Douglas Adams knew what was coming

Emily Asher-Perrin links to a Sunday Times article that Douglas Adams wrote about the Internet in 1999, which demonstrates just how prescient Adams was about where the world was heading:

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 civilisation 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.’

And then there’s this:

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 scepticism 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’.

Read the whole thing here.

Asher-Perrin writes about discovering The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when she was ten or eleven, which reminds me that my own daughter is ten; perhaps it’s time for me to hunt down that old copy of Hitchhiker and share it with her. I remember reading it aloud with a friend from elementary school, and both of us laughing until our ribs literally hurt.

Years later, Adams came to speak at my college — he was promoting his environmental book Last Chance to See — and I remember the overfilled auditorium, the long line of students waiting to get a book signed, his warm smile when he scribbled in mine. I’m a little hazy on what Adams actually spoke about, although I remember the bit about Yangtze river dolphins and underwater microphones and pantomiming for condoms. He may have read the bit about Marvin and the tank. And I definitely remember the roar that went up from the audience when he teased, “I’m thinking of writing a book of Vogon poetry.”

I wish he had. A world without Adams, his wit, his wisdom, and his Vogon poetry is a diminished one. Time to reread the books, I think.

(Image via Reality Crowd)

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One response to “Douglas Adams knew what was coming

  1. Pingback: Lost In Time: A History Of “Missing Television” | Squarise

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