Update, March 2017: The Silicon Jungle is now free in ePub, Kindle and other formats via Project Gutenberg. Ballantine originally published it in 1985. - David Rothman, [email protected]

The Arthur C. Clarke chapter
of The Silicon Jungle

In 1983 a forerunner of the Net already was in place. But it was mainly for the military, academic, and industrial elites. Above all, it was much more American--a far cry from today when some forty percent of Netfolks live outside the States. Just how could I reach Arthur C. Clarke for the future chapter of The Silicon Jungle[1]?

Clarke, after all, was on an island in the Indian Ocean, a long way from the nodes of even the usual commercial networks. I was doing well enough to talk to bulletin-board systems across town. For me and many others, it was the era of 300-baud modems. Not only were we Net-deprived, we were running machines with Jurassic software and a speck of the RAM in today's computers. Yes, Clarke was willing to cooperate with me. But the technological obstacles were more daunting.

I wasn't the only one seeking a connection. Peter Hyams, a director at MGM/UA, wanted to stay in touch with Clarke via computer during the writing of the 2010 script.

Below I'll reproduce the future chapter of The Silicon Jungle, "As the Jungle Thickens (AKA the Great Modeming)." I'll also update you on at least some elements of the story--for example, on Eric Meyer, the young hacker and amateur radio operator who played a role in this little adventure. Finally I'll provide links to some excellent material on Clarke. You might want to read the chapter first without worrying about the links in the main text itself; I wrote it as a narrative to be read in sequence in a sitting or two. Yes, I've included "bookmarks," so you can return to your earlier place without much fuss--just remember what "Part" you were reading.

Thanks for stopping by!

--David Rothman, [email protected]

SHORTCUTS: As the Jungle Thickens, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 | Postscript, Fall 1995 | Link to contact information for Arthur C. Clarke (near the bottom of the linked page). Only for urgent business... More info on Clarke, Sri Lanka, science fiction, and a few other topics...

[Return to top of page or, if need be, top of shortcuts]

© 1985 David H. Rothman

This was to be my future chapter, the one about microcomputers in the year 2001. I at first wanted it short. So often the micro future prematurely becomes the micro past; and why devote too much space to making a fool of myself?

And why not spread the risks? Arthur C. Clarke seemed a better prophet.[2]

Several months earlier, in fact, he'd agreed to an interview via modems and the satellite links between Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Alexandria, Virginia. So now I'd show that my little Kaypro with a free software program and a $150 modem, could talk almost instantly to a stranger's computer on the other side of the planet for perhaps a fraction of the cost of a telex. It seemed fitting. Clarke, after all, had practically invented the idea of communications satellites.

And if I failed to catch up with Clarke by computer? Well, I supposed it would be like a train journey to Outer Mongolia; I at least could write of the experience of trying to get there and of the people I met along the way.

I'd cop out in one more respect. Rather than ask Clarke the usual reporterish questions, I would turn the job over to others. The first was Eric Meyer, twelve years old, who was learning assembly language, a feat at any age, and who planned to start a software company called New Technologies.[3] The second was a Fortune 500 man named Jerry terHorst, head of Ford Motor's public affairs office in Washington, D.C., and former press secretary to Gerald Ford. The third was Margaret Phanes, assistant to David Kay, vice-president of the company that had made my computer; the fourth, Seymour Rubinstein, a science-fiction fan and the developer of WordStar. The fifth was Rob Barnaby, the WordStar writer. The sixth was James Watt, co-owner of the Haunted Book Shop in Annapolis, Maryland, and a descendant of the eighteenth-century Scottish inventor. The seventh, Lynn Wilson, a former railroad telegrapher, had taught me some amateur radio theory when I was twelve.

Eric himself had just passed his novice examination for an amateur license, and over the phone, with a push button, I tapped out my idea in international Morse code.

"How," I inquired, "would you like to ask Arthur Clarke some questions?"

"Who's Arthur Clarke?" Eric replied by voice.

It was a pardonable response. Clarke's 2001--the book and movie for which he's most famous--had come out several years before Eric's birth. And yet as much as anything, Eric's reply showed where we were headed in this age of specialization. He might someday be programming the future equivalents of HAL, developing new forms of artificial intelligence, and yet he apparently had not heard of Hal's creator.

Return to Shortcuts

I told Eric who Clarke was. "No, thanks," he tapped.

"But he's the most famous science-fiction writer in the world," I said, and explained the kind of issues that Eric might ask about.

Eric, however, still wasn't completely impressed. "Does he understand technical things?"

I assured Eric that Arthur Clarke was technical enough to be worth his time. "We're going to do this by computers over the phone lines," I said. "In fact, I'd like you to send your questions to me by computer. Then I'll store them inside mine. And then I'll shoot them by computer to Arthur Clarke there in Sri Lanka. You'll be communicating machine to machine, sort of."

"Where's Sri Lanka?"

"It's an island in the Indian Ocean."

"Would you use my communications program?" Eric asked.

Eric wasn't talking about software he'd bought. It was what he had written.

"No," I said. "I'm going to use MODEM7, because I'm familiar with it."

"Couldn't you say you used a communications program written by Eric Meyer, age twelve?" he asked. It wasn't the worst twist in the world-good for the book, good for Eric, who, as a reporter's son, showed a precocious public relations sense. "I won't use it to reach Clarke," I said, "but you can use it to send your file to me. "

"All right."

"Read 2001," 1 said.

Eric readily agreed.

"I remember the title," he said later, "but I was out when one of the kids in my class gave a report on it."

"I'll want your reaction."


We also attended to another matter. Eric didn't own an amateur radio rig yet, and I offered to lend him my Heathkit, a little five-watt transmitter-receiver stashed away in the closet of my efficiency apartment.

"Is it digital?" Eric asked. Did it have, in other words, a "nondial" like those newfangled watches?


"I was hoping it was."

"It's transistorized." That was good enough for me. Who needed a radio without a dial?

Return to Shortcuts


Eric took me up on my offer, which included the gift of some old chassises and capacitors and other parts, forgotten until now in the crawl space of my parents' home. And I was pleased that Eric accepted, for I liked the symmetry of it all. Two decades earlier Lynn Wilson had given me some of the very equipment I'd be passing on to Eric. And so I visited my parents' basement that weekend and reentered the past, not only my own but also that of electronics, including computers in a sense; for perhaps this is how the micro age had truly begun-hobbyists swapping parts back and forth until someone accumulated enough to build a System that actually worked.[4]

Lynn Wilson was all over the crawl space. I picked up a 6146 transmitter tube on which he had playfully magic marketed, "For David, K4DIG, DX King." DX was the amateur radio jargon for long-distance communications.

I lingered in that basement, thinking that somehow, examining the past, I might better understand the future. There were no new clues, however, nothing but bulky transformers and spaghetti-like wires and resistors and capacitors and the other odds and ends of my youth. But what a record my junk pile was of the American electronics industry. Half gutted, near the 6146, reposed a silvery ARC-5, a war-surplus receiver. Had it flown? ARC-5s were what American bombers carried during the Second World War. Had a B-17 crew kept in touch with England with my ARC-5 while pummeling the Third Reich? Had my receiver seen action over Tokyo? Scrapping it, had I inadvertently defiled History?

Near the ARC-5 I saw a giant condenser for a transmitter. With row after row of plates on a metal shaft, it looked like an electronic potato slicer. I thought of fingernail-sized chips in computers today; the big potato slicer might as well be an artifact from another species.

There in the crawl space the 1950s showed up in little vacuum tubes the size of pill bottles. They were a reminder of the shortsightedness of the U.S. electronics executives who had stayed years too long with vacuum-tube technology. Just what did this mean to American computer makers facing similar challenges? There was an object lesson here. Many portable computers from U.S. companies had flat screens, for example, but most of the display designs came from the laboratories of Japan. Although IBM would prosper-even if half of the innards of its PCs came from the Orient-many of the smaller American manufacturers might die. And even the larger domestic companies could suffer in the price ranges where computers were mere commodities; with flat displays and better memory chips, Nippon might again make us relive the transistor fiasco. I groped, poked, and wandered some more.

And there in a dim comer I found the 1960s, too, in the form of a Nuvistor, another pygmy vacuum tube, another refinement of the obsolete. By the 1970s Heathkit was finally offering transistorized ham transmitters like the one I'd lend Eric. Heath still sold quite a few updated versions of the little HW-7. But now the amateur radio magazines seemed half filled by ads for solid-state equipment from Japan. How long until computer magazines looked the same?

