Understanding tech and terror

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," speaks his mind about the abuse of technology and how the mining of tantalum--an element in cell phones--is threatening gorillas.

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When he started writing the script for his Academy Award-winning sci-fi masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," Sir Arthur C. Clarke believed that
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  Sci-fi icon links tech, terror, extinction
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author
the first year of the new century would see mankind visiting distant worlds and floating ethereally among the stars.

Instead, the 84-year-old author of more than 60 books has witnessed a much different 2001. It will be remembered as the year that fanatics committed some of the basest acts imaginable in the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and as the year that one of man's closest relatives in the animal kingdom was driven to the brink of extinction.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair by his progressive Post Polio Syndrome, Clarke has decided to try to do something about one of these tragic issues. He has devoted his time to bringing attention to the plight of lowland gorillas in Central Africa, which are quickly being wiped out by local prospectors hunting for tantalum, a rare material used in the manufacture of cell phones and other high-tech gadgets.

CNET News.com recently dialed up Clarke at his home in Sri Lanka, where the tech-savvy octogenarian used an IP telephone connection to discuss the perilous, often ironic relationships between technology, acts of terror and the survival of a species.

Q: Sir Arthur, you have been many things in your life--had many careers, mastered many crafts, and made many significant contributions to both the arts and the sciences. What compels you to now become a champion for gorillas?
I hate any form of cruelty. I hate hunting...I think the only animal I've ever killed myself--and I still feel guilty--was an octopus I speared on the Great Barrier Reef. A: That's a really good question. It goes back probably to my childhood. I was brought up on a farm, surrounded by animals, and you know I've always had a feeling for them, particularly for dogs. In fact...the center of my life is this Chihuahua, Pepsi, who is sleeping beside me at the moment. (Laughs.) And so, I've always had this empathy with animals. Later, of course, I realized that we're all part of the animal kingdom. It's a continuum. I hate any form of cruelty. I hate hunting, although we had to shoot rabbits for our food. I think the only animal I've ever killed myself--and I still feel guilty--was an octopus I speared on the Great Barrier Reef.

Because of circumstances in certain regions of Africa today, gorillas are being killed as a direct result of our demand for high-tech gadgets, such as cell phones. Can you explain this strange paradox?
It really is a remarkable paradox--ironical. And yet, you know, there's a phrase I'm very fond of that I've been using quite a bit with my American friends after Black Tuesday: "Every catastrophe is a fresh opportunity." We are using this technique (the Web) to communicate to the world the dangers with which gorillas are faced. It's a two-edged sword.

We'll come back to discussing current events in a moment. First, what can be done specifically about the gorillas? Are there any simple answers? Can I help save a species if I stop using my cell phone?
No, obviously you have to continue to use the technology. Life would come to a stop if we didn't have our cell phones and our computers and so forth.

I'm sure it's possible to harvest this essential material without damaging the environment or threatening the gorillas, but people must understand the problem and be prepared perhaps to make some adjustments.

In a sense, technology has harmed these animals. Can technology play a role in protecting and restoring them?
Technology is really civilization, let's face it. Without our technology, we'd all have died of starvation anyway. In this particular case, technology is helping a great deal. For example, the Earth Resources Satellites now enable us to study these areas, see what is going on in them. The GPS positioning equipment helps us keep track of poachers. All this technology, which depends to some extent on tantalum, is being used to help the gorillas.

Would you favor cloning as a means of preserving and repopulating endangered, even extinct species?
I think cloning is an interesting idea, even though it hasn't been approved yet for higher mammals. We should certainly build up a clone bank against an ultimate emergency. But we mustn't use cloning as an excuse.

Incidentally, there's a plan to clone me. Some chap named Rick Fleeter, who's involved in launching satellites, took some of my hairs--about six of my scanty hairs; they're going to be launched out of the solar system one day, and if in a million years or so some super-civilization intercepts them and reads the instructions, I may be re-created again. (Laughs.)

