The late, great Douglas Adams doesn’t get the same level of credit that some other science fiction writers receive for describing future technologies that actually come to pass (probably because he was too funny to be taken seriously), but there’s no question that his fictional depiction of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now every bit as a real and transformative as, say, Arthur C. Clarke’s prescient descriptions of communications satellites, or Jules Verne’s submarines, or H.G. Wells’ “land ironclads” (tanks) or John Brunner’s on-demand satellite TV, or Martin Caidin’s cybernetic prostheses, or countless other hard sci-fi speculative predictions.
First revealed to the world via a radio play in 1978, the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide was described as “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom,” filled with crowd-sourced content because “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.” The Guide could be updated in real time via the Sub-Etha, an “interstellar faster-than-light telecommunications network” that was used for any type of data transmission across the galaxy. Physically, the Guide was described as “a small, thin, flexible lap computer” encased in a “sturdy plastic cover,” with the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed on it “in large, friendly letters”. (All quotes from Adams’ books, via Wikipedia).
I’m certainly not the first person to note that a modern human carrying a smart phone with real-time access to Wikipedia is essentially toting The Hitchhiker’s Guide around, whether it has large friendly letters printed on its case or not. And if that’s not enough to mark Adams as a singular visionary, note that he actually started a web-based, crowd-sourced, real-world version of the Guide called h2g2 in 1999, two years before Wikipedia was launched, in the same year when Adams himself passed away at the terribly young age of 49. Had he not shuffled off this mortal coil in such an untimely and unexpected fashion, we might today all be using Adams’ h2g2 for all of our search needs, instead of Jimmy Wales’ titanic digital encyclopedia. That said, you can still access (and contribute to) h2g2 if you’re so inclined, and it does provide a healthily irreverent counterpart to Wikipedia’s sometime stuffy and over-curated content at this point.
It’s worth noting (to me anyway) that we are fast approaching another interesting singularity point between the fictional guide and its primary real-world analog. In So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, the fourth book in the trilogy (yeah), the Guide‘s tally of pages is cited as 5,973,509. As I type this article, the real number of pages on the English version of Wikipedia is posted as 5,817,575. I certainly hope that someone at the Wikimedia Foundation is monitoring this number, and properly celebrates Adams’ estimation of the number of pages that it takes to describe the galaxy and all of the things in it when somebody creates page number 5,973,509. I’m guessing that will happen in 2019. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.
For all of Adams prescience, I think there’s one way in which he missed the mark on the ways that sentient beings might deploy the Hitchhiker’s Guide. The book’s protagonists routinely use the Guide to acquire necessary, (mostly) useful information to get them out of, or into, various scrapes and predicaments, but it’s generally consulted in response to such external stimuli, rather than being consulted just for the sake of being consulted. Had Adams written the books today, now knowing what we know about how we know what we know, I suspect there would be lots of scenes where people (human and otherwise) just loll about in their various spacecraft and on their various planets, pointing and asking and clicking and reading and browsing for no other reason than because they can, and because they are innately, inherently, and often flat our insanely curious about all of the things in the universe, all of them.
That’s certainly how I interact with the world of information when I’m sitting at my static desk-top, clicking and clattering away. I can read something, or think of something, and not know some arcane piece of information about said something, and then suddenly find myself in an hours-long slide into data gathering and information processing that typically ends up far from where it began, leaving my head filled with a bunch of new noise, much of which will be forgotten hours after I first apprehend it. And then I’ll do it all again. And again. And again. And I will be happy all the while, even if I’ve not achieved anything meaningful in the process.
The mobility of my information gathering devices means that I do this in the “real world” too, as I encounter non-electronic stimulus: What’s that bird? How tall is that building? Where does this road go? Who is that park named for? What kind of plane was that? Who wrote that song? What was its lyric again? Who played bass on it? What else did he or she do? Another bird? What was it? We live in a truly glorious age when it comes to assuaging our curiosity in this fashion, as the ability to itch the scratch or scratch the itch of not knowing things is effortless and immediate and (mostly) satisfying, even if much of the information that we pack into our noggins is the intellectual equivalent of a big bag of Cheetos: filling, colorful, possibly addictive, and of no practical, nutritional good whatsoever.
Which begs the question as to whether an active sense of curiosity (much less an over-active one) and the time spent assuaging it, is a good thing or a bad thing. Because sometimes we’re curious about things that we really should not be. You know that after the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide waxed so profoundly about (say) the perils of Vogon poetry, that some sizable number of readers would have immediately sought out some of those noxious texts out to read them, and suffer in the process, just as people visit various pages of horrors on the real-world internet, all the time. I’ve never heard of anybody really having a seizure from a website promising to deliver one, but I know that they exist, and I know that people look at them, just because they can. (Please don’t go find one now). (And do not think about elephants). (Are you thinking about elephants?) (You are, aren’t you). (That’s better than thinking about seizure robots, anyway).
I suspect that many damaging online pornography addictions are fueled by unhealthy curiosities: if a human body can do this, and I can find it online and look at it, then I wonder if a human body can do that, and if so, where can I see it? The market for Faces of Death-type collections of carnage imagery predates the internet, but once upon a time they were hard to find, whereas now: search, click, look, regret. When people watch cell phone videos of people being gunned down in their cars, or on the streets, or in their homes, or of bombs being detonated in public spaces, or of the beheading or hanging of political captives, they may say they’re doing it as part of some refined sense of social justice, wanting to share and experience such pain with its victims in more meaningful ways, but I can’t help but think that morbid curiosity of that nature is just a digital form of rubber-necking at an auto accident, ultimately nothing more than the insatiable curiosity to see what something terrible looks like, coupled with an inability to resist it. And I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing.
