Shameless Attempts to Rationalize My Desire to Talk about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

In honor of the new movie version of the beloved radio play/book/game/furniture-for-the-geek-mind, I offer commentary on the way Douglas Adams invites us to think about technology. There are at least 5 kinds of technology in the Guide: 1. Dystopian Megatech:…

May 4, 2005

In honor of the new movie version of the beloved radio play/book/game/furniture-for-the-geek-mind, I offer commentary on the way Douglas Adams invites us to think about technology.

There are at least 5 kinds of technology in the Guide:

1. Dystopian Megatech: This is the stuff of contemporary nightmare, the tech that mindlessly destroys the world, or worlds. The Vogon fleet which demolishes Earth, for instance. Historically, this would correspond to William Blake’s “Satanic Mills” of early industrialism, and currently to scenarios such as the nanotech “gray ooze” problem, though in such cases one might argue that the technology of bureaucracy lies at the heart of the matter.

2. Utopian Megatech: This is the stuff that dreams are made on. (And yes, Shakespeare buffs, it’s “made on” and not “made of”.) Utopian tech solves problems more easily and cleanly than we can possibly imagine. In the Guide, this is best exemplified by the Magrathean planetary yards where one can, for instance, duplicate the Earth which dystopian tech has blindly destroyed. The computer Deep Thought, which produces the answer but not the question to Life, the Universe, and Everything, is an example of how utopian tech can behave in ways that are simply annoying. Perhaps the Guide itself is another example, in that it opens the wonders of the universe to the reader, which then turn out to be perturbing in one’s personal life.

3. Tech-as-Companion: Marvin the Paranoid Android is the best example of this. Artificial intelligence which keeps you company. The computer as (profoundly depressed) friend. Adams seems to be one of the few people to hypothesize that if AI were ever created at near-or-above human level, it might be susceptible to the same problems we are, including unspeakable cheerfulness. I refer not to Marvin, of course, but to the computer core of the good ship Heart of Gold.

4. Biotech: Here I mean none other than the Babel Fish. I suspect this was Adams’s way of dreaming a path out of French class.

5. Analog: It is interesting to note that in a universe populated by so much high tech, it is the lowly towel which Adams puts forward as the thing a hitchhiker must have at all times. No high-tech triumphalist he; apparently, some kinds of analog simply cannot be replaced. The persistent mocking of digital watches suggests that analog timekeeping may also be an example of indispensable low tech, though the watch was pretty high in its own time of origin (the European Age of Discovery), when other attempts at shipboard timekeeping included stabbing dogs. Adams would never have approved of that.

If they get around to making Restaurant at the End of the Universe, think of the fun we’re going to have talking about food preparation and propulsion via bistromath!