Years ago, there was a popular song by the Steve Miller Band, “Fly Like an Eagle.” Its refrain went, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” The song had a melody that embedded itself in your brain so that you hummed it to yourself for days.
In 1986, the science and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke published a book modestly titled, “Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century.” What do the two have to do with today’s column? Stay with me.
Published by MacMillan, Clarke’s book proclaimed itself to be “a work of historic speculation.” The 281-page work was about what Clarke thought would likely happen in the next third of a century, based on then-current trends in travel, medicine, robotics, housing, education and so forth.
“Who is this Arthur C. Clarke?” you may ask. I’ll tell you.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) was a British author of some 34 nonfiction books, and many science fiction books, as well as many articles and short stories. He also hosted three TV series, notably the 1980s “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.”
Clarke wrote the screenplay for the 1968 movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” based on his book of the same name. The movie is regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. It won an Academy Award (for Best Visual Effects), was nominated for three others and won nine other prestigious cinematic awards. The 142-minute movie is No. 15 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list, “100 Years … 100 Movies.” The movie cost $12 million to make, grossed $146 million at the box office.
Who better than a sci-fi writer to peek into the future? The French novelist Jules Verne (1828-1905) based his “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1870) on reports he had read of new inventions and discoveries. Who can forget Captain Nemo and the submarine “Nautilus” and the fight with the giant squid in Disney’s 1954 movie with Kirk Douglas and James Mason?
Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” (1873) is another good example of what he called his “voyages extraordinaires.” Again, you remember Disney’s 1956 movie starring David Niven, and may not have read Verne’s book.
Steam engines, a major technological breakthrough, made the steamship and the steam-powered locomotive possible, reducing travel time on land and sea. Ships were no longer at the mercy of the winds. The “iron horse” could go longer and faster than the oat-fueled quadruped. Verne wondered how quickly could one go around the globe? Such a question might make for an interesting novel and it did.
Similarly, Clarke speculated on what may be “just around the corner” from 1986. Column length prohibits going into detail on all 15 chapters of his book, so I’ll focus on Chapter 5: “School Days.” See how much sounds familiar.
Clarke: “But education in 2019 will be an ongoing process that never ends, and in some cases will need no building for its students.” He predicts a student in his own home in a room outfitted for teleconferencing, talking with his teacher’s life-sized three-dimensional hologram. The actual teacher may be 1,400 miles away. “Magnet” schools specialize in everything from teaching very young children to read, to science to finances. Students progress at their own rates. A high school freshman might get college English classes “out of the way.”
Corporations, with franchises, may operate their own institutions of higher learning, perhaps to be called “McSchools.” The McDonalds Corporation operates “Hamburger University” in Chicago.
And the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville trains students in all the facets of a business that is also a sport and requires specialists in many fields, engineering to business to research and development.
As technologies change more rapidly, future workers will have to train and retrain often, just to keep up with fast-changing technologies. My wife’s car, for instance, has a TV camera in the back to assist in backing up to park. How many of yesterday’s “shade tree mechanics” would have thought they would need to know about television to work on autos?
Clarke states that the philosophy behind current education must change. “Our current educational system evolved to produce workers for the Industrial Revolution’s factory-based economy for work that requires patience, docility, and the ability to endure boredom. Students learned to sit in orderly rows, to absorb facts by rote, and to move as a group through the material regardless of individual differences in learning speed.”
Tomorrow’s jobs will need “workers with sharp thinking skills … they will need to know how to learn … the focus will be on teaching how to think and how to learn.”
As mentioned previously, teleconferencing will be commonplace and will result in a more global economy and culture. Clarke foresaw in 1986 that many people could work at home. He also considered that formal education might start around age 4. “Most citizens of the year 2019 will never really graduate returning again and again for classes throughout their lives … much of that education provided by their employers,” he wrote.
Clarke quotes a specialist involved in putting the entire Library of Congress on discs: “In the future books will be on-screen ‘electronic entities [videodiscs?].” “You might read the book or parts of it, on the screen…. “This kind of technology will give kids access to information beyond today’s wildest imaginings — not only virtually anything written, but also images, like any of van Gogh’s paintings.”
Another “futurist” projects that in the near future, students with access to a computer terminal could take classes in calculus, Japanese language or aircraft design, subjects unavailable at a small school, “even if only one pupil is interested.”
All this is from just one chapter of Clarke’s 1986 book. I think it will require a closer reading and some serious thought.
O.C. Stonestreet is the author of “Tales From Old Iredell County,” “They Call Iredell County Home” and “Once Upon a Time … in Mooresville, NC.”