Return to Shortcuts


I went upstairs. My parents, who for years had been patiently awaiting the removal of the clutter from the crawl space, had second thoughts. What if I injured my back dragging the equipment to my car? Why couldn't Eric and his father come for the tubes and chassis?

A passage from a novel--the name escaped me--came to mind. It was almost as if, by removing my old childhood toys, I were aging both myself and my parents.

I left the equipment at Eric's after a meeting of the Kaypro writers group to which he and his father belonged. They lived in a white house in a greeny neighborhood high above most of Washington: a good location for an antenna, a great "QTH," as Lynn Wilson would have put it in ham talk. The Meyers had filled the house with the paraphernalia of their obsessions. Downstairs Rima Meyer was at her spinning wheel; a huge loom dominated what normally would have been the dining room; and upstairs was the book-packed den where Gene, a Washington Post staffer, had been working on a long history of Maryland.[5] No one spoke of the odd juxtaposition--a Kaypro used to write of hogsheads and sailing ships.

Eric, a small, curly-haired boy, helped lug the radio gear into his bedroom nearby. Then we soldered up the Heathkit's connectors and began hearing international Morse code and Spanish babble on the 15-meter band. He was amazed. I could make sense of the dots and dashes at twenty words per minute; he could copy at only a quarter of that speed. "Hey, don't worry, you'll learn it much faster than I did," I said. "You learned BASIC. I haven't the mind for it. Anyone who can program will be a whiz at code." And how much more useful computer skills would be. Take communications; 20 words per minute was one-thirtieth the speed of my dot-matrix printer. And yet I was dismayed to hear Eric speak so enthusiastically of the day when he could transmit in voice. To Lynn Wilson and me, ham radio didn't exist without code. We were like the old man at my newspaper back in Ohio who couldn't a city room bereft of typewriters. Computers, in fact, had even violated the sanctity of code. A micro's video display could flash out the letters summing up the holy dots and dashes--the ones I'd so painfully learned in my youth. I felt like a sailboater tipped over by the wake of a motorized yacht.

I snapped off the Heathkit. Eric and I went downstairs where Rima, a tiny woman named after the bird-girl in Green Mansions, was still at her spinning wheel. She dreamily looked up at us and proclaimed herself an anachronism. Children like Eric, she said, would be different from those before them--would think more abstractly in this video-game era. She wrote poetry; she heard voices; would the computer children do the same? I thought of Rob Barnaby, the WordStar writer, who had said he heard "a voice from the back of my head"; it wasn't the same back-of-the-head voice as a poet's, but it was there, anyhow. Someday Eric might be another Barnaby.

Later that evening I demonstrated WordStar for the Meyers. Father and son agreed: WordStar moved words around faster than did Select, the word processor with which our Kaypros had originally come. I turned to Rima. "Computers are supposed to be very good for poets," I said. "You can consider the possibilities. You can learn what words look like before you commit yourself to paper." Rima listened politely, but I thought I might as well been showing off an electric guitar to a mandolin and discussed the Arthur Clarke connection. It was iffy. The telephone lines might not work.; Clarke might be away on a business trip. Gene wouldn't ghostwrite Eric's questions for Clarke, but he did have one he hoped would make the list. "At the writer's group," Gene said, "this businessman was telling me how he fired his secretary when he got his computer." How did Clarke feel about such situations? It was a common but acceptable question, I felt--one just as reasonable as any that science-fiction writers and philosophers might raise about the origin of the universe.

Return to Shortcuts


Two weeks later I rang Clarke, around eleven in the morning, Virginia time. A little sleepily, he answered. He was tired after a trip promoting the 2010 novel in the United States, and right now he could not recall me. "Remember," I said, "we talked several months ago, and you said we could get together on the modem." Clarke had phoned late one evening after I'd written him questions about WordStar, and in a sense we were now even; for my mind had drawn an absolute blank when this stranger had begun in a British accent, "David, you'll never guess who this is." Well, I asked now, could we still get together on the modem? We'd run a test to be ready for the questions from Eric and others a few days later. "Call my computer store," Clarke said. He was using BSTAM, alas, a communications program that didn't work with my MODEM7 software.

Imagine my disappointment. I'd been hoping for quick computer-to-computer contact, over 8,900 miles, with the inventor of the communications satellite; and now a mundane problem confronted us-a simple lack of software compatibility. BSTAM in some ways was a Rolls of a communications program, excellent for transmitting large blocks of data over long distances. In fact, Clarke had used it to send his New York publisher some changes in 2010. And yet, for communicating with me, his BSTAM disk was nothing but a worthless piece of plastic, because it snubbed MODEM7-style programs-perhaps the most common among micro users. It was as if Clarke were a lonely billionaire in a chauffeured Rolls. His fide might be velvety, but he would never meet the commoners in the Chevy in the next lane.

After calling around the country, I finally located a review copy of BSTAM. Eric helped me test it out over the phone. "May I come over and watch you talk to Clarke?" he asked. I hesitated. Hadn't Eric already modemed his questions to me? His being in my apartment seemed redundant. Then, however, I remembered my youth, when Lynn Wilson would invite me to his attic for DX sessions. It was like angling. Lynn might not snag those stations in New Zealand or Morocco, but it was still the electronic equivalent of treating a boy to a morning of trout fishing in a mountain stream. Now Arthur Clarke would be the new DX. Of course, the Rothman-Wilson analogy didn't absolutely hold, for Eric knew more about computers than I did. "Sure, Eric," I said at last, "sure you can come."

Return to Shortcuts


With Eric and his mother watching a few days later, I punched the "0" and confidently said I wanted such-and-such number in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A tape-recorded voice soon came on with a New Yawkish accent, announcing that all circuits to Sri Linka were busy. Well, what did I expect? Sri Lanka wasn't one of the great centers of global communications. And yet it still seemed bizarre. Why shouldn't Sri Lanka enjoy instant contact all the time with the whole world? Why not? Arthur Clarke lived there, Perhaps on my tenth try I finally heard the musical tone of Clarke's number ringing. "Eureka!" I yelled. Once more Clarke himself answered. He warned me that he was rushing through a movie project and some books and was months behind in his correspondence; the most I could hope for in reply to the questions would be a series of "Yeses," "Nos," and "Maybes." That irked me. For my enterprise I deserved a response ahead of the other letter writers; in fact, you might say I wasn't even a letter writer--I was a modemer.

I glanced at Eric. He could tell the general direction of the conversation, and he looked just as downcast as I must have. Eric was even hoping--quite unrealistically, I believed--that Clarke might call him at home. "I am starting my own computer software company (R & D)," Eric had said in a preface to his questions, "and I hope to profit in this venture. I am enjoying your book 2001 and want to get 2010. 1 am also a novice-class 'Ham.' If you ever need any software or just want to chat, my home and work number is... I also have interests in robotics, and computer hardware, and (etc.)." I'd reminded Eric that the technology might fail in my quest for answers to his questions; I hadn't been so emphatic in warning that Clarke himself might fail us.

"I'm going to need to test the modem, anyway," Clarke said after a pause, however. He wanted to exchange ideas with an MGM/UA director for the movie sequel to 2001.

He gave me the number of his telephone with a modem hooked up, and then, several times, I again suffered the vagaries of global phone communications before a line finally opened up and I heard the familiar tone of a modem. I reached for my own modem, a slim blue box, and switched over from "Talk" to "Data." Then I hit the return key on my Kaypro, firing up the BSTAM program.

My screen flashed word that the connection was in progress, and I was about to slap Eric on the back, but I waited, and quite rightly, for as the seconds wore on, the connection was still progressing. Something was amiss. By voice Clarke said my transmission hadn't registered in his computer memory-not even the mere existence of my electronic file.

I called Michael Scott, a technician at Business Computing International, Clarke's New York computer store. He sent a Telex to Clarke. Was Clarke using the normal 300-baud modem speed matching mine? I learned a day or so later that he was. "Well," I asked Michael, "how long has it been since Clarke last communicated with you [the store] through the modem?"


"Okay," I said, "maybe he needs a refresher on how to set up the modem program." Patiently, Michael ran through the procedures.

Half an hour later I again was braving surly operators and busy signals to place another call to Sri Lanka.

"What you want to do," I told Clarke, "is type RXN B:ODYCORR.TXT, then a carriage return, then select ANSWER when you see the prompt." Clarke, however, hadn't been doing it that way. We tried again, and for the next ten minutes my screen kept flashing dozens of confirmations of the connection.

Then our computer link broke.

