The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Influence & Legacy

Douglas AdamsDou­glas Adams and the answer to life, the uni­verse, and everything

Dou­glas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into vir­tu­ally every media yet con­ceived by humankind — if more advanced species else­where in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the tech­nol­ogy with us earth­lings. Back on Earth, Adams per­son­ally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved con­sider the defin­i­tive ur text), nov­els, a tele­vi­sion series, and com­puter game. Although nowhere near the level of cul­tural sat­u­ra­tion of its rough con­tem­po­rary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is some­thing per­son­ally beloved by mil­lions, but also a rather valu­able fran­chise that placed quite a bur­den upon its cre­ator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shep­herd­ing and pro­tect­ing, and yes, prof­it­ing off Hitchhiker’s.

Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchik­ers enjoyed a com­plex par­al­lel exis­tence in stage shows, licensed mer­chan­dise (includ­ing tow­els and rub­ber duck­ies), and addi­tional writ­ten works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s sec­ond book Don’t Panic — only slightly less hum­ble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiog­ra­phy — was a com­bi­na­tion biog­ra­phy of Adams and his­tory of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, clev­erly writ­ten in a rev­er­ent pas­tiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the orig­i­nal sto­ries into comics form 1993–1997, after which things went rel­a­tively quiet until a 2005 fea­ture film failed to catch on with Amer­i­can movie goers. Direc­tor Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may sim­ply have been show­ing up too late to the fad­ing Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the cast­ing is inar­guably excel­lent, par­tic­u­larly Mar­tin Free­man as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rick­man as The Guide and Mar­vin the Para­noid Android, respec­tively (read The Dork Report review). The movie may have failed to reignite fan fer­vor at its peak, but the nev­erend­ing tril­ogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthu­mously autho­rized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl cre­ator Eoin Colfer in 2009.

Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Martin Freeman, Mos Def, and Zooey Deschanel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyGet­ting the band back together for the 2005 fea­ture film

But the vast influ­ence of Adams’ orig­i­nal works is incal­cu­la­ble. I can’t speak to his influ­ence in his home coun­try, but he was an inte­gral com­po­nent of the holy trin­ity for a par­tic­u­lar strain of Anglophile geeks grow­ing up in Amer­ica in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doc­tor Who, for­ever and ever amen. Rolling Stone mag­a­zine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guar­an­tee­ing count­less young unsuc­cess­ful bands called Dis­as­ter Area, one suc­cess­ful band called Level 42, and a gen­er­a­tion of col­lege kids heed­ing Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bit­ter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC tele­vi­sion com­edy Red Dwarf is a direct descen­dant (albeit, if any­thing, even more bit­terly bleak and nihilis­tic). As a cul­tural insti­tu­tion, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radio­head song title “Para­noid Android”.

Adams, together with fel­low imp Tom Baker, for­ever stamped Doc­tor Who with its sig­na­ture blend of hard sci­ence, absur­dist humor, and barely sub­merged dark­ness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, per­haps most evi­dent in Christo­pher Eccleston’s par­tic­u­larly bipo­lar vision of the char­ac­ter as swing­ing wildly between anguished and giddy — at once griev­ing his com­plic­ity in the death of his entire species, but not so despair­ing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earth­ling named Rose Tyler (The Doc­tor! In love! Almost as unthink­able as the roman­tic mis­ad­ven­tures that would befall Arthur after the largely sex­less early install­ments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that pre­ferred wit & whimsy over revers­ing the polar­ity of the neu­tron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Peter Davison in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyFifth Doc­tor Peter Davi­son appears as The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

As my fre­quent Doc­tor Who asides above prove, it’s vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to dis­cuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with­out a few detours into Whov­ian mat­ters — not least because Fifth Doc­tor Peter Davi­son famously cameos in the tele­vi­sion series as the excep­tion­ally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restau­rant at the End of the Uni­verse. I first read the nov­els as a kid, com­pletely unaware of their radio or TV incar­na­tions. I quite lit­er­ally pic­tured Ford Pre­fect as The Doc­tor (specif­i­cally, the highly eccen­tric Tom Baker’s unfor­get­table per­for­mance as the Fourth Doc­tor). When my local PBS affil­i­ate finally ran the TV series, I was quite dis­ap­pointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the phys­i­cal oppo­site of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.

