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Douglas Adams - Hyperland (1990)

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Hyperland is a 50-minute-long documentary film about hypertext and surrounding technologies. It was written by Douglas Adams and produced and directed by Max Whitby[2] for BBC Two in 1990. It stars Douglas Adams as a computer user and Tom Baker, with whom Adams had already worked on Doctor Who, as a personification of a software agent.

more here:

32 years later, Hyperland serves as a reminder of what the internet can be, which gives us a bit of a clue as to where it's gone wrong.

What I noticed, is that the "Intelligent Agents" that Douglas Adams imagines, work for us, the users. Whereas most of what we see on the internet today, and even the software on our own devices, works for corporations. This seems to me to be a core problem, which perhaps Open Source software will some day solve.


Thanks for sharing this! It has true archival quality, and does indeed showcase our exuberant optimism in the 90s.

Technologies tend to become monetized and manipulable (even the telephone and the radio went that route), so I cannot agree with your final point above about Open Source (but nice idea...)

Douglas Rushkoff outlines a different class of "tendencies" that technologies inhere towards, especially a tendency to promote one set of behaviors over another. Rushkoff goes through ten commands that he claims represent one of these tendencies or biases of digital media.

What is a bias? He gives the following examples:

A bias is simply a leaning—a tendency to promote one set of behaviors over another. All media and all technologies have biases. It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; but guns are a technology more biased to killing than, say, clock radios. Televisions are biased toward people sitting still in couches and watching. Automobiles are biased toward motion, individuality, and living in the suburbs. Oral culture is biased toward communicating in person, while written culture is biased toward communication that doesn’t happen between people in the same time and place. Film photography and its expensive processes were biased toward scarcity, while digital photography is biased toward immediate and widespread distribution. Some cameras even upload photos to websites automatically, turning the click of the shutter into an act of global publishing. To most of us, though, that “click” still feels the same even though the results are very different. We can’t quite feel the biases shifting as we move from technology to technology, or task to task. Writing an email is not the same as writing a letter, and sending a message through a social networking service is not the same as writing an email. Each of the acts not only yields different results, but demands different mindsets and approaches from us. Just as we think and behave differently in different settings, we think and behave differently when operating different technology.

We spend an hour or two of what used to be free time operating a dangerous two-ton machine and, on average, a full workday each week paying to own and maintain it. Throughout the twentieth century, we remained blissfully ignorant of the real biases of automotive transportation. We approached our cars as consumers, through ads, rather than as engineers or, better, civic planners. We gladly surrendered our public streetcars to private automobiles, unaware of the real expenses involved. We surrendered our highway policy to a former General Motors chief, who became secretary of defense primarily for the purpose of making public roads suitable for private cars and spending public money on a highway system. We surrendered city and town life for the commuting suburbs, unaware that the bias of the automobile was to separate home from work. As a result, we couldn’t see that our national landscape was being altered to manufacture dependence on the automobile. We also missed the possibility that these vehicles could make the earth’s atmosphere unfit for human life, or that we would one day be fighting wars primarily to maintain the flow of oil required to keep them running.

So considering the biases of a technology before and during its implementation may not be so trivial after all. In the case of digital technology, it is even more important than usual. The automobile determined a whole lot about how we’d get from place to place, as well as how we would reorganize our physical environment to promote its use. Digital technology doesn’t merely convey our bodies, but ourselves. Our screens are the windows through which we are experiencing, organizing, and interpreting the world in which we live. They are also the interfaces through which we express who we are and what we believe to everyone else. They are fast becoming the boundaries of our perceptual and conceptual apparatus; the edge between our nervous systems and everyone else’s, our understanding of the world and the world itself.

The biases he draws out from digital technology are:

  1. Time
  2. Place
  3. Choice
  4. Complexity
  5. Scale
  6. Identity
  7. Social
  8. Fact
  9. Openness, and
  10. Purpose.

On the surface, those seem like very good starting points to discuss any unintended consequence of digital technologies.

1. TIME: Do not always be on

  • Bias: computer code is biased away from continuous time, so too are the programs built on it, and the human behaviors those programs encourage.
  • Result: digital technology encourages us to make decisions in a hurry and we are more likely to aspire to catching up with its ever-elusive pace

[In the early days of the Internet] email found a person when he or she wanted to be found...Was it slower? Perhaps. But it was also a more accurate reflection of the way the technologies work, and their bias away from real-time communication. Their strength was never their relationship to the “now,” but their ability to slow down or break up the now...

Instead of our going online to get our email, our email comes to us. Instead of using our inbox as an asynchronous holding bin, we stick it into our phones, which are sure to thump, ding, or shudder with each new incoming message— just to make sure we know something wants our attention. We work against the powerful bias of a timeless technology, and create a situation in which it is impossible to keep up. And so we sacrifice the thoughtfulness and deliberateness our digital media once offered for the false goal of immediacy—as if we really can exist in a state of perpetual standby.

