Sunday, July 29, 2012

I Remember Babylon

Remember the story Arthur Clarke used to popularize geosynchronous satellites? In it a Chinese agent explains how they'll use such a broadcast satellite to rot and propagandize the US. Salon of course calls it a "bizarre mix of fact and paranoid fantasy", but others just call it prescient. He erred on one major point: it isn't the Chinese but US firms that drive this.
“For the first time in history, any form of censorship's become utterly impossible. There's simply no way of enforcing it; the customer can get what he wants, right in his own home. Lock the door, switch on the TV set--friends and family will never know."

"Very clever," I said, "but don't you think such a diet will soon pall?"

"Of course; variety is the spice of life. We'll have plenty of conventional entertainment; let me worry about that. And every so often we'll have information programs--I hate that word 'propaganda'--to tell the cloistered American public what's really happening in the world. Our special features will just be the bait."


He saw that I was beginning to get bored; there are some kinds of single-mindedness that I find depressing. But I had done Hartford an injustice, as he hastened to prove.

"Please don't think," he said anxiously, "that sex is our only weapon. Sensation is almost as good. Ever see the job Ed Murrow did on the late sainted Joe McCarthy? That was milk and water compared with the profiles we're planning in 'Washington Confidential.'

"And there's our 'Can You Take It?' series, designed to separate the men from the milksops. We'll issue so many advance warnings that every red-blooded American will feel he has to watch the show. It will start innocently enough, on ground nicely prepared by Hemingway. You'll see some bullfighting sequences that will really lift you out of your seat--or send you running to the bathroom--because they show all the little details you never get in those cleaned-up Hollywood movies."

We'll follow that with some really unique material that cost us exactly nothing. Do you remember the photographic evidence the Nuremburg war trials turned up? You've never seen it, because it wasn't publishable. There were quite a few amateur photographers in the concentration camps, who made the most of opportunities they'd never get again. Some of them were hanged on the testimony of their own cameras, but their work wasn't wasted. It will lead nicely into our series 'Torture Through the Ages'--very scholarly and thorough, yet with a remarkably wide appeal."

Clarke was a great one for seeing the possibilities in the technological side of things. It is too much to expect him to foresee the spectrum of social consequences of this sort of media onslaught, or to suspect who would benefit most.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I've managed to avoid seeing things like beheadings online. But it's true I'm pretty used to things no one would have dreamed of publishing in my youth.

As I recall, Clarke tried to patent geosynchronous satellites, but couldn't establish that the technology existed yet. By the time the technology did exist, it was too late to get the patent, for some reason. I forget how that works, but apparently there's no money in being too prescient.