David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyDavid Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and San­dra Dick­in­son in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

Tril­lian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge dis­ap­point­ment. Whether by her own act­ing choices, con­tem­po­rary cul­tural mores, or the whims of a randy cos­tume depart­ment, actress San­dra Dick­in­son pitches the char­ac­ter as even dumber and more sexed up than a typ­i­cal Doc­tor Who com­pan­ion, which is really say­ing some­thing (thank­fully, 21st Cen­tury Who Girls gen­er­ally enjoy much more sub­stan­tial char­ac­ter­i­za­tion). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Bee­ble­brox both sport exag­ger­ated Amer­i­can accents that make me scratch my head as much as our sil­li­est mock British accents must irri­tate actual Britons (adden­dum: I have since learned that Dick­in­son is actu­ally Amer­i­can, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dick­in­son would later marry Davi­son, and their daugh­ter Geor­gia Mof­fett would in turn wed actor David Ten­nant (mak­ing the Fifth Doc­tor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is with­out any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still work­ing beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes match­maker keep­ing it all in the Doc­tor Who fam­ily — and I haven’t even got­ten around to dis­cussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in Doctor WhoDou­glas Adams as Doc­tor Who match­maker Part 1: Lalla Ward and Tom Baker

But the sin­gle great­est reper­cus­sion of Hitchhiker’s has noth­ing to do with Radio­head songs, the rel­a­tive eccen­tric­ity of Doc­tor Who lead­ing men, or spin­off mer­chan­dise. It is, sim­ply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approx­i­mately the mil­lionth per­son to point out that the epony­mous guide itself has since become a very real thing, col­lect­ing lint in the bathrobe pock­ets of mil­lions of Earth­lings. It took a num­ber of iter­a­tions of numer­ous inter­lock­ing com­po­nents for it to hap­pen, and it’s not hard to imag­ine that Adams was a direct influ­ence on the vision­ary nerds that invented and assem­bled them. Com­put­ers were net­worked together in the 1960s, an infi­nite num­ber of Ford Pre­fects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remem­ber really lust­ing after the mag­i­cal Palm VII, which was capa­ble of retriev­ing your email out of thin air). These ele­ments finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable infor­ma­tion device, Apple’s iPhone — an inven­tion I’m sure Adams would agree is more use­ful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s the­o­ret­i­cally infi­nite hyper­linked data­base full of per­sis­tently and instantly avail­able infor­ma­tion proved about as reli­able as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on frip­peries like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gar­gle­blaster, while hav­ing lit­tle com­ment on an entire lifebear­ing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edi­tion: “Harm­less.” Sec­ond, exten­sively revised & expanded edi­tion: “Mostly harmless.”

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Doctor WhoDou­glas Adams as Doc­tor Who match­maker Part 2: David Ten­nant and father-in-law Peter Davison

So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so endur­ingly pop­u­lar? It’s not too dif­fi­cult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involve­ment in Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity sketch com­edy groups, his writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with Gra­ham Chap­man of Monty Python, and his appre­ci­a­tion of clas­sic sci­ence fic­tion (par­tic­u­larly Kurt Von­negut and the British insti­tu­tion Doc­tor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, par­ody, adap­ta­tion, or pas­tiche of any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. Although it plays with many tropes of sci­ence fic­tion, it was a gen­uinely new thing. Adams had the fol­low­ing to say of Amer­i­can TV audi­ences, but I think it’s valid as a uni­ver­sal statement:

“Audi­ences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as com­plete idiots by the peo­ple who make pro­grammes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given some­thing with a bit more sub­stance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!’”
–Dou­glas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94 

Adams gave peo­ple some­thing with a bit more sub­stance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so orig­i­nal that Adams spent most of his lat­ter career patiently explain­ing where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pes­simistic take, equat­ing James Cameron’s recent announce­ment that he would only make films set in the Avatar uni­verse to the trap that Adams found him­self in:

[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, start­ing from the orig­i­nal 1978 radio broad­cast, con­tin­u­ally rewrit­ing the same story over and over for dif­fer­ent media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the dif­fer­ent iter­a­tions, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of talent.
– Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)

True, he must have been frus­trated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at book­store shelves today to see almost every­thing he wrote still hap­pily in print, includ­ing two nov­els in a new series star­ring holis­tic detec­tive Dirk Gen­tly. Writ­ing and man­ag­ing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evi­dently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time strug­gling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hol­ly­wood, with mixed results. But out­side of his nom­i­nal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (includ­ing lumi­nar­ies as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endan­gered species), and think­ing deep thoughts.

Thanks for read­ing Part Two of The Dork Report’s tril­ogy (in three parts… so far) on Dou­glas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part One, on its highly improb­a­ble leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its sta­tus as gate­way drug for many future atheists.

