TECHNOLOGICALLY, WE HAVE BEEN LEFT BEHIND
by Douglas Adams
The most fun I ever had working was during the making of the Hitch Hiker's Guide radio
series. It was just a small tight knit team of people working ridiculous hours,
determined that this series was going to be very different from anything else. Well,
that's probably putting it back to front. You discover that that's what you were determined
to do later -- at the time you just do the next thing that needs to be done. If
the next thing that needs to be done is to listen to the fifty third sound that might be the right thing for the effect of a whale hitting the ground and see if that
fits neatly with the thirty seventh choice for a piece of accompanying music then
that tells its own story about what was driving us. Doing it for TV was quite a
lot less fun. Instead of a small, committed group you had dozens of people half-involved. You'd
have people who were doing something for Paul Daniels one day, us the next and Bruce
Forsyth the day after who would say, 'Alright, what's this? Comedy science fiction.
OK, I can do a funny alien for you. Next?'
The best part of the TV show, as far as I was concerned, was the computer graphic
element -- the readouts you would get from the Guide itself as the narrator was speaking.
It was the one area in which I felt we managed to stretch the boundaries a bit in
the same way as we had done on the radio programmes. In fact, the animation studio
which did that work didn't actually have a computer, so they had to handpaint the
whole thing. But it was, as far as I know, the first piece of TV programme making
that was actually 'designed' for the video recorder. You had to be prepared to rewind those
sections once or twice if you wanted to catch all the details.
I also thoroughly enjoyed working on the computer game of Hitch Hiker. This was back
in about 1984 when games were text-only adventures. The best of these were produced
by Infocom -- they were witty and complex and completely immersive. We have, of
course, learnt to do an awful lot with text in the last few centuries, and the interactivity
which the computer brings to the text medium just gives the author another and very
powerful tool to work with. At the time a number of writers sold the electronic
rights to their novels and let somebody else get on with the job of turning them into
games. This seemed to me to be the worst of both worlds. They had done the really
tough, backbreaking work of writing a novel and then ducked out of the enormous fun
of working on the computer game. But then computer graphics arrived, and though they
were slow, coarse, clunky and lo-res, they killed the market for the rather witty
and subtle text-only games. I thought this was a great pity, and determined to back
out of the medium again for the time being, and wait till the graphics got good.
Meanwhile, of course, I had written a novel or two based on the Hitch Hiker story,
and this had had the effect of fundamentally changing what I did. After working
in radio and TV and theatre and so on, the next thing to tackle was a novel. However
the novel was such a huge success that it meant that the next thing I had to do after that
novel was another novel, and after that, another novel, and so on. I had inadvertently
become a novelist instead of the multimedia writer I was otherwise shaping myself
up to be. Which meant that I spent well over a decade sitting by myself in my room
typing. I made the occasional bolt for freedom, such as my wildlife project, Last
Chance to See (my own personal favourite book of mine), but otherwise I was pretty
much on my own, typing.
To be honest, I didn't like it much.
I met Robbie Stamp while I was toying with the idea of making a science fiction documentary
series for TV. He was a documentary maker with Central Television's Special Projects
Group, headed by the innovative and free-thinking Richard Creasey. Robbie and I hit it off immediately and quickly discovered that we had a complementary set of
ambitions and frustrations. I wanted to find some kind of structure that would let
me realise some of the dozens of not-novel-writing projects that I had been day-dreaming about for years -- TV, CD-ROM, on-line publishing, film, music, etc -- and Robbie
wanted to create and manage the world's greatest ever multiple media company. From
this meeting of minds was born The Digital Village.
Notice that it's a multiple-media company, not a multi-media company. The extra syllable
is important. Multi-media is only one of the things we do. Robbie assembled a very
powerful and eclectic group of talents to become the founding partners: his old boss Richard Creasey, who as it happens was the first person to tell me, years and
years ago, that digital media and communications were going to revolutionise our
lives; Ian Charles Stewart who has been, variously, a photographer, banker, Olympic
volleyballer and racer of 850cc motorbikes, and was also one of the founding partners of WiReD
magazine; Ed Victor, internationally feared literary agent; Mary Glanville, also
from Central TV and Virgin New Media and Zenith, who handles our rights, distribution
and co-financing issues; Richard Harris, our computers and communications wizard, who
is also an evolutionary biologist, amateur Egyptologist, opera singer and one-time
Between us we cover a lot of territory.
We see a lot of publishing companies and TV companies nervously trying to deal with
the implications of the new digital media by buying in talent and buying up rights,
and we also see a lot of multimedia companies that have no understanding or experience
of traditional media. At The Digital Village we have experience and understanding
of all these issues built into the very core of the company, so that any projects
we create can flow quite naturally into media that suit it.
In Britain we have a unique set of advantages and obstacles as far as digital media
are concerned. We may as well face the fact that technologically we have been left
behind -- or so it seems. All of the computer architectures which are going to shape
the way in which we work, play and communicate for the foreseeable future have been
designed in the States and, to a small extent, in Japan. We are not players in that
field. However, now that these computer architectures are in place and we need something to fill them up with, all the big American software companies are prowling round
Britain buying up talent. At a recent trade fair, DreamWorks set up shop not to
show anything, just to hire British talent. We still have many of the best writers,
designers, teachers, artists and actors in the world, but because of the peculiarities of
our education system, which separates us into artists and scientists at age fifteen
and then teaches each to despise the other thereafter, our artists and our technologists
don't talk to each other. If we can overcome that problem, if we can make a bridge
between the 'two cultures', then we have it in our grasp, as David Puttnam remarked
in a recent lecture, to make London the content software capital of the world.
But though England will be our creative root, we intend The Digital Village to be
a global company, which will exist as an on-line network of Digital Villages around
the world, not only in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney, but in Bangalore and
Johannesburg and Rio. The many-to-many communications model which the World Wide Web is beginning
to provide us with should nurture cultural diversity in a way in which the old one-to-many
broadcasting model has tended only to subvert. We want to be globally local and locally global.
I intend to continue to write the occasional book, but what I am working on right
at the moment is a new work of fiction that will make its very first appearance as
a CD-ROM. I think I'm beginning to have fun again.