So someday, there could be a whole nation of Arthur C. Clarkes in outer space?
Yes, I'm thinking of writing a story: "Clarke Conquers the Cosmos."

Clearly, the link between cell phones and the extermination of lowland gorillas is one of those "unforeseen consequences" that scientists and futurists are always warning us about. What are some other unforeseen consequences of our accelerating technology?
Well, of course, if they're unforeseen, then we can't foresee them. But there are some obvious dangers. The one everyone's talking about is global warming.

The sinking of the Titanic was another such moment when a civilization which was sort of secure and comfortable and, perhaps, complacent realized that we weren't masters of our own destiny. The other danger I've been talking about and writing about is the danger of asteroids. I mean, we're pretty sure now that some 60 million years ago, an asteroid changed the biology of this planet and wiped out the dinosaurs--and it was probably a good thing because it gave an unprepossessing small animal a chance of developing into us.

But there will be future asteroid impacts, and I've invented the name Space Guard to deal with them. There are several Space Guard organizations now, and there's a real interest in this problem. That is one of the problems we know will occur in the future.

Anything else that you foresee that the rest of us may not?
Sorry, I got a bit distracted. One of the problems with communications is you get "overcommunicated." While I've been talking to you, I've just been told I received a $75 free gift from an online casino. I will not OK it. (Laughs.)

Let me ask a different question, then. You've been an eyewitness to many conflicts. You've seen how they can spur technological innovation and, ultimately, change society. What are your thoughts on the events of Sept. 11? What changes will they bring to us and the next generation?
Well, of course, that was a terrible event. One hopes that some good may come of it eventually. It was one of the defining moments, I think, in our civilization.

Incidentally, there was another moment which is somewhat parallel, it has occurred to me, and I'm involved in that, too: The sinking of the Titanic was another such moment when a civilization which was sort of secure and comfortable and, perhaps, complacent realized that we weren't masters of our own destiny. There's a similarity between the Titanic and the World Trade Center. At this very moment, (director) Jim Cameron is on the Titanic with some friends of mine, so that's what made me think of it.

I see the parallel. However, the Titanic was an unintentional act, and this one bears such malice.
Yes, that is where the analogy breaks down. But the consequences are, I think, very similar in some respects.

I think what led me to ask the question is that I've read that during World War II, you were working for the Royal Air Force, and it was as a result of that, that you came up with the idea for geo-stationary satellites.
Yes, that's true. I was a radar officer working on the "ground-controlled approach" radar, which had been invented by Luis Alvarez, one of the greatest American scientists of the last century and a Nobel Prize winner. It was while I was working on really high-frequency radar that I got the idea. Of course, I'd been interested in space travel. I'd been a member of the Interplanetary Society since, I think, 1933, believe it or not. So I think the two ideas just merged.

It seems that if there had not been that world conflict, if there had not been that need to look to technology to somehow protect us from a repetition of those events, much of the innovation that we enjoy today might never have occurred. I wonder if the events of Sept. 11 might also be a catalyst for innovation that could come to change how we live.
I don't think we can see any technical change that would prevent this sort of thing from happening. I mean, most of the things that have been happening are (breaches of) rather obvious security precautions.

Looking in the far future, one could imagine--I'm not sure this is a good idea: too much like "1984"--the psychological testing of everybody to see if they have these impulses.

One consequence of these terrorist attacks has been to wipe every other political issue off the table. Environmental concerns, such as global warming and the protection of endangered species, are temporarily irrelevant to our leaders. What will be the impact of this inattention to important environmental and conservation issues?
Yes, this is a major perturbation. But like all perturbations, we get over it eventually and return to life--not necessarily normal life, but we get concerned with greater issues in the world as a whole. I think that in a few months we'll be dealing with all these other matters. We'll never forget, of course, what happened on Black Tuesday, but life must go on.

I've been quoting to my American friends a phrase of Winston Churchill's which I think is highly relevant. He said once: "Never give up. Never give up. Never ever give up."