Douglas Adams' speech about h2g2 held at the 3GSM World Congress

2 Conversations

At the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, Douglas Adams held this speech
on the 21st of February 2001. To hear this speech was enlightning and fun at the
same time - just as you would have expected.
So you might enjoy reading the transcription of this speech, which was held after
Richard Branson's speech - which explains why Douglas Adams started his talk
with mentioning him.
Don't Panic!
I asked the organizer of this congress, if it is allowed to post this transcript to h2g2
and they agreed. Thanks to ibctelecoms for that.
So here it is:

Opportunity Through Globally Relevant, High-Value Content

Douglas Adams - Author & Founder, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
& h2g2 - From Fiction to Fact

Good morning ladies and gentleman.

The last time I came across Richard Branson was 15 years ago, we were both at a dinner
being given by Steve Jobs when he was at Apple the first time, Steve Jobs that is, and I had
a brief conversation with Richard in which he explained that he was very frustrated at the
time because Virgin Atlantic had gone public. As a result of which he was now being
prevented, as he realised from doing all sorts of things he wanted to do with it. For
instance, he said, as you know business class or first class is known as upper class and he
wanted to call economy class riff raff, and the board wouldn’t let him so he has got to buy the
company back in order to do what he wanted to do. Well he did buy it back but he didn’t
actually do that which I was always disappointed at because I thought it was a wonderful

In fact a few years ago I did a computer game called Star Ship Titanic where you found
yourself on board on the most fantastic star ship cruiser in the galaxy which on its maiden
voyage had crashed into your home, and the point of the game was you had to find your way
up to the classes because it had first class, second class and third class. The first class was
fabulous, opulent and luxurious and the second class was absolutely fine and the third class
was pretty grim, and we were going to call that riff raff after the conversation with Richard
and then decided, of course, that wouldn’t work because we had to know the background to
that. So in the end we called it first class, second class and super galactic traveller class
which is an idea we got from British Airways.

I am very glad to be back in Europe for a few days, I currently live in a rather technologically
backward part of the world called California. We have hardly got any electricity there, let
alone decent cell phone coverage. When we first moved there a couple of years ago, we
were in a rented house. The third time we called out the washing machine service man he
sat us down and said "look there is something you need to understand, I can tell you are
from Europe and things work differently there. There you have dishwashing machines to
wash the dishes for you. Here in America you have to wash the dishes for the dishwasher".

We live in Santa Barbara, which is a beautiful little town on the 101 freeway which is one of
the main thoroughfares between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As you drive up and
down the 101 you will occasionally get a cellphone signal. If you have a GSM phone one of
the areas you definitely won’t get a signal is within a one-mile radius of our house. Now at
Christmas we went to Fiji and we had a wonderful time scuba diving in the sun, it was
fabulous. One day we rented a boat and sped across the ocean to the island where they
filmed the movie Castaway. It is called Mondriki and is the perfect tropical desert island,
sun white sands and infinite surrounds of Blue Ocean, a single rocky hill, a clump of palm
trees and perfect cell phone reception. Why was the perfect cellphone reception there?
Apparently it was because it was in Tom Hanks contract that there had to be. Now what we
want to do is try and persuade Tom Hanks to do a road movie on the 101.

But at least in California we do have free local calls and we do have DSL and it actually
works, so it is fair to say that in California we aren’t so backward in rolling out
communications technology to use, and the only thing we are ahead of is British Telecom.

Cellphones are technology and technology is, the great computer science as Danny
Hillaswance Stanley observes, our word for stuff that doesn’t work yet. How do we know it
is technology, well typically because it comes in a box with a registration card the way, for
instance, a bunch of flowers doesn’t. It probably comes with a sheaf of brightly coloured
leaflets for you to give to the garbage man who in turn buries it in the ground for future
generations to grow things in. It will also come with a manual the way for instance a teacup
doesn’t or a chair doesn’t, unless of course it is one of those chairs with levers and locks
and tension springs all over it, like most things designed to enhance your productivity,
playing with it all day is much more fun than actually working. Now if it is a cellphone, one
of the things your manual well tell you is how to spend 17 hours straight programming your
telephone number into it with a matchstick. This, despite the fact that you already did this
with the last cellphone you bought only six months ago and despite the fact that what both of
these things are, are communication devices, and despite the fact you have already got all
your names and phone numbers on your computer which is also, guess what, a
communications device.