I called Clarke back. Surely at least the start of the electronic file had shown up on the B disk, the one on which he was to store my questions. "No," he said, "I don't see it." Clarke, it seems, had forgotten to put a floppy disk in his B drive. It was a very excusable mistake--this whole modeming procedure was still a novelty to him--and we failed yet another time even with Scott's instructions followed exactly.[6]

Return to Shortcuts


So a few days later I settled on another tack: getting Clarke a free Kaypro 11.

Why not? Kaypro itself had once suggested that to me. It could do worse than to be able to say that Clarke and an MGM/UA director had used Kaypros to communicate during the creation of the 2010 film. I, in turn, might reach Clarke more easily if he was tapping away on a machine like mine. Besides, he eventually could give his Kaypro to the new Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modem Technologies. The center was to promote high tech in the Third World, and Joseph Pelton, who was rounding up U.S. backers for the organization, liked the Kaypro idea. So did Clarke. And so did Peter Hyams at MGM/UA.

Hyams wasn't just a well-known director with such credits as Capricorn One and The Star Chamber. He was the kind of person for whom I was writing this book-he had a problem open to possible solution by computer.

The problem was the need to consult closely with Clarke during adaptation of the 2010 novel; how to overcome the time difference between Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Culver City, California?

"Some things work brilliantly when read but aren't well suited to the screen," Hyams said, and as a conscientious scriptwriter he didn't want to make arbitrary changes to Clarke's story. "I was interested in finding out what the author was thinking when he wrote certain things. And secondly I thought it was very, very important that Arthur C. Clarke be made to feel an important part of the making of this movie." With rapport might come a greater understanding of the man and his books. Hearing of Hyams's proposal to work together via by computer, however, Clarke was skeptical. I could imagine why. Hyams would need a dependable link, not just the capability to exchange occasional messages. It might be 1983, satellites might be old hat by now, but the quality of the phone transmissions didn't belie the fact that Clarke was on an island in the Indian Ocean. Could computers deal reliably with the electronic echoes, with the delays from the signal traveling more than 45,000 miles on earth and in space? What about Sri Lanka's primitive phone system?

And yet Clarke's location--some 9,350 miles from Culver City--also helped the struggle seem all the more worthwhile.

"Because he's twelve or thirteen hours away in time, it almost makes normal conversation impossible," Hyams said. "Someone is always going to be speaking at a very inconvenient hour for them. And there are some times when you don't want to talk, and sometimes when you're asking somebody for something, you want to think about something. It requires more than a quick answer." Letters, though, just wouldn't do: "I've gotten mail from him that's almost a month old." Hyams might have used telex or a similar system, but the costs would still be greater than a direct computer-to-computer link. Ideally, he could tap out memos on a computer, then whisk them to Clarke without a secretary taking the time to type them into another machine. Hyams was already comfortable with a Xerox 860 word processor. Like me, however, he realized that the link had more chance of succeeding with the two ends using the same computer systems--Kaypros in this case. Two hard-working Kaypro employees, Margaret Phanes and Clifford Odendhal, pushed through the project at their company. Within a week or so a Kaypro II was on the way to Clarke, and the company installed another in Hyams's office; at long last, the Great Modeming seemed at hand.

Then, however, rioting broke out in Sri Lanka: fighting between two ethnic groups, the Singhalese and the minority Tamils, who were seeking a separate state. Somehow Clarke's Kaypro reached the air-port. But he couldn't pick it up because of the rioting, during which an arsonist burned down the house of one of his technical assistants.

Return to Shortcuts


"They're swinging the jawbone again," said an acquaintance of mine, alluding to a scene in 2001 where a man-ape kills another with the high tech of his era. It was not a slur on Sri Lanka--just general disgust over violence of any kind. News stories appeared, then stories about the island trying to censor reporters so there wouldn't be any more stories.

Just when every circumstance seemed to be conspiring against me, I enjoyed a miraculous fluke. Arthur Clarke's neighbor Susan Hayes, the wife of an American official in Colombo, was visiting Washington and would return to Sri Lanka soon; and through a member of the Kaypro writers group, Marcia Tyson, I passed on to her the written questions for Clarke to answer by phone if need be. I wasn't cheating. It was perfectly in line with both the Marco Polo tradition and the spirit of this book; don't ever shy away from paper backups.

I also supplied Clarke a disk of MODEM7, the public-domain program that I used--so that we needn't worry about software differences if my program didn't work with the one that Kaypro gave him.

Kaypro, in fact, did provide Clarke with MODEM7-compatible software--a computer program--but it wouldn't run acceptably on Peter Hyams's computer. So both men instead received a commercial program called MITE. There was a problem, though, as Peter and I prepared for the Great Modeming--I couldn't be Arthur C. Clarke. My MODEM7 could talk to Peter's MITE, but it wasn't really the same. With MODEM7 you couldn't leave your computer unattended and have a machine thousands of miles away call you up and choose from dozens of electronic files on your disk. With MITE you could.[7] And Peter, true to the perfectionism of a top director, wanted his rehearsals to be as realistic as possible. "I'd like to be Arthur Clarke," I told a kindly software dealer, who gave me a review copy. MITE, however, locked up on my machine. On the screen it stubbornly kept saying I was receiving signals from another computer--even before I turned on the modem.

So I visited a hacker I'd heard of. He was a little technobully who, bare chested in the August heat, worked sullenly on my software nuking rude noises whenever I asked a question. MITE seemingly succumbed to his efforts. He berated me for not using the right number of data bits, the right stop bit, the right everything else in computerese. Chastened, I returned home, only to find that the program still wasn't working reliably.

Return to Shortcuts


I took my Kaypro and software to a friend, a systems analyst, an intelligent, learned man fond of aphorisms like "Even kings must obey the rules of mathematics." Unfairly, cruelly, MITE still wasn't running after five hours of his toil. My friend played by the rules he'd based his whole career on following instruction manuals; he was the perfect man to help run the computer system of a hospital or bank. I was just the opposite. When it came to the laws of math or computer manuals, I was willing to turn criminal. In fact, that's how I undeservedly succeeded at last by flouting MITE's instructions on connecting my computer and modem.

It was the first time in years that I'd used a soldering iron. I didn't own a vise, even, so I placed the RS-232 connectors on an aluminum pie plate on the wooden floor of my apartment and breathed lead-poisoned fumes.

The work was hot. It was also murder on my eyes, hardly the joy I recalled from amateur radio--a task fit for robots, not people. Squinting away, I hoped that beneficent HALs would soon multiply in the world's factories. Then I remembered my friend Lynn Wilson, a telephone-company retiree who had soldered for decades, who loved it, and who had lost his service job to computers.

With MITE running at last--and with me as a more Clarkelike imitator--I began another series of rehearsals with Peter Hyams. The program was excellent; the instructions were bewildering in places. Peter called a MITE distributor and traded insults. It was outrageous. We were not ordinary end users. Peter was a movie director trying to communicate with a famous novelist-scientist; and I, if an obscurity, was at least around to chronicle whatever abuse Peter suffered.

What would average computer users have done? Without other MITE owners to share their problems, they would have been up the creek. The whole ordeal was a potent argument for user groups; in fact, you might say that Clarke, Peter, and I were a three-member one. Clarke, meanwhile, was reportedly suffering a disk drive problem. He may have enjoyed sympathy, however, from another user-nearby; an American in Sri Lanka owned a Kaypro. Of course, the ordeal was still another argument for easier-to-master software,

Finally, it happened: the Great Modeming--more than six months after Clarke had first phoned me from Sri Lanka.

Return to Shortcuts


Hyams and Clarke started typing messages to each other, and I knew my own Great Modeming would succeed. But a problem lingered even now. Colombo and Culver City couldn't send already-typed material to each other's unattended machines.

So one of Clarke's first messages to the MGM/UA Kaypro wasn't exactly "What hath God wrought?" It was something in the spirit of "Tell **** to fix that software or I'm going to throw the computer in a river. And tell **** that Sri Lanka has many rivers." A furious Hyams and Rothman phoned Odendhal, who promptly contacted the distributor. Contrite, the MITE man apologized and gave Hyams the guidance he needed.

The Clarke-Hyams link was now in place. It hadn't been easy. The two men were each using a $1,595 computer, a modem selling for several hundred dollars, and a communications program listing for more than $175, and Peter's new printer cost several hundred; and those expenses normally would have been only the beginning. Kaypro had set up the software and offered other consultant-style services; Clarke used his own technician. If Average Company, Inc., had duplicated the computer link on both sides of the Pacific, the project might have exceeded $5,000. And yet clearly the technical hurdles seemed surmountable and the rewards worthwhile. Two weeks into the link Hyams had only one complaint-the difficulty of reaching an international operator at times to place calls. And in future years that-problem would lessen as special computer links let Telenet spread into the world's poorer countries. An attachment to make the Sri Lankan phone system compatible would cost the government several thousand dollars. And the expense to Clarke and Hyams would be perhaps $60 an hour--no great barrier, considering that they could transmit 1,000-word computer files in a fraction of that cost using 300-baud modems. With faster modems they might end up spending still less.

