The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?
— The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It’s just after breakfast on a chilly London morning. and it’s early on the evolutionary clock of the brand-new startup launched by Douglas N. Adams – or as he affectionately calls himself, DNA.
The author of the “increasingly inaccurately named” Hitchhiker’s Trilogy – five epic science-fiction tales that are, he says, bestsellers everywhere but in France – has just left a business meeting. For a writer who until recently didn’t even balance his own checkbook, that’s no small thing.
Adams, 45, stands six feet three and has a nose like a rudder. (On his company’s Web site, you can see a photo of that nose, in glorious profile, and read his account of the trials and tribulations of owning it.) He presses himself into a cab, bending into the kind of deep bow that comes naturally to a debutante, but not to a man as big as an elm. He settles into the hack’s cavernous backseat. He wants to go to the offices of the Digital Village (TDV) – the company he founded in 1992, home to 20 bright young TDVers, the centerpiece of his “21st-century multimedia company.”
What ensues instead is a long, pregnant moment. The cabbie’s eyes float up to his rearview mirror and lock into a stare that would set a stick on fire. The sun is shining. The passenger remains inert.
This is not a good place for nothing to be going on.
“Sir?” the driver ventures. “Sir? I’m ‘appy to sit ‘ere as long as you like. Only, do you mind if I turn the meter on?”
“Oh, yes!” the passenger says, snapping into consciousness. He utters TDV’s address. Douglas Adams knows where he wants to go, but it’s much better if someone else is driving. He is, after all, the ultimate hitchhiker.
Five years ago, Adams threw his hat into an already crowded ring: He decided to become the next Walt Disney. “I got lonely spending all day sitting in a room by myself, trying to be funny in front of a blank screen,” he says. “I wanted to do a television show and a CD-ROM, and I never had the right leverage.” The Digital Village, he says, “unashamedly wants to be the biggest, most successful global entertainment company we can be, on the scale of Disney.” But he promptly demurs: “There’s a clear structural difference between us and Disney. We’re doing CD-ROMs and movies, and we will be doing television, music, and publishing. But our central focus is on establishing direct retail relationships with customers.”
Every traditional media product that TDV launches is a way to drive audiences to the company’s online community. Whether it’s a new book, or the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or h2g2) that Adams is doing with Disney, or the recently released Starship Titanic game – each product is meant to link people to that community, also known as h2g2 online. Adams hopes that h2g2 online will become the source for information on books, music, travel, talk, and games. Net-jays, updating the old radio-deejay formula, will give voice to h2g2 characters offering points of view on all of this, and more.
In other words, Adams is hitchhiking, this time through the new economy. He began his adult life as a penniless wanderer, sleeping in fields and phone booths. Since then, he has learned a few unusual truths about the way the world – make that the galaxy – works.
Beware: These are not the truths taught in business school.
The old economy says, Make a plan and stick to it. The new economy is so unformed, so out of the ballpark, that the rules are different: Dream wild, stick out your thumb, and climb aboard for the ride. Don’t worry too much about control. Don’t drive yourself crazy driving yourself. Be loose, be open to surprise, and be cool. These are also the “rules,” such as they are, of the hitchhiker. Adams wrote the book – to be precise, the book within a book – on the hitchhiker’s attitude. Inscribed on its cover in large, friendly letters are these unforgettable words: Don’t Panic.
They carry a lesson for every hitchhiker now traveling on the information superhighway. The best things in life happen not as planned but by accident. And by fantasy.
Fantasy is the first order of reality in the new economy. Not invention. Not new and improved assembly lines. Fantasy. Steven Spielberg rode E.T. all the way to the creation of Amblin Entertainment. Luke Skywalker’s fingerprints are all over the buildings at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. A cartoon mouse laid the foundation of the Disney empire.
These tales of success are all the work of storytellers and fictioneers. For Adams, the lesson at the heart of science fiction is simple: There is chaos in life, but if you keep an open mind and entertain all kinds of possibilities – as storytellers know how to do – you will end up beyond any place or any goal that you could rationally see. Imagine a business plan that promises, “My cartoon mouse, named Mickey, will become a $75 billion business in 75 years.” To make that kind of leap, you have to hitchhike.