I don’t want a diary and an address book in my cellphone and another one in my PDA and
another one in my computer. I just want one and I don’t care where it is. I just want
everything I use to be able to get at it. Yes we can make all these devices communicate
with each other, provided you kept the little cable, and provided the cable fits both of your
cellphones, and provided the software runs on your computer, and provided you kept the
manual, and you have got nothing better to do with your life than read it, and provided of
course that the reason you are replacing your old cellphone is not that you have lost the
damn thing.

Another thing technology comes with is a power adapter. Now electricity is a fairly
commonplace item these days, unless you live in California, but it comes in more flavours
than Hagan Daas, Baskin Robbins and the Imac put together and one adapter will not fit any
other device. We have all got drawers of little orphan adapters and other drawers full of
devices we bought at some time but we didn’t realise we weren’t going to be able to use,
because we couldn’t work out which adapter it went with, and the in car hands free kit for
one cellphone would certainly not fit another one either, not even a later model from the
same manufacturer, and to install a hands free set in your car costs about £300. I
understand that there is an economic comparative behind this. You don’t make money on
the phones but you can make money on the accessories, but the result is that we mostly
don’t bother with the hands free kits anymore, we just career down the highway with a phone
clamped to our ear, peering at the tiny screen and prodding one handedly at the buttons. Ah,
so that is why evolution gave us opposable thumbs. On the 101 people race from one pool
of reception to another and then drive as slowly as they can while they are in one reeling
around the road trying to operate their phones with their thumbs. So this is a sale strategy
that is not merely inconveniencing its customers, it is actually killing them off.

It is odd how patient we are with this stuff as if we actually expect it to be clunky and
awkward, this is why people put up with Microsoft Windows. Re-invent, re-invent and
re-invent. Sometimes we get things right, more often we get things wrong and have to try
again. Sometimes we cannot help but try again even when we have got it right once. I
mean the bathroom tap for instance. Once upon a time this was a very simple device.
Now you go into the bathroom in an airport or a hotel and you approach the washbowl with
caution. You turn the water on or you push something with your hand or your foot. Is it
meant to come on automatically, do you have to waive at it and when you are finished, who
is responsible for turning it off? Will you or it? Will it know, do you have to find somebody?

Of course the fact that we continue to tinker with stuff that already works perfectly well
echoes our own nature as evolved beings. Every act of conception is a new throw of the
dice, a unique new mix of genes, some mixes more successful than others. It is the key to
our adaptability. Anything that really is an improvement will tend to proliferate and we
wouldn’t have got to it if we hadn’t kept reshuffling and making mistakes and stuff that
already seem to be working. There is a new generation of smart office chair beginning to
arrive which makes a virtue of doing away with all those knobs and levers. All the springs
and levers we have learnt about are still there but it adjusts your posture and movement
automatically without your telling it how to. Here is a prediction for you, when we have
software that works like that the world truly will be a better and happier place.

I should explain, if I seem to be making rather strange head movements. This is a brand
new pair of glasses which are very, very clever because they make it impossible to see at all

Now many years ago I invented a thing called The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy. I
never meant to be a predictive science fiction writer in the mode of say Arthur C. Clarke.
My reason for inventing it was purely one of narrative necessity, which is where I had extra
bits of story which I didn’t know what to do with. I didn’t know anything at all about
technology in those days and I didn’t think twice about any of the issues so I just made it a
bit like things I was already familiar with, it was a bit like a pocket calculator, a bit like a TV
remote, it had a little window at the top and lots and lots of little buttons on the front and if
you wanted to know about anything, you had to look it up in an index, find the right number,
tap it in and wait for the entry to come up on a tiny screen. I invented WAP. But as I say I
didn’t know anything about technology in those days. I didn’t know about Xerox Park. I
didn’t know about the Diner Book, I didn’t know about user interfaces, that’s my excuse,
what’s yours?

