Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review - Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke

Short review: Arthur C. Clarke speculates about what the future might be like.

In Arthur Clarke's eyes
Technology will make the
Future beautiful

Full review: Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible is a sort of hybrid science fiction and science book in which Arthur C. Clarke speculates upon possible future advances in technology. Originally published in 1962, this edition was updated and revised through 1984, and thus much of the original speculation has been replaced by concrete fact, and new speculation has been added that accounts for, among other things, the massive advances in communications and computing technology that took place in the interim. Clarke makes clear that he is not attempting to make (or limiting himself to) a prediction of what is likely to happen, but rather setting forth a wide ranging set of possible futures that might come about.

Clarke tackles a different general area of technology in each chapter, and speculates upon the future development of that technology with musings ranging from the relatively modest and highly possible, to some extremely outlandish ideas, some of which would require a violation of the currently known laws of physics to accomplish. Clarke is careful to distinguish between advances that would merely require an improvement in our engineering capabilities from advances that would require us to master entirely new technologies (but would not do violence to the laws of nature as we understand them today) from advances that would require a modification to our current understanding of the workings of the universe.

Using this metric, Clarke is able to distinguish between what he considers to be reasonably probable and what is purely speculative. In fact, in this revised edition, many of the near future advances that Clarke originally predicted in some areas had actually come to pass. The only caveat being that in many cases they transpired much more quickly than Clarke had anticipated, because, in my opinion, Clarke's somewhat utopian socialist leanings blinded him to the fact that commercial usefulness would drive some technologies to advance quickly. On the other hand, the advances in some areas, such as space flight and exploration, have proceeded much more slowly than Clarke believed, and once again it seems, for much the same reason - Clarke believed in a somewhat utopian vision of humanity that made him believe that we would develop technologies that would elevate and enhance what he saw as the better elements of human nature, rather than ones that would have purely crass commercial goals. In short, Clarke's speculations are too hesitant in some areas, and too optimistic in others due to his somewhat starry-eyed vision of humanity.

As an interesting side element, it is clear that the speculations about the future fueled Clarke's science fiction stories. Several of the technologies he speculated upon crop in in various forms in his books, a fact that he comments upon from time to time in this volume. Technologies that drive the plots of The City and the Stars, Imperial Earth, The Fountains of Paradise, and numerous other works by Clarke are highlighted in the pages of this book. In his fiction, of course, all of these technologies are used in ways that Clarke believed would exalt the human spirit, which makes his fiction substantially different from the more recent grittier Alien influenced material that has been produced since the 1980s, leaving Clarke's utopian vision behind in a world of dark corporate dominated science fiction laden with cyberpunk-style overtones. From a certain perspective, Clarke as a writer is the anti-Michael Crichton. Whereas in Crichton's books the technological advances always turn into nightmarish disasters that threaten to maim or kill the characters, in Clarke's books, technology is a helpful tool that aids humanity and provides endless benefits. I think I prefer Clarke's vision of the future, even if it is a little overoptimistic.

For a book originally written in the 1960s, and last updated in the early 1980s, Profiles of the Future holds up remarkably well. This is probably to be expected, as Clarke had a fundamentally sound grounding in the sciences, and thus was able to imagine fairly well what was possible, and connect those possibilities to the needs of humans. The only flaw in the book that that Clarke's vision of what humans want is probably more high-class than the actual wants displayed by our actions. Of course, Clarke does not pretend to be predicting the future, only speculating about what is possible, what is plausible, and what can be dreamed about. On this score, the book is quite good. Anyone looking for a guidebook to how technology will develop in the future is likely to be disappointed. On the other hand, anyone looking for a view into how Clarke viewed humanity, and what the future could look like if we become better people will find this book quite interesting.

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