Arthur C. Clarke envisioning the World Wide Web in 1968


One of the greatest thrills in my life is when I stumble upon a visionary prediction in any form – text, movie, novel, painting, etc. Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most acclaimed science fiction authors of our time, did just that in his famous novel 2001: A space odyssey. Most of us are acquainted with the plot and the scary artificial intelligence named Hal. The whole novel is really revolutionary for the age, but the thing I found most intriguing when I read it, is the detailed description of the technology we know today as the World Wide Web.

1968 was a year marked by student protests, the Vietnam war and the death of Martin Luther King. The Apollo program was well on the way, but would still need to wait one year until men could land on the moon. 1968 also marks the year when Intel, one of the biggest microchip manufacturers in the world was founded. Personal computer was still ages away, but the global network Internet was already being designed. This year UCLA was selected to be the first node of the incoming new network. Since then, things evolved and formed the modern computers and the Internet as we know today, but let's take a look at what our author had to say about it then, in 1968.

"There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of the official reports and memoranda and minutes he would plug his foolscap-sized newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousand of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word ‘newspaper’, of course, was an anachronistic hang-over into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorb the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

It's hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry of depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials – these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull."

Pretty impressive. His vision goes even beyond technology and well describes the role of modern news and media. Predicting all of that in 1968 can only be marked as pure genius, and is a great example of why so many people love sci-fi. Sadly, Arthur C. Clarke passed away in 2008, but shall be remembered forever for many things. Perhaps space travel did not make it as far as he foretold, but looks like he knew how technology, information and media will look 40 years later in stunning detail.

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written 31.1.2010 17:10 CET on chronolog
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