More important to Hyams right now, however, was the friendship he was building with Clarke-so important to the success of the film.

"I think we're kind of linked in a strange way," Peter said. "He's written some lovely and sweet things. It's strangely intimate. You're just getting daily mail. It has some really wonderful advantages that letters have over telephone conversations.

"The kinds of questions that I'm asking him and the kinds of things I'm saying are things you don't really say off the top of your head. You know, 'What do you think about so-and-so?' and you sit down and compose the answer and you write it back. Some of the stuff is purely personal. Some of it is not. I want him to experience the making of this movie. There are a lot of logistical details. I've spoken to some people that Arthur's recommended I to. There are things to do with everything, from marketing to plans I have, to changes I want to make, to What does he think of certain things? to technical areas of the film that he can be enormous help with."[8]

Clarke, using British spelling, modemed to me that the "connextion" with Peter Hyams was "invaluable. We are on exactly the other side of the clock, so I leave my machine on ANSWER with a file for him when I go to bed, which is about the time he goes to MGM, and when I get down to breakfast, there's his answer on the disk." If Peter worked late at night, the two men might save their "conversation" on computer disk so "there will be a complete record of our collaboration. It's truly fantastic, like WordStar. I just can't imagine how I ever managed without it. My big worry is that as more and more of my friends get plugged in, I'll never be able to get away from the keyboard."

A few days before Clarke sent his written answers for Eric Meyer and the others, he phoned him just as Eric had hoped. "I wouldn't want to disappoint the boy," Clarke said later. The Clarke-Meyer conversation was brief-words to the effect that Clarke would be in Washington in 1984 and he wished Eric luck in the future-but it served its purpose. "It's the first time I've ever had an international call," Eric said. "My first phone DX!"

Return to Shortcuts


My computer DX reached me one Saturday morning at nine, an uneventful occurrence except for a broken telephone connection when I dialed Clarke back to start the modeming. Our two Kaypros clicked the next try. I received a prepared file from Clarke of about one thousand words, and afterwards we tapped out some 250 words:

Q. When will you be coming to Washington so I can tell Eric, who naturally will want to attend your speech?

A. I am afraid it will be a very private affair, as it takes place in the White House! But I expect to be in Washington in late April.[9]

Q. I am planning to call my ergonomics chapter "The Hal Syndrome," and if you've used that phrase before, I'd like to give you credit.

A. I don't recall ever using the term, but it's a good idea, and you're welcome, anyway.

That's part of the conversation with the typos cleaned up--on-line typing isn't for the vain. Clarke was brisk at the keyboard. There wasn't any doubt I was "talking" to a professional author. Hyams was fast, too, reaching maybe eighty or ninety per minute on good days; and yet as Peter pointed out, typing speed didn't matter that much, since you normally would compose at leisure, then squirt out your prepared file.[10]

The Clarke-Rothman connection ran just fourteen minutes and cost $25.11 on my phone bill-a good case for the economy of global computer communications. I didn't know what Clarke's rates might be. But if I'd given a thousand words to a Telex service in Washington, D.C., a one-way message to Sri Lanka would have totaled some $125. And if I could have afforded my own Telex machine? Well, the connect charges alone still would have exceeded $60. Moreover, my $25.11 charge was for a 300-baud connection, a slowpoke one by some business computer standards. With a 1,200-baud link-a strong possibility since the connection had proved so reliable for Clarke and Hyams at 300 baud-my phone bill might have been well under $15 even on a weekday. And with everything sent already typed, it might have been between $5 and $10. Imagine the thousands of dollars a company could save using micros instead of Telex for regular communications with faraway offices.

In one of the questions sent there Marco Polo fashion, Eric asked if computers someday would replace secretaries who took dictation. Could the machines display the words on their screens and electronically police spelling and grammar? "We will certainly get computers that can take dictation," Clarke replied by modem, "and this may lead to two desirable results-better elocution and rationalisation of spelling."

Yes, yes. Maybe someday American and British computers could even spell alike. Although Eric's question was a very good one, it was passé in many technical circles, as he himself must have known. Articles were already appearing in micro magazines about low-cost computers that could recognize simple commands like SAVE (to preserve material on a disk). One of the big problems with speech recognition was usability with different voices. But I had no doubt that practical machines with a vocabulary fit for the business world would be taking dictation by 2001.

The keyboard would remain, however. Not everyone would want to dictate; I suspected even two decades from now I'd still prefer the pleasure of letting my fingers linger over the keys. Then again, how did I know? Just a few years ago I could have seen myself at only a typewriter keyboard.

As for spelling checkers-well, there again the basic technology was already around. I myself would be proofing this chapter with The WORD Plus, a 45,000-word electronic dictionary that would flag the places where my spellings contradicted it. Not that The WORD Plus would ever replace proofreaders at The New Yorker. It would let you use "his" when you meant "this"; it was absolutely incapable of considering spellings in context. Even by 2001 the checkers might lack that capability. But eventually they would respond perfectly to context, as would grammar checkers. That might require artificial intelligence, the ability of computers to reason independently without their humans laying out the machines' tasks in detail. But the day would come.

Of course even the best prophets could err. In his 1945 article entitled Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?, Clarke predicted communications satellites but missed by a mile in another area. "It seems unlikely that we will have to wait as much as twenty years," he said then, "before atomic-powered rockets are developed.…" Still, I appreciated Clarke's general philosophy of prediction: Experts are more often wrong in saying something can't be done than in saying that it can.

Return to Shortcuts


"Do you think there will ever be a HAL?" Eric asked Clarke.

"Yes," Clarke said, "HAL will arrive--but not by 2001!"

I agreed. But confusingly, HAL wouldn't necessarily be a purebred silicon creation; I could see him as a hybrid of silicon chips and biochips, or maybe just the latter.

Created by an organic process, the biochips no doubt might have complexity and power far beyond those of old-fashioned machines with silicon.[11]

What's more, instead of a machine acting like a man, scientists might help join men with machines, with everyone receiving brain implants at birth. Men might turn into Hal before Hal became a man. For years science-fiction writers had been predicting cyborgs, man-machine unions.

In some ways, humans might forever defy emulation. "Even with computers' vast memories, I'm skeptical as to whether a machine could give judgments based on ethics," said another of the questioners, Jerry terHorst. "How can executives live with this situation? Might computers have a way of taking the sharp edge off ethical questions? Quite often you can put things in a machine or say things to a machine, but maybe-because of the way it operates-you must conform to its system. You can't very well couch an ethical question for the machine, because I don't think a computer can weigh it ethically. It can certainly weigh it procedurally, but whether it can weigh it ethically is another question. I'm wondering whether computers might get in the way of having to make some of the ethical decisions that businesses are always required to make."

Clarke replied, "It will certainly be some time before computers understand ethics (not too many humans do, for that matter), but in the long run it is impossible to rule out any aspect of human activity which cannot be reproduced or at least imitated by computer to any desired degree of precision. Of course, some things will be too complicated to be worth doing." Elsewhere in the response Clarke did say: "I know nothing about corporate or any other form of management, but obviously in principle computers can assist decision making greatly. However--GIGO!" Garbage in, garbage out!

Already electronic decision programs were available for businessmen, helping them consider financial factors-but in most cases, not very much more. Besides, the people who most needed guidance from "ethical" software would be the least likely to use it. Imagine Richard Nixon booting up a disk to ponder if he should cover up Watergate.

All this wasn't an abstraction for terHorst. He himself had resigned as press secretary in a disagreement with Gerald Ford over the Nixon pardon. Now he worked as Washington public affairs director for another Ford, the car company. It undoubtedly had banks of computers, and like any other automakers', they must be toting up the costs of adding various safety precautions to cars. Critics of the auto industry charged that manufacturers considered only their ledgers-the cost of the precautions versus that of lawsuits. Would software someday weigh the ethical issues along with the numbers, and should it? That was hardly a question just for the auto industry. What about a construction company evaluating building materials of different strengths? Or a book publisher weighing its profitability against the menace to public health that would result from publication of a fad diet book. I was reactionary enough to consider those final decisions forever beyond the realm of even computers as sophisticated as HAL. In the future, though, how many executives would feel that way? Jerry terHorst's ethics question was easily my favorite.

