Life, the internet, and everything

Last month witnessed a anniversary of deep significance to a few, but largely ignored by the universe in general.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  April 27, 2008

From a fictional device 30 years ago to user generated content in the late 1990s, the world of IT is still marking the words of a certain ape-descended life form.

Last month witnessed a little-heralded anniversary, of deep significance to a few, but largely ignored by the universe in general.

Thirty years ago, far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy lay a small unregarded yellow sun, around which orbited a small blue-green planet, whose inhabitants were so amazingly unsophisticated, they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea.

On March 8, a statistically insignificant number of these inhabitants - many wearing digital watches at the time - sat down in living rooms, kitchens, cars and bedrooms, and listened to the first instalment of a series that, for some, would prove to be life changing.

The series was, of course, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, a rather off-beat sci-fi/comedy, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the UK. Its creator and writer was Douglas Adams - now, sadly, the late Douglas Adams - and in the first 27 minutes, he had unknowingly created a technologically significant concept.

Later in the show, its heroes would encounter numerous robots, computers and other forms of artificial intelligence, but it was one of the non-sentient creations that became so important: the Hitch-Hiker's Guide itself. The Guide was described as "sort of an electronic book" containing massive amounts of information on almost any subject in the galaxy - natch - and "pages" linked to others with similar information.

Sound familiar?

As MJ Simpson points out in Hitchhiker, his excellent biography of Adams, he was hardly alone in thinking along these lines - lines that would lead to the world wide web - in the late 1970s, but his fellow visionaries at the time were locked away in dark rooms in Cern and various academic institutions in the US.

The web, as it turned out, was closer to Adams's concept than the original creators, although they were all on the same lines - but crucially in the early days of popular internet, no one predicted the world wide web would be the net's killer app.

When Hitch-Hiker's was first broadcast - 1978 - Adams was not particularly technologically aware, but in later years he would become one of the most tireless champions of IT, particularly his beloved Apple computers. He went on to create an ambitious multi-media game (ahead of its time) and h2g2 - an online user-edited encyclopaedia that foreshadowed Wikipedia.

Both of these turned out to be overly ambitious, and pioneered concepts in the mainstream that were very unfamiliar at the time. But much of the current wave of user-generated content and deeply interactive games can be traced back - at least in part - to Adams's ideas in the late 1990s.

But Adams was always a man ahead of the curve - he had been suggesting Hitch-Hiker's since the mid-1970s, but right up until 1977 was told "sci-fi doesn't work" despite his protestations that it could - and would. Then Star Wars was released.

Adams died at a particularly inopportune time for the world - and, at the age of 48, probably for him as well - in 2001. The first dot-com bubble had burst, and the internet had yet to embark on the next phase of development that would see so many new ideas come into play - ideas that might have spurred the Guide's creator on to more ahead-of-the-curve creations.

But although Adams was by the end of his life an uber-geek, he recognised early on that computers were only as good as the information one fed them (the famous "garbage in, garbage out" maxim). One of his most famous creations was Deep Thought, a computer designed to answer the "ultimate question of life, the universe and everything", only to give the answer as the completely insignificant 42 - because of course, it didn't have the question.

In these days of YouTube, Myspace and seemingly endless blogs from enterprises as well as individuals - not to mention the reams of meaningless marketing speak and dubious content firms around the world are pumping out - it is a principle that many people could be usefully reminded of.

Eliot Beer is the editor of Arabian Computer News.

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