The world became a sadder place on 11 May 2001, with the death of the much loved Douglas Adams at the age of 49.

A few years earlier I had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing him deliver a breakfast briefing in the City in which he gave his thoughts and insights into technology, the internet and the web with all the flare and humour his many admirers would have expected.

Many of the ideas he explored that morning can be found in his posthumous work ‘The Salmon of Doubt’. It is still worth reading because his quirky insights are born out of a deep interest, passion and understanding of his themes.

The phrase I remember from that morning was ‘Technology by definition is anything that doesn’t yet work’. Once it works, it ceases to be technology.

We don’t think of a chair as technology, but it is. If I describe a chair as high-tech what I suspect you will conjure up is an object which you are not sure is quite safe or how you sit down in it.

The book is the most successful example of information technology in human history. Ebooks are technology. We may be at a tipping point now where ebooks take over from the printed work. Certainly the pressure on publishers and sellers with the rise of Amazon’s Kindle, the Sony Reader and others looks to be coming to a head at the time of writing. The Red Leather cover on my Sony PRS650 looks smells and feels like an expensive hardback. It now has over 1,000 books and 1,000 poems on it with capacity for many more thousands. The affordances of e-ink match those of the printed page but with user selectable font size as a bonus. Soon, it won’t be technology at all.

This was brought to mind by a new report by the Centre for Future Studies.

If you have seen the Spielberg film, Minority Report, you will probably remember the interactive advertising. In the film the technology is so advanced that the system works out who you are, knows your age and gender and understands your mood. Advertising can be personalised.

‘Hi Chris, you look as if you could do with a cold glass of Chardonnay.’ ( I always do, by the way!).

The film is set in 2054. The essence of the new report is that this type of technology will be here in the next year or two, not 2054. Now, putting aside the usual hype and oversell, this illustrates our view of future technologies.

In the film, this environment is so pervasive, people hardly notice it. It is us the viewers who notice the technology. So, for Spielberg’s vision to be true, this kind of system would need to arrive well in advance of 2054.

So, when someone asks you what IT will be like in say 2030 then what you are being asked, in the Adams view of the World, is ‘what won’t work in 2030?’

That may be why humour is such a useful vehicle in this instance. When robots have ‘Genuine People Personalities’, what we get is Marvin, the Hitchhiker’s Guide’s paranoid android. Red Dwarf’s Kryten illustrates the point too. Blade Runner’s robots work. Proving that they are technological entities requires expertise and insight.

When doors open and close for your pleasure and see themselves as providing a service, then that was weirdly comical in the late 70s. Prof Kevin Warwick made it work a decade ago. Today that is geeky technology. For how long, I don’t know.

As a great fan of all things Apple, for Douglas, the iPad2 would be another step to realising the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Apple’s iBabelfish must surely be on its way. Around 2054 perhaps?

Comments (6)

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  • 1
    Amanda wrote on 5th May 2011

    This is fascinating - where can I see the report from 'The Centre for Future Studies' ?

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  • 2
    Hew wrote on 5th May 2011

    Amanda - you can download the report from 3MGTG's website: http://www.gtg.tv/

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  • 3
    Richard Hind wrote on 13th May 2011

    I remember a TV documentary from the summer of 1990 in which Douglas Adams (with the help of the legend that is Tom Baker) described the concepts that underpin the world wide web. No one else I've ever mentioned it to seems to have seen it. It was yet another examples of his depth of vision. Does anyone remember it, and what it was called? I'd love to see it again to see how spot on he was.

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  • 4
    Chris Yapp wrote on 13th May 2011

    Richard,

    It's called Hyperland. It's up on the web on various sites but gets taken down from time to time. Google it!

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  • 5
    Stephen Cole wrote on 14th May 2011

    What was hilarious about his books were its foresight of how technology and people interacted. Foreseeing an invention is one thing. Seeing how it affects people and their interactions is another. The cartoon Futurama I think is similar.

    What I predict is that his books will become less funny because they are so correct. If this occurs then you have to be a bit worried by the idea that we become our own joke.

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  • 6
    Brendan Quinn wrote on 17th May 2011

    ‘Technology by definition is anything that doesn’t yet work’. Yes I like that!

    Technology "jokes" have a way of becoming reality. The following joke about the King and the new toaster:

    http://www.danielsen.com/jokes/objecttoaster.txt

    was circulating in the early days of the Web and maybe before that.

    It was meant to be ridiculous, but toasters that boot up Unix no longer seem funny ...

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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