Return to Shortcuts


TerHorst also asked, "What about the general issue of trust among people communicating by computer? Can people make policy, sign contracts, settle multimillion questions without shaking hands? You can have two people with computers in different locations calling up the same statistics from the same memory bank. Yet isn't it possible that the necessary trust may not occur until the two get together in person?"

"Your point that people must meet to establish trust is one theme of my novel Imperial Earth," Clarke replied. "After that, they can work together through telecommunications.

"I had unexpected confirmation of this idea from a visiting reader who happened to be the Russian ambassador-at-large in charge of the Indian Ocean. He said, 'You're quite right. You have to look into the other fellow's eyes before you can negotiate.'"

In Imperial Earth a man from a moon of Saturn visits Washington in 2276 to celebrate the U.S. quincentennial and cultivate his family's terrestrial political contacts. Wreckers have razed the original Watergate complex-over the objections of the Democrats, who wanted it saved as a national monument-but in many ways politicians and statesmen are the same as in the darkest twentieth century. They seek personal contact with each other. "Only after that contact, with its inevitable character evaluation, had been made, and the subtle links of mutual understanding and common interest established," writes Clarke, "could one do business by long-distance communication with any degree of confidence."

A booster of telecommuting might nod. He'd insisted that we meet face to face, and I suspected I could have enjoyed slightly better cooperation from a few other interviewees for this book if we had been in the same rooms. Wires and satellites could never eliminate travel.

Granted, some researchers might say the next year that people tended to use stronger words in computer conferences, perhaps to make up for the lack of body language and other visual clues. Reportedly, the decisions from such conferences tended to be more radical-involving much more risk or not enough-than those made face-to-face.

Just the same, computer "meetings" could greatly reduce travel once the people at the various ends had established the basic trust. Clarke had written two decades ago, "The business lunch of the future could be conducted perfectly well with the two halves of the table ten thousand miles apart; all that would be missing would be the handshakes and exchange of cigars."[12]

That might or not be with television contact. The absence of it, however, wouldn't be the ultimate disaster. In concentrating on the other person's message, you might be less vulnerable to misleading clues from facial expression, body movement, or clothing. Clarke himself enjoyed creating different personae for different audiences; once his sarong had shaken up an IBM convention. A Washington reporter described him at another time as "a paunchy fellow" with thinning hair, "math-teacher glasses, discreet hearing aid ... red velvet slippers and unbelted pants" who looked "like some kind of GS-12 from the Bureau of Poultry Audits. And he wants you to see his Kermit the Frog doll."[13] Yet this same man could don dark suits for book jackets and deliver august speeches to statesmen.

Beyond reducing the opportunity for visual distractions, long distance contact by phone or computer offered. another advantage in my opinion. You could reach more people in a given time to confirm their facts; you weren't twiddling your thumbs in cabs and airport lobbies or wearily working the horn locally from a hotel room with a bed fit for a steel-spined dwarf.

Return to Shortcuts


That still left the question of what kind of office you would talk to the world from. Margaret Phanes of Kaypro wanted to know. The week Margaret asked about the office of 2001, she said she was in the middle of reading Clarke's novel Rendezvous with Rama. In her opinion, Clarke brought about "synchronicity." He himself, in fact, had once told of "preposterous" coincidences in his own life, and he'd peopled Imperial Earth with characters like "George Washington," a twenty-third-century Virginian who lived on a museum's plantation named Mt. Vernon. If "synchronicity" or other coincidences had worked for Dickens, then why not Clarke and Phanes? Or Rothman? Trying to puzzle out some technical details of my computer-to-computer link with Clarke, I'd run into two noncelebrities who had met him. And what about his neighbor--visiting Washington-through whom I'd passed the questions from Margaret and the others? Coincidence needn't be mystical. I was happy enough for it simply to be useful.

Replying to Margaret's questions about what the office would be like in 2001, Clarke had a problem. For decades he had been working at home. "My 'office,' if you can call it that--it looks like a snake-pit with all the cables on the floor--is just ten feet from my bedroom. I can appreciate your questions are very important, but they're outside my frame of reference."

Clarke may have replied in a limited way to Phanes, however, when he answered a question from Seymour Rubinstein.

He'd asked Clarke about the possibility of briefcase computer tapping into worldwide networks to do complicated processing of information. Just how would that affect people?

Years ago Clarke had said a business eventually wouldn't even need "an address or a central office-only the equivalent of a telephone number. For its files and records will be space rented in the memory units of computers that could be located anywhere on earth. The information stored in them could read off on high-speed printers whenever any of the firm's offices needed it."[14] And now Clarke was predicting little portables capable of using the giant networks and memory banks. "It seems to me that as computers become more and more portable and networks more universal (and systems, standardised-a MUST!) there may no longer be any question of 'micros in the office.' The office will be in the micro-and that will be in an attaché case."' Rubinstein himself already knew that Epson was about to market its little lapsize machine with WordStar built into the read-only memory.

Rob Barnaby, the WordStar programmer, asked a slightly overlapping question covered by the same answer. There was something else for them from Clarke, however-his thanks.

"I am happy to greet the geniuses who made me a born-again writer," he said. "Having announced my retirement in 1978, I now have six books in the works and two [probables]-- all through WordStar." [15]

Return to Shortcuts


James Watt, the descendant of the Scottish inventor, also figured to an extent in Clarke's work, in the sense that the Haunted Book Shop sold it. "A computer disk the size of a phonograph record can hold about 54,000 frames of pictures," Watt observed in his questions, "enough for a large encyclopedia. Does that mean we'll see the end of going into a bookstore and buying a bestseller? Are we going to lose the printed word as we know it today? Will 'book' buying become a computerized activity? Will I call up XYZ computer firm and then peruse disks at my leisure?"

"Nothing will ever replace books," Clarke reassured him. "They can't be matched for convenience, random access, nonvolatile memory (unless dropped in the bath), low power consumption, portability, etc.

"But information networks will supplement them and replace whole categories, e.g., encyclopedias and telephone directories (as is being planned in France)."

Clarke was more sanguine about Watts's fear that computerized shopping might "dehumanize us" and clerks might vanish. He said, "I believe personal service will become more and more important and hopefully more and more available as older occupations disappear. We'll 'window-shop' through home terminals but will still discuss important products with salesmen, even if they're hundreds of kilometers away!"

The seventh questioner, Lynn Wilson, had worked several decades for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, only to see computers do away with the rotary switches he had so lovingly attended.

"They've sent all my equipment to the smelter's to reclaim the metal," he said. "I don't know if anyone's still in the building. Maybe a few times a week someone goes by. 'The equipment tests itself twenty-four hours a day and flashes a red light for the serviceman next time he's there." Just a few boxes had replaced the long rows of devices that connected the dial phones in the area of Alexandria, Virginia.

But Lynn didn't feel any futility. The telephone and teletype themselves had superseded another invention he used-the Morse Code telegraph.

He'd pounded out messages at up to forty words per minute for the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, and he still recalled an old saying reflecting his pride in his craft:

"If a telegram takes more than twenty-four hours to be delivered, it has whiskers."

My friend had a feel for the scraps of history. For years he'd kept a Teletype message announcing the Third Reich's surrender, and I asked about the ARC-5 receiver that he'd given me: could it really have flown over Germany? "Go to the Air and Space Museum in Washington," Lynn said, "and you'll see a cockpit with an ARC-5. I've even seen an ARC-5 with a .50-caliber bullet hole fight through it."

Lynn was hardly a foe of every piece of post-ARC-5 technolgy. In late 1983 he hoped to be among the hams talking on two-meter wavelength to an astronaut aboard the space shuttle.[16] Just the same, Lynn feared the years ahead--not so much his own fate as other people's.

"Aren't computers turning people into useless objects against their will?" Lynn asked Clarke. Gene Meyer, Eric's father, of course had wanted Eric to ask a somewhat similar question. But it meant more coming from Lynn.

"Computers eliminate people, who take vacations, sick leave, and retirement," he said. "I myself haven't suffered. I took voluntary retirement at full pension at sixty-two. But computers were why I left then instead of sixty-five. I would have had to go to school for three years, and by then I would have been ready for regular retirement. So it didn't make sense for me to stay. But not everyone can retire at full pension when the new technology takes over. What do you do about the people being forced out? What's the answer?"

Return to Shortcuts


"Anyone who can be turned into a useless object against his or her will is one!" Clarke told Lynn. "You obviously weren't."