Our computers live in the ticks of the clock. We live in the big spaces between those ticks, when the time actually passes.

2. PLACE: Live in person

  • Bias: digital media are biased toward the non-local and favor decentralized activity
  • Result: digital technology encourages us to make decisions about things we’ve never seen for ourselves up close.

Just as television is better at broadcasting a soccer game occurring on the other side of the world than it is at broadcasting the pillow talk of the person next to you in bed, the net is better at creating simulations and approximations of human interaction from a great distance than it is at fostering interactions between people in the same place.

3. CHOICE: You May Always Choose None of the Above

  • Bias: the digital realm is biased toward choice because everything must be expressed in the terms of a discrete yes-or-no symbolic language. This, in turn, often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere.
  • Result: digital technology encourages us to make decisions (and make them in a hurry, and make them in a hurry about things we may have never seen close-up)

And while our computers are busy making discrete choices about the rather indiscrete and subtle world in which we live, many of us are busy, too—accommodating our computers by living and defining ourselves in their terms. We are making choices not because we want to, but because our programs demand them...

Instead of optimizing our machines for humanity—or even the benefit of some particular group—we are optimizing humans for machinery.

4. COMPLEXITY: You Are Never Completely Right

  • Bias: digital technology—and those of us using it—is biased toward a reduction of complexity
  • Result: contemplation itself is devalued

The digital information gatherer tends to have the opposite approach to knowledge as his text-based ancestors, who saw research as an excuse to sit and read old books. Instead, net research is more about engaging with data in order to dismiss it and move on— like a magazine one flips through not to read, but to make sure there’s nothing that has to be read. Reading becomes a process...

Although reality is more than one level deep, most of our digital networks are accessible with a single web search. All knowledge is the same distance away—just once removed from where we are now. Instead of pursuing a line of inquiry, treading a well-worn path or striking out on an entirely new one, we put a search term in a box and get back more results than we can possibly read. The pursuit itself is minimized—turned into a one-dimensional call to our networks for a response. We only get into trouble if we equate such cherry-picked knowledge with the kind one gets pursuing a genuine inquiry.

5. SCALE: One Size Does Not Fit All

  • Bias: "On the net, everything is occurring on the same abstracted and universal level. Survival in a purely digital realm— particularly in business—means being able to scale"
  • Result: "The existing bias of business toward abstraction combined with the net’s new emphasis on success through scale yielded a digital economy with almost no basis in actual commerce, the laws of supply and demand, or the creation of value. It’s not capitalism in the traditional sense, but an abstracted hyper-capitalism utterly divorced from getting anything done. In fact, the closer to the creation of value you get under this scheme, the farther you are from the money."

Of course, this logic dovetails perfectly with a financial industry in which derivatives on transactions matter more than the transactions themselves. Once the financial world came to understand that its own medium—central currency—was biased in the interests of the lender and not the producer, every business attempted to get out of the business it was actually in, and scale up to become a holding company. Thus, great industrial companies like General Electric shed their factories and got involved in capital leasing, banking, and commercial credit. Meanwhile, those who were already in banking and credit moved up one level of abstraction as well, opening hedge funds and creating derivatives instruments that won or lost money based on the movements of economic activity occurring one level below. Even craftier speculators began writing derivatives of derivatives, and so on, and so on.

6. IDENTITY: Be Yourself

  • Bias: digital technology is biased toward depersonalization
  • Result: The less we take responsibility for what we say and do online, the more likely we are to behave in ways that reflect our worst natures—or even the worst natures of others.

Our digital activity occurs out of body. Whether sending an email, typing a comment to a blog post, or controlling an avatar in a video game, we are not in the computer, at a discussion, or in the fantasy world with our friends. We are at home or the office, behind a computer terminal or game console. We are operating out of our bodies and free of our identities...

As if desensitized by all this disembodiment, young people also exhibit an almost compensatory exhibitionism...all this over-sharing online is also a predictable reaction to spending so much time in a disembodied realm where nothing seems to stick, and nothing registers on a fully felt level. The easiest response is to pump up the volume and intensity.

7. SOCIAL: Do Not Sell Your Friends

  • Bias: our digital networks are biased toward social connections—toward contact.
  • Result: We value our increased contacts for what they might provide and miss the greater value of the contact itself

Content was never king, contact is. Yet the possibilities for new levels of human connectedness and collaboration offered by networking technologies have hardly been tapped. We are too slow to realize that people are not a form of content—a resource to be bought and sold; they are fellow cells in the greater organism of which we are all a part but are barely aware.

8. FACT: Tell the Truth

  • Bias: our interactions in digital media shifts back toward the nonfiction on which we all depend to make sense of our world, get the most done, and have the most fun.
  • Result: we are transitioning from a mass media that makes its stories sacred to an interactive media that makes communication mutable and alive

The Quaker on a package of oats has nothing to do with the grain in the box; he is a story...

