Arthur Clarke and Marconi: Waiting for the ultimate phone call

In view of the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (May 17), I would like to share a short essay I wrote in early April 2008.

Courtesy SETI@Home

Waiting for the ultimate phone call
by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sir Arthur C Clarke was a true believer all his life, who ardently wished for a sign from the heavens. Alas, he never received one up to his death on March 19.

No, this had nothing to do with religion, a notion Clarke publicly dismissed as a dangerous ‘mind virus’. Rather, it’s the prospect of life elsewhere in the cosmos – an idea that always fascinated him, and on which he wrote many stimulating stories and essays.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that this topped the three ‘last wishes’ Clarke mentioned in a short video released in December 2007, on the eve of his 90th birthday.

“I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life,” Clarke said, wistfully. “I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ETs to call us – or give us some kind of a sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner rather than later!”

Read full transcript of Arthur C Clarke’s 90th birthday reflections, December 2007

Watch the video on TVE Asia Pacific channel on YouTube:

That ultimate ‘call’ never arrived in time for Clarke. And we have no way of telling which of his wishes would materialize first (the other two being adopting clean energy sources worldwide, and achieving peace in Sri Lanka, where he lived for over half a century).

When it came to ETs, Clarke had a good idea of the probabilities of a positive result in his own lifetime. He knew how it had eluded at least four generations of seekers, including the inventor of radio telegraph itself.

Accepting the Marconi Prize and Fellowship in 1982, Clarke recalled how Guglielmo Marconi had been interested in this prospect. He quoted from a letter he (Clarke) had written to the editor of the BBC’s weekly magazine, The Listener, in February 1939: “…On other planets of other stars there must be consciousness; on them there must be beings with minds…some far more developed than our own. Wireless messages from such remote conscious beings must be possible.”

The letter, sent via the then fledgling British Interplanetary Society, ended as follows: “The only time I met Marconi, he told me of his search for such messages. So far, we have failed to find them.”

After a century of radio and 60 years since its inventor’s death, such proof has yet to be found. However, as Carl Sagan – possibly the best known proponent of the subject – was fond of saying, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Clarke himself is widely attributed as saying: “Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.”

Clarke not only wrote and talked passionately about the subject for decades, but also supported – in cash and kind – various groups engaged in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

“SETI is the most important quest of our time, and it amazes me that governments and corporations are not supporting it sufficiently,” he said in a 2006 letter supporting public donations to the SETI@Home project at the University of California, Berkeley.

SETI@Home Arthur C Clarke Tribute page

In the early 1990s, he applauded Steven Spielberg, director of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for donating US$ 100,000 to SETI efforts. “It seems only appropriate that Steven…should put his money where his mouth is,” Clarke noted.

Clarke welcomed ET‘s box office success, as it departed from the Hollywood tradition of depicting aliens as malevolent. By showing a highly intelligent being as both benign and vulnerable, the movie stretched the public’s imagination to consider other possibilities. Not all aliens would arrive here to take over our world -– or to serve humanity, medium rare…

But Clarke realised how the vastness of space would make inter-stellar travel difficult and infrequent. It was more likely that signals from advanced alien civilisations would roam the universe at the speed of light.

Together with his long-time friend Carl Sagan, Clarke explored the philosophical implications of SETI – and its eventual success. It should be the concern of every thinking person, he said, “because it deals with one of the most fundamental questions that can possibly be asked: what is the status of Homo sapiens in the cosmic pecking order?”

Clarke believed the detection of intelligent life beyond the Earth would forever change our outlook on the Universe. “At the very least, it would prove that intelligence does have some survival value – a reassurance that is well worth having after a session with the late night news.”

Clarke speculated that ETs may be continuously broadcasting an easily decoded “Encyclopaedia Galactica” for the benefit of their less advanced neighbours. “It may contain answers to almost all the questions our philosophers and scientists have been asking for centuries, and solutions to many of the practical problems that beset mankind.”

He was sometimes ambivalent about the value of such an influx of new knowledge, noting that even the most well intentioned contacts between cultures at different levels of development can have disastrous results – especially for the less advanced ones. He recalled how a tribal chief once remarked, when confronted with the marvels of modern technology: ‘You have stolen our dreams’.

But Arthur C Clarke the perennial optimist continued: “I believe that the promise of SETI is far greater than its perils. It represents the highest possible form of exploration. And when we cease to explore, we’ll cease to be human.”

Clarke’s interest in ETs remained undiminished to the end. In his last media interview, given to IEEE Spectrum in January 2008 from his hospital bed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he said: “I’m sure the ETs are all over the place. I’m surprised and disappointed they haven’t come here already… Maybe they are waiting for the right moment to come.”

He added, with a chuckle: “And I hope they are not hungry!”

I just called to say….I love my mobile phone!

On this World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (May 17), I have a confession to make. I carry a murder weapon on my person every day and night, and I go to bed with it next to me within easy reach. I rely on it for my work, my leisure and my pleasure. And I won’t part with it under any circumstances.