Adams has always lived his dreams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) is a book of fiction about a fictional guidebook called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it features a fictional media company that produces the guidebook. What Adams dreamed, he’s now creating: His title at TDV is, after all, chief fantasist. His own story – part dream, part science-fiction fantasy, part business success – serves as a hitchhiker’s guide to a world where you can combine art with business and technology with dreams.
He was about thirty as well, tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too – most of his friends worked in advertising. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Every startup is a story, and every entrepreneur is a storyteller. A guy like Adams, who thinks no small thoughts, now finds himself living the biggest thoughts he’s ever had.
“Before h2g2, I was basically just being born,” says Adams, as if his previous life were a blur. “In the year I took off between high school and college, I traveled. I had a copy of a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, which I got from someone and still have, and which probably counts as stolen by now. I was lying in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, and the stars came out, and I thought, ‘Oh, it looks much more interesting up there.’ A title fell out of the sky: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It seemed like a book that somebody ought to write, but it didn’t occur to me that I should be the one to do it.”
So instead Adams went to Cambridge to study English literature. He wanted to be John Cleese, but the job was taken. “One thing didn’t lead to another, and I ended up being not a performer but just a writer,” he says. He wrote for radio, much like Arthur Dent, the fictional hero in h2g2. But the work wasn’t steady: “I got seriously broke and took a job as a bodyguard for an Arab royal family.”
He sat outside the family’s hotel room. The elevator cars came and went all night long: “At night, when they’re not in regular use, it’s bad for them just to stop, so they’re programmed to go up and down at random. Every two or three minutes, an elevator would arrive, open its doors, spit out some Muzak, and go away. My job was to stay sane. This is why there is a lot in h2g2 about elevators.”
He kept returning to the idea of science-fiction comedy, which had never been tried before. “I was told it couldn’t possibly work, because if it could work, somebody would have done it by now. One day, I was tossing around sci-fi comedy ideas, and this title I had years ago turned out to be the missing link. I went to my mother’s house in Dorset for Christmas, and I stayed there for a year to write h2g2.”
It was 1977. He wrote the story as a radio script: “Radio is able to take risks that TV can’t. Television has a tendency to supplant the imagination. In radio,” he says pointedly, “the pictures are better.”
A publisher heard the broadcasts in March 1978 and asked Adams to turn the script into a book.
“We knew the show had gone well. We’d had a couple of letters. The book came out on a Thursday, and on Saturday, I went to a book-signing in a little bookstore in London. As I drove up, I saw that the streets were full of people and that there were traffic jams. I thought, ‘Oh no, how do I get around all this?’ Then I realized it was for me. The store had expected 75 people, and 1,500 had showed up. The next day, h2g2 appeared as number one on the [London] Sunday Times best-seller list,” Adams recalls. “In three days, my life changed completely. I felt slightly numb. It was like having an orgasm with no foreplay.”
Adams became a global star, if not a galactic one. His reality became a dream. His books sold millions of copies. He wrote sequels – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992) – and a bunch of other books besides. He found himself playing guitar with Pink Floyd. He called up one of his heroes, Paul McCartney. He met his other hero, John Cleese, and collaborated with another Python, Graham Chapman. Scores of readers pored over his work as if it were by Shakespeare: They debated why, in h2g2, the meaning of life is determined to be “forty-two.”
Adams found himself staying in swank hotel rooms where he had to open half a dozen doors just to find the bed. It was terrible. “One successful book demands that you write another to pay the taxes on income from the previous one,” he says. “I was on a round of writing novels. I was more and more sitting in a room by myself. That’s not something that I very much enjoy doing.”
Ford Prefect was desperate that any flying saucer at all would arrive soon because fifteen years was a long time to get stranded anywhere, particularly somewhere as mind- bogglingly dull as the Earth. Ford wished that a flying saucer would arrive soon because he knew how to flag flying saucers down and get lifts from them. … In fact, Ford Prefect was a roving researcher for that wholly remarkable book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Adams became a fiction: Douglas Adams and his hero, Arthur Dent, traded places.
