New Year 2011 is here: The Future isn’t what it used to be!

2011 is here! We’re not ones to be easily affected by a mere landmark in our particular system of chronology, but as watchers of popular culture, we go along with the mood of the moment — if only to blend in with the planet’s natives…

As for our own mind (which is large and contains multitudes), Bill Watterson – the inimitable creator of Calvin and Hobbes – has once again captured my thoughts so well…and so colourfully.

The future isn't what it used to be!

As for resolutions, the only one I have is that I get to write more, and get read more widely. What more can a wordsmith ask for?

Besides, I tend to agree with Calvin when he says here…

Change? Why change?

Sri Lanka General Election 2010: Voting for the ‘Undiscovered Country’?

Keeping an eye on his beloved island...?

To melancholic Hamlet, death was an undiscovered country. In Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, the Prince of Denmark hesitates in his consideration of suicide not because of an absolute Christian belief in divine retribution, but because he is afraid of an afterlife of which he cannot be sure.

For the more cheerful among us, the Future is the great Undiscovered Country. It’s a notion that has been used widely by science fiction writers, and in 1991, it was popularised by Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is the sixth feature film in the Star Trek science fiction franchise.

In the movie, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon – talking peace with the Earth Federation – gives a toast to “the undiscovered country — the future”. Spock recognizes the line from Hamlet, and Gorkon tells Spock that one has never read Shakespeare properly until reading the text in “the original Klingon”…

All this forms the backdrop (well, sort of!) to my latest op ed essay, just published by Groundviews citizen journalism website. Titled Voting for the ‘Undiscovered Country’?, and timed for Sri Lanka’s general election 2010, it takes a look at the most important common element discussed and debated during the election campaigns by all parties: Sri Lanka’s future prosperity.

As I note: “Our endlessly bickering political parties rarely agree on anything, so it’s refreshing to see a broad consensus on what this election is fundamentally about: future prosperity.

“That’s no coincidence. This is the first time we elect our law makers since the long drawn and brutal civil war ended in May 2009. We have been looking back — or nervously looking around — for much of the past three decades. It’s about time we finally looked forward.”

I go on to say: “How we wish Sir Arthur C Clarke was still with us at this crucial juncture in our history! For half a century up to his death in March 2008, the author, explorer and visionary was Sri Lanka’s amiable ‘tour guide’ to that ‘Undiscovered Country’ called the Future.

“Whoever wins this week’s election, shaping a better future will need clarity of purpose, hard work and persistence. Those looking for long term vision can start with the substantial volume of essays, interviews and speeches that Clarke has left behind…”

The rest of the essay is a concise exploration of Sir Arthur Clarke’s advice offered to his adopted homeland over several decades, and covering different areas of public policy and public interest such as education, technology, environmental conservation and managing human diversity.

Read the full essay on Groundviews, and join the online discussion.

Note: This essay is partly based on the Arthur C Clarke memorial address I gave at the British Council Colombo on 17 March 2010.

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