Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Prophet Douglas Adams and Distributed Computing

If you've read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, you've read the greatest prophet of the 20th century.    Because within a mere 40 years of writing his first book, Douglas Adams successfully predicted that the earth is a giant computer.  Perhaps not with pan-dimensional creatures who take the form of mice* at the helm.  But he nailed it nonetheless.

Recent advances in distributed computing have proved him right.  I'm not talking about "old fashioned" distributed computing where the processing power of thousands or millions of computers spread across the web are used crunch massive numbers for the SETI@Home project and the like.   Don't get me wrong. That does seem like a single global computer and it comes close to Adamsian fullfillment.  But remember, in Hitchhikers the people themselves were part of the earth computer.

If not SETI, then what?  I'm talking about "Lostpedia" aka The Lost Wikia.  Yes, Kevin Croy's** hugely popular wiki site for fans of the TV show "Lost" is the realization of the fantastic, utterly unrealistic Hitchhikers Guide oracle.  Because a wiki turns people into a distributed computer system***.  

Consider what role "Lostpedia" performs.
  1. A new Lost TV episode "downloads" a data set in the form of character development, plot lines, and often confusing glyphs, codes, hints and clues. 
  2. The data is then processed, analyzed, and crunched by the TV show devotees acting as a collective CPU.
  3. The newly processed information is uploaded from the viewers via the Wikia web page and order arises from disorder.
With SETI@Home, individual computers are tasked to identify signal within the noise of space radio signals to identify extraterrestrial intelligence.  But with Lostpedia, and other wikis like it, the individuals themselves (people!) are acting as a distributed computer system and discerning signal from noise for a TV show.  And what's more intense about this form of distributed computing is that it combines the intelligence and creativity of humans with the brute force, power and blazing speed of digital computers.    An silicorganic distributed computer!

We all thought Douglas Adams was being wacky and zany by suggesting that the earth and it's inhabitant are a computer.  He was being prophetic.

So what does it all mean?  42.

The Fine Print
*At least I really, really hope that mice aren't involved.  Read my "Existential Rodent" post if you don't appreciate my trepidation on this point.

**If this was a reputable journalistic endeavoer I would disclose that Kevin is my cousin.  But since I'm not a journalist I won't disclose this fact. 

***I'm not nearly smart enough to think of this on my own. This post hatched from a conversation with Kevin at my grandparents house.


  1. I also have never watched Lost and have no interest in watching it. I guess a huge computer based on Lost-watching human brains would lead to the answer 42, except earth wasn't to find the answer; it was looking for the question.

    By the way, Von Braun said, "Man is still the best computer that we can put aboard a spacecraft -- and the only one that can be mass-produced with unskilled labor." It seemed appropriate.

  2. Dagnabbit! I was hoping I wouldn't be caught on the purpose of the computer. But I should have known better. Another reason why I shouldn't BWS*.

    Thanks for keeping me honest Lady Blog Fodder.

    *Blog while sleepy.


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