Mankind as sickly as a parrot: Douglas Adams leaves his Apple Macs to tell Steve Homer how technology can rescue a human race that is stranded like a flightless bird
Monday 05 October 1992
Adams is a man with a mission. Well, several missions actually. He wants to work out what the future will look like, save the world, set up his next project and play with his toys. Finding time to write boring old books during all this fun takes some doing.
Following in the tradition of Jules Verne, H G Wells and Arthur C Clarke, Adams is forcing us to think new thoughts. But where most of his predecessors have concentrated on the physical changes that technology will bring, Adams looks to the social and the psychological.
His first great success, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, signposted his attitudes. Anarchic humour pointing up the idiocy of human existence. At its centre, the destruction of the Earth to make way for an interstellar bypass that turned out not to be needed.
The Cambridge English graduate regards science not as mildly interesting but as fundamentally important. 'We have been talking about the 'two cultures' thing ever since C P Snow first coined the phrase and we are still essentially an arts-orientated country.
'From the moment you are split up after you take your O-levels into artists and scientists you are encouraged to regard each other not only with rivalry but with actual open contempt.'
Adams says that Britain's opinion formers are virtually all artists who do not understand the world they find themselves in. 'There's just no basic groundwork of understanding of science at all in this country.
'We just tend to think of boffins in white coats doing slightly suspicious- making things as opposed to realising that it (science) lies at the basis of our entire understanding of who we are. That is no longer something which you can solve sitting in a professor's rooms in Oxford with a bottle of sherry.'
Adams's initial involvement with science had a lot to do with his discovery and love affair with computers. In his office, his home and his bolt- hole in the South of France he has about 10 Apple Macintosh computers (he has lost count). This love affair stems from his legendary dislike of hard work.
In Last Chance to See, first published in 1990, Adams admits: 'I have a well-deserved reputation for being something of a gadget freak, and am rarely happier than when spending an entire day programming my computer to perform automatically a task that it would otherwise take me a good 10 seconds to do by hand.
'Ten seconds, I tell myself, is 10 seconds. Time is valuable and 10 seconds' worth of it is well worth the investment of a day's happy activity working out a way of saving it.'
But he claims it was ever thus. 'Computers, of course, have become the new displacement activity for writers. It used to be, if you had something to write, you'd get new notebooks, you would sharpen your pencils, clean the fridge and do all that. Nowadays you spend all day re-configuring your operating system and, as a result of that, you begin to know a little bit about the buggers.' In fact he knows quite a lot.
It was this fascination with computers that led him to a deeper study of science. 'There was a bit of my brain that always had been very interested in science and sort of analysing things, seeing how they worked and putting them together to see how they worked again. Programming is absolutely ideally suited to that bent of mind. I just became obsessed with doing stuff on the computer.'
However it is not the hard technology that really excites him. Ask him which book is his most important and he snaps back with 'Last Chance to See, no question'. The Hitch Hiker series hardly rates a mention. Last Chance to See is a mixture of travel, ecology and anthropology. In the book Adams and the zoologist Mark Carwardine set off to visit some of the most endangered species on Earth at home, as it were. Trudging through jungle and forest to meet gorillas, Komodo dragons, river dolphins and other creatures and writing the book about the experience has had a profound effect on Adams.
And one creature, a giant flightless New Zealand parrot called the kakapo, has really left its mark. 'My standard lecture, which I tend to give at the drop of a hat, has mostly to do with the kakapo and computer models, oddly enough.'
The kakapo had no natural predators and grew fat and placid. However European colonists arrived and took a shine to this lunch on legs. The birds that remained were devastated by introduced rats and feral cats. Today there are only 43 left.
'There are very nice, neat parallels you can make between the way in which the kakapo perceives its world - the nature of the world it lives in, how it comes to perceive it in that way, and how it comes to behave in the way it does in relation to the world that it thinks it sees - and us.'
Adams says that while the kakapo's behaviour may appear absurd and crazy to us, it is only because its world has changed in a way it was not prepared for. What we have not yet realised is that our world also has changed, and is now too complex. We may believe we understand what is going on, but we don't. However Adams believes computers could come to the rescue.
'The characteristic that really distinguishes human beings from other animals,' he says, 'is the ability to do a lot of modelling in software before we try stuff out in hardware. This is what led to our ability to make tools, to adapt the environment we find around us to suit us rather than waiting for ourselves to adapt to the environment, which is what more normally happens.'
The cumulative effect of all these changes, he believes, has us living in a world that has far outstripped our ability to comprehend it.
'Our ability to comprehend the world was laid down in the sort of firmware in our system ROM when Homo sapiens version 1.0 shipped about a million years ago, and we are trying to perceive a world that is infinitely more complex because we've made it so,' he says. (Translation for those who don't know the language: We are using brains that were designed when the first Homo sapiens was built, but that was designed for a different world.)
But just as the world is now impossible for us to understand, we have, 'quite by chance' as he puts it, come up with a machine that allows us to model things in software better than ever before - the computer.
Adams says it was the spreadsheet, a program that allows you to model complex problems using mathematical systems, that transformed the personal computer from a hobbyist's toy into an important tool. 'Suddenly Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, gave us the ability to model things in software that we previously couldn't.
'That, if you like, is an extension of our ability to perceive the world, and I have a feeling, but I could be entirely wrong, that the coming of such things as virtual reality, which enables us really to re-map the way in which data presents itself to our perceptual system, might start to give us entirely new handles on the nature of the universe we live in.'
Douglas Adams's new book, 'Mostly Harmless: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Part Five', is published today by Heinemann at pounds 12.99.
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