I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Web 0.0: Douglas Adams’s Hyperland

by Tom Keiser
Feb. 21, 2012

When did you first hear of the Internet? Was it when you were in college, and finally saw a way to connect with people without a huge long distance bill? Were you in high school, and found out you could skip hours of ungodly research at a library when you could look something up on one of the first search engines? Or, was it in 1990, when you turned on the BBC and watched a documentary hosted by Douglas Adams and Tom Baker, entitled Hyperland?

Hyperland posits that Modern Man, in the guise of Douglas Adams, would be so tired of the dreck on television, that he would strive for a better way to put his free time to good use. Adams uses The Price Is Right to mark the nadir of popular culture. It makes you think how far we’ve come in twenty years.

Adams falls into a dream sequence, which starts with him taking his television to the local dump. It is there where he encounters “Tom”, the human personification of a software agent, and one who looks suspiciously like the fourth Doctor Who. Tom lets Adams play around with his avatar, which only confuses the author even more.

What confuses Douglas Adams the most is the sudden barrage of information his digital concierge throws at him. Animated graphic user interfaces, or what the show calls “micons”, dance around the screen, distracting the user with what we would today call GIFs. The overload of options, not to mention the eccentric character personifying the software agent, prevents the user from making his own decisions. Hyperland posits cyberspace as a fancy restaurant, with digital waiters at your beck and call, while today’s Internet (thankfully) allows users to take what they want when they want it, with as few middlemen as possible. It is more of an all-you-can-eat buffet than Le Cordon Bleu, and with few exceptions (namely the iPhone’s Siri app) people don’t mind looking for stuff with a search engine instead of a concierge.

Hyperland not only gives us a look at what the Internet was like (or could’ve been), it gives us a chance to learn about some of its creators. Vannevar Bush proposed an electronic database of the world’s information (what he called a “memex”) at the end of World War II. Doug Engelbart (whose “Mother Of All Demos” in 1968 introduced several key computer concepts in one fell swoop) took Bush’s teachings to heart, and in addition to connecting the idea of a “memex” to the promise of computers, invented the computer mouse, the word processor, and a lot of computer features we now take for granted. The United States military, through its ARPANET system, created the first major Internet system, and was in use from 1969 until the mid-1980’s.

The people Adams and Baker focus on for Hyperland include some of the most important names in the developement of the Internet and multimedia. Chief among these pioneers is Dr. Ted Nelson, who went from reading The Atlantic Monthly at the dinner table with his family to creating Project Xanadu. At the time Hyperland was filmed, Xanadu was poised to become the premiere way to use hypertext online. By 1990, however, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN was creating the framework for the World Wide Web, and Xanadu did not go online until the late 1990’s. It took Berners-Lee less than two years to implement WWW, whereas more than thirty-five years passed between Nelson’s first work on Xanadu and its launch.

While Dr. Nelson is perhaps the most prominent interviewee, many other computer pioneers are also featured. Robert Abel, who is best known for his work with CGI, introduces a multimedia companion for Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Musicologist Robert Winter, who created an interactive guide to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, is still teaching at UCLA. And Apple’s Multimedia Lab shows a forerunner of modern DVD features and featurettes, for a TV movie on the discovery of the double helix. MIT’s Media Lab, whose greatest acheivements were yet to come, is also briefly mentioned.

The early 1990’s were an interesting moment in computer history. Microsoft Windows was a few years away from dominating personal computer usage, and the Macintosh was popular, but its cult was nowhere near where it is today. Within five years, “The Information Superhighway” would be on everybody’s minds. There were so many ideas as to what the next computer age was going to be like, and yet many of ideas, such as rampant virtual reality and concierge-based hypertext were quite off the mark in most respects. Web 1.0 was not even around, much less the user-focused Web 2.0 that we take part in today. It’s pretty telling how academic, governmental and cultural uses were the focus of Hyperland, as opposed to business, non-educational entertainment and especially social media.

The amazing thing about Hyperland, in spite of what it got wrong, is what it got right. Virtual reality is still extremely limited (most notably, it’s being used to help treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder), and the world of 2005 definitely did not look like something out of Hackers. But other than that, Vannevar Bush’s idea of a portable source of all knowledge has come largely true (although he probably didn’t think it’d be used for less academic endeavors as well). Digital pioneers such as Robert Abel and the MIT Media Lab and Apple’s Multimedia Lab had the vision to see how people would turn to computers to learn, if not create. And Ted Nelson laid the groundwork for a hypertext based network, even if Xanadu was too little, too late.

Douglas Adams lived long enough to see the Internet become a vital part of people’s lives. Even though the Internet we know today is a far cry from the Web of the late 1990’s, Adams would not only recognize a lot of what he predicted, but be presently surprised about its evolution. Adams would probably not be pleased that full episodes of The Price Is Right can be seen online, but that’s a small price to pay for such a large amount of progress in just over twenty years.

Resources And Further Reading

As We May Think - Bush, Vannevar; The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945. The article that started it all.

The Mother Of All Demos - YouTube. Douglas Engelbart’s seminal lecture; neither he nor the lecture are given more than a passing mention but both are essential in the foundation of modern computing.

Robert Winter - The creator of interactive musical software, including the guide to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony shown in Hyperland.

Project Xanadu - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Ted Nelson’s lifelong dream of a better Internet.

Hyperland - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.