How Arthur C. Clarke almost 50 years ago accurately predicted our world of global distributed work

Arthur C. Clarke was certainly one of the most prescient people of the last century, anticipating many developments and in fact inventing the geo-stationary satellite on which much of the early media and communication revolution was based.

In this fantastic segment from a BBC broadcast in 1964 he confidently makes two predictions, one absolutely accurate, one completely wrong.

He says (from 1:45 to 3:13):

I’m thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been made possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and above all the communication satellite.

These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location.

It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.

In fact, if it proves worthwhile, almost any executive skill, any administrative skill, even any physical skill could be made independent of distance.

I am perfectly serious when I say one day we may one day have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand.

When that time comes the whole world will have shrunk to a point, and the traditional role of a city as a meeting place for a man will no longer make sense.

Men will no longer commute, they will communicate. They won’t have to travel for business any more, they will only travel for pleasure.

I in fact often use the example of remote surgery (or telesurgery), which was first performed in 2001, in my keynotes to point out how just about any work can be performed anywhere on the planet. The world of remote work that Clarke anticipated is here.

However he was completely wrong in saying that this would mean that cities would cease to exist. In fact urbanization is one of the dominant trends on the planet, with over 60 million people moving to cities every year.

Just because it is so difficult to untangle the multiple threads that shape our future doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or listen to those who do. We can sometimes gain clear visions of what does come to pass, even if it is only in fragments.