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Arthur reads The Guide
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has always been depicted as an electronic book, as seen in this example from the Illustrated Guide published in 1994.

Pop Culture

The Critical Angle: Did Douglas Adams predict the internet?

The websurfer’s guide to a big claim.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

Today software devloper and Douglas Adams superfan Mitchell Lampert investigates whether the prescient writer really predicted one of humanity’s greatest inventions (after towels).

Science fiction authors have been credited with foreseeing a lot of modern technology, but another commonly heard claim is, “No one ever predicted the internet!” A somewhat less common rebuttal is, “Oh yeah? What about Douglas Adams?!”

Unfortunately, after giving this topic quite a bit of thought and research, I had to admit the answer to that one might actually end up being, “No, he didn’t really get there.” Which can be a hard thing for big Adams fans like myself to admit, but what he got right and what he missed out on can be interesting to explore, so let’s examine these claims a little further.

adams hitchhiker's guide cover

Some of the authors who predicted parts of the internet

While no science fiction author might have ever fully predicted the internet, prior to the mid-1990s anyway, there’s no shortage of examples of authors who managed to think up different parts of it over time. A few examples:

  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) envisioned a network of computer databases connected to each other, in a manner similar to the internet.
  • Isaac Asimov is said to have predicted a few aspects of the internet through his Foundation series, and other books.
  • In 1962, philosopher Marshall McLuhan predicted a “global village” of information sharing, emphasizing the importance of the medium used to transfer the data, rather than the usefulness of the information itself.
  • Even Mark Twain, in 1898, predicted how telephone lines could be used to transmit data, to keep tabs on people.

What did Douglas Adams predict?

Well, e-readers for one thing. In the original radio series, produced in 1978, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is described as a “sort of electronic book” by the character Ford Prefect, when he first presents it to Arthur Dent. It’s said to resemble a calculator with a 4-inch screen and about a hundred tiny buttons below it. The novel, published in 1979, elaborates:

The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitch hiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Chapter 3

Adams also foresaw the idea that electronic references can be updated, over a network of some sort. Throughout Hitchhiker’s Guide, Prefect struggles with the entry for Earth, first published with only a handful of words. All his content is restored later, much to his surprise.

There’s even an accidental nod toward Wikipedia-like editing of the Guide. Instead of different staff members being directed to write the entries, they all took long lunch breaks, so:

… most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.

Life, the Universe and Everything; Chapter 17

Fun fact: in April of 1999, roughly two years before Wikipedia was founded, Adams actually created one of the very first user-contributed encyclopedias, in real life! It’s called, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition, and it still exists today!

What Douglas Adams did NOT predict

One could write down a whole, long list of everything the internet does that isn’t e-books or Wikipedia, like the great revolutions of e-commerce, social networks, and personal video channels. There’s a much more fundamental element that ties our internet together, though, that Adams missed out on. Let’s compare how the real and sci-fi networks work.

At its core, more-so than anything else, the internet is a protocol. Any systems that share the same Internet Protocol (IPv4 and IPv6 are the two most common) can share information between themselves, no matter where in the world they’re located, and regardless of what type of hardware or software each machine happens to be using.

Historically speaking, the internet was designed to be a network of networks. It was invented as a way to “sew together” many disparate networking systems that had been cobbled together by different people, at different times, with different purposes and standards.

It also happens to be a packet-switching network, which means data you request is actually broken up into little chunks, each one taking a different route to get to you, and re-assembled on the other end in their proper order. If a chunk gets lost, it’s automatically re-requested. All of this happens behind the scenes of your web browser, without you even knowing it.

And while there is some central control over domain names and IP addresses (through ICANN, IANA, etc), just about anyone is allowed to join in on the network, and produce their own content!

The Critical Angle: Did Douglas Adams predict the internet?
Early Kindle prototype?

The latest in everything (if you’re close enough, no Vogon poetry)

In the realm of the HHGG universe, there’s something called the Sub-Etha, which is often described as a faster-than-light communications system. We’re not given much detail into how the system works (does it do any packet-switching?), but clues show us that it behaves more like an alternative to ham radio than an internet-like system.

Prefect owns a Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic device that is said to detect the Sub-Etha signals of any spaceships within its sensor range. It’s utterly useless when all ships are entirely out of range, though making him feel awfully lonely on Earth. At least Ford is able to communicate with anyone who might be empathetic to hitchhikers once he does spot a ship in range, using the Electronic Thumb, which also utilizes Sub-Etha technology.

The Sub-Etha is also used for broadcasting updates to reference books. Each update only targets its own device, though — Megadodo Publications will only update their own HHGG book, for example. Adams, alas, did not foresee a universal “web browser” type of device that could be used for calling up any reference book one wanted.

Thanks for all the fish, anyway

By not predicting the very fundamental things that make the internet what it is — namely the openness, universality, and robustness of its protocol — we cannot properly say that Douglas Adams truly “predicted the internet.” He might have gotten the jump on a few things, like e-books and online encyclopedias, so maybe we can at least give him credit for conjuring up a lot more of it than the average author could in the late 1970s, which is better than having having an interstellar highway paved through your backyard.

The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture. Rather than repeating the same old arguments, we put them to the test.

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