Jurassic Park used to feel a little retrograde to me. Not in terms of FX, which still dazzle, or story, which remains a classically tight adventure tale, but in terms of the film’s underlying themes. Jurassic Park is a throwback to an older form of movie, the kind that reached peak popularity in the 50s – cautionary tales about science gone amok.
By the time Jurassic Park came out in 1994 we had largely stopped making films like that, and if we were making films like that they were about science in the wrong hands. The nuclear threat that had driven the 50s Atomic Horror films that give us the backbone of the Science Run Amok genre was over, and the environment, which had fueled a resurgence in Nature Run Amok movies, had been relegated to PSAs and polite charitable giving. No, by 1994 we were in the early stages of the home computer revolution and we were in the post-Cold War mood of an unlimited future. History had ended, and technology was going to usher us into a great new world. The dotcom boom waited just around the corner!
Within that mindset, and within the mindset of ‘new is good, tech progress is good’ that permeated our culture for the next 20 or so years, Ian Malcolm’s admonition felt downright old fashioned.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should,” he said.
But now, in 2019, Jurassic Park feels downright on the nose, and Ian’s admonishment should probably be printed and framed on the walls of all our big tech companies.
To be fair, I’m not even sure the movie agrees with him. It’s retrograde, yeah, but not so much that it can bring itself to kill off Hammond, who gets murderized in the book. Michael Crichton wrote a couple of books about the dangers of science gone amok, and his choice to kill Hammond in the novel was not random. Hammond needed to pay for what he did, and by not making him pay, director Steven Spielberg shows he can’t bring himself to say that Jurassic Park was, fundamentally, wrong.
After all, dinosaurs are just so cool.
This movie, and the novel on which it’s based, predate social media by decades, but the conflicts within it – both between people and tech and between filmmaker and theme – are incredibly resonant in the days after the Christchurch mosque massacre. This massacre was, in many ways, the culmination of the age of social media; we all wish the culmination was the Arab Spring but the hideous truth is that it’s a white supremacist shouting “Don’t forget to subscribe to Pewdiepie” before killing 49 people and wounding many others. It’s a guy livestreaming his murders on Facebook after leaving a manifesto on 8chan and announcing it on other social media. And the manifesto he left behind is dripping in chan irony and edgelord meme stuff, and it’s quite clear that he got radicalized on the internet. The only sane choice at this point is just to shut down the server farms, to get back to such ancient technology as texts and emails, but we won’t.
After all, getting those likes and shares is just so cool.
It isn’t that the technology is bad. It isn’t that dinosaurs are bad. It’s just that Hammond and his men barged headfirst into doing a thing without once thinking it through. They thought about how to monetize it and how to market it, but they never really thought about how to control it. They used frog DNA that allowed the dinosaurs to swap sexes, and so their built-in controls were too weak and inherently flawed. The same goes for social media, which has its own chimeric properties that have long since hit the Frankenstein’s Monster stage of upstaging and outsmarting its masters.
There was a utopian vision for social media, just as Hammond had this beautiful vision for his park. We thought it would bring the world together, that it would foster understanding and education. It would be the greatest boon to human intelligence and relationship; suddenly I could understand the daily life of a person a continent away, could eavesdrop on the thoughts of a person with an identity unlike my own, could hear the thoughts of those who had been historically marginalized.
But it drove us fucking nuts. There’s no other way to say it – look at the world of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and you’ll see a whole culture driven absolutely mad. Rather than connect us, these networks separated us, making us feel all the more alone because we could see other people’s lives while not really being part of them. Twitter is the perfect mechanism to drive you mad, a twitch-based system that rewards instant and hyperbolic reactions, while its networking features actually facilitate the formation of mobs that can descend on anyone and destroy them in moments, like piranha just fucking up a cow. Twitter flattens out distinctions between people, and before you know it you’re calling a 12 year old an asshole, or someone with 700,000 followers is siccing all of those folks on someone with 98. Facebook is the ultimate narcotic for the easily duped, of all political stripes. There’s something about seeing a claim shared by someone you know that makes you want to just believe the claim, no matter how absolutely stupid it is. And Instagram, while it can be delightful, is really a platform that makes you feel like shit because everybody is curating their best lives, only showing you the smiles, leaving the piles of trash artfully out of frame. You jump to comparison, and you can never come near the life that the influencer is showing you.
