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Douglas Adams vs Wikipedia

The Hitchhikers’ Guide in the Digital Age

Douglas Adams was undoubtedly one of the most popular science fiction writers of the twentieth century. His influence can be seen in everything from Doctor Who to the novels of Adam Roberts and Jasper Fforde. His ‘trilogy’ in five parts, the fantastic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, was initially dramatised on the radio before being published as novels, and later on filmed for television. There was even a video game at one point.

It’s a genuine pity that there hasn’t been a successful recent adaptation of any of Adams’ works. The Stephen Mangan-led BBC Four production of Dirk Gently only lasted one series in 2012, and the 2005 film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy met with a fairly tepid response from fans and critics alike. Despite being a good actor, Martin Freeman simply didn’t have the star power then that he does since his work in Sherlock and The Hobbit. In fact, the whole main cast is stuffed with actors that are now household names in geek circles: Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, even Alan Rickman is now more famous than he was before the final Harry Potter films. The fact that they hid Warwick Davies inside the Marvin costume more or less sums up the film as a whole: a wasted opportunity.

Predicting Technologies

Might that be, in some part, because the subject matter has dated? No matter how much a science fiction attempts to project the future it also reflects the era of its creation. George Orwell may have seen our TV and security camera dominated landscapes, but he had no notion of the all-seeing power of the internet. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World predicted the materialism and cultish obsession with brands of the present day, but didn’t consider the possibility that these same trends would lead to parents being more involved in their children’s lives, rather than less. Even the most insightful science fiction writer is limited by the possibilities of technology and their perspective on the culture of the world around them. Written before the advent of the internet, before the mainstream awareness of the mobile phone, just how does Adams’ work fare?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide of the book’s title is a seemingly all-knowing electronic device that can provide answers on almost any topic you might come across on your galactic travels. So far, so IPad. But the truth is that the Guide exists more in the content that in the hardware – it has more in common with the internet as a whole than it does with your smartphone in particular. With its wit and occasional pedantry, the Guide is as much of a character in the story as Zaphod Beeblebrox or Arthur Dent. That kind of artificial personality doesn’t really have an equivalent in our current media, but we certainly have access to a similar level of all-spanning knowledge.

Does Wikipedia have the verve of the Guide? Of course not – it’s the work of many minds rather than the presence of one. Does it have the humour of the Guide? Well, arguably yes, but it’s not always exactly high-brow wit.

But really, is Wikipedia the best we have to show for our technology? Perhaps the problem is that in that classically postmodern sense, many people don’t trust in the ‘great all-knowing’ advisor any more. Travellers have their Lonely Planets and Eyewitness Guides, but they supplement them with research. More and more people crowdsource their ideas, in travel as much as anything else. Tripadvisor anyone? What about Yahoo answers (the responses to which, are also often hilarious)? The Hitchhiker’s Guide both does and does not exist. If you go looking for it, the chances are that you’ll be able to find your answer by putting together bits of Tumblr, Reddit and various review sites, but it won’t exist outside your search history.

Ahead of its time?

All in all, Adams’ work still appears to be ahead of the curve (although I think we can all agree that an improbability drive isn’t in the works any time soon). If the big bosses of TV and film ever do get around to making another version, they should create a working app of the Guide to go with it. It would actually be a rather brilliant piece of viral marketing, giving people the answers to their questions with a bit of wit and metafiction, much in the same way that Gizoogle turns everything into gangsta slang. Until then, we’ll have to check out Headless or Thursday Next.