The Sunday Times: A Response

From: Richard Harris <**@two–worlds.com>
Date: Mon, 18 Jun 2001 19:07:14 +0100
To: <nicholas.hellen@sunday–times.co.uk>
Subject: Your ST article on Douglas Adams

Nicholas

Your article in Sunday’s ST on Douglas Adams was as striking an example of sloppy, ill–informed and assumptive journalism as I have come across, painting as it does an entirely erroneous picture through a combination of inaccurate, partial and unattributed information and unfounded speculation.

Your avoidance of verifiable source through the use of terms such as ‘a close friend’ and ‘sources close to’ is indicative of very poor or undiscriminating journalism – any genuine friend of his would be more than happy to go on record with anything they had to say about him.

As a friend and colleague of Douglas and a co–founder of The Digital Village/h2g2, please allow me to correct, with facts and direct information, a few of your more basic errors and misassumptions. I am happy to have these comments attributed to me. Rather than an impassioned rant (however justified), let’s try this point by point – please bear with me:

“FRIENDS of Douglas Adams have revealed how the author of The Hitch–Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was blighted before his premature death by a malign “Midas touch”. The pressure of justifying a £2m advance for his final novel preyed on his mind until he became incapable of writing, even when he had flashes of his old inspiration.”

Blighted? – I can think of few people to whom the term is less applicable – you make a cheerful and gentle man sound like some tortured latter–day Vanderdecken, forever attempting to round the Cape of his writers block. Douglas’s inspiration rarely deserted him – part of his problem was not merely being interested in too many things, but actually being capable of driving people’s perception of what the future could be. In recent years, he’s been at least as much respected for his ability to articulate a shared vision of the future of society, technology and the environment as for his original fiction. It’s in this area and the inspiration he’s provided through his work with scientists, engineers and philosophers that may in fact prove to be his most important legacy – many of the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators will cheerfully acknowledge the inspiration and challenge that a discussion with Douglas could provide.

As for the advance creating his writers block, please remember that Douglas’s attitude to deadlines long predated his rise to fame and fortune.

“As his publishers prepare to scan his personal computer to salvage the text of the incomplete novel, The Salmon of Doubt, friends disclosed that, after missing his deadline by nine years, he had written only eight pages of publishable text.”

Let’s think about basic causality here – if they haven’t yet scanned the machine, how can they know that he’d only produced 8 pages? This is UTTERLY unfounded speculation. I know of only about four people who actually know what he’s produced.

“He received the £2m fee in the early 1990s, with the promise of further payments for delivery of the completed work. Instead, he launched an internet venture, The Digital Village, with a group of friends, in an attempt to escape the solitude of writing and to recreate the collegiate atmosphere of his early days in BBC radio comedy, alongside members of the Monty Python team.”

Another inappropriate juxtaposition – the founding of TDV wasn’t, as you imply, an attempt to avoid a deadline, but a serious endeavour to create a multiple media company that put into practice a vision of the future of technology–supported content, community and interaction. Everything we produced won major awards and we also provided thought leadership to some of the world’s leading technology companies. Your imputation that the whole thing was a self–indulgent and cosy whim by Douglas is offensive both to his memory and the abilities of the top–class team we were able to attract to the company.

“But he added: ‘We can assume that there will be a fair level of expectation when Douglas’s computer is opened up.'”

I don’t know who your so–called source was here, but no–one who knew Douglas would use the terms “Douglas’s computer” or “his personal computer” – Douglas used a large and moderately chaotic network of computers, his work scattered liberally across them. And every last one an Apple machine – a company for whom he was well–known as an evangelist. Friend’s would only ever refer to his “Macs” – note the specific and plural, never the singular and generic. Any disclosure of what is (or is not) on that network is of course entirely up to his family and agent.

“Staff at his internet venture assumed wrongly that he would be able to salvage the company out of his own resources. In fact, he invested only £25,000, and he relied on the BBC to save the jobs of his staff.”

Now this is genuinely and personally offensive – Douglas had put a great deal of his time, effort and rights into TDV/h2g2 over the years. I can personally guarantee you that not one person at that company was assuming that Douglas would bail us out – in fact, during negotiations with the BBC, his contribution and involvement was crucial to the success of the deal. Please note that I have no reason here to be kind, as I was one of the members of the management team who was unceremoniously axed by the BBC during their takeover.

“A friend said: “At one point he thought that the firm – which runs the H2G2 website – might be sold for £400m, and he would find himself in the same league as Bill Gates.”

Oh please, don’t insult the man’s intelligence – this was a JOKE (with mild hope attached), rather than any realistic expectation. In fact, I may still possess the Groucho club napkin on which he and I worked this out one evening, during a dinner at the start of the dotcom bubble (about the time of the Netscape flotation). We simply applied the same algorithm to our then young company, had a bloody good laugh at the result, shook our heads in disbelief and went on with the next course. He subsequently repeated the story in public and it’s unfortunate that several journalists lacking in humour and irony have since taken it out of context. It’s worth noting, to provide further context, that the other side of the napkin is covered with other calculations from that evening, this time to see how large a server we’d need to create a virtual reality model of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, at sub–millimetre resolution. Both calculations were done in the same spirit of humour that pervaded that evening and many others I spent in his company. Besides, we’d have needed to see the company for £40 BILLION for him to end up in the same league as Bill – please check your basic arithmetic.

“In fact, although he may have imagined the web 20 years before it became a commercial proposition, the closest he got to profiting from it was to deliver inspirational talks to staff at Microsoft.”

Another correction – one of Douglas’s wry regrets was that he DIDN’T imagine the web – what he imagined was the PDA as a self–contained electronic book. What we were just starting to create with h2g2 was a model for how the Guide would have worked, had he known about the Net at the time he was writing HHGG. And he profited very nicely, thankyou, from providing inspirational talks to Microsoft and other leading companies in need of a vision.

“A publishing source said: “Douglas was remarkable and we loved him to pieces, but he shared everything as soon as he thought of it. You will look in vain for a secret legacy.”

I’d agree that there’s no secret legacy. there is however a legacy of his work from the last decade that may or may not see the light of day in different forms from which it was originally presented – talks, lectures, articles – much of it serious innovation and speculation about the future.

So what you’ve done here is to combine some individual elements, without apparent concern for authentication or attribution, to produce an overall result that is almost wholly inaccurate in the picture it presents of the man, his achievements, motivation and memory.

The irony of course is that when Douglas did it, when he asserted that 6*9=42, it was sufficiently witty and resonant that it was destined to pass into common usage. The only resonances from your article are those of anger and frustration at the misleading nature of your conclusions.

His family, friends and colleagues would all, I’m sure, appreciate a formal apology from yourself, at similar length and prominence to your original article.

sincerely,

Richard Harris
(former CTO and Research Director, TDV and h2g2)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *