The Digital Village


by Douglas Adams

The most fun I ever had working was during the making of the Hitch Hiker's Guide radio series. It was just a small tight knit team of people working ridiculous hours, determined that this series was going to be very different from anything else. Well, that's probably putting it back to front. You discover that that's what you were determined to do later -- at the time you just do the next thing that needs to be done. If the next thing that needs to be done is to listen to the fifty third sound that might be the right thing for the effect of a whale hitting the ground and see if that fits neatly with the thirty seventh choice for a piece of accompanying music then that tells its own story about what was driving us. Doing it for TV was quite a lot less fun. Instead of a small, committed group you had dozens of people half-involved. You'd have people who were doing something for Paul Daniels one day, us the next and Bruce Forsyth the day after who would say, 'Alright, what's this? Comedy science fiction. OK, I can do a funny alien for you. Next?'

The best part of the TV show, as far as I was concerned, was the computer graphic element -- the readouts you would get from the Guide itself as the narrator was speaking. It was the one area in which I felt we managed to stretch the boundaries a bit in the same way as we had done on the radio programmes. In fact, the animation studio which did that work didn't actually have a computer, so they had to handpaint the whole thing. But it was, as far as I know, the first piece of TV programme making that was actually 'designed' for the video recorder. You had to be prepared to rewind those sections once or twice if you wanted to catch all the details.

I also thoroughly enjoyed working on the computer game of Hitch Hiker. This was back in about 1984 when games were text-only adventures. The best of these were produced by Infocom -- they were witty and complex and completely immersive. We have, of course, learnt to do an awful lot with text in the last few centuries, and the interactivity which the computer brings to the text medium just gives the author another and very powerful tool to work with. At the time a number of writers sold the electronic rights to their novels and let somebody else get on with the job of turning them into games. This seemed to me to be the worst of both worlds. They had done the really tough, backbreaking work of writing a novel and then ducked out of the enormous fun of working on the computer game. But then computer graphics arrived, and though they were slow, coarse, clunky and lo-res, they killed the market for the rather witty and subtle text-only games. I thought this was a great pity, and determined to back out of the medium again for the time being, and wait till the graphics got good.

Meanwhile, of course, I had written a novel or two based on the Hitch Hiker story, and this had had the effect of fundamentally changing what I did. After working in radio and TV and theatre and so on, the next thing to tackle was a novel. However the novel was such a huge success that it meant that the next thing I had to do after that novel was another novel, and after that, another novel, and so on. I had inadvertently become a novelist instead of the multimedia writer I was otherwise shaping myself up to be. Which meant that I spent well over a decade sitting by myself in my room typing. I made the occasional bolt for freedom, such as my wildlife project, Last Chance to See (my own personal favourite book of mine), but otherwise I was pretty much on my own, typing.

To be honest, I didn't like it much.

I met Robbie Stamp while I was toying with the idea of making a science fiction documentary series for TV. He was a documentary maker with Central Television's Special Projects Group, headed by the innovative and free-thinking Richard Creasey. Robbie and I hit it off immediately and quickly discovered that we had a complementary set of ambitions and frustrations. I wanted to find some kind of structure that would let me realise some of the dozens of not-novel-writing projects that I had been day-dreaming about for years -- TV, CD-ROM, on-line publishing, film, music, etc -- and Robbie wanted to create and manage the world's greatest ever multiple media company. From this meeting of minds was born The Digital Village.

Notice that it's a multiple-media company, not a multi-media company. The extra syllable is important. Multi-media is only one of the things we do. Robbie assembled a very powerful and eclectic group of talents to become the founding partners: his old boss Richard Creasey, who as it happens was the first person to tell me, years and years ago, that digital media and communications were going to revolutionise our lives; Ian Charles Stewart who has been, variously, a photographer, banker, Olympic volleyballer and racer of 850cc motorbikes, and was also one of the founding partners of WiReD magazine; Ed Victor, internationally feared literary agent; Mary Glanville, also from Central TV and Virgin New Media and Zenith, who handles our rights, distribution and co-financing issues; Richard Harris, our computers and communications wizard, who is also an evolutionary biologist, amateur Egyptologist, opera singer and one-time professional skier.

Between us we cover a lot of territory.

We see a lot of publishing companies and TV companies nervously trying to deal with the implications of the new digital media by buying in talent and buying up rights, and we also see a lot of multimedia companies that have no understanding or experience of traditional media. At The Digital Village we have experience and understanding of all these issues built into the very core of the company, so that any projects we create can flow quite naturally into media that suit it.

In Britain we have a unique set of advantages and obstacles as far as digital media are concerned. We may as well face the fact that technologically we have been left behind -- or so it seems. All of the computer architectures which are going to shape the way in which we work, play and communicate for the foreseeable future have been designed in the States and, to a small extent, in Japan. We are not players in that field. However, now that these computer architectures are in place and we need something to fill them up with, all the big American software companies are prowling round Britain buying up talent. At a recent trade fair, DreamWorks set up shop not to show anything, just to hire British talent. We still have many of the best writers, designers, teachers, artists and actors in the world, but because of the peculiarities of our education system, which separates us into artists and scientists at age fifteen and then teaches each to despise the other thereafter, our artists and our technologists don't talk to each other. If we can overcome that problem, if we can make a bridge between the 'two cultures', then we have it in our grasp, as David Puttnam remarked in a recent lecture, to make London the content software capital of the world.

But though England will be our creative root, we intend The Digital Village to be a global company, which will exist as an on-line network of Digital Villages around the world, not only in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney, but in Bangalore and Johannesburg and Rio. The many-to-many communications model which the World Wide Web is beginning to provide us with should nurture cultural diversity in a way in which the old one-to-many broadcasting model has tended only to subvert. We want to be globally local and locally global.

I intend to continue to write the occasional book, but what I am working on right at the moment is a new work of fiction that will make its very first appearance as a CD-ROM. I think I'm beginning to have fun again.

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(c) 1998 The Digital Village