Friday, May 25, 2012

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

Eleven years ago... well, two weeks prior, but eleven years ago, British humorist Douglas Adams passed away of a heart attack in California. Well known author of The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy, Dirk Gently's Hollistic Detective Agency, The Meaning of life, Last Chance to See and a whole lot of other really nerdy stuff in general that have become an irreplaceable part of the collective consciousness. Just read the following on the importance of a towel....
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is." (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)
—Douglas Adams

Adams's interests were vast and varied, climbing a part of Mount Kilimanjaro in a rhino costume to benefit endangered rhinos, writing Monty Python's Flying Circus and Doctor Who episodes, writing his own adventure games, and once played with Pink Floyd at a concert for his 42nd birthday.

A while ago, BBC radio played a 30 minute radio interview The Doctor and Douglas, which looks at how Douglas Adams went from a depressed failed writer sitting in his bathtub for the entire day, to selling the HHGttG radio series, to Doctor Who Script editor.

In any event, two weeks after he passed away we celebrated the first Towel Day. A day when every fan of his works carried around a towel, because really, you shouldn't leave home without one. Anyhow, this was making its rounds on Twitter some time ago and I'd never seen it before, so I thought it was really impressive, given that Douglas Adams wrote it in 1999;
How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet

This piece first appeared in the News Review section of The Sunday Times on August 29th 1999. We've temporarily removed the graphics today, as the page is being hammered!

A couple of years or so ago I was a guest on Start The Week, and I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve. It is a very British trait – natural, perhaps, for a country which has lost an empire and found Mr Blobby – to be so suspicious of change.

But the change is real. I don’t think anybody would argue now that the Internet isn’t becoming a major factor in our lives. However, it’s very new to us. Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people ‘over the Internet.’ They don’t bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans ‘over a cup of tea,’ though each of these was new and controversial in their day.

Then there’s the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes ‘www DOT … bbc DOT… co DOT… uk SLASH… today SLASH…’ etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

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 thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty 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.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

This subjective view plays odd tricks on us, of course. For instance, ‘interactivity’ is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show ‘normal’ mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. ‘Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn’t do anything? Didn’t everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?’

‘Yes, child, that’s why they all went mad. Before the Restoration.’

‘What was the Restoration again, please, miss?’

‘The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back.’

Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural skepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.

Of course, there’s a great deal wrong with the Internet. For one thing, only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected. I recently heard some pundit on the radio arguing that the internet would always be just another unbridgeable gulf between the rich and the poor for the following reasons – that computers would always be expensive in themselves, that you had to buy lots of extras like modems, and you had to keep upgrading your software. The list sounds impressive but doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. The cost of powerful computers, which used to be around the level of jet aircraft, is now down amongst the colour television sets and still dropping like a stone. Modems these days are mostly built-in, and standalone models have become such cheap commodities that companies, like Hayes, whose sole business was manufacturing them are beginning to go bust.. Internet software from Microsoft or Netscape is famously free. Phone charges in the UK are still high but dropping. In the US local calls are free. In other words the cost of connection is rapidly approaching zero, and for a very simple reason: the value of the web increases with every single additional person who joins it. It’s in everybody’s interest for costs to keep dropping closer and closer to nothing until every last person on the planet is connected.

Another problem with the net is that it’s still ‘technology’, and ‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I’m sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for ‘productivity.’

But the biggest problem is that we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it. In ‘The Language Instinct’, Stephen Pinker explains the generational difference between pidgin and creole languages. A pidgin language is what you get when you put together a bunch of people – typically slaves – who have already grown up with their own language but don’t know each others’. They manage to cobble together a rough and ready lingo made up of bits of each. It lets them get on with things, but has almost no grammatical structure at all.

However, the first generation of children born to the community takes these fractured lumps of language and transforms them into something new, with a rich and organic grammar and vocabulary, which is what we call a Creole. Grammar is just a natural function of children’s brains, and they apply it to whatever they find.

The same thing is happening in communication technology. Most of us are stumbling along in a kind of pidgin version of it, squinting myopically at things the size of fridges on our desks, not quite understanding where email goes, and cursing at the beeps of mobile phones. Our children, however, are doing something completely different. Risto Linturi, research fellow of the Helsinki Telephone Corporation, quoted in Wired magazine, describes the extraordinary behaviour kids in the streets of Helsinki, all carrying cellphones with messaging capabilities. They are not exchanging important business information, they’re just chattering, staying in touch. "We are herd animals," he says. "These kids are connected to their herd – they always know where it’s moving." Pervasive wireless communication, he believes will "bring us back to behaviour patterns that were natural to us and destroy behaviour patterns that were brought about by the limitations of technology."

We are natural villagers. For most of mankind’s history we have lived in very small communities in which we knew everybody and everybody knew us. But gradually there grew to be far too many of us, and our communities became too large and disparate for us to be able to feel a part of them, and our technologies were unequal to the task of drawing us together. But that is changing.

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.
Adams, will, in all likelihood, go down as the only person in human history to have both Richard Dawkins speak and David Gilmour play at his funeral. He's a personal hero of mine, and I hope humanity remembers him for a long time to come. Which is why towel day is an important day to celebrate.

I still wish I had kept my "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Bureaucracy" Infocom game boxes. Though you can play it online

So maybe he didn't die. Maybe he just went to the restaurant at the end of the universe and got displaced in time.... Yeah, that must be it.

Douglas Adams, writer, missing, presumed fed.

Though, I guess the real trick to all of this and the best way to honor his memory is by reading or listening to Last Chance to See. Environmental activism and endangered species conservation were important to him, and the project contains some of his best writing, hands down. It'll also introduce you to the weirdest parrots in the world, if you haven't already met them. (I'm happy to say that there are more kakapo now than there were when Douglas first wrote about them, although some of the other species haven't fared so well.)

At the time Douglas Adams died, he was talking with Mark Carwardine about doing a follow-up to Last Chance To See. Carwardine eventually did the follow-up with Stephen Fry, and it was aired in 2009 on the BBC. They go back and try to locate some of the species that Adams and Carwardine saw, twenty years later. If you can find a copy of that, I highly suggest you sit down and watch it. It's really great.

Here's a fun fact: A fair amount of Life, The Universe, and Everything came from a rejected Doctor Who script idea - "Doctor Who versus the Krikkitmen."

And with that, I say So long, Douglas Adams, and thanks for all the fish.

1 comment:

Jeshii said...

So you know that video at the end? My fantastically good friend Veronica (her name is mis-credited as Victoria) filmed that. We both worked at UCSB Television Services and she picked up this job. I missed the whole thing because I had something more important to do (which was probably hanging out with Asian girls, stuck the friend zone). I regret it to this day.

In any case, I think he must have been from the future. How else could he have been so perfectly right about the internet?

Thanks for the article!