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TVE Asia Pacific tribute to Sir Arthur C Clarke
TVEAP joins millions of his fans worldwide in saluting the celebrated author and techno-visionary. We extend our sincere condolences to his family.
Since our establishment in 1996, Television for Education Asia Pacific – to use our full name - has been engaged in pursuing Sir Arthur's vision of using the potential of moving images to inform and educate the public. Our founders chose to focus on covering development and social issues, with emphasis on the Asia Pacific region – home to half of humanity and where Sir Arthur spent the last half century of his life.
Few other individuals played a greater role than Sir Arthur in creating today's information society. When he proposed the idea of the geosynchronous communications satellite (comsat) in Wireless World in 1945, nobody took any notice – and even he didn't expect it to happen during his life time. But the Space Age lay only a dozen years in the future, and in 1965, the first commercial comsat, Early Bird, was launched.
In his 1964 short story, "Dial F for Frankenstein", Clarke speculated the world's inter-connected telephone system becoming a conscious entity that then takes over the world. British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee later acknowledged how this story inspired him to invent the World Wide Web in 1989.
Sir Arthur didn't just sit in his comfortable Colombo home dreaming up technologically-enabled futures for humanity. He also played a part in creating that future by mentoring professionals, advising the United Nations and governments of the world, and in critiquing the progress of information and communication technologies, or ICTs.
For example, in the early 1970s, he advised the Indian Space Research Organisation on the world's first use of communications satellites for direct television broadcasting to rural audiences. The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) Project (1975-76) beamed TV programming on health, agriculture and other development issues to 2,400 selected villages across India.
By the time TVEAP was created in the mid 1990s, the satellite TV revolution was well underway in the Asia Pacific region, and the internet revolution was just taking off. In informal discussions, Sir Arthur advised us to always keep our eyes open on what's coming up. In the ICT sector, he cautioned, being too closely wedded to one technology or system could lead to rapid obsolescence.
Sir Arthur always cheered when ICT tools empowered ordinary people and activists, enabling the free flow of information, artistic creativity and defending of human rights. Although he hobnobbed with those in power – and was equally welcomed in Washington DC, Moscow, Geneva, Beijing and other world capitals – he always remained an armchair subversive. He watched with unconcealed glee how government censors were undermined first by comsats and then by the web.
He was intrigued by the 'CNN Effect' – the impact that CNN and other 24/7 global news channels have on how states conduct their foreign policy both during and after the Cold War. In his 1992 book How the World Was One, Sir Arthur described a dream: one day in the near future, CNN founder (and then owner) Ted Turner is offered the post of World President, but he politely turns it down – because he didn’t want to give up power!
Just three years later, the then Secretary General of the UN suggested that CNN should be the 16th member of the Security Council. Sir Arthur was fond of quoting this, and once famously told Turner: “You owe me 10 per cent of your income".
It is believed that the CNN Effect played a part in inspiring global aid flows to the Indian Ocean rim countries that were devastated by the tsunami of December 2004. Sir Arthur – whose diving facilities were also destroyed in the mega-disaster – readily offered free advice to governments, relief agencies and the media in the days and weeks that followed. Letter from Sri Lanka (after the Tsunami), by Arthur C Clarke
“ICTs can play an integral part in Asia’s recovery from the tsunami,” he said. “Journalists must return to Asia’s battered coasts, armed with video and digital cameras… the real stories of survival and heroism have only just begun. Let network TV move on to the next big story. Cyber activists and committed journalists can keep these stories alive.”
As we have documented, this call inspired TVEAP's biggest single media project to date, Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future. Not only did Sir Arthur give us an endorsement for the project, but also introduced us to the Arthur C Clarke Foundation in the US, which became a partner in our 4-country, multi-media venture.
In mid 2007, Sir Arthur readily contributed a foreword to the TVEAP/UNDP regional publication, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book. In this 1,700-word essay, Sir Arthur brilliantly linked two 20th century disasters that had deeply affected him: the sinking of the Titanic and the Asian Tsunami. He ended it by cautioning against over-reliance on technology: "The lessons of history are clear: if we are not careful, we can easily lull ourselves into the same kind of false confidence that doomed the Titanic."
The last time we worked closely together was when Sir Arthur released a short video message to mark his 90th birthday in December 2007. This was filmed by his regular Sri Lankan video producers, Video Image (Pvt) Limited, and edited at TVEAP. It was uploaded to TVEAP's YouTube channel a few days ahead of his birthday, creating worldwide interest. We were amazed by the many and varied comments left by visitors from all over the world. The traffic picked up the moment his death was announced.
While strongly believing in the problem solving potential of science and technology, Sir Arthur was very much aware of the socio-economic disparities that prevented many people from accessing or benefiting from ICTs. Writing the foreword to the UN Development Programme's Asia Pacific Human Development Report in 2004, he noted: "The information age has been driven and dominated by technopreneurs — a small army of ‘geeks’ who have reshaped our world faster than any political leader has ever done. And that was the easy part. We now have to apply these technologies for saving lives, improving livelihoods and lifting millions of people out of squalor, misery and suffering. In short, the time has come to move our focus from the geeks to the meek."
Both the geeks and meek of the world united to remember, honour and salute Sir Arthur when he passed away on 19 March 2008 while on his 91st orbit around the Sun. We at TVE Asia Pacific reaffirm our commitment to our founding ideals as the best tribute to the visionary who inspired, challenged and guided us for over a decade.
But we are going to miss our friendly mentor, who kept telling us to 'exploit the inevitable'.
- TVE Asia Pacific Team
Photos by Shahidul Alam, Drik