Interviews & Profiles

“So Long, and Thanks…” – How Douglas Adams Guided the Future

Ford handed the book to Arthur. ‘What is it?’ asked Arthur.

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s it’s job…’ ‘…You press this button here and the screen lights up, giving you the index.’

A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface.

         
         

READ MORE: A Guide to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams passed away from a heart attack on 11th May 2001, aged only 49. He’d just attended his regular workout at a local gym near Santa Barbara, California, where he was living at the time. As a lifelong fan of his work, I remember the news was devastating, but 20 years is a long time and I needed a refresher, which I got by checking out the Douglas Adams entry on Wikipedia.

More relevantly, I did this on my iPhone 12 Pro Max, a small, pocketable device with a screen sized around three inches by six. And it dawned on me – here I am, holding a device not a million miles from the one he described in Chapter Five of his first Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy novel, first published in 1979, browsing a website not a million miles in concept from his fictional, eponymous book.

…for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate…

It’s sad to think that this man, so obsessed with Apple products way before it was cool, never got to use or even see an iPhone, the first of which was released some six years after his death. He might, maybe, have at least seen Wikipedia, which launched mere months before, in January 2001. He may not have cared either way though in this later case, considering he’d had the idea long before – and not just in the pages of his fiction.

It was back in 1992 that Adams co-founded The Digital Village alongside Robbie Stamp and Richard Creasey. Their first most notable project was arguably the computer adventure game Starship Titanic, written by Adams himself, based on the briefest of gags from the novel Life, The Universe and Everything and eventually released in 1996… to middling reviews and financial failure.

Douglas Adams’ portrait by Michael Hughes. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

It is definitely a game of its time, a kind of weird mash-up of Myst and classic text adventure games, infused with that classic, Adams-style humour. As a result, some of its puzzles are borderline indecipherable, particularly to intellectually challenged players like your humble correspondent here. It can still be purchased for a very reasonable price on GOG.com if you’re interested in trying it, but, by and large, it’s essentially been forgotten about.

Their next most notable project, however, is very much still in business, albeit less well-known and somewhat overshadowed by a much larger competitor since. Much like the intergalactic competition between the humble Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the larger, more commercial Encyclopaedia Galactica, though in this case sadly in reverse.

Launched on the 28th April 1999, h2g2.com was designed to be the Earth-edition of Adams’ previously only fictional guide book. An online repository of information, created, edited and curated by the very audience that information was intended for. In Adam’s own words:

“I really didn’t foresee the Internet. But then, neither did the computer industry. Not that that tells us very much of course – the computer industry didn’t even foresee that the century was going to end.

But I did have the inkling of an idea that a collaborative guide, one that was written and kept up to date by the people who used it, in real time, might be a neat idea.”

READ MORE: A Glitch In The Matrix – DVD Review

In the same introductory article from h2g2.com, Adams, way back in April 2000, talks about the possible advantages of the platform, such as in a café: “And when you write in something as simple as ‘The coffee here is lousy!’ the Guide will know exactly what to do with that information and where to put it. And if you see, a few seconds later, a note which says ‘Yes, but the cheesecake is good’ it might be worth looking round the other tables to see who you’ve just made contact with.”

The longer-lived of our readers might now be searching back into the darkest recesses of their minds to remember technology at the turn of the millennium before finally chuckling to themselves: ‘Yeah sure. That’s a great idea if you’re in an internet café, sat in front of a beige PC with a chunky old CRT monitor attached’. But actually, the idea of browsing the internet on a mobile device wasn’t so far-fetched even back then. Nokia released their 7110 mobile phone handset in October 1999, a device famous for its spring-loaded sliding cover made famous by The Matrix (albeit on a slightly different model) and it’s WAP functionality.

This was, of course, back in the days when the abbreviation WAP had the much more wholesome, pre-Cardi B meaning of ‘Wireless Application Protocol’ and was essentially the first effort to deliver the internet into the palms of hands. It ultimately wasn’t very good, but h2g2.com was at least one of the first websites to make a real effort to utilise it. Launched in December 1999, it became the most trafficked WAP site in Europe until ultimately being closed by h2g2.com’s eventual owners, the BBC, in January 2001.

Image by Benjami Balazs from Pixabay

Yes, the BBC. By the end of 2000, The Digital Village (now actually renamed to h2g2) had run into financial difficulties and would eventually cease trading. The Beeb stepped in to take over management of the site, but arguably once Douglas Adams himself had passed away, it maybe never quite became all that he’d dreamed of. Certainly the aforementioned Wikipedia has ‘supplanted [it] as the standard repository of all knowledge or wisdom’ (for better or worse), but h2g2.com still remains and is still actively updated by its ardent following of contributors and Douglas Adams fans. It is, in many ways, a small, but lovely, memorial to the great man’s work.

So that’s the content, but I mentioned earlier the physical aspects of the Guide. On the 9th January 2007, Steve Jobs, CEO of Douglas Adams’ most well-loved tech company, Apple, stepped up on stage at Macworld San Francisco to introduce ‘a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough internet communication device’ all rolled into one device known as the iPhone. Jobs himself didn’t pretend it was the first ever smartphone, simply that it was the best smartphone that had existed by that point. Other tech luminaries, not least Steve Ballmer, the then-CEO of Microsoft, dismissed the device as a typical Apple gimmick.

I never met Douglas Adams, but I like to think he’d have been drinking Apple’s Kool-Aid much like the rest of us at the time, lapping up Jobs’ bold claims. And time has shown he’d have been right to do so. Google were busy preparing their infamous mobile phone operating system Android at the time, developing something akin to an open-source Blackberry-style experience, but the iPhone announcement sent them straight back to the drawing board.

READ MORE: Sisters With Transistors – Documentary Review

Between them, iPhone and Android have captured the mobile phone market since, and we now live in a world where it’s almost unthinkable to not carry around a small device in your pocket, with a bright touchscreen and a fast mobile data connection that immediately lets you bring up maps, travel information, book and pay for tickets, call a taxi and quickly see just how good the coffee and cheesecake is in the café you can see down the road.

Douglas Adams died 20 years ago. But his legacy both in fiction, and slightly uncanny technological prediction, lives on.

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, David Claridge is 42 years old. He takes his iPhone, with Wikipedia and h2g2 bookmarks saved, with him everywhere and is planning on attaching the newly announced Apple Air Tags to all his towels as soon as they become available. He remains committed to avoiding gyms at all costs.

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