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Clive's New World

SIR CLIVE SINCLAIR has a dream. A dream of the future when all men shall be free from the drudgery of working lives, free to philosophise and cultivate a love of the fine arts. A dream of a silicon civilisation, computerised and automated, safe and sound. A dream of high-speed hovercars, instantaneous long-distance communication, robot doctors, computer teachers and android aids for the elderly. A dream of artificial worlds constructed in the vacuum of space, of mankind realising its destiny and reaching for the stars...

He is not the first to have such a dream. The concept of an Ideal State, a Utopia achieved by man's efforts, has been proposed and discussed by scientists and philosophers for centuries. The belief that advances in science might transform and improve society was first advocated in the early 17th century by Francis Bacon and Tommaso Campanella and satirised by Swift and Johnson a century later. The debate between the proponents and the critics of technological utopias has been continuing ever since.

'Sir Clive has so few fears of the day when the machines take over'

Neither has Sir Clive brought anything new to that debate. Indeed, his silicon city of the future will be so familiar to readers of science fiction as to appear almost old-fashioned. Sir Clive, however, has one distinct advantage over his predecessors. Whereas 50 years ago imaginative writers such as H G Wells merely guessed the shape of things to come, Sir Clive, speaking in 1984, knows how the future will be.

In his speech, addressed to the U.S. Congressional Clearing-house on the Future, there is little to cause a raising of eyebrows. When he describes cordless telephones, robot assembly lines and electric cars he is describing things as they already are. When he speaks of the loss in manufacturing employment and the replacement of lawyers, teachers, doctors and nurses by robots he is describing things as they will be once automation really gets going. There are no surprises here.

What is surprising is that Sir Clive has so few fears of the day, now rapidly approaching, when the machines take over. Since the beginning of this century the prevailing mood of speculative writing has been one of despair and pessimism, and as science has progressed the more pessimistic the prognostics. It was only 1909 when E M Forster presented his nightmarish depiction of the fully-automated society in The Machine Stops, where man's every need is supplied by the machine at the touch of a button and television is the only form of communication. Since Forster wrote his story, other more terrifying visions have been offered, from the plastic paradise of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to computerised tyranny of Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano. For years the message has been clear science gives with one hand but takes away with the other.

To give Sir Clive his due, he acknowledges that his silicon utopia has some negative aspects. The inhabitants of the future might be "unemployed and very miserable" but that, he feels, would be only a 'temporary pattern'. He draws an analogy with the freemen of Periclean Athens who were able to devote their time to the study of science and art. "We may experience an age as golden Greece," he says.

Sir Clive does not tell us how that golden age is to be free from all the troubles that beset the present. Perhaps he hopes that the advancement of science has solved the problems of over-population and pollution, the droughts in Africa and the floods in India, the cold war and the nuclear arms race.

Even if those seemingly insurmountable hurdles have been overcome there remains the pig-headedness of man himself. Sir Clive has ignored the tendency of human nature always to trivialise its achievements, always to choose the soft option. If present trends continue it is far more likely that increased leisure time will be spent watching videos and playing computer games than in finding the answer to life, the universe and everything.

In Micromania, by Charles Platt and David Langford, an alternative to the silicon utopia is suggested, which is altogether more credible and more depressing. The writers envisage the family of the future confined to their self-sufficient all-aluminium living module, with the children linked into their teaching machines, the husband working in his study with his picturefone and computer terminal, and the wife supervising the cleaning robots and programming the day's meals.

'There never has been, and never will be, a golden age on Earth'

Domestic strife is at an all-time high because families spend all their time at home. The advantages of electronic mail are more than out-weighed by the incidence of electronic fraud, which entails the encoding and decoding of all correspondence. The labour-saving domestic appliances have a tendency to malfunction and consequently must be overseen. Everything is voice-actuated and echo-checked so their human operators seem to spend all their time talking and listening to themselves. Entertainment is in the form of inter-active soap operas and Videosex substitutes for the human contact which has no place in a mechanised environment.

Meanwhile, in the cities, the unskilled, uneducated and unemployed are rioting.

That, according to Platt and Langford, is the future if "we allow gadget-happy designers to mesmerise us with technology for its own sake, and instead of computers serving us we somehow end up serving them". It is a cynical view but one to bear in mind when gurus like Sir Clive Sinclair attempt to justify the increasing computerisation of society by holding out the carrot of a 'golden age'. There never has been and never will be, unless human nature is utterly transformed, a golden age on Earth. Man will simply muddle through, as he has always done.

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Sinclair User
August 1984