The story that Adams first conceived in 1977 begins innocuously enough. It starts on an ordinary morning, with Arthur Dent brushing his teeth. Looking into his shaving mirror, the hero sees the reflection of a yellow bulldozer driving along his garden path: Arthur’s house is to be flattened to make room for a highway. A friend named Ford Prefect, an alien from the planet Betelgeuse, takes Arthur to a bar, knowing full well that in precisely 12 minutes, the Earth will suffer a fate similar to that of Arthur’s house: It will be destroyed to clear a path for an intergalactic highway.
Blown sky high, hitching an improbable ride on a passing spacecraft, Arthur finds himself playing Tonto to Ford’s Lone Ranger. Ford both writes for and totes an essential survival tool, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which offers such indispensable advice as “A towel has immense psychological value” – which is practical, perhaps, if you’re not only homeless but also Earthless. As Arthur and Ford wander through the galaxy, they must be clever and, if possible, handsome. They must also avoid getting eaten by space ants, vaporized by fiends, and bored to death by bad poets.
Fifteen years after Arthur and Ford hitched up, Adams found himself at home, newly married, a first-time father, and comfortable – yet miserably so. He was chained by the demands of writing a new book. Then, all of a sudden, his life was bulldozed to make way for a new highway: the Internet.
And there, offering a hand, was his own Ford Prefect.
It is a truism among storytellers that the more explicitly they imagine a character, the more certain it is that a real-life replica will walk into their life. Robbie Stamp, 37, showed up in Adams’s life exactly as Ford Prefect had shown up in Arthur’s.
Stamp, then a television producer, met Adams on one of those miserably comfortable days. He wanted to discuss collaborating with Adams on a TV series about evolution. Instead of doing just a TV show, they decided to build TDV.
It wasn’t love at first sight. Professionally speaking, it was better than that: It was life at first sight. For Adams, it was a rescue. For Stamp, it was a trip.
Just as Adams is obsessed by things galactic, Stamp is obsessed by things small and immediate. He wrote a definitive history of deception in World War II – a tale as bizarre as any of Adams’s fictions, except that it’s true. He described how the British floated fake bodies on the water to deceive German troops. He told of double agents, spurious maps, bogus marriage announcements, even exploding camel dung! Here was a realist after Adams’s own heart. “Military deception,” says Stamp, “is one of the biggest intellectual achievements in history. The attention to detail is awesome. The wrong color on a fake door hinge can give you away. And for me, the importance of detail isn’t limited to wars. If I patronize a supermarket chain and once, just once, somebody is rude to me, that’s it – I take my business somewhere else. The whole chain is totally vulnerable to the person you ask to direct you to the tomatoes. We’re all vulnerable to the tiniest elements.”
Stamp took everything that he had learned about the theaters of war and went into the theater of the imagination. He traveled to India to help mount plays in the open air. While there, he saw performances of The Mahabharata, one of India’s great epic poems, and observed something that changed his view of this medium, or of any medium, for that matter: “The players hold candles, and people in the audience strike a light, they pay a bit of money, and they request the actors to enact a story or scene.” For Stamp, the experience was proof positive that people want to receive information interactively – and as a story.
The right story will bring them to you in droves.
The qualities [that a president] is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. … His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Stamp’s task is every bit as daunting as Adams’s – maybe more so. As chairman and CEO, Stamp is charged with building a company that is as creative as its chief fantasist. His most difficult job: building it in a way that conforms to the company’s unofficial policy manual. Consider what can happen in the time zone known to most of us as six o’clock on an average Thursday evening. It’s a time when not only TDV’s policy manual but also the behavior of its people can seem to be drawn precisely, insanely from the pages of h2g2.
The scene unfolds: A man dressed only in a T-shirt and a bikini is buzzed inside the TDV suite. He goes straight to the CEO’s office. Stamp gathers up his papers and heads for the door. The stranger shoves the boss’s desk to one side and tunes his boom box to loud rock. Is he leading a hostile takeover? A putsch? Or just an alien invasion?
