Douglas Adams on Interactivity

As anybody who has ever read anything knows, the most important part of a book are the quotes sprinkled throughout it. Yes, if you are able to pick the perfect quotes to start your chapters with, then you’ve done the majority of hard work in writing. The words that you write yourself, the other 50,000 […]

As anybody who has ever read anything knows, the most important part of a book are the quotes sprinkled throughout it. Yes, if you are able to pick the perfect quotes to start your chapters with, then you’ve done the majority of hard work in writing. The words that you write yourself, the other 50,000 or so marks on paper that fill in the spaces between the quotes, well, those are mostly there to give the sense that you did something on your own. But the quotes, the quotes, those are the show!

On that note, I thought I would start talking about my book Designing for the Social Web by sharing the first quote in it. It’s a quote from what is undoubtedly one of the top 5 pieces written by anybody on the subject of the Internet. It’s from Douglas Adams’ 1999 piece: How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet

“During [the twentieth] century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport—the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show “normal” mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. ‘Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn’t do anything? Didn’t everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?’

“Yes, child, that’s why they all went mad. Before the Restoration.”

“What was the Restoration again, please, miss?”

“The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back.”

I put this quote at the beginning of the book because it completely rewires the way we think about the Web. It is a new technology, sure, but the primary power of it is to enable interactivity…a return to interactivity that we’ve been slowly eroding with other forms of technology. As we design web-based interactive systems, it’s nice to know that we’re not conjuring value out of thin air…we’re simply returning to tried and true forms of human communication.

Published: May 12th, 2008

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