That was too pat an answer for me. The other day I'd talked to my old state editor, who'd visited Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland on Lake Erie. He feared that Lorain might become a husk of a town. A decade ago, when I'd been a reporter there, more than eight thousand had worked at the U.S. Steel mills, and Dick worried that the company might pull out of Lorain except for a bare-bones plant employing just a few hundred. Downtown, he'd seen dozens of shattered store windows. Oddly, however, the newspaper enjoyed some new subscribers-Dick said some of his friends could afford to do little more than watch television and read. Were Dick's friends to be shrugged off as "useless objects"? In Imperial Earth Clarke had told of stringent population control, Of an American Midwest replanted with forests, of steel mills neatly preserved as museums; but three centuries earlier, Lorain untidily abounded with angry, idle men. Cheap steel imports were one threat to them. So, perhaps, was the eagerness of many steel company officers to pour their capital into more profitable industries. But computers and other high tech also had helped deprive Lorain of some steel jobs.

In the future, however, couldn't even a factory technician telecommute-overseeing robots from home and using them to turn out custom-crafted products requiring a human "touch"? Ideally, America in 2001 would be producing something besides "information," Big Macs, and look-alike toasters. And ideally, too, average workers could afford to enjoy the cornucopia. In fact, widespread genetic enhancement of lQs might eventually make everyone capable of appreciating high tech at a high level, so that "workers" in the old sense disappeared. Huxley's Brave New World hierarchy might never exist, and in the twenty-second century we might all be Alphas smarter than any of today's computer wizards. Robots would be our real Epsilons.

Meanwhile, regardless of the traumas of society at large, some of the most unlikely people could befriend new machines. Jack LaVriha--the cigar-chomping newspaperman in Chapter 8 who dated back almost to the Front Page days--had done fine in the Lorain Journal's electronic city room.

Even Rima Meyer, the weaver, had made peace with the family Kaypro. Just a few months ago Eric's mother had given me the impression that she wouldn't use the computer for a long time if at all. But now Gene had nearly finished his Maryland book--freeing up the Kaypro for her to practice on. "I use it for personal correspondence and for the fliers for the weaving classes I teach anything that requires good, clean copy," she said. The Meyers, in fact, didn't even have a working typewriter in the house. Well, I thought, so much for all my blather about mandolin players and electric guitars.

To be sure, computerization would rarely be as worry-free and blissful as the advertisements depicted it. There would be computer crime, disk crashes, all the other high-tech woes. Few people would take to computers as naturally as had Charlie Bowie, with his playful, Hawkeye-Pierce attitude toward his little Zenith.

And how many could save their companies $200,000 a year like Alan. Scharf? Or experience the exhilaration of Peter Hyams when Arthur Clarke's letters flashed across his green screen? Or the satisfaction that Rob Barnaby received by writing a software classic like WordStar?

But if computer users not only chose their machines and software well but used them well, if they formed users groups rather than trust peripatetic sales reps, if they avoided technobullies and hired consultants carefully, if they trained employees in a nonintimidating way, if they computerized humanely as well as efficiently, if they safeguarded their data security, if they prepared for the future through telecommuting when appropriate, if they showed persistence and sense, enough rewards were there, and they'd find the Silicon Jungle to be not only survivable but friendly.

Return to Shortcuts


Back in 1984 Arthur Clarke had written of computer networks becoming "more universal." Could I use the Internet, the most universal net of them all, to find Eric Meyer--who, by now, must be either in graduate school or just out of college? The InfoSeek search engine listed two possibilities near the top of the first page. The first Eric was at the University of Pennsylvania, a school that I could easily see Eric attending, and so I keyed in the Web address.

"Bow your heads to the King of all UPenn homepages!!!" the headline greeted me. A nude blonde was reclining, a woman with obvious Playmate-of-the-Month potential; a "meter" showed that more than 25,000 had visited the page.

I wondered what an ethereal man like Arthur Clarke would have thought of this use of technology. The menu on the Pennsylvania Eric's page came with links on such topics as "sports," "entertainment," "intoxicants" and "DA Juice," otherwise known as O.J. Sampson. Technically this was one of the best pages I'd seen on the Web. The creator was a virtuoso. But somehow I felt uncomfortable imagining Eric growing up into an electronic Hugh Hefner, and I wondered if I could somehow change reality by clicking on the next choice from InfoSeek.

The second Eric Meyer listed was also handy with HTML, the language used to build Web pages. But the design and content of the second Eric's page were entirely different--much more businesslike. I saw a picture of a dark-haired young man wearing glasses, a blue shirt, and a tie. The top read:

Eric E. Meyer - Photographer

(919) 598-7572 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Durham, N.C.

Thank you for visiting my home page.
Who am I? I am a graduate of UNC,
a full-time fire fighter for the City of Durham,
and a free-lance photojournalist.

The curly hair and the glasses jibed with my memories. But could this Eric be a firefighter? Rima hadn't wanted young Eric to climb up on the roof to work on his amateur radio antenna. I clicked on the resume. It promised "Experience working at heights including rescue training and rock and roll rigging." Then again, Gene, Eric father, was and is a Washington Post writer; and in fact, the resume did look as if it could come from a newspaper man's son. I saw mentions of internships at the Washington Times and the Durham Herald-Sun. While a student, this second Eric had also worked as an electrician and scenery builder for theaters in the Washington-Baltimore area and elsewhere. I scrolled down. Under "Other Publications" I saw Maryland Magazine, Mid Atlantic Country, Skylines, and, finally, the Washington Post.

Return to Shortcuts

I expected and wanted this Eric to be the right one. Why, he'd even gone to my old school. Still a little uncertain I called the phone number listed on the Web page. A woman answered. "Is Eric there?" I asked. She said no. "Is his father's name Gene," I asked, "and does he come from the Washington area?" The answer in each case was yes. Amy--that was the name of Eric's girlfriend--gave me a pager number.

When Eric and I finally talked, I couldn't help but remember that he wanted to be a software tycoon. Instead he'd gone into the photography and theater, and now fire fighting. I appreciated both the eclecticism and the change of mind. As a 12-year-old I myself had dreamed of being an electronics engineer, and, like him, I'd gotten a ham radio license. The older I grew, however, the more math-proof I'd become. "So," I more or asked less asked, "why did you change?" Eric told me that he had chosen instead to concentrate on his other interests rather than computers.

Clearly, however, even if Eric hadn't become a master UNIXhead, he felt at home on the Net. His page showed an impressive familiarity with coding for Netscape, the most popular Web browser. You might say that the page itself was a well-done piece of software.

At my urging Eric went on about his career. He had joined the fire department because he enjoyed the work--and who could argue, given the usefulness of it?--and the steady income. What's more, he could still pursue other ambitions. He was going to work part-time for an electronic offshoot of the Raleigh News & Observer.[17] I could think of many Erics, now: liberal arts majors who had melded their academic backgrounds with an intelligent appreciation of technology. Soho now teemed with multimedia artists. In some ways for better and in some for worse--I enjoyed the lack of pretension of most techies--the Net was opening up to the world at large.

I remembered what Rima, his mother, had said about children and technology, and whether children in the future would still be writing poetry. Well, surprise of surprise, more and more poets and short story writers were on the Web. Browsing the Web I myself had discovered a young novelist whom my agents were hoping to represent.

About the population at large, however, I wasn't so confident. With Net becoming more and more visual and aural, it might actually harm literacy in the long run if we didn't react properly. I wanted books to survive, not just little morsels of hypertext. That was one reason I favored a TeleRead program to encourage the production of compact, low-cost machines with sharp screens and good detachable keyboards--just right for reading and writing. Silicon Valley for the moment was concentrating on games-friendly machines in a much higher price range. Prices eventually would decline. But in the end I wondered if the video-games mentality would indeed prevail among the population in general.

I shifted the subject back to Eric's parents. The word was that Rima had her Ph.D. now and was doing some kind of training working for the General Accounting Office. She and Gene had split. He'd married a woman he knew from his newspaper guild work, and now Eric had two younger half-siblings. As a prophet I felt a little humbled. Here I'd been hoping to predict the progress of technology, and it was hard enough anticipating the destiny of just one family.

Return to Shortcuts

Looking over the chapter, however, I could see that both Clarke and I hadn't done too badly on the whole. My biggest short-term mistake was to underestimate the resilience of the American PC industry. The guts of most personal computers still tended to come from overseas, and the Japanese still ruled in areas such as flat-panel displays, the production of RAM chips, and laser engines. But Americans still dominated in two crucial areas--operating systems and central processing units such as the Pentium chip. "Intel Inside" meant plenty, the Pentium fiasco notwithstanding. Intel was selling motherboards now, and rivals worried that it might even start making complete computers. Beyond doubt the Intel-Microsoft combo was setting the direction of the industry.