For the next hour, the CEO of TDV is stranded on the outside looking in, while half the TDV staff uses his office for its aerobic workout. Other Londoners are repairing to loved ones – or to pubs. But TDVers, now getting their second wind, are preparing to work half the night. Shimmying employees stop only to towel off the sweat from their backs.
TDV is a very special company, and Stamp is a very special leader. Never have the two disciplines – soul and matter – come together in a finer blend. “I’m TDV’s chief servant,” Stamp says. “Anybody who thinks he can sit at the top of a complex organization is kidding himself. The complexity is so great, you can never get on top of it, even in a small company.”
Stamp aims to turn TDV into “a home for people who never much liked home.” The success of the company, he says, rests with the people on its young team. They have to be more creative than Adams. They have to be better at management than Stamp. TDV’s mission is to come as close as possible to dissolving the barrier between producers and consumers. The more hip and conscious and honest its people are, the more those qualities will be mirrored in its customers. On h2g2 online, consumers will mingle with producers until it becomes virtually impossible to tell who’s who.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the genetic coding we put into the company,” says Stamp. “The appropriate behaviors have to be coded in from the company’s earliest days. Our issues are how to communicate effectively and to achieve cost discipline and deadline discipline now – so that nobody later looks back and says, ‘Wasn’t it a lot freer and happier and easier in the old days? Now some horrible manager is imposing a deadline on me, or managing the cash.’ If the right behaviors are part of the genetic coding from the beginning, you don’t have to impose them later.”
Part of Stamp’s genetic coding involves teaching TDVers about management. He explains the company’s systems to them in detail, and they learn to practice management on each other. You might think that the artists, designers, and writers who represent the bulk of TDV’s staff would rather spit at the word of “management” than speak it. But these kids talk the language of business with both skill and enthusiasm. It forms a bond that they share across various disciplines, and it helps them understand how they can get what they need to do their jobs. That way, Stamp figures, he doesn’t have to do their thinking for them.
And he has time for his second-most-difficult job: fund-raising.
In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal [that] communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth. On Earth it is never possible to be farther than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace … so such signals are too minute to be noticed. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
You can imagine a galaxy. you can imagine a two-headed, totally out-to-lunch ex-hippy. But it’s much harder to imagine money into existence.
Like most rides into outer space, this one’s gotten bumpy. TDV’s key product, the software game Starship Titanic – originally due to launch in time for Christmas 1997, then postponed until January 1998 – has finally emerged. Some 100,000 copies are headed for the United States, with another 60,000 appearing worldwide.
“Hubris,” says Stamp, explaining why the launch’s hoped-for leap to warp speed has been slow in coming. “It’s been hard to raise the money,” he explains. “We wanted to do more than we could. In the end, Starship Titanic has been a monumental effort. It’s taken most of the company’s energy to date. TDV has focused down quite substantially.”
The private equity that TDV started with has kept it going. The initial seed round came in December 1995, most of it from the Honorable Alex Cato, a member of a well-known British banking family. Viacom, through Simon & Schuster, funded the company on a project basis by offering licensing or collaboration. Others consulted include AT&T and Apple. “They could have raised much more, but they wanted to keep full creative control,” one interested investor notes. “We’ve held onto all the equity,” Stamp says. “We’ve lived with less in order to have more control. We’ll see how Starship Titanic performs. If it matches expectations, we’ll grow the company organically from the cash it throws off. I would have preferred not to be as reliant on Starship Titanic as we are. But I’m very proud of it. It will piggyback off the great interest in all things Titanic. And,” he emphasizes, “it’s not the only thing we are doing.” This fall, for example, h2g2 online will debut.
Meantime TDV has slimmed down from 25 people to just 20. The company’s offices moved from Camden, a jazzy, barely gentrified neighborhood in London, to Covent Garden, “a safer part of the city,” says Stamp. He blames himself for the shortfall between TDV’s reality and its ideal: “I allowed the wrong producer to be in place too long – which accounts for the delays on Starship Titanic. The company is now a year older. I know whose judgment I can trust. When you come together as a group but you haven’t been through anything yet, you’ve got very few fixed points. Now we’ve been under enormous pressure. We’ve learned a great deal.”
