely known to few.) Publicity machinations aside, though, there seems to be something else at play, something inherent in the very act of future prediction itself.

Let's return to Clarke's Three Laws. The third – any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – is undoubtedly my favourite, but more relevant here are numbers one and two. That when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. And that the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. Together, they point to what Clarke views as the primary problem with technological extrapolation: that short range forecasts are often too optimistic, while their long-range iterations will inevitably underestimate. Ironically, he believes that attempts to predict the future in any detail will quickly seem ludicrous. The only prediction that will hold reliably true is that technological developments and science will dominate the future, even more than in the present.

Here's another problem with technological extrapolation. It assumes a technologically determinist, utopian vision of the future in which all the callous brutishness of the present is somehow magically erased. That the future will somehow be evenly distributed, with relatively equal access to these technologies that make it all better. That the future will be made in the image of those currently in power, using the same tools and technologies. That it gets better, and not way, way, worse.


2019 is also the year of Ridley Scott's 1982 dystoflick Blade Runner. Notice that I've mentioned a whole lot of preeminent white men in this scifi-future predicting realm? Blade Runner doesn't disappoint, mobilising the standard white hero narrative (in an otherwise refreshingly multicultural Los Angeles) to hunt down and terminate a band of sentient bots, or replicants, gone rogue. Robots that aren't the servile, classed Jetsons Rosey types, but come with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

In Clarke's 2019, robots are in "the first phase of a tremendous evolutionary leap", and are considered 'intelligent,' with the ability to see and feel. They may come one of three gendered models: male, female, and asexual. (Advanced androids like Bina48 already have a (limited) capacity of sexuality and racial identification; it's not hard to imagine this further extrapolated to gender identity). And like today, they'll continue to fulfil DDD – dirty, dangerous, or dull – tasks. But that's not all:

No longer will the robot be a simple-minded, dumb, insensate machine found only along factory production lines. The machine will have moved out of the cloistered manufacturing plant and into our world. We will work alongside the machines, relax with them, live with them.

So far, so good. How then can we imagine this new world that's coproduced by bots? The book points to "a very good parallel. Namely, what did the rich do when they had lots of servants?" and entreats us to look forward to the "luxury of having slaves at our beck and call." Although they are more efficient than the flesh and blood iterations of yore, the owner will "no doubt find new tasks for this automated slave to perform." Following the petrodollar model of development, if you can imagine it, it shall be done. There will be animal versions too, from mechanised guide dogs to fuzzy companion animals which may soon replace biological ones: "You get the good things without the bad. Its companionship without the kitty litter."

To avoid the possibility of a Blade Runner-type killerbot scenario, Clarke[3] cautions that robots should be preprogrammed with certain values, including edge avoidance, a "cybernetic sense of fear," and a sense of self sacrifice (should its human be in any danger). Citing Asimov's own Three Laws of Robotics, he also advocates for a hardwritten moral code that disallows any possibility of ever harming a human – "the machine intelligence version of 'thou shalt not kill.' (Drones, UAVs and other automated military spectres are presumably exempt, for as long as death remains the sole jurisdiction of the state).

Just when things begin to look really dire for the robot race, however, we are pointed to the question of rights for machines. In 2019, we may well see machine rights organizations not unlike the militant animal rights and environmental groups of the past. (Today, these groups are increasingly prosecuted as domestic terrorists in what has come to be dubbed the "green scare." It's worth wondering what colour the speciesist McCarthyism of the future might be?) Ridiculous though robot rights may sound, it's undoubtedly the way we're headed. The ASPCR – the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots – has already been founded in 1999. Liberty, fraternity and equality is notably replaced here by "the right to existence, independence, and the pursuit of greater cognition." Roboethics, meanwhile, is a fast growing field, and South Korea is currently the process of drafting a national Robot Ethics Charter. Finally and somewhat incredulously, we've recently begun talking about whether algorithms should have a constitutional right to free speech.

All that earlier fantasy, then, all the speculation, all the longing for tomorrow's techtopias? Perhaps they're simply strategies to deal – or escape from – the very real social fears of the present. In 2019, hospitals are no longer social institutions but for-profit commercial units; patients participate in decisions about their own healthcare, and comparison shop for treatments. In 2019, robot workers have taken over the bulk of jobs, rendering human labour near obsolete. In 2019, we have already forgotten the mass tragedies of the past, and find ourselves once again looking to oppress, exploit and enslave.


Imagine if Columbus had discovered the new world in 1492 and no settlers had returned? Imagine if the words of the first navigator of Australia, who said 'I've now mapped this continent so thoroughly that no one ever need go back there again" had been heeded?'

In 1969, space represented the final frontier, whose exploration would be unmotivated by greed or national interests. Clarke cites a 1967 treaty that was signed by over 100 countries that protected the international sovereignty of the moon, after which "a belief grew that space would remain free of the colonial." That was then. Today, NASA's manned space program has been cancelled, at least for the time being; US astronauts travelling to the International Space Station will use Russian spacecraft. Perhaps this is what post-Cold War reconciliation really means.

Space tourism, too, seems set to explode. In addition to the several spaceports already extant in the US and Sweden, new ones have been announced for Singapore and, bizarrely, my very own backyard, Ras Al Khaimah. Still, can colonialism, however, ever be over if nation states have simply been swapped out for corporate empires? Will its next stage be the Great Scramble for Andromeda? At that, isn't future prediction its own kind of flag planting, demarcating out a territory for future IP rights and dividends?

Arthur C. Clarke begins his introduction by cooing over a 1929 J.D. Bernal quote

There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learned to separate them.

Me, I'm not any great believer in fate, whether divinely or technologically determined. That leaves the future of desire. I'm not particularly a fan of text tattoos, either, but I've long toyed with the notion of getting one that says 'le futur n'a pas d'avenir'. Perhaps as a scannable barcode, something with all its deliciously dated obsolescence already built in? I love its playful double entendre, even as it encapsulates all the bleakness of the present – absent future, doomed future, #fubar. All this said, however, I don't have an idea for what this future of desire might look like. Not this isn't especially productive, and can quickly turn dangerously reactionary. Clarke does provide a small alternative in a motto he once pitched to the Science Fiction Writers of America: the future isn't what it used to be, a prediction I can get behind. The question then becomes, when does the future become magic? _________________________________________________________________

[1] Then again, the Nobel committee did award some of the most recent prizes to Barack Obama and the European Union in quick succession, so wash.
[2] see p. 54, April 1988 issue of the now-defunct satirical monthly, Spy.
[3] Or rather, one Douglas Colligan

rahel aima is co-editor at THE STATE. Her research focuses on the intersections of magic, radical politics and non-western futurisms. She is currently based in Dubai, and can also be found at tumblr, wordpress & twitter.

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