MALCOLM GLADWELL WRITES THE INTRODUCTION TO A NEW EDITION OF THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
The galaxy is a very, very large place. And there’s a lot less stuff in it than you might think. The late Douglas Adams was right to point out that, once stranded in it, the chances of someone offering you a ride in their roomy vehicle are vanishingly small.
Previous editions of this book have attempted to quell this sense of hopelessness through the use of an apt, if rather limited, piece of advice: “Don’t Panic.” And though the advice itself is useful (because panicking is almost never a good idea) that’s its very weakness: too general. With this edition of the Guide, I’d like to apply a radically new approach to the problem of getting where you want to go – or at least getting to somewhere with an oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Most people, upon finding themselves riding the curb in a vast inky blackness, tend to solve the problem by seeking a vehicle. Call it the “not enough rocketships” approach. But these people, in their final moments, are ignoring a second key insight: the “plenty of space” angle. Typical of the imprisoned thought processes that all too often dominate our brains, the not-enough-rocketships approach focuses only on vehicular solutions. By contrast, people who perceive an abundance of space rarely attempt to remedy the situation. They don’t even see it as a problem.
In the late 1980s a team of psychologists from Virginia Polyamorous Institute conducted a fascinating experiment. They dropped study subjects at random in deserted parking lots. Half of the subjects were from Richmond (they were city folk) while the other half were members of the A’capa’capa tribe of the Central Amazonian Republic.
The results were startling. Urban subjects responded uniformly, slapping their sides in frustration, rummaging in their pockets for cell phones, and eventually returning – via taxi – to their townhouses and condominiums to slurp take-out chow mein and vent their frustrations by posting venomous music reviews on Amazon.com.
And the A’capa’capa? By nightfall, they had erected makeshift shelters constructed from free weekly newspapers and had begun trading jewelry made from carved pigeon bones. By daybreak they had been listed by Fortune 500 and by noon their supple-limbed leader was eating sushi with James Cameron in L.A., discussing the movie rights to his ordeal.
The lesson that emerges is that as long as we agree to live in a “not enough rocketships” world, we are likely to evaluate our problems as being spread out, unrelated, and intractable. But most problems – including finding ourselves marooned on the outskirts of a solar system known only by an 8-character alphanumeric code – turn out to be of the “plenty of space” variety. That is, most problems are more complicated and interrelated than we at first appreciate.
Take the A’capa’capa example. Whereas the tribe’s ingenuity and craftsmanship delivered them from the abandoned parking lot, when they returned to their home turf in the Central Amazonian Republic, they suddenly started fretting about things like the lack of good sushi. Within the month it got worse: a weekly free newspaper started up. A Chevy dealership appeared within six months, and recently the entire tiny country was paved over so the tribe members would have someplace to park their trucks while going to the movie theater to watch the exploits of their supple-limbed leader in their previously forested homeland.
So, as you rotate amid the stars, wondering what to do with your final seconds, let me supplement the “Don’t Panic” on the cover of this book with an additional piece of advice. Get comfortable, and dive right in to the rest of the Guide. Your problems are only just beginning. James Cameron should be along any moment.