Of course whenever we invent something new, we always base it on something we are
familiar with. That’s why the first movies were just filmed plays for proscenium marches and
all. That’s why we originally thought that a phone is something that we use to alert you that
someone is bringing around a telegram, much the same way we now phone someone to tell
them we have sent them an email. That’s why we first designed computers as a kind of
super adding machine with a long feature list, then as a typewriter with a long feature list.
Those of you who are familiar with Microsoft Word will know what I am talking about. Then
as a television with a typewriter sat in front of it.

Now with the coming of the World Wide Web we have reinvented the computer as a kind of
giant brochure. Now the computer is none of those things but those are all things which we
are already familiar with and we model them in the computer in order to make the computer
usable. The mistake we make of course, is to build in the limitations of the thing we are
modelling along with its usefulness. That’s why a word processor models the processor
typing and doesn’t model the process of writing, which is a very different thing as Norman
Mailer once said to Truman Capote.

We have all had the experience of going into a shop and saying "that’s nice, have you got
that in blue", to which the answer is "no", end of story, and several people in succession
could do that. Another person goes in and says "have you got that in blue""no", somebody
else goes in and maybe gets a different assistant. "Have you got that in blue","no, no, there
is no call for it". And actually, apparently there isn’t because they have never ever sold one.
The reason they have never sold one is because they don’t make one so they don’t have
one to sell. So the fact that people are looking for this thing never gets recorded anywhere
and never gets taken notice of, because nobody at the other end of the retail chain ever
discovers that you and who knows many other people wanted it in blue.

Now the exact same thing happens on websites. If you come looking for something you
haven’t got there is a null transaction. I wanted this movie on DVD but it was only on VHS.

I wanted these jeans in a 36-inch leg and they only go up to 34. Nothing happens but the
easiest thing in the world would be to redesign the software that it makes a record of what it
was the customer actually came looking for. The reason we do not think to do that is that
there was no easy way of doing it in bricks and mortar shops, and bricks and mortar shops
is still the model we are working from, so the new thing we have now modelled in the
computer is the telephone, and it has got a long feature list. Lots of extra bits that we have
gradually tacked on, most of which are buried deep in menus that the average user never
even finds.

You notice that a Nokia telephone has something like 35 different ringing tones, but you
always know when you hear a Nokia telephone because it is always the same one, because
people haven’t found the other ones. Same as Microsoft Word. Did you know that over half
the features of Microsoft Word users ask for are already there in the programme? Users
can’t find them or, if they can, they are too much bother to use.

So if the computer isn’t a typewriter or a television or telephone or any of these other things
we have modelled in it, what actually is it? Well obviously it’s a modelling device. We can
model in it anything we care to imagine and since it is also a communication device the
possibilities are endless. Any of your modelling devices can communicate with any of your
other modelling devices and create more and more powerful and more complex models.
Notice that’s complex not complicated. A digital camera with its boxful of manuals and
cables and software installers is complicated

So what should we model in our computers? Well one thing it would be good to get some
kind of handle on, is the world, so lets model that. It’s a big job but then there are a lot of us
and there are a lot of computers many more than Thomas Watson ever imagined. You
may remember that it was he who, as head of IBM, commissioned the study to find out how
many computers the world would actually need. The answer came back six, and Watson
was determined that IBM would build them all. That was back in the old top down, big
brother view of the world. What we failed to foresee was that the world would not be
dominated by one or a few giant computers sitting at the top of the hierarchy but rather it
would be informed by millions and millions of tiny little brothers and sisters and cousins all
down at the bottom of the hierarchy where the information is and that, as a result, we might
gradually not even need a hierarchy. So let me say again, there are a lot of us and a lot of
computers and they are all handling information all the time, and could handle a very great
deal more if we had the wit to let them.