This didn't mean, however, that American supremacy in hardware was an eternal given. Just as Intel had progressed from chips to motherboards, so could suppliers of parts move on to entire computers. Third World countries were nurturing their own Silicon Valleys, staffed in part by experts returned from education in the United States. Many if not most of the world's disk drives came from outside the States. What's more, the real growth of the computer market would happen not in New York or California but in Beijing or Warsaw. Americans would no longer enjoy such a hometown advantage. I hadn't anything against overseas people--in fact, I was heartened by the progress they had made--but I didn't want to see Americans suffer.

If nothing else, the U.S. computer industry might increasingly face a disadvantage in the future. The Americans owed their leadership to their nimbleness, their speed of innovation. But now the marketers had won out at many companies such as Apple, and ultimately, I suspected, the pace would be more TV-like--which could only work to the advantage of imitators overseas. What's more, NEC had recently paid $170 million for a 19.5 percent stake in Packard Bell, one of the giants of the PC industry in the States.

From an American perspective, software posed problems of its own. In past years, programming had been an intricate craft like hand-weaving, but now it was more factorylike; more and more programmers would be manipulating pre-fab "objects," making the individual humans easier to replace. Already some $50,000-a-year Americans programmers were training foreign replacements who were willing to work at a fraction of domestic wages. Thanks to the low cost of networks, moreover, some "electronic immigrants" needn't even set foot in the U.S. to displace elite workers here.

In The Silicon Jungle more than a decade ago, I'd written of factory workers losing their jobs; now even the college-educated middle class was no longer safe. I hadn't any doubt that the Eric Meyers eventually find work in the fields for which they had been trained. But what about the people below--for example, the high school graduates who in past years wouldn't have completed with so many college grads for the same jobs in North Carolina firehouses? I remembered Lorain, the archetypical blue-collar town, where the street signs had been Martian-colored from the mill fumes. Some big furnaces still blazed away, but with a fraction of the previous workforce. The old U.S. Steel plant had new owners, the Japanese.

And yet there was hope. For one thing, like the domestic computer-makers, the American steelmakers had proven hardier than the skeptics could ever have foreseen. They had smartened up both their plants and their workers. Perhaps the country as a whole could do this more systemically, while allowing for the fact that, yes, the new technology would reduce the number of workers needed. I could appreciate the arguments of Jeremy Rifkin when, in The End of Work, he called for more emphasis on socially useful nonprofit organizations. Eventually the new technology could increase tax revenue for, say, grants to the Red Cross or the YMCA or those other staid but essential nonprofits that had gotten short shrift in a corporately oriented country. Even more important, the new technology could mean shorter work weeks, opening up more opportunities for Americans to volunteer. Why, we might even see a return to the time when, gasp, just one parents could support a family, just as in the Ozzie-and-Harriet days. Some might say, "Well, what about competition from abroad?" But labor costs might matter less as factories became more automated and as just-in-time delivery became even more important.

Return to Shortcuts

Reading some recent predictions of Arthur Clarke--the ultimate technophible--I saw that in some ways his expectations of the future were not that different in some ways from Rifkin's. Nowadays Clarke's visions were a little less harsh than what he had told Lynn Wilson ("Anyone who can be turned into a useless object against his/her will is one"). In an interview with editor Russell Johnson of The Connected Traveler, Clarke had alluded to Frederick Pohl's science fiction story about a highly automated society with "very few jobs that require highly-skilled and educate people." So "most of the public will have to become consumers." They would have to wear out at least a certain number of suits and devour their quota of meals or risk big trouble. "The answer, if there is an answer, has to be in education," Clark had said, "and there I put a lot of hope in the new technologies, the satellite technologies which can, in principle, educate people although , I'm afraid, all too often they don't."

I wondered what he'd have thought of plans for gambling and home shopping on the Infobahn. Then I picked up on a little nuance that perhaps Rifkin, too, might have noticed. Clarke had referred to the people in Pohl's world as consumers. I, anyway, would more likely have called them citizens, a term suggesting less passivity and more personal responsibility.

Let's examine Arthur Clarke's other predictions in response to various questioners.

Clarke told Eric Meyer that computers would be able to take dictation by 2001. And in fact, for well under $1,000 today, you could buy a speech recognition package that allowed just that. You might have to speak just so, but products were on the market to allow exactly what Eric had asked about. Score one for Clarke. Why, tiny, tablet-sized computers with impressive dictation capabilities weren't that far off. In the same breath, so to speak, Clarke had told Eric that dictation-taking computers might lead to "better elocution and rationalisation of spelling." That optimistic notion was still science fiction. But with half a dozen or so years to go, perhaps it would happen yet--as speech-recognizing computers became more common.

More than a decade earlier, Eric had also asked about HAL. Reassuringly perhaps, that vision wasn't here yet, nor had Clarke expected it to be. More intriguingly, however, in Profiles of the Future, he had alluded to the possibility that "the first genuine thinking machines may be grown rather than constructed." And nowadays the avante garde in computer science nowadays were indeed thinking more and more about biochips.

Return to Shortcuts

Jerry terHorst, the auto executive who had been in the Ford White House after the Nixon pardon, had asked about ethics. Once again Clarke's answer had held up. A silicon ethicist was still a long way from Computer City or even MIT. TerHorst had also wanted to know about trust, and Clarke had replied that people summoned up more if it if they met first with the other person. There, too, time had shown Clarke right. Online communities such as The WELL and Echo had survived partly because of the trust their members had build in parties and at each other's homes. Trust wasn't necessarily limited to such circumstances, of course; I'd successfully used a researcher up in Canada whom I'd never met except by phone and computer. But off-line meetings would help, even after video conferencing was commonplace. A Catch 22 of teleconferencing existed. If the shot of the other person were too tight, you might could pick up facial expressions but miss out on body language. And if the camera were too far off, you might suffer the reverse.

Margaret Phanes of Kaypro had wanted to know about the office of the future, and Clarke said it was "outside my frame of reference" because he worked at home with cables all over the floor. A decade later tens of millions of American white-collar people were working at least part time at home. Suddenly Clarke's frame of reference overlapped with many others. The day I was writing this postscript, I'd shopped for what once would have been an exotic piece of gadgetry--a scanner to convert text into data that a computer could handle. I'd done a good part of my looking not at high-tech stories but in ordinary discount stores with competitive prices.

Seymour Rubinstein, the WordStar developer, has asked about effect of briefcase computers accessing vast networks to process information. The question in some ways seemed a little quaint nowadays; nowadays even Pentium-class computers could be a fraction of the size that that Rubinstein had mentioned. Clarke himself had covered all bets by predicting ever-smaller computers. That wasn't the only issue. I suspected that Rubinstein may have envisioned such applications for corporations, and today even individuals could tap into networks to obtain airline reservations. More important, in many cases, they used the Internet to access information that other individuals had stored in their own desktop computers. And everyone could use Lycos, InfoSeek, Webcrawler, and other powerful search engines on the Internet, so that, for example, a Clarke reader could effortlessly discover my Web site in Virginia and a young researcher's fan club in Brazil at the same time. The Net itself, as has often been observed, had become a giant computer consisting of thousands of machines.

My Web page didn't live inside a mainframe. Rather it was on the hard disk of a little workstation 30 or 40 miles away in the Maryland barn that housed my Internet provider. Indeed Clarke seemed to have anticipated such possibilities. Decades ago he'd envisioned a day when people could rent space inside the memories of computer anywhere on earth, and the Net allowed exactly that--I could easily have accessed the workstation from Denmark or New Zealand. What's more, Clark was eerily prescient when he said that a business eventually wouldn't need a physical address, just "the equivalent of a phone number." No matter where I might be on the planet, people could reach me at [email protected]. Furthermore, phone companies were already preparing for the day when the same phone numbers could ring average customers--not just the elite--no matter where they were.

Return to Shortcuts

Replying to James Watt back in 1984, Clarke had been wrong in one way and very right in another. Watt had asked, "Will I call up XYZ computer firm and then peruse disks at my leisure." Clarke had said, "nothing will ever replace books." Like Clarke, I didn't think physical books would die entirely. But electronic books eventually would serve as far, far more than just replacements for paper encyclopedias and dictionaries. They would vastly extend the range of choices available to readers--whether through electronic bookstores or TeleRead-style libraries. The hardware for reading the books would become smaller, more powerful, more rugged; I could even envision waterpoofed units fit for steamy climates and, yes, even bathtubs. Pen-style interfaces would be vastly easier to use for flipping pages and navigating within books than would keyboards and mice. The question was simply one of the right hardware, along with the proper content.

