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In an article discussing the ethics and benefits of using micro-machines to aid brain processes, Olaf Blanke states that “We should welcome the machine to the brain, but should proceed with caution, given that such an addition could change the criteria for self and identity.”  Mixing brain and machine sounds a lot like science fiction and fantasy, but the idea that machines alter the identity of man is as old as the first tool. It is actually the use of tools which is one of the factors used to distinguish man from the animals. But how far our tool use and machine development has taken us is open to debate. It might be argued that Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe presents us with a conclusion that no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, we are still ethically the cruel low-brow knuckle-draggers we have been from day one, whenever that was.

The novel begins with a situation where man is being threatened by machine, personally and on a global scale. While the main character, Arthur Dent, is faced with the imminent destruction of his house by bulldozer, the world is in line for annihilation by alien engineers to make way for a planned galactic highway. Faced with the machine and its purpose (to” improve” life) the only alternative to death is to get out of the way. Fortunately for Dent, he gets out of the way of both the bulldozer, by having someone lay down in his place in front of the machine and going off to the local bar, and the Vogon engineers, by following an alien friend’s advice and going off planet.  Unfortunately for the rest of mankind on Earth, they do not get out of the machines’ way and are obliterated. If death is the ultimate service to us of our technology, then we have not thought the purpose of developing machines out very clearly. And since these destructive machines are guided by minds, it is logical to assume that those minds are not thinking much higher than the Neanderthal who used a rock to crush an opponent’s skull to steal his woman, fire or cave.

The book for which the novel is actually named proves further that Adams has little respect for the technological progress of “modern” man. Across the known universe space travelers are gathering information to add to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, supposedly to make living in the universe a little more tolerable.  This electronic encyclopedia, a machine in itself, contains all the knowledge worth knowing for anyone travelling anywhere.  It says much of Adams’ opinion of Earth that all its knowledge of value is summed up in one sentence. In fact, the book is, like all the machines throughout the book, almost of no actual value. It is littered with recipes and questionable advice while updated randomly. By the nature of its title, we can infer that this machine of knowledge is not going to help any purpose other than a random one simply because it is intended for galactic hitchhikers who by definition are not filled with focused motivation.  So, the ultimate guide to getting somewhere does not really have any advice on getting anywhere or advice on choosing quality destinations.

When it comes to machines serving man, no machine is more designed for just that purpose than a robot.  But Adams presents us with a robot whose brain is figuratively the size of a planet but whose major duty is to open and close doors on command.  The robot is so misused, and so aware of its under-use, that it is chronically depressed and ultimately suicidal. As a metaphor for how far man’s design of technology has taken us, we cannot have a more negative example.  Mankind has gone godlike in this robot, Marvin, and created a being in his own image.  And man’s image of himself is way smart and way useless and way without purpose and ultimately self-destructive. Adams sees man as Marvins wasting our talents and driving ourselves to the grave as a result.

For all the technological advancements presented in Adams’ fanciful science fiction, humans are still struggling to perfect themselves one step beyond where they were as cave dwellers huddled against the full moon and the howl of wolves.  M.A. van der Colff says that Adams presents “the arbitrary nature of existence” and characters “faced with two existential choices: the one is defiance in the face of senselessness, the other is bleak despair.”  Adams uses his brilliant comedy to show us that machines will do no more than we can do for ourselves when it comes to quality of life.  And if all we will get from this race to the next technology is arbitrariness, senselessness, and bleak despair, then maybe Adams is suggesting we are going in the wrong direction at hyper speed, full throttle to oblivion.

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