Unfortunately, it often seems that the bad outcomes of curiosity anchor a lot of the ways in which we educate and raise our young in modern western cultures. “Curiosity killed the cat” is an adage we learn fairly early on. Later, we might encounter books or television shows about Curious George, a charming simian simpleton whose insatiable curiosity gets him into all sorts of trouble, requiring the Man in the Yellow Hat or other sensible adults to bail him out, so he can curiously investigate the next shiny thing that catches his eye. The classics take similar stances: Pandora’s curiosity about her now-eponymous box unleashed sin, disease and death upon the world, and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden used Eve’s curiosity against her to bring on the Fall of Man.
The Bible even explicitly exhorts us to mind our own business and not ask big questions: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). That feels like the ultimate “because I said so” answer to every “why?” question that every child puts forth, communicating that some things are just not knowable, no matter how much we want to know them. And maybe that quiets a child, or the childish being cooped up within an adult, for some period of time, but it doesn’t assuage the desire for knowledge, it just makes it feel wrong. Which, in turn, itself seems wrong, since curiosity is by all objective measures a key component in the process of learning, and the acquisition of knowledge, if not wisdom.
Education is a key component of cultural inculcation, and it seems that it would be a whole lot easier to harness the innate curiosity of youth rather than censuring it. Perhaps this pervasive conundrum hinges on adults wanting children to learn certain things, in certain times, in certain ways, rather than openly figuring the world out as it presents itself to them, naturally. Education as a form of control, as it were. And if your curiosity persists in carrying you in directions other than those in which we wish to point you, we now have medications to take the edge of that itch, so that you can concentrate on this here algebraic formula, and not that there way cool bug crawling up the wall in the back of the classroom. You won’t be able to balance a checkbook by knowing its name, now will you? And it might sting you, anyway. Pay attention.
Our pets might actually have it better than our children on this front, since we’re generally content to let them sniff and snuff at whatever captures their fancies, so long as they don’t do it on the furniture, or strain too hard against the leash. While I find the entitled over-pampering of American pets to be mostly absurd, I do think that it’s a good thing that we’ve generally come to understand and accept that our non-human companions, and loads of non-domesticated non-human animals, can be just as curious as we are about the worlds in which they find themselves, investigating their surroundings with agency, and individuality, and intellect, and not just as mindless automatons driven by species-encoded patterns and instincts. The searches for food and water and mates and shelter are certainly compelling, but they’re not the end-all and be-all of animal experience, and it’s a joy to watch any being, of any species, happily exploring its world, and eagerly investigating stimuli beyond its normal experience.
It has taken billions and billions of years for hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to organize themselves in such a way that our species can actively, consciously think about that organization, and how it happened, and what it means, and how it fits in within everything else in the visible and invisible cosmos. Give them another billion years or so, and some of our cetacean, simian, corvid, canine, porcine and feline friends might join us in this pursuit; we’re not likely special in this regard, other than being first to cross the bar of conscious, tool-based scientific inquiry. (On our planet, anyway). Viewed this way, it seems that our innate desire to want to know all the answers, to all the things, might be something of a birthright for our species, and that squandering our little moment in the sun — brief as it’s been in celestial terms, and fleeting as it might be in a solar system filled with planet-killing objects and opportunities — would be a refutation of eons and eons of evolutionary progress, not necessarily with us an end point, but perhaps with us as a conduit to something unknown, but not unknowable.
So I might not be touching the divine when, on a whim, I get online to remind myself who played guitar on the second Toe Fat album from 1971 (Alan Kendall, for the record), but I am actively engaging the part of my brain that’s evolved to crave information and stimulus that has no bearing on my ability to breathe, or sleep, or breed, or eat. Knowing that scrap of information doesn’t make me a better human being by any meaningful measure, but finding it does give me a fleeting chemical pleasure, and that little “ah ha” may trigger other chemical cascades that do make me just a bit sharper than I might have been otherwise, or maybe it will serve as a conversation point years hence that might make other chemicals flow in ways that turn an acquaintance into a friend, or a friend into a follower, or a follower into an explorer. That seems positive, in a little way, and lots of little ways pointed in the same direction can become a big way, to something, again unknown, but knowable.
When I ponder what a personal end of days might look like, I tend to think that losing the desire for these types of inquisitions will be among the key dominoes falling in an ultimately failing physical system, and I’m going to rage, rage against the dying of that light, for as long as I can. For all of the emotional negatively that morbid curiosity might theoretically inflict upon me, were I more prone to explore it, I can’t help but think that the emotional positivity of eager, open, innocent investigation of the world around me will always return a net positive position for the time and energy spent in its pursuit. If I am the sum total of my experiences, then my curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes me me. And your curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes you you. And the glorious variety possible through endless permutations of those equations is what makes so much of life so very enjoyable, in ways that I hope to remain always curious about, until I disperse the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that composes me, so that other curious entities might form from it.
Curiosity may indeed kill a cat, every now and again, but for each one that goes to the great litter box in the sky as a result of its investigations, thousands of others end up with the ball of yarn, or the catnip mousie, or the comfy, comfy comforter, or the warm pile of laundry, or the tasty gazelle, possibly with a friend who might be another cat, or a duck, or a dog, or a human child, bursting with enthusiasm to know what that cat feels like, and why it’s tail curls that way, and how come it makes biscuits with its paws, and where its kittens came from.
I’m with those cats, when all’s said and done. Let’s chase this string and see where it leads us . . .
Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this second article complete, I roll the dice again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Ten: “Security.”