Arthur was about to have his head cut open … and Ford and Zaphod were about to be set upon by several thugs a great deal heavier and more sharply armed than they were. All in all it was extremely fortunate that at that moment every alarm on the planet burst into an ear-splitting din. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
For his part, Adams views TDV’s turbulence with a storyteller’s confidence. Conflict isn’t a problem – it’s the point. What’s a story without drama? What would h2g2 be without Arthur Dent lying in front of a ravenous yellow bulldozer? Or without the Earth facing obliteration at the hands of Vogons? Or without a little ear-splitting din? If you can tell how it ends, it’s not a great story.
Adams is sitting in the Groucho Club, a London eating establishment that is a favorite haunt of writers and performers. Overhead the moon is a little too full of itself, but that just makes everything larger and more vivid than usual. Adams is describing a new idea: “Total Capture.” It’s a beautiful dream, like everything else in this embryonic phase of TDV’s development, when he and Stamp might find themselves holding either a real baby – or just bathwater.
Total Capture, like h2g2, fell out of the sky and into Adams’s robust imagination. “The night sky in ancient Egypt was like television today,” Adams says. “People watched it, and took their entertainment and information from it. I want to recreate that feeling of the sky over the pyramids – those tales that ancients told each other about the distant lights they claimed to see. Total Capture of the night sky, of every night that ever looked down on the cradle of civilization – that’s what I want to put onto the Web.”
For a solid minute, it’s possible to see Adams skimming the sky with a butterfly net, the way the rest of us climb a ladder to change a lightbulb. Creative highs are possible for him not because he thinks about “new markets” or “new products” but because he starts from the rules of creativity.
“I learned as a storyteller that when you change the scale of something, new details come into view,” says Adams. “If something’s bothering you, think about it as a bigger problem than it is: Think about it as a galaxy-wide problem.”
If space is half of the science-fiction equation, then time is the other half. To achieve maximum impact, Adams says, change the scale along that dimension as well: “I can show you a picture of a scene today, and another picture of a scene the next day, and another the day after that. Since they’re all the same, after a while you say, ‘This is boring.’ But if I show them to you at 24 frames a second, you say, ‘Oh, a movie!’ “
Change the two together – alter the time-space continuum – and you have the formula for creativity in the new economy. “One of the most powerful forces in nature is about to come into view in the online medium: the feedback loop – where the input stage of one iteration is the output stage of another iteration,” Adams says. “Feedback loops are what drive evolution. You put pesticide on a field to kill off pests, and the next generation is bred exclusively from the pest that’s survived.”
So Starship Titanic is not merely a product; it’s a virtual pesticide. It will draw a new generation of fans into h2g2 online, where they will be immersed in Adams’s way of looking at the world – their psychic DNA altered by contact with this DNA.
Adams wants to reinvent creativity itself. “Up until now,” he says, “we’ve pursued knowledge by the scientific method of taking things apart to see how they work. This has led us to the fundamental forces: atoms and quarks. The limitation is that once you take things apart, they don’t work anymore. If you take a cat apart to see how it works, you have a nonworking cat on your hands. Computers allow us to reverse the process: We can start putting things together to see how they work. In the future, kids won’t be taught frog dissection. They’ll be taught frog construction.”
Learn to put things together, Adams suggests, and you create wonderful new possibilities. Reverse-engineer your creativity, and the economy begins to open itself up in ways that seem, well, out of this world. “If we put things together to see how they work,” Adams says, “we arrive at a different perspective. What binds us together? What are our morals, our beliefs? In the past, a tornado would rip a community apart and turn it into a junkyard. We must arrive at the point where a tornado can sweep through a junkyard and bring up a 747.”
Chaos is Adams’s oldest friend, his constant traveling companion. There he is, with his thumb out. But this time, he’s not looking for a London hack. He’s got his eyes peeled for a 747 – or for an even higher-flying vehicle.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Currency/Doubleday Books and the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women. You can visit Douglas Adams and the Digital Village on the Web (www.tdv.com).