Brain Pickings

Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the iPad in 1968

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Unpacking humanity’s collective conscience through ‘the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications.’

In 1964, legendary science fiction writer, inventor, and futurist Arthur C. Clarke predicted the future with astounding accuracy, presaging everything from telecommuting to the digital convergence. It turns out he predicted the future in even more granular detail in his 1968 novel-turned-Kubrick-classic 2001 A Space Odyssey, where in Chapter 9 he describes the “newspad” — a strikingly prescient vision for the iPad.

When [Floyd] had tired of official reports, memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one, he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers. He knew the codes of the more important ones by heart and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference. When he punched that, a postage-sized rectangle would expand till it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he finished he could flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.”

The iPad was released in 2010, two years after Clarke’s death.

The past, of course, has a long history of envisioning the future and presaging its inventions — which is to be expected in a culture of combinatorial creativity where ideas build upon other ideas. As neuroscientist David Eagleman reminds us in the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, one of the 11 best psychology books of 2011:

When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations.”

What is true of a single human brain is no doubt true of humanity’s networked collective conscience.

Margaret Plus

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