Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Future

By , csmonitor.com

When Douglas Adams died last May, we not only lost one of the great comic writers, (and the originator of the comic science fiction novel) but also one of the great adopters of and evangelists for technology. Adams owned the first Macintosh computer in England, created one of the first first-person role playing games (I had a copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game for my Commodore 64), and turned the title subject of his best-selling novel (itself a prediction of today's 'e-books') into a functioning reality on the Web.

Just before his passing, the author also took a fresh look at today's technology and its implications for the immediate future for the BBC's Radio4, and those broadcasts have become the centerpiece of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Future.

The four half-hour programs, (the last episode originally aired on May 5th) are dedicated to the impact of technology on the music, publishing, and broadcasting industries, as well as the topic of convergence ("Extreme Evolution: How far can technology go?"). Available only as streaming RealAudio files, the shows nevertheless flowed without interruption during my visits. (No doubt due to the capabilities of the BBC's servers.)

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Adams begins the series by recounting an occasion a few years before, when various people in the aforementioned industries asked him what he thought the impact of the computer would be on their fields. He compares the question to three rivers asking how the Atlantic ocean might affect them, and gives gives those listening --if not the people who posed the original questions-- some slight idea of what were in for.

Whether he is covering such possibilities as the end of copyright as we know it, questioning whether e-publishing will be a liberating chance for writers to bypass publishers, or simply a new form of vanity press, and introducing the promise --or horror-- of interactive drama, Adams is a far cry from the typical celebrity, 'talking-head' host. The man genuinely knows, and has given much thought to the subject matter - and not only makes it admirably accessible, but does so with the occasional flash of the humor that sold 14 million copies of his first book. An example is his theory about our willingness to adapt to new things...

1) everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn 35 is incredibly exciting and creative and, given opportunity, you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

(Try applying the theory to your reactions as CDs replaced vinyl, as touch-tone phones replaced rotary dials, or to something as basic as your taste in music, and see how well it fits.)

In each program, experts in the featured fields (such as Michael Nesmith and Peter Gabriel for music) are enlisted to add their viewpoints to the host's insights and opinions. (Adams makes no attempt to hide his opinions - for example, coming down pretty clearly on the side of Napster, though he doesn't go so far as to say his own books should be freely available on the Net.)

The webcast itself is further supplemented by selections of additional, in-depth, RealPlayer clips, (audio and video) and links to relevant sites. The extra clips (audio fine, video...typical for a dial-up connection) run from a few seconds to a 16-minute conversation with Michael Nesmith --on the differences the Internet has made to the musician-- and are available through the "Audio/Video" link near the center top of each episode's page. (In some cases the link takes you directly to the specific episode's clips - in others, you have to first go through a common A/V portal page, but you'll get there either way.)

At one point in the series, Adams points out that we haven't really grasped the potential of the computer yet, preferring to view it as a souped-up version of more familiar tools. (First it was a calculator, then a typewriter, then a TV --with a typewriter stuck on the front-- and then, with the advent of the Web, a brochure.)

While visiting HHGTTF, our computer is, basically, a radio --albeit one with play-on-demand and drill-down content-- but even in this capacity of a souped-up radio, HHGTTF offers some enticing speculations about the inescapable presence of the computer in our future. (We'll have to wait to see if the predictions turn out to be any more accurate than those of Retrofuture Today.)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Future can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers/.

(And if you'd like to sample some more of Adams' non-fiction writing --as well as a look at The Private Life of Genghis Khan-- you can find a sampling of DNA text at http://www.douglasadams.com/dna/.)

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