Offi­cial Dou­glas Adams site:

Offi­cial BBC site:

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Don’t Panic! Turn your iPhone into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy free wallpaper Don't Panic

Don’t you wish you could turn your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as seen in the epony­mous series of nov­els by Dou­glas Adams? Of course you do! Install these free wall­pa­pers, open up The Guide, grab your towel, stick out your Elec­tronic Thumb, and hit the space­ways. But do try to avoid Vogon vessels…

iPad with retina display iPad iPhone 4 iPhone 3 & iPod Touch

iPad 3
with retina display

iPad 1 & 2
1st or 2nd generation

iPhone 4
with retina display

iPhone 3
3G, 3Gs, or iPod Touch

Need help? The Icon­fac­tory has an excel­lent FAQ.

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Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified movie poster


Objec­ti­fied finds its the­sis in a quo­ta­tion from one of history’s prime indus­tri­al­ists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether inten­tional or not, speaks to who­ever put it there.” In other words, every­thing we select, pur­chase, and inter­act with, was first designed and man­u­fac­tured by a skilled arti­san. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their prod­uct might become a part of your life. Direc­tor Gary Hustwit’s pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary fea­ture Hel­vetica (read The Dork Report review) was a cel­e­bra­tion of typog­ra­phers and graphic design­ers, and inspired laypeo­ple to rec­og­nize the long his­tory and great labor that went into the type­faces they use every day on their com­puter screens. Sim­i­larly, Objec­ti­fied pro­files the often unknown indus­trial design­ers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in ObjectifiedJonathan Ives’ inner sanc­tum. After con­duct­ing this inter­view, Apple had the film­mak­ers shot.

Apple’s res­i­dent guru Jonathan Ive is per­haps the most famous design auteur fea­tured. Ive is prob­a­bly the sec­ond most famous per­son at Apple, justly acclaimed for his sin­gu­lar design aes­thetic that first caught the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, decep­tively “sim­ple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a prin­ci­ple born out in Ive’s work. Know­ing inside and out the par­tic­u­lars of dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als and man­u­fac­tur­ing is just part of design­ing a product’s exter­nals. Ive bran­dishes precision-tooled parts from a dis­as­sem­bled Mac­Book Pro to illus­trate that Apple spends an enor­mous amount of time and resources not just design­ing their prod­ucts, but also the cus­tom machines and processes nec­es­sary to mass pro­duce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in ObjectifiedNaoto Fuka­sawa rethinks the CD player.

Objec­ti­fied spends some con­sid­er­able time on the topic of sus­tain­abil­ity, a respon­si­bil­ity that regret­tably only recently entered the indus­trial designer’s job descrip­tion. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incred­i­ble anec­dote of the dif­fi­cult process of devel­op­ing a new tooth­brush. When the prod­uct is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vaca­tion to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a dis­carded IDEO tooth­brush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her prod­uct had become pollution.

Objec­ti­fied nec­es­sar­ily makes a brief detour into inter­ac­tion design (this brief digres­sion would be wor­thy of a film unto itself, but in the mean­time, the curi­ous can refer to Steven John­son’s 1997 book Inter­face Cul­ture: How New Tech­nol­ogy Trans­forms the Way We Cre­ate and Com­mu­ni­cate). When we inter­act with most ana­log prod­ucts, their form fol­lows their func­tion. As a thought exper­i­ment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s func­tion sim­ply by look­ing at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many prod­ucts of the dig­i­tal age, the out­ward form fac­tor gives no clues as to the func­tion. Thus, inter­ac­tion design was born with the Xerox PARC graph­i­cal user inter­face. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have pop­u­lar­ized the touch­screen, which likely sig­nals the begin­ning of another sea change when periph­er­als like key­boards and mice will be revealed to have been a tem­po­rary evo­lu­tion­ary bump, now marked for extinction.

still from ObjectifiedAwww yeah, design­ers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a com­puter, hard drive, and cam­era. Tellingly, the Objec­ti­fied Blu-ray edi­tion has no menu struc­ture at all. You put it in, it plays, and the sup­ple­men­tary fea­tures fol­low imme­di­ately after the clos­ing cred­its. It’s a com­pletely guided, lin­ear expe­ri­ence that speaks to the film’s ele­va­tion of the cre­ator over the consumer.

Offi­cial movie site:

Must read: A Hur­ri­cane of Con­sumer Val­ues by Alissa Walker

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