Wanted: New Arthur C Clarkes of the 21st Century!

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008)

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008) - photos by Rohan de Silva

Today we mark the first death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke. Exactly one year ago, when he passed away aged 90, I was thrust into a media frenzy. I’d been Sir Arthur’s research assistant and, in later years, his media spokesman and in the hours and days following his death, the family asked me to continue that role.

This blog recorded my experiences and emotions as they happened (see several posts in the latter half of March 2008). A year later, all of us who worked closely with him still miss Sir Arthur, but I can now take a more detached, longer-term view. And that’s what I’ve just done.

In an op ed essay published today in Groundviews website, I argue that sparking imagination and nurturing innovation are the best ways in which Sri Lanka can cherish Sir Arthur’s memory in the land he called home for half a century.

Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices to be put up in his honour or memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and just look around…”

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.

Yet it is fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who invented the communications satellite and inspired the World Wide Web.

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint

In my essay, I suggested: “Instead of dabbling in these banalities, Sri Lanka should go for the ‘grand prize’: nurturing among its youth the intellectual, cultural and creative attributes that made Arthur C Clarke what he was. In other words, we must identify and groom the budding Arthur Clarkes of the 21st century!”

Easier said than done. In fact, in a country like Sri Lanka that is still partly feudal, insular and stubbornly clinging on to the past instead of facing the present and future, this becomes formidable. This is why I noted: “But can imagination and innovation take root unless we break free from the shackles of orthodoxy? For transformative change to happen, we will need to rethink certain aspects of our education, bureaucracy, social hierarchies and culture. Are we willing and able to attempt these?”

I then discuss some of the key challenges involved in nurturing imagination and innovation. I end my essay with these words: “Let’s not kid ourselves: sparking imagination and innovation is much harder than launching a gleaming new satellite in Sir Arthur’s name. But the rewards would also be greater: if we get it right this time, Sri Lanka can finally take its rightful place in the 21st century.”

Within hours of its online publication, the essay has attracted several comments and a discussion is evolving. Just what Sir Arthur would have liked to see happen…

Read the full essay, and join the discussion at Groundviews

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