Forty years on, thanks for all the fish!
This week marked forty years since the first Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show debuted on BBC Radio 4. The series has inspired and informed many actual inventions, including the smartphone or tablet you may be reading this on.editorials Updated: Mar 09, 2018 19:18 IST
Last year, at the 2017 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a pair of Bluetooth earphones that could instantly translate several languages in one’s ear was previewed. The idea was immediately and widely compared to the babelfish — that fictional fish from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) that did much the same thing. All one had to do was put a babelfish in one’s ear, and one became capable of understanding every language spoken in the universe. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy originally debuted as a radio comedy written by Douglas Adams on BBC’s Radio 4, 40 years ago on March 8, 1978.
In the past four decades, H2G2 has become somewhat of a multimedia phenomenon in science fiction and fantasy storytelling, having been adapted into a series of books (by Adams himself), stage shows, comic books, a TV series, a video game, and even a feature film. Its legions of fans include Elon Musk, who recently sent a Tesla Roadster into space, driven by a mannequin in a SpaceX spacesuit, with a copy of the book in the glove compartment and the words “Don’t Panic” (in large, friendly letters) on the dashboard.
But the most extraordinary thing about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy is the number of things that exist now that hadn’t been thought of until the series. The babelfish-like instant translator may not yet have emerged from the prototype stage; and no one is anywhere close to inventing an infinite improbability drive; but there are several things that we take almost for granted that might as well have jumped straight out of those pages.
The touchscreen tablet or smartphone that you might be reading this piece on was originally the eponymous Guide itself. The Guide is so large that if it were printed in normal form, “an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in”. And that was why it was carried around on a “device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator...[that had] a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages’ could be summoned at a moment’s notice”. The Guide was the first ever e-book, kindle, e-book reader, and tablet PC. Adams even envisioned the touchscreen, gesture-recognition technology (“you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers”). The Sub-Etha network that could broadcast around the galaxy is, of course, the Internet. Someone has even invented the knife that toasts bread as it cuts it from the H2G2 movie.
Given how fast artificial intelligence and robotics technologies are developing, perhaps in the next 40 years, we might run into a Marvin-like “paranoid android” or even a Hooloovoo (a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue).