THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE FUTURE: Douglas Adams and the Digital World, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE FUTURE: Douglas Adams and the Digital World, Review

Matthew Kresal never leaves home without his towel.
Say the name Douglas Adams in 2021, and you'll more than likely get a reference to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Perhaps someone will mention "42" or, say, "So long and thanks for all the fish." Yet there was far more to Adams, whose interests and pursuits made him into something of a modern renaissance man. Among them were the world of technology and the rapid changes that the internet brought along. In the years leading up to Adams' passing in 2001 at the far too young age of 49, Adams presented a series of radio documentaries for BBC Radio 4 looking at the digital world and its potential for the future. Now, after nearly two decades, those programs have been collected in the four-disc BBC Audio release The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Future: Douglas Adams and the Digital World.

The first disc sees Adams present the two-part 1999 series The Internet: The Last 20th Century Battleground. Serving as a documentary on the early years of the medium by which you're currently reading this review, the documentary explores just how much the world wide web had changed things in the space of less than a decade. Parts of it will undoubtedly seem quaint now, a memory of the web's earliest days. Yet parts of it remain remarkably relevant, such as the story of how a flame war over the impeachment of then US President Bill Clinton led to a forum for vegans getting hacked and temporarily closed down, years of discussion lost in the process. Such things, of course, would never happen today, would they? As such, the pair of half-hour episodes works as a historical document and vision ahead of the Dotcom bubble bursting.

The middle discs of the set present the series that gives the release its title. Broadcast in 2000, the forward-thinking Adams presented these four half-hour episodes, each focusing on a different thing being affected by the digital revolution. They include the worlds of music, publishing, broadcasting, and the rise of artificial intelligence. It's in these episodes, and the publishing and broadcasting ones, in particular, that Adams shows immense foresight at a time when things like Kindle and Netflix, let alone the BBC iPlayer, were still glimmers in people's eyes. The opening episode on the music industry raises the question of the thorny issue of music piracy, something we're still grappling with two decades on, as well as the opportunity for up-and-coming music artists to gain a wider following online. Though, in the latter category, I can't help but wonder how Adams would have felt about it giving the likes of Justin Beiber over, say, Bach or the Beatles?

It's worth mentioning something, in case the word "documentary" gives a particular impression. For both of these series are far from dull pieces, with Adams as merely a narrator. In the case of Guide especially, both Adams and the episodes themselves carry with them Adams oft-imitated by never matched wit and wisdom, from his music choices to comparing being lost in a sea of digital viewing options to a tiresome experience in a Los Angeles burger bar. Not to mention being able to call upon interviews with figures as wide-ranging as musician Brian Emo, author Muriel Gray, and AI pioneer Chris Langton to offer their insights. The resulting series is very much an Adams guide to the near future, now our present day.

Now seems a good time to mention the final disc and the sole documentary not presented by Adams. Broadcast on Radio 4 in 2015, Mitch Benn hosts the aptly titled Did Douglas Get it Right? Looking back on the Guide fifteen years on, Benn delves back into the series and Adams's predictions for the future alongside some of its interviewees and people such as Adams' friend/biographer Neil Gaiman. There's a definite delight in hearing how much Adams got right, what he didn't predict or foresee, and also chuckle a bit at the turn of the millennium obsession with making everything interactive. And Benn, a fan of Adams's work, is a solid host for the half-hour.

For those fans of Adams, this four-disc collection is worth seeking out. In part as a reminder that there was more to him than the man who gave us Arthur Dent, Marvin the Paranoid Android, and the most completed yet somehow uncomplete Doctor Who story ever made. Adams was also a man of incredible foresight and interest, something apparent in the decades since they first aired. And, given that Adams's tragic passing followed soon after their making, to hear some final thought from an exceptional mind.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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