Neither would more than 3.3 billion people worldwide — or half of humanity.

I’m talking about the humble and increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone, now the world’s most widely used and fastest spreading consumer technology item.

And if any paranoid law enforcement agency worries about its murder potential…relax, people – we are talking figuratively here!

How come it’s a murder weapon when it has no sharp edges and is too light weight to do much damage?

What the mobile has already stabbed, and is in the process of effectively finishing off, is the development sector’s over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon called the ‘telecentre’.

For those outside the charmed development circles (which is most of humanity), the Wikipedia describes telecentre as “a public place where people can access computers, the Internet and other digital technologies that enable people to gather information, create, learn and communicate with others while they develop essential 21st century digital skills.”

So how is the mobile phone slowly killing the telecentres, into which governments, the United Nations agencies and other development organisations have pumped tens of millions of dollars of development aid money in the past decade?

Well, it’s rapidly making telecentres redundant by putting most or all of their services into literally pocket-sized units. If everyone could carry around a miniaturised, personalised gadget that has the added privacy value, why visit a community access point?

At least this is the persuasive point made by LIRNEasia researcher Helani Galpaya, who made a presentation in September 2007 at the Annenberg School for Communication in the US.

Courtesy Joy of Tech

She argued that, although telecentres, which have become the bright “stars” in many e-development programs in Asian countries, do have a role to play in providing ‘higher’-end citizen services to people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand, telephones are the cheaper, immediate and ubiquitous tool for Asian governments to inform, transact and interact with almost 400 million of their most needy citizens.

And in these emerging Asian economies, when we talk of telephones it’s predominantly mobiles. In my native Sri Lanka, for example, there were 10.7 million phone subscribers by end 2007 – of them, almost 8 million were mobile users. Mobiles outnumber fixed phones by 3 to 1, and the disparity continues to widen.

Mobile kills the telecentre star‘ was the title of Helani’s presentation – it’s a play on a 1979 song celebrating the golden era of radio, “Video killed the radio star.” For the trivia buffs, it was the first music video shown on MTV.

The song has been the subject of various parodies, and Helani’s isn’t the first or last. But in this instance, I would heartily cheer the rapid demise of the telecentre, which is both conceptually and operationally flawed in many developing countries where it has been tried out. (While at it, let me repeat something that baffles me: how is it that not a single development donor or UN agency foresaw the phenomenal rise of mobile phones in the majority world, and instead bet all their ICT money on computers and internet? And why can’t some of them still appreciate the potential of mobiles, keep harping on obsolete telecentres and other troubled initiatives like One Laptop Per Child?).

It’s also worth noting that hard core development activists were initially against mobile phones, arguing instead for more public payphones, especially in rural areas. Only very recently have they started acknowledging that, just maybe, mobile phone can create or improve jobs, generate incomes and move millions out of poverty. In the humanitarian sector, as I wrote in October 2007, aid workers are still uncertain how to make best use of mobiles in their relief work.

Why are mobile phones somehow not ‘sexy enough’ for these men and women in suits who typically look at our real world problems from 33,000 feet above the ground?

But hey, why bother with doomed concepts like telecentres, when we can instead discuss about the lively and vibrant mobiles? (When the telecentres finally die after being kept on life support by gullible aid donors for a few more years, I hope to write a suitable obituary.)

Meanwhile, who’s afraid of mobile phones except the failed prophets of development and unimaginative humanitarian workers? There’s a handful of crusty, old fashioned people, usually those who can’t figure out just how to use the new fangled devices that do a lot more than just talk. Then there are tyrannical governments who fear the power of instant communication being in the hands of their own people.

The rest of us have now adjusted to Life After the Mobile Arrived. We may love it, or love to hate it — but can we imagine life without it?

And since we’re a blog about moving images, here’s a short film that I wrote and TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007. It was filmed in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and was based on
LIRNEasia’s path-breaking 2006 survey on telephone use at the bottom of the pyramid in emerging Asia. We
premiered at the 3rd Global Knowledge conference in Kuala Lumpur in December 2007.

The film’s synopsis reads:
With the next billion telecom users expected mainly from the emerging markets, we urgently need to understand telecom use, especially at the bottom of the pyramid. Who is using what devices for which purposes — and how much are they willing or able to pay? Capturing highlights of LIRNEasia’s 2006 survey in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, this film shows that when it comes to phone use, the poor are not very different from anyone else.

Teleuse@BOP Part 1 of 2

Teleuse@BOP Part 2 of 2

And now, just when you think I’m a harmless mobile junkie, here’s my real confession:
I own more than one mobile phone (hey, doesn’t everybody?) and stashed away in my travel bag I have a collection of SIM cards with active mobile accounts in half a dozen Asian countries that I visit regularly.

One day soon, when there are enough people like myself moving across jealously guarded political borders, those ITU statistics on ICTs would become seriously skewed….

TVE Asia Pacific News: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets
Teleuse@BOP Film screened at GK3
LIRNEasia 2006 survey on telephone use at the bottom of the pyramid in emerging Asia