Let me give you an example. There are an enormous number of CD’s in the world. Now
creating an entire discography of every CD ever recorded would be a daunting task but a
rather bright company called, now, figured out that since people
frequently put CD’s into their computer CD Rom drives, and since computers are often
connected to the internet, it would be possible to create such a discography automatically.
Any time any one person happened to get their hands on absolutely brand new recording
which wasn’t in the discography yet, all they had to do was spend two minutes typing up the
track listing in their computer and nobody would ever have to do it again and, if they didn’t do
it, someone else would. It only needed one person to do it and then anybody who put a
copy of that CD into their CD Rom drive anywhere in the world would be immediately
presented with that track listing. It doesn’t originate from the CD itself because the CD
format was specified before we thought of adding digital information on to the tracks. It has
come from the shared network, which has recognised the CD just from the exact number of
bytes on it which, like a fingerprint, is unique. So has a comprehensive
discography of every CD recording in the world and it is self updating.

Now that is just CD’s. Imagine if every piece of information we ever generated about the
world that passed through a computer whether it’s a restaurant typing up its menu for the
evening whether it is a shop maintaining its stock list, whether it is a car noticing what speed
it is going, how much petrol it has got left, and where the nearest service stations are, what
prices they are charging for petrol. Or whether it is someone measuring the wingspan of an
African swallow, or writing down where and when their grandmother was born, or whether it
is someone taking a digital photograph from the top of the great pyramid, or just a flower that
has bloomed late or early this year, or the settings in your thermostat and when it turned on
and off, or if every time you took your child’s temperature, the network remembered.
Imagine all of that gradually creating a vast shared software model of the world just imagine

The one thing I did get right when I came up with the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was
that it would know where you were and come up with information appropriately, and that of
course is the thing that makes the crucial difference to everything in that list above. If every
piece of information knew the when of itself and the where of itself, so that the virtual world
we created fitted over the real world like an invisible glove, and these devices, which we
currently think of as telephones or PDA’s, would be the devices that made that invisible
world visible to us. The things which both generate the model and make it appear to us,
they become windows from the real world into the virtual world which is everywhere around
us. Of course they won’t be like this, these are just telephones with bits added on, one wire
taken away and a few more added to it.

These will disappear. The next big wave of technology which will hit us in a very, very few
years is nano technology and it is coming along a lot faster than people realise. The
difference will be that instead of making computers out of stuff, we will make stuff out of
computers. We will be making dumb matter smart. Instead of little screens our displays will
be sheets of paper, windows, mirrors, pools of water, anything near by that can hold an
image. Sound will radiate at us from any live surface. How many people here find this idea
either horrifying or at least disturbing? How many of you are saying yes well cellphones are
all very well but all this stuff is going a bit far? Well I have come up with a set of rules to
describe this phenomenon and it comes from watching my six-year-old daughter grow up in
a world of email, cellphones and DVD’s and all those things that frighten my mother.

Rule one, anything that is in the world when you are born is normal and ordinary and just
part of the way the world exists and works. Rule 2, anything that is invented between when
you are 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and world changing, and you can
probably get a career in it. Anything that is invented after you are 35 is against the natural
order of things.

Let me quote a friend of mine, the molecular engineer Brosal Handslaker. He says the
Romans believed there were little Gods in local things, in local things like fountains, trees,
and that is basically what the world would look like soon, because there will seem to be little
Gods in them. But it is basically sets of computers lying around in paint or in plastics, but
there will be large functional spaces attached to them. Paint won’t be paint, it will be
listening, it will be recording, it will be interactive. That’s a very confusing world, but one of
the things we learn about confusing worlds is that young people get used to them very

OK, lets come down to earth for a moment because all the stuff I’m describing is still months
and months away. What can we do now? Well we should remember that these are
communication devices. Let them be smart about what’s around them and let them find
ways of communicating with what’s around them, no cables, no configuration, lets see how
far Bluetooth can take us. Let phones communicate easily with computers, with televisions,
with radios, and oh, in particular with cars. I want my car radio to become a hands free
phone device because it has got speakers, it has got amplifiers already in the car - why
would I need to put another one in? I want it to become a hands free device by the very
action of carrying myself into it, that way I can hope to get to Los Angeles without having to
drive through the mangled wreckage of other phone users and we can start to build this
database that is a model of the world. Now just let me imagine how this might work.

