Posted by & filed under Books, IT & the Internet, August 17 2007.

I recently read ‘Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams‘ by M.J.Simpson, which to be honest was pretty dull, but it did get me thinking about the thing Adams is most famous for, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘.

I first came across this very funny story when it only existed as a radio series, and it seems that Adams’ most enduring and influential idea in this story is the notion of the guide itself – a sort of handheld electronic encyclopedia containing pretty much everything someone travelling through the universe would need to know.

When Adams first wrote the story in the late 70s the guide was pure fiction, but with the advent of the Internet and the Web, and advances in computer hardware like wireless broadband networking, mobile phones and PDAs, the idea of the guide is now close to reality, perhaps closer than Adams himself believed possible when he first came up with the notion – and he does seem to have been the first person to articulate the concept. Like all great ideas it seems simple with the benefit of hindsight, but no-one else, not even any other science-fiction author or forecaster of trends in science and communications, came up with it. The only comparable things I can think of are Spock’s tricorder from the Star Trek TV series of the 60s, Frederik Pohl’s ‘joymaker‘ from the book ‘The Age of the Pussyfoot‘ (first published in 1965), and maybe Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s pocket computer from the book ‘The Mote in God’s Eye‘ (first published in 1974). They’re not quite the same thing however.

Adams sadly died at the age of 49 in 2001 but he did see the start of these advances and in his later career he evangelised the concept behind the guide, hoping to make it a reality. Perhaps the most notable thing he influenced was h2g2, an attempt in 1999 to create something like the guide using the Internet and the Web.

However, for various reasons (mostly financial it seems, but also because it was an idea ahead of its time) h2g2 never really took off in a big way. In 2005 h2g2 was still trying to turn Adams’ idea into reality (as can be seen from this BBC news article) but now, in 2007, there is something that really is approaching Adams’ original vision. Unfortunately it’s not h2g2 but Wikipedia, which is truly astonishing and perhaps the most useful resource on the web. Having Wikipedia (not to mention the rest of the Internet) on a portable and wireless 3G Smartphone/PDA handset is now current (and widely available) technology, and perhaps this is more than approaching the fiction of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, it’s an actual contemporary and practical realisation of it in our everyday lives.

h2g2 is interesting also from another perspective though – it contains within its structure a thematic classification system, or a taxonomic controlled vocabulary (see my previous blog posting ‘Controlled vocabularies and why you should be interested in them‘). The h2g2 controlled vocabulary however, has ambition – it seeks to describe the WHOLE universe, and uses as its starting point the idea of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything‘, a concept that originally came up when one of Adams’ characters tries to ask the Ultimate Question and seeks to encompass all knowledge using that phrase.

When compared with current attempts to encompass and classify all knowledge (and surely this is what Wikipedia is all about), then ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ is a pretty idiosyncratic way to start – but of course, while Adams’ books contain a lot that is thought-provoking and intelligent, they are essentially parables of absurdity and an excuse for some laughs and satire directed at modern life. This is why it’s not really fair to compare h2g2 with Wikipedia. The original guide in the story was often less than useful, being edited and compiled by aliens that are egotistical, eccentric, greedy and hidebound by bureaucracy, and h2g2 has kept these characteristics. It always values quirky humour over being authoritative.

5 Responses to “h2g2 and how to use a controlled vocabulary to classify the universe”

  1. Eddie

    I’m now reading ‘Don’t Panic‘ By Neil Gaiman, which is a much better book about Douglas Adams and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy than M.J.Simpson’s book. It’s irreverent, full of interesting detail, and funny, and it’s the kind of book that fans of Adams’ books will like to read, in contrast to Simpson’s book which is a bit of a yawnfest.


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