We seem to be moving from technology inspired by Star Trek to tech straight out of books by Douglas Adams?
This is not my observation. I was on the podcast WB-40 this week, talking about crowdfunding, narrative hooks, and how to preserve a lightness of being. Here it is, WB-40 episode 288: Crowdfunding.
After we were done recording, Lisa Riemers, one of the hosts, commented that my recent projects could have come straight out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
- Poem/1 is a box that displays one-off poetry to tell the time! A Vogon invention if ever there was one. Hey, only a week to go on the Kickstarter, check out the campaign!
- Galactic Compass orients you to the central supermassive black hole of the galaxy. I’ve lost count of the people who have connected it with the Total Perspective Vortex.
Now this tickles me.
The URL of this blog is
interconnected.org - I’ve been blogging here since February 2000 - and it’s named for the project that originally occupied the homepage. That project’s strap line: "Exploring the fundamental interconnectedness of all things."
Which is from Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books.
It’s a long-running association for me, it turns out.
There’s a gag that technology is inspired by Star Trek.
Tricorders are smartphones. Touch screen computing and voice computing are both in the standard kit of the Trek universe. Communicator badges and universal translators provide a North Star for wearables; the Holodeck is an inspiration for virtual reality.
Now who knows what the direction of influence here is, actually.
Other sci-fi has had outsized impact too: tablets and video calls in Kubrick’s 2001 for instance. The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer as an educational device in The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.
Star Trek is always the one that gets mentioned though.
And yet –
The most useful new concept of the 2020s is that of vibes. Vibe is as real as momentum, and should be as studied and theorised, imo.
And, as previously discussed, we are in the midst of a Vibe Shift.
Why shouldn’t that touch technology too?
See, AI is the most Douglas Adams of all technologies.
Large language models, GPT-2, GPT-3, ChatGPT and all the rest, are relatively simple under the hood. There’s not much complexity to the code, so I’m told. But there is a monstrous quantity of data and training.
OpenAI didn’t invent the transformer architecture LLM. But they were the first to do the engineering to make it really, really big, and see what happened. That it would work out was unexpected!
Here, read about the invention of the Infinite Improbability Drive from Adams’ Hitchhiker’s:
The principles of improbability were known:
The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood …
But the physicists were stuck on how to generate an infinite improbability field.
Until, "one day, a student who had been left to sweep up the lab after a particularly unsuccessful party" got to thinking…
If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in oder to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea … and turn it on!
He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air.
I do not intend to reduce Sam Altman and Greg Brockman’s astounding accomplishments at OpenAI to giving the computer a cup of really hot tea and turning it on…
…only, maybe, kinda haha, perhaps??
It is absurdly improbably that you can hoover up the internet, shred it, then talk to the mulch pile and it talks back.
Truly this is the age of Douglas Adams technology.
Look around you!
I was in a Waymo robot taxi the other week, it went wrong, and
It’s empty! (I tried to say by waving my arms.) I’m in a haunted car! I can’t tell the ghost what to do!
So, so Adams.
someone should make a dating app where an LLM clone of you goes on thousands of dates with LLM clones of other people, and then your matches are when the LLMs decide to date each other.
They continue, "you can literally build this right now," and later in the thread, it "gets trained on your iMessages."
I mean, it’d work!
Let me point out Adams’ Electric Monk:
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
An Electric Monk for dating??
Why not. It’s very now.
It is the Adams Age.
So I’m into this.
When technology becomes absurd, we must respond with absurd inventions.
More than that, we must straight-faced embrace the absurdity. Otherwise the pomposity of today’s technology will eat us alive.
Nick Foster, previously head of design at Google X, makes the vibe shift point much more eloquently in a recent essay:
Emboldened by seemingly unrestrained growth, tech companies large and small began to position their products not only as new ideas but as culturally important moments, ruptures in the status quo or accelerations of our species. Their presentations became increasingly slick and the language became self-assured, bombastic and confident.
Foster brings a counterpoint. He doesn’t say we should back away from new technology, but we should understand it for what it is:
"In truth, genuinely ‘new things’ are almost always unresolved, unrefined and uncertain."
And, generously, he uses my own Poem/1 as an example of what he calls a “stumbling Bambi”, products that are "finding their feet and blinking in the sunlight as they figure out the world around them."
A more honest approach.
The Douglas Adams Age may well be absurd but that’s because the technology itself is absurd.
Why shouldn’t our tech products make us giggle, boggle and see ghosts?
(And btw being unserious, which is what I’m advocating here, doesn’t let us off the hook re: paying attention to what our tech does in the world.)
I’m left with two thoughts:
A. What else should we make? Here’s a list of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi inventions! Let’s go?
B. I wish he were here to see it.