In the real world, the most potent and powerful connection between any two objects is
physical proximity. In the soft world it can be any connection that anybody can imagine. In
the real world if you want to know what the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower looks like
you have to go there. In the soft world you can ask your guide to show you what it looks like
from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Maybe it can show you the view through a webcam
instantly, or maybe it can construct a virtual reality view in real time based on everything it
knows about everything that can currently be seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower. So the
first thing you would see is a lot of virtual graffiti, some of it quite naughty being French, and
you just sort of wave it away and, as you look down at your virtual view, you ask it how many
of the cars you can see from your current vantage point, for instance, are British. For a
moment you think its not working, then you say OK, OK, how many of them are Peugeots,
and the view lights up with a thousand moving dots. OK, how many of the cars you can
currently see have some Bach playing on the in car stereos, a few dozen. Oh, and there is
one playing your favourite recording of the Schubert Preludes. Do they have their flag up?
Yes, she’ll talk to you, but only because the only thing you asked her about was what she
was listening to. Anything else and her flag would have been down for you. You chat for a
bit about the music and quickly discover a tremendous rapport. What about having dinner
together? OK but she has a gluten problem which restricts where she can eat and you like
turbot, so a couple of restaurants light up in your view. One of them looks great for a
romantic tryst, lots of alcoves and dim lighting, but some of the people that have eaten there
tonight have left notes around in cyber space saying they are obviously understaffed in the
kitchen tonight and the food has been coming out cold or reheated. The other place gets
raves about the food but it is a bit bright and noisy. You decide the good food is the thing to
go for then you remember, damn, you are not actually in Paris, you are in New Delhi and got
a bit carried away. That’s alright, says your new friend, I’m actually in Albuquerque, I’m a
music squatter. What does that mean? Well, she just monitors the network for anybody who
is looking for someone who is listening to that recording. The real occupant of the car had
his flag down and wasn’t talking to anybody, so she just intercepted your query and really
quite enjoyed talking to you and now she is going out to dinner locally. Thanks, bye. So you
track which restaurant she is going to and send a margarita to her table to say thanks, but
she is annoyed that you tracked her down and turns the connection off.

Oh well. You go back to your day job erecting advertising hoardings on Mars, now soft Mars,
that is, which has recently been added to the soft solar system. It’s quite an expensive
project, because you cannot rely on millions of people feeding back millions of snippets of
information everyday, which is what keeps the soft earth going so well.

Now this is an idea I have been pursuing for a while and since it grew out of the Hitchhikers
Guide to the Galaxy, I called it H2 G2 and started it out as a community website. A
community, that is, of voluntary researchers starting to build the very guide that they would
then be able to use. A collaboratively built guide just as is a collaboratively
built CD database. It’s in its infancy, though has already built up a hugely enthusiastic
group of researchers pouring stuff into it. But before we could even get a couple of steps
along the way of building the kind of infrastructure we needed to make the thing start to self
organise and self propagate, guess what, like every other website on the planet, we ran out
of resources, or money as we call it.

However I am very pleased to announce that as of today, it is to rise reborn, the rights to the
H2 G2 Website have been acquired by a bunch of guys you may have heard of called the
BBC, which to me seems highly appropriate since that’s where Hitchhiker was first born. I
am very hopeful that with the BBC driving it, we can begin to turn it into the most
extraordinary resource. Please go and look at it. If you don’t like it add something to it to
make it better. You can’t do that to the 9 o’clock news. I hope that one day we can begin to
form the basis of something that brings my original vision of the Hitchhikers Guide to The
Galaxy as a mobile personal collaborative guide to real life, meanwhile I would be happy just
to get cellphone reception around my house.

Thank you very much.

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