Living in the Global Glass House: An Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke

Word map created using http://www.wordle.net

“In the struggle for freedom of information, technology — not politics — will be the ultimate decider.”

These words, by Sir Arthur C Clarke, have been cited in recent days and weeks in many debates surrounding WikiLeaks, secrecy and the public’s right to know.

I invoke these words, and many related reflections by the late author and futurist, in a 2,250-word essay I have just written. Titled Living in the Global Glass House, it is presented in the form of an Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke. It has just been published by Groundviews.org

This is my own attempt to make sense of the international controversy – and confusion – surrounding WikiLeaks. Taking off from the current concerns, I also look at what it means for individuals, corporations and governments to live in the Age of Transparency that has resulted from the Information Society we’ve been building for years.

Sir Arthur foresaw these developments year or decades ago, and wrote perceptively and sometimes in cautionary terms about how we can cope with these developments. As a research assistant and occasional co-author to Sir Arthur from 1987 to 2008, I had the rare privilege of sharing his views firsthand. In this essay, I distill some of the best and most timely for wider dissemination. The above Wordle graphic illustrates the keywords in my essay.

The essay was also prompted by recent experiences. Here’s that story behind the story:

By happy coincidence, I arrived in London on 28 November 2010, the very day the WikiLeaks Cablegate erupted all over the web, beginning to spill out what would eventually be over 250,000 secret international ‘cables’ within the US diplomatic corps.

The Guardian UK that day published an interactive map-based visualization of the leaks. By moving the mouse over the map, readers can find key stories and a selection of original documents by country, subject or people

During the week I spent in London, I experienced not only uncharacteristically early and intense snow storms, but a mounting international storm on the web over the leaked cables. WikiLeaks’ co-founder and chief editor Julian Assange was also somewhere in the UK, playing cat and mouse at the time with the Swedish police and Interpol. (He later turned himself in to the British authorities.)

Sir Arthur Clarke: The legacy continues...

On December 1, the British Interplanetary Society invited me to join their annual Christmas get-together where they were remembering their founder member and past chairman Arthur C Clarke. They talked mostly about the man’s contribution to space exploration, but listening to those fond memories against the wider backdrop of WikiLeaks very likely inspired me to write this essay.

Soon after I returned to Colombo, Transparency International Sri Lanka asked me to speak at a workshop on the right to information they had organised for journalists. Given my reputation as a geek-watcher and commentator on the Information Society, they asked to talk about what WikiLeaks means for investigative journalism. Two days later, the Ravaya newspaper did a lengthy interview with me on the same topic which they have just published in their issue for 19 December 2010.

All these elements and experiences combined in writing this essay. Being confined to home by a nasty cold and cough also helped! In fact, on 16 December when Sir Arthur’s 93rd Birth Anniversary was marked, I was too weak to even step out of the house to visit his gravesite. In the end, I finished writing this Open Letter to him on the evening of that day.

My daughter Dhara and I would normally have taken flowers to Sir Arthur’s grave on his birth anniversary. This year, instead, I offer him 2,250 words in his memory. The fine writer would surely appreciate this tribute from a small-time wordsmith.

Read Living in the Global Glass House: An Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke


Compact version published in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, on 21 Dec 2010

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British Interplanetary Society (BIS) remembers Sir Arthur C Clarke

Humanity’s journey to the stars began here…Photo by Greg Fewer

 

I seem to have a knack for visiting the UK just when Nature decides to remind the hapless islanders who is really in charge. Last April it was the Icelandic volcano Eyjaffjalljokull coughing up. Last week it was sub-zero temperatures and freezing winds coming all the way, with love, from Siberia…

But London’s spirits are not so easily dampened by ash or snow (but they all groaned when their bid for FIFA World Cup 2018 lost to Russia’s). A highlight of my week’s stay was a visit to the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) headquarters on South Lambeth Road.

BIS, founded in 1933 by Phil E Cleator, is the oldest organisation in the world whose aim is exclusively to support and promote astronautics and space exploration. It was originally set up not only to promote and raise the public profile of astronautics, but also to undertake practical experiments in rocketry. But the pioneering British ‘space cadets’ soon discovered that Britain’s the Explosives Act of 1875 prevented any private testing of liquid-fuel rockets.

Undaunted, they continued with their thought experiments, discussions and public advocacy. Perhaps it was just as well that they didn’t get into the messy (and potentially hazardous) business of rocketry. For over 75 years, they have been preparing humanity’s engagement with the realm and challenges of space. Unlike its American and German counterparts, the BIS never became absorbed into the rocket or space industries that developed after the Space Age began in 1957.

Arthur C. Clarke (far right) and other members of the British Interplanetary Society had a visit from rocket pioneer Robert Truax (holding the rocket model) in 1938

I have always admired the BIS for their pioneering role in popularising space travel, and having ha the audacity to dream of it and in public too. So I was delighted to be invited to the BIS annual Christmas get-together on the evening of December 1. This year, they celebrated the life and times of their founder member and two-time chairman, Arthur C Clarke.

Mark Stewart, the energetic librarian and archivist at BIS, heard I was visiting London and invited me to join their members-only event. Mark is currently looking after one of the finest collections on astronautics on this side of the Atlantic. Some records and documents at the BIS Library go back to the 1930s.

It was good to finally visit ‘ground zero’ of where it all began — nothing less than humanity’s long (and eventual) journey to the stars, hatched by a group of starry-eyed youth as an entirely private, citizen initiative. It took another 20 years — and considerable battering of London by Germany’s V2 rockets — for the British government to take it seriously.

I spent the afternoon chatting with Mark and Colin Philip, a BIS Fellow. Joining us later was Mark’s teenage son Alex, a next-gen space cadet already volunteering at the society. They gave me the guided tour — only a few months ago, I heard, a certain N. Armstrong had been similarly shown around. The society is certainly proud of its history and Sir Arthur’s photos, books, papers and posters are prominently displayed.

L to R – Colin Philip, Naaka Gunawardene, Mark Stewart, BIS Library 1 Dec 2010

The evening gathering was attended by 40 – 50 members, who were treated to an illustrated talk by Mat Irvine, British TV personality who has worked on many science and science fiction shows over the years, gave an illustrated talk about his friend Arthur. (Confession: I was so engrossed in his talk that I forgot to take any photos of him making it!)

I was familiar with much of the ground that Mat covered, but there were occasional revelations. For example, I didn’t know that circa 1995, Mat and (Sir Arthur’s brother) Fred Clarke had worked with the Isle of Man Post Office to issue some stamps bearing Sir Arthur’s visage and other iconic images associated with him, e.g. the monolith from 2001, comsats, etc. Alas, the plans didn’t work out, but Mat still has the designs and is hopeful that the British Post Office might consider it for the author’s birth centenary in 2017. Of course, some lobbying will be needed…but there’s plenty of time for that.

Like all non-profits these days, the BIS is struggling financially. It also faces the challenge of recruiting younger members – the average age of the Christmas gathering seemed to be 55 or 60. They have fascinating stories to tell (among them: the inside story how Apollo 13 was saved), but forward transmission requires more new blood.

The Council, I heard, is working on repositioning the society for the Facebook generation, and I wish them every success. ‘Imagination to reality’ is their motto, and they have seen a good deal of day-dreaming of the pioneering space cadets come true.

Nalala Gunawardene (L) with Mark Stewart at BIS Library