Frankenstein Rides Again, But Don’t Panic!

The previous post, was originally posted in 1999 on H2G2. It’s surprising to me that a post on a new technology should not have dated at all.

But what is H2G2 I hear you ask? Only the website Wikipedia could have been.

In 1999, Douglas Adams decided to set up a real world, Earth edition of the fictional HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy. The foundation of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was a real book “The Hitchhikers Guide to Europe” by Ken Welsh. Interspersed with Welsh’s text were sections of comments and advice from other hitch hikers. As the book was reissued over several editions, the advice sections could turn into a slow motion car crash. One edition would point out the similarities in coin sizes to different value coins in neighbouring countries. It would be suggested that vending or change machines could be fooled. The next edition would feature a follow up comment from some poor bloke who had followed the advice, alarms went off, he got arrested and then deported. Ken Welsh of course had a disclaimer along the lines of all advice is for information only and not actually advice. Nevertheless, these sections of the book constituted a slow motion collaberative information archive.

In the fictional Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy, the Guide had been set up in a similar way. Innumerable researchers were thumbing their way around the galaxy and sending back lovingly compiled reports on the planets they visited to the guide’s offices, where overpaid desk jockey editors would brutally take a hatchet to their precious prose. Harking back to Ken Welsh’s book, Douglas Adams described his guide as having  “many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.” That’s the risk of any collaborative system, the question is how much editorial control do you need.

For the real world version of the fictional guide, based on a real world book; Douglas Adams, with the company The Digital Village invited people to sign on as researchers and create their own articles on whatever interested them. These articles were then submitted to an editorial team who would assess them for quality. If they were approved, the editor would often rewrite the article, presumably to better fit the house style.

The H2G2 site was growing progressively but had still not gone far beyond a niche hobby site when, along with many other dot-com companies, it ran into money trouble. It was sold on but it is still carrying on today. I suspect there were two main reasons it never became the titan that wikipedia is today. First, it was not open enough. The editorial oversight slowed down it’s growth. Second, Adams’ fame as a humour writer meant many people did not take it seriously.

Here is the final form of my Frankenstein Foods post on H2G2 after it had been improved by the editors. Improved being meant in the same sense that Peter Jackson improved the Hobbit.


Returning to the subject of genetic modification, if you want to learn more about risk and how it applies to GMO, follow Nassim Nicholas Taleb.