Hyperland: The “Fantasy Documentary” in Which Douglas Adams and Doctor Who’s Tom Baker Imagine the World Wide Web (1990)

Thir­ty years ago, the inter­net we use today would have looked like sci­ence fic­tion. Now as then, we spend a great deal of time star­ing at streams of video, but the high-tech 21st cen­tu­ry has endowed us with the abil­i­ty to cus­tomize those streams as nev­er before. No longer do we have to set­tle for tra­di­tion­al tele­vi­sion and the tyran­ny of “what’s on”; we can fol­low our curios­i­ty wher­ev­er it leads through vast, ever-expand­ing realms of image, sound, and text. No less a sci­ence-fic­tion writer than Dou­glas Adams dreams of just such realms in Hyper­land, a 1990 BBC “fan­ta­sy doc­u­men­tary” that opens to find him fast asleep amid the mind­less sound and fury spout­ed unceas­ing­ly by his tele­vi­sion set — so unceas­ing­ly, in fact, that it keeps on spout­ing even when Adams gets up and toss­es it into a junk­yard.

Amid the scrap heaps Adams meets a ghost of tech­nol­o­gy’s future: his “agent,” a dig­i­tal fig­ure played by Doc­tor Who star Tom Bak­er. “I have the hon­or to pro­vide instant access to every piece of infor­ma­tion stored dig­i­tal­ly any­where in the world,” says Bak­er’s Vir­gil to Adams’ Dante. “Any pic­ture or film, any sound, any book, any sta­tis­tic, any fact — any con­nec­tion between any­thing you care to think of.”

Adams’ fans know how much the notion must have appealed to him, unex­pect­ed con­nec­tions between dis­parate aspects of real­i­ty being a run­ning theme in his fic­tion. It became espe­cial­ly promi­nent in the Dirk Gen­tly’s Holis­tic Detec­tive Agency Series, whose wide range of ref­er­ences includes Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan — one of the many pieces of infor­ma­tion Adams has his agent pull up in Hyper­land.

Adams’ jour­ney along this pro­to-Infor­ma­tion Super­high­way also includes stops at Beethoven’s 9th Sym­pho­ny, Picas­so’s Guer­ni­ca, and Kurt Von­negut’s the­o­ry of the shape of all sto­ries. Such a path­way will feel famil­iar to any­one who reg­u­lar­ly goes down “rab­bit holes” on the inter­net today, a pur­suit — or per­haps com­pul­sion — enabled by hyper­text. Already that term sounds old fash­ioned, but at the dawn of the 1990s active­ly fol­low­ing “links” from one piece of infor­ma­tion, so com­mon now as to require no intro­duc­tion or expla­na­tion, struck many as a mind-bend­ing nov­el­ty. Thus the pro­gram’s seg­ments on the his­to­ry of the rel­e­vant tech­nolo­gies, begin­ning with U.S. gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist Van­nevar Bush and the the­o­ret­i­cal “Memex” sys­tem he came up with at the end of World War II — and first described in an Atlantic Month­ly arti­cle you can, thanks to hyper­text, eas­i­ly read right now.

Though to an extent required to stand for the con­tem­po­rary view­er, Adams was hard­ly a tech­no­log­i­cal neo­phyte. An ardent ear­ly adopter, he pur­chased the very first Apple Mac­in­tosh com­put­er ever sold in Europe. “I hap­pen to know you’ve writ­ten inter­ac­tive fic­tion your­self,” says Bak­er, refer­ring to the adven­ture games Adams designed for Info­com, one of them based on his beloved Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy nov­els. Though Adams’ con­sid­er­able tech savvy makes all this look amus­ing­ly pre­scient, he could­n’t have known just then how con­nect­ed every­one and every­thing was about to become. “While Dou­glas was cre­at­ing Hyper­land,” says his offi­cial web site, “a stu­dent at CERN in Switzer­land was work­ing on a lit­tle hyper­text project he called the World Wide Web.” And despite his ear­ly death, the man who dreamed of an elec­tron­ic “guide­book” con­tain­ing and con­nect­ing all the knowl­edge in the uni­verse lived long enough to see that such a thing would one day become a real­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Video Game Free Online, Designed by Dou­glas Adams in 1984

In 1999, David Bowie Pre­dicts the Good and Bad of the Inter­net: “We’re on the Cusp of Some­thing Exhil­a­rat­ing and Ter­ri­fy­ing”

John Tur­tur­ro Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to the World Wide Web in 1999: Watch A Beginner’s Guide To The Inter­net

Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Author William Gib­son Pre­dicts in 1997 How the Inter­net Will Change Our World

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Bal­lard Pre­dicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Inter­net & PC in 1974

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Dr. Philip Hopkins says:

    Adams is not alone in his fore­sight. I would invite you to see the final 15 min­utes of James Burke’s excel­lent 1985 ten part series “the Day the Uni­verse Changed,” in which Burke very accu­rate­ly pre­dicts the effect of the microchip, the open soci­ety and bal­anced Anar­chy that becomes the inter­net. In fact, it’s amaz­ing how well that entire series has aged.

  • Alyssa Lupo-Zulueta says:

    Thank you! That sounds incred­i­ble. I’ll have to check it out.

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