Commemorating the life and work of an individual by carrying around a towel for a day is a little bizarre. But an individual who leaves behind such a unique legacy deserves no less a unique tribute. Which is why Towel Day seems well-suited to honoring the memory of the late Douglas Adams.
Adams, the author of several books including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, died quite suddenly in 2001 at the age of fifty. At that time, I was not much more than a geeky fan saddened that the man who had written books I had treasured since I was thirteen had so prematurely departed the world. As the years pass, however, I gain a deeper understanding of what was really lost - namely, a vibrant, exploring, creative mind dedicated to technological optimism, the power of science, education and ideas, and the capacity for and responsibility to human progress.
Neil Gaiman already pointed out that we don't have a name yet for what Douglas Adams was. I think we're closer to defining it now than we were in Adams's lifetime, but it remains an elusive concept. Tragically so, because the more quickly our technological culture moves, the more imperative it becomes to identify and support those people who can comment on the current and coming changes with accurate insight and vision. Even better if we can find those who can do so with wit and charm. A Futurologist? An Explainer? I can't say. The best phrase I can come up with is "someone like Douglas Adams." He was a prototype of a persona we're still trying to understand.
He wrote hugely successful science-fiction novels, but claimed to dislike both writing and science-fiction. He was ridiculously funny himself, but too genuinely self-deprecating to be wildly comedic. He was, if Stephen Fry's testimony is to be trusted, the first person in the UK ever to own an Apple computer. His admiration for human ingenuity was matched only by his conviction of moral responsibility for humans to respect themselves and their connections with the world around them. He championed conservation and celebrated the natural world in joyful rebellion of the notion it was ruled by or had been created by supernatural forces. Fascinated by biology and zoology, he could beautifully describe the intricacies of evolution while he poked deserved fun at the odd ways we modern humans go about our daily lives. He believed science was something that everyone could understand and appreciate. He seemed interested in everything. He also seemed skeptical and bemused by everything at the same time.
Douglas Adams was quite possibly ahead of his time. It's sad to think of what he has missed seeing in the past ten years. It's even sadder to think of how he could have understood, interpreted, clarified and explained it all back to us. Not to mention how he could have helped us imagine what will come next.
I suppose, then, it's left up to us.
Don't forget your towel.