As the Industrial Age gathered steam, more products— even more disconnected from their producers—needed to be sold. Ad agencies developed powerful brands to camouflage the factory-based origins of most of what people consumed. Industrial agriculture became the valley of a green giant, and factory-made cookies became the work of little elves working in a hollow tree.

Mass media arose to disseminate all of these new myths, utterly devoid of facts. And as long as media remained a top-down proposition, there was very little fact-based, peer-to-peer communication to challenge any of it...The fundamental difference between mass media and digital media is interactivity. Books, radio, and television are “read only” media. We watch, but only have a choice over how we will react to the media someone else has made. This is why they are so good for storytelling: We are in the storyteller’s world and can’t talk back. Digital media, on the other hand, are “read-write.” Any digital file that is playable is also sharable and changeable...It’s hard for any company to maintain its mythology (much less its monopoly) in such an environment.

The beauty—and, for many, the horror—is that actions are even more memetic than words. In a digital communications space, the people do the talking. If a company wants to promote conversation about itself, all it really needs to do is something, anything, significant. There are companies who get on the front page of the newspaper simply for releasing an upgrade to a phone. This is less about their ability to communicate than the power and importance of their actions to so many people.

9. OPENNESS: Share, Don’t Steal

  • Bias: digital technology’s architecture of shared resources, as well as the gift economy through which the net was developed, have engendered a bias toward openness. It’s as if our digital activity wants to be shared with others.
  • Result: As a culture and economy inexperienced in this sort of collaboration we have great trouble distinguishing between sharing and stealing

The real problem is that while our digital mediaspace is biased toward a shared cost structure, our currency system is not. We are attempting to operate a twenty-first-century digital economy on a thirteenth-century, printing-press-based operating system. It doesn’t work. As we have already seen, the centralized currency system we still use today was developed by a waning aristocracy looking to stifle peer-to-peer economic growth and install a system of indebtedness. It is a printing-press-era strategy, in which a scarce currency loaned into existence from a central source generates competition between people for the precious jobs and goods of artificial monopolies.

10. PURPOSE: Program or Be Programmed

  • Bias and result: Programming is the sweet spot, the high leverage point in a digital society. If we don’t learn to program, we risk being programmed ourselves.

For the person who understands code, the whole world reveals itself as a series of decisions made by planners and designers for how the rest of us should live. Not just computers, but everything from the way streets are organized in a town to the way election rules (are tilted for a purpose vote for any three candidates) begin to look like what they are: sets of rules developed to promote certain outcomes. Once the biases become apparent, anything becomes possible. The world and its many arbitrary systems can be hacked.

These stages of development—from player to cheater to modder to programmer—mirror our own developing relationship to media through the ages. In preliterate civilizations, people attempted to live their lives and appease their gods with no real sense of the rules. They just did what they could, sacrificing animals and even children along the way to appease the gods they didn’t understand. The invention of text gave them a set of rules to follow—or not. Now, everyone was a cheater to some extent, at least in that they had the choice of whether to go by the law, or to evade it. With the printing press came writing. The Bible was no longer set in stone, but something to be changed––or at least reinterpreted. Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses, the first great “mod” of Catholicism, and later, nations rewrote their histories by launching their revolutions...

Finally, we have the tools to program. Yet we are content to seize only the capability of the last great media renaissance, that of writing. We feel proud to build a web page or finish our profile on a social networking site, as if this means we are now full-fledged participants in the cyber era. We remain unaware of the biases of the programs in which we are participating, as well as the ways they circumscribe our newfound authorship within their predetermined agendas. Yes, it is a leap forward, at least in the sense that we are now capable of some active participation, but we may as well be sending text messages to the producers of a TV talent show, telling them which of their ten contestants we think sings the best. Such are the limits of our interactivity when the ways in which we are allowed to interact have been programmed for us in advance.

We’re not just building cars or televisions sets—devices that, if we later decide we don’t like, we can choose not to use. We’re tinkering with the genome, building intelligent machines, and designing nanotechnologies that will continue where we leave off. The biases of the digital age will not just be those of the people who programmed it, but of the programs, machines, and life-forms they have unleashed. In the short term, we are looking at a society increasingly dependent on machines, yet decreasingly capable of making or even using them effectively. Other societies, such as China, where programming is more valued, seem destined to surpass us— unless, of course, the other forms of cultural repression in force there offset their progress as technologists. We shall see. Until push comes to shove and geopolitics force us to program or perish, however, we will likely content ourselves with the phone apps and social networks on offer. We will be driven toward the activities that help distract us from the coming challenges—or stave them off—rather than the ones that encourage us to act upon them.

Very interesting and didn't know much about Douglas Rushkoff.

I haven't seen this but reading the text, I thought of Hypercard, Apple's consumer friendly programming package and wondered how that may have influenced this as Douglas Adams bought the first two Apple Macs to arrive in the UK in 1984 - the third was bought by Stephen Fry.

[edit - it was actually the first two Macs to arrive in Europe]