Watts had also asked about whether home shopping through computers would "dehumanzie us" and cost clerks their jobs. Clarke hoped that personal service would become more important--he envisioned communications with clerks "hundreds of kilometers away." I agreed. It would happen even before high-quality, two-way video became affordable. Already the Net boasted thousands of electronic storefronts similar to White Rabbit Toys, the toystore about which I'd written in the second chapter of my book Networld! The White Rabbit people took special pride in answering questions promptly via computer, phone, and fax, and they were looking forward to doing the same in an era of two-way net.tv.

Return to Shortcuts

In other ways, too, Clarke had been right or eventually would be--for example, in his proposal that phone companies could abolish all long-distance charges.[18] It might not happen as quickly as he had hoped, by the year 2001, but it was an inevitability. Already, via the Internet Phone, I could talk to people all over the world without paying extra charges beyond the normal $33 a month to my Internet provider. The IP wasn't as reliable or easy as an ordinary telephone, but that could easily change.

All this technology, of course, had its limits. "I've avoided networking like the plague," Clarke had told Russell Johnson. About modems he had said, "I am terrified of getting one because it's like drinking from Niagara Falls."

Still, one could not go back. More than a decade earlier Clarke had taken his first sip and gotten a book out of it, the collection of his exchanges with Peter Hyams. Granted, that was before the mass popularity of the Net. But the thirst would remain. Last I'd read, Clarke had been talking about virtual reality for exploring the surface of Mars. And perhaps sooner or later he would undertake a serious exploration of a reality closer to home--a cyberworld that his invention of the earth satellite helped make more practical: the Internet itself.

Return to Shortcuts


The links below will make sense to people who've read the Clarke chapter and postscript. (Update: Try the URLs here and elsewhere on the Wayback machine if they do not work.)

Arthur Clarke… Arthur C. Clarke Unauthorized Homepage, with news about the just-completed 3001: The Last Odyssey and the latest contact information (scroll to the end of the page). "As Dr. Clarke is now somewhat limited by Post-Polio Syndrome, and has to sleep every afternoon," an assistant has told fans, "you will appreciate that he is unable to deal with any but the most urgent business and personal correspondence." You'll also find earlier advice on how to reach ACC and a recent "Egogram" from Clarke himself--he says he occasionally reads the Unauthorized Homepage. The sites offers, too, a biography, a bibliography, a filmography, Arthur C. Clarke's Laws, Arthur C. Clarke Award Winners, and the Arthur C. Clarke Fan Club Homepage, which tells how to sign on a mailing list. Bravo to Reinaldo Bianchi at the Laboratory of Integrated Systems at Universidade de São Paulo, who founded the club and designed the superb homepages!… Russell Johnson's Sri Lanka & Arthur C. Clarke… Jeff Greenwald's Arthur C. Clarke On Life (and Death), a Wired interview… The 2001 Internet Resource Archivealt.books.arthur-clarke newsgroup... Story on Clarke from the Lincolnshire Post-Polio Network. This is the disease from which ACC now suffers.

Sri Lanka… Sri Lanka Home PageSri Lankan Internet Web SiteAdventures in Sri Lanka, by Erik Futtrup Soerensen… Return to Sri Lanka - A Travelogue by Erik Futtrup Soerensen… Sri Lanka and Maldivessoc.culture.sri-lanka newsgroup, full of the latest news and gossip from the island… Links via Yahoo

Science fiction links by way of Point Communications CorporationVia YahooScience fiction writers via Yahoo

NASA home page.

Future of Computing... Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality. An MIT Press book edited by David G. Stork (of Ricoh and Stanford University), with a preface by Arthur C. Clarke and other contributions from a stellar collection of authors.

A few details about Kaypro from the San Diego Daily Transcript. The company was CP/M oriented and didn't survive the transition to the MS-DOS operating system.

Amateur radio links via Yahoo.

A review of Jeremy Rifkin's book The End of Work, from PERSPECTIVE, Harvard-Radcliffe's Liberal Monthly. The reviewer, Jedediah S. Purdy, was right to raise questions about the likelihood of today's decision-makers agreeing to the changes Rifkin has in mind for a more people-oriented society with shorter workweeks. In the long run, however, Rifkin is right. The number of people needed to make automobiles, and even some kinds of computer programs, will keep declining. We'd damned well better think of how to keep people occupied usefully. Rifkin makes some rather convincing arguments that his model could actually hold out some advantages for the elite. Modern capitalism depends on a vast market for consumer goods. The elite can only buy so many houses, so many luxuries. Far, far better, then, to encourage ordinary citizens to engage in useful, satisfying work for nonprofits or directly for the beneficiaries--for example, children who need tutoring or the elderly who need companionship. Yes, you heard it: the W word. In the end Rifkin isn't proposing an end to work, just a different kind of it. And I like what he is saying, and it may well be that someday enough other people will, too, for much of his vision to become reality. If nothing else, the Rifkin model would lead to much greater social stability than the world enjoys today. You might want to take a look at writings, by Rifkin and other people, on the issue of work and technology.

Return to Shortcuts


[1] New York: Ballantine Books, 1985. [Return to main text]

[2] For some of Clarke's own writing on the future, readers might turn to 1984: Spring: Choice of Futures, published by Ballantine Books, New York, 1984. [Return to main text]

[3] Eric later decided to change the name of his company to EMCO Computer Consulting. [Return to main text]

[4] The actual beginnings of the micro age, less romantically, go back to the invention of the microprocessors central processing unit on one chip-in 1970. It happened at Intel, an electronics company in Santa Clara, California, and was the idea of a young Stanford University grad named Ted Hoff. [Return to main text]

[5] The book appeared under the title Maryland Lost and Found: People and Places from Chesapeake to Appalachia. The publisher was Johns Hopkins University Press. [Return to main text]

[6] Clarke's forgetting to insert the disk in the B drive should underscore a truism: all computer users can commit idiocies. Once I owned a printer that I couldn't use without unplugging my modem. Things worked the other way around, too--as some people discovered when they tried to communicate with me over the phone but couldn't because I'd forgotten to yank out the printer cable and put in the modem's. [Return to main text]

[7] Mite's auto-answer feature won't work without an appropriate modem. My own modem was manually activated, meaning that I couldn't take advantage of this wrinkle. I could, however, switch on the modem when Peter called. And for him, that would realistically duplicate the experience of reaching Clarke's computer. [Return to main text]

[8] A Ballantine paperback titled The Odyssey File, records much of the computer dialogue between Clarke and Hyams. Very briefly Clarke also writes of the link in Ascent to Orbit: The Technical Writings of Arthur C. Clarke, released by John Wiley & Sons, New York, in 1984. [Return to main text]

[9] President Reagan's campaign schedule and trip to China forced him to cancel his April 1984 meeting with Clarke. [Return to main text]

[10] In the postscript of Ascent to Orbit, Clarke described himself and Hyams as "lousy typists." They may be in terms of accuracy but not speed--and, of course, with a computer, you can correct mistakes so easily that accuracy becomes secondary to speed. [Return to main text]

[11] In the early 1960s Clarke himself wrote in Profiles of the Future that "the first genuine thinking machines may be grown rather than constructed; already some crude but very stimulating experiments have been carried out along these lines. Several artificial organisms have been built that are capable of rewiring themselves to adapt to changing circumstances." [Return to main text]

[12] Clarke's conjecture about the business lunch of the future appears in Profiles of the Future, Harper & Row, New York, 1962, P. 194. [Return to main text]

[13] The "Bureau of Poultry" description of Clarke comes from Curt Suplee's Washington Post article of November 16, 1982. Suplee also saw Clarke in nonbureaucratic attire--the sarong. [Return to main text]

[14] Clarke's prediction of a business having "only the equivalent of a telephone number' is from Profiles of thee Future, p. 194. [Return to main text]

[15] Discussing WordStar, Clarke was careful to point out that he had "never used or even seen any other word-processing system" and had "no frame of reference," but found "only a few small nits to pick with my version. (Release 3 of 1981, WU644275C)." Among other things he repeated a complaint I myself have against WordStar 3.0. 'I do wish one could see the printed instructions actually operating on the screen text," Clarke said, "so it wasn't messed up by those ugly control characters. That would also have the enormous benefit of preventing the sort of boob I made for the first few weeks--not closing the print instruction, with horrid results, e.g., underlining to the end of the manuscript!!" [Return to main text]

[16] Alas, Lynn tried but did not successfully make radio contact with the space shuttle. [Return to main text]

[17] Coincidentally the N&O is the very newspaper about which I'd write in my "Pulped Wood vs. Electrons" chapter of NetWorld! [Return to main text]

[18] The Jungle itself didn't discuss the long-distance charge issue. [Return to main text]