Then there’s YouTube, perhaps the most insidious of all. To some of us, YouTube is just new wave TV, but it operates very differently for other generations. It is a social media platform, and its recommendation algorithm has become the most powerful radicalization tool in the world. It’s turning otherwise sane people into anti-vaxxers, flat earthers and white supremacists. It is doing this with a quiet brutality, barely noticed until it rips to shreds the reason and decency of young people, especially young white men. It’s the velociraptor in this exhaustingly extended metaphor – it can open doors and it is coming for the kids.
Why did this stuff drive us nuts? We just are not built for it. Our brains evolved to only be able to really relate to communities of about 150 people, and we can only really care about/be truly bonded to 50 people at a time. Now look at how many people you follow on any of these platforms. How many ‘friends’ you have on Facebook. How many people come across your Twitter transom in any given hour. It’s way, way, way more than 50. Way more than 150, even. You just can’t relate to all of these people as people. But there’s more – you’re trained to trust what people you like say, so when a friend shares some nonsense you approach it with… I don’t want to say more gullible attitude, but you’re less likely to double check the info. The distance between reality and the screen is such that we’re all willing to say what we wouldn’t say in person, and so disagreement explode in ways that usually only happen in bar fights. But you’re on Twitter getting into these brawls all the time, or reading them, which is just as toxic in its own way.
Then there are the other aspects of social media – the loss of privacy that’s baked in, and that we all signed up for. The ways that our data is being taken and sold, the way our identities are being reduced to marketing plans and our political views are being manipulated by forces operating behind the scenes, deciding which posts we should and should not see. This stuff is driving us nuts and it’s reshaping the ways that we interact with the world and the ways the world interacts with us
Programmers could do this. They could create these networks and these apps and these sites. They never thought about whether they should, or what could really go wrong. Hammond didn’t build Jurassic Park to get people eaten, but once they started sliding down the gullets of the dinosaurs that eventuality was, in retrospect, pretty obvious.
The real horror is that they just kept making dinosaurs. I think this is the most realistic aspect of the whole franchise; we never learn our lesson. History is strewn with technological advances that we just couldn’t handle (I’m not convinced we, as a species, are ready to deal with GUNS, let alone nukes and missiles), but we never seem to figure it out. It’s always the same thing, every single time, and Ian Malcolm summed it up in The Lost World: Jurassic Park:
“‘Ooh, ah,’ that’s how it always starts. But then later there’s running and screaming.”
It’s always the same – it seems so cool! It makes life easier! And then, all of a sudden, it’s a goddamn nightmare.
Am I a Luddite now? I mean, I’m typing this on a laptop connected to a wifi signal and I’m uploading this to a couple of websites and I’ll promote it using the same social media networks that I’m comparing to flesh eating dinosaurs. I feel that same tension that Spielberg has with his own themes – yes, this stuff is bad but also yes, I like having it in my life. Again, this is why the franchising of Jurassic Park fits this metaphor, because we know we should leave these dinosaurs well enough alone but we can’t. And when the next thing comes along we’ll probably get very excited about it and not pay attention to the potential downsides.
There’s still so much good that could come from these platforms and technologies, but we need to figure out how to get them under control immediately. We need to create laws to deal with them, and we need to sit down and figure out culturally how we’re going to work with these things. We don’t even have the etiquette down for social media, let alone an ethical framework for how this stuff should be used properly.
As individuals we need to take a look at our relationship with these platforms and technologies and see what is healthy and what is not. More than that, we have to figure out how we’re contributing to the problems out there. The tech isn’t bad, even if we’re not quite ready for it. And while we can’t personally keep young men from being radicalized after watching Sponge Bob Squarepants videos, we can minimize the ways we add to the crazy-making atmosphere on other platforms. It’s as simple as not having that Twitter fight, or clicking “Unfollow” on that crazy uncle who shares QAnon stuff. On a more active level it’s about sharing things that are both positive and vulnerable, which is a highwire act. It’s about showing the things with which we struggle without being incredibly negative. It’s about sharing experience, strength and hope instead of pessimism, anger and despair.
And maybe the answer is just turning the fucking things off. The dinosaurs had a lysine deficiency built in as a last ditch containment measure. Social media needs our eyeballs and our content – that’s its lysine. Perhaps we think about cutting off that supply and finding other ways to be human beings together, even at a distance. And when the next big thing comes along, maybe we all look at it with a little bit of healthy skepticism rather than rush to become early adopters of being dinosaur chow.