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RIP: Douglas Adams

A real and unexpected loss

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As you may have heard by now, Douglas Adams, star author of the five-book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, died suddenly aged 49 on Friday morning in California. He was exercising vigorously and had a heart attack.

Since then, tributes have been plastered all over newspapers. But more impressively, hundreds upon hundreds of Internet chatrooms have filled with people discussing the man that altered a generation's perspective of reality.

Douglas' great gift was to pull far-out and philosophical ideas into utterly mundane events and to do so with an incredible amount of wit. His most famous work, the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy for example, pointed out that Earth's entire entry in the hitchhiking guide was just two words: "Mostly harmless". Then there was the alien nation's invasion fleet swallowed by a dog. And, of course, 42.

But far beyond the five-book trilogy that was to prove his making and his ball-and-chain, Douglas was a forward thinking and inspirational character. The Internet is a prime example. Douglas Adams immediately saw the great value of the Internet and started preaching about it years before anyone but the US military and a few academics had any idea what it was.

He subsequently started on a real Guide to the Galaxy, found at www.h2g2.com, in which people submit their own information. It is currently run on the BBC's servers and contains some absolute gems. [Living fairly close to it, I enjoyed the Hanger Lane gyratory system piece particularly.] He had also just finished on a screenplay of the book before his untimely death.

On the Guide's Web site is a piece written by Douglas that explains his feelings about the Internet and what he hopes it can achieve. This is it:

"When I originally described The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, over twenty years ago, I was only joking. I didn't see myself as a predictive kind of science fiction writer, like Arthur C. Clarke who more or less single-handedly invented the communications satellite. The Guide was just a narrative device which allowed me to run off at tangents whenever the story seemed to be getting a bit dull.

"But it turns out that I, inadvertently, had a terribly good idea. The Guide was compiled by researchers roaming round the galaxy, beaming their copy in, which was then instantly available to anybody to read. Over, believe it or not, something called the SubEthaNet. Well, more or less.

"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. I just didn't really realise that such a thing might be possible in my lifetime or how powerful such a thing might be.

"We're gradually beginning to get some tiny, tiny inkling of how powerful a networked community sharing information really could become. At the moment we're sharing the sort of information we think about or come across as we sit at our desks, because that's mostly where our computers are - at least, that's mostly where our networked computers are. And we're sharing it in the form that comes most naturally to people sitting working at desks - we're writing articles about our experiences and ideas and opinions.

"What we are now focussed on at h2g2 is what happens when people start to share information while they are on the move. Soon we will start to see devices arriving that combine palmtop computers with cellphones with Internet devices with GPS systems. That - in a phrase we hear over and over again when people talk about the Internet - will change everything. You'll be able to read and write to the Guide wherever you are: at the station, in the plane, on a park bench, in your car (pulled over to the side of the road with the handbrake on, of course) 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." ®

Related Links

Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy
DouglasAdams.com

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