The Kantian dream of undoing real nations keeps foundering on the shoals of human nature's need for real attachments to place.
“A lovely dream. Charming. But it won’t go as planned.”
The time: November 1990. The place: Isla Nublar, just off Costa Rica—“Cloud Island” to the uneasy English-speaking visitors gathered here to tour the remarkable new attraction built by billionaire visionary John Hammond. Bewitchingly idiosyncratic chaos theorist Ian Malcolm is unburdening himself, and ace lawyer Donald Gennaro—“bloodsucking lawyer,” as Hammond calls him—doesn’t like the sound of things.
Life—dino life, in this case—“is inherently unpredictable,” Malcolm is saying. “Just as the weather is.” Gennaro listens grimly as Malcolm questions “the ability of the park to control the spread of life-forms. Because the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.” Malcolm shakes his head. “I don’t mean to be philosophical, but there it is.”
Flash forward to 2018. LIFE FINDS A WAY, scream the ads. Earlier this year, they were everywhere, on TV, online, on buses and buildings. To promote itself, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom chose to seize on the classic line from the original Jurassic Park, coined in the novel and immortalized on film. And now, the 1993 blockbuster itself has found its way back into theaters and the public consciousness, in celebration of its 25th anniversary.
And amid an endless flurry of contenders for buzzphrase or word of the year, LIFE FINDS A WAY still packs the mysterious stilling zip of a heavy incantation. We’re right to be curious: what accounts for the tremendous staying power of this portentous message, despite decades of pummeling social, political, economic, and technological change? Why is life finding a way both the linchpin of one of the last big bankable tentpoles without superheroes (talk about a dinosaur) and a free-to-all meme?
Perhaps it’s a last-ditch effort to squeeze the last human resonance out of a decadent, over-evolved creative bloodline. Critics calling the flick an “emotionally unaffecting” exercise by filmmakers whose “apathy is palpable” have fair reason to gripe about its checklist approach to the original’s iconic ingredients. But a more interesting, even pressing, line of attack would turn the allure of life’s inexorable force back on the franchise phenomenon. Despite the deadening institutional weight of the entertainment machine Jurassic Park has become, we find ourselves returning again and again to its core insight—half hopeful, half a warning—as if trying to back our way into a lesson we dare not confront head on.
From DNA to Digital
Doubtless, the alluring peril the franchise legend itself recurs to on its surface is that of biotechnology. And there is something especially unnerving in the spectacle of franchise consultant Dr. Jack Horner, the inspiration behind plucky Jurassic Park paleontologist Alan Grant, proudly announcing his current research will produce real dinosaurs in five to ten years. Of course, the specter raised by Jeff Goldblum’s beloved chaos theorist Ian Malcolm—dinosaurs ruling the world, and the T-Rex take the hindmost—pales in comparison to our even sharper biotech fear: eugenics.
At the turn of the millennium, the great political philosopher Jürgen Habermas warned that designer genetics posed an existential threat to liberalism no less than humanity as we know it. Destroying our shared species identity would not just inject fundamental inequality into politics and social life; it would destroy the premise of “natural fate” we must share to experience individual freedom. “The sense of one’s responsibility for one’s own life,” the author Maureen Junker-Kenny sums Habermas up, “is compromised by being able to blame the intrusion of another into the core of one’s physical being—and consequently, of one’s self-understanding.” The ways we find for life, on this account, might prove too perverse or powerful to make it worth the living.
Curiously, however, such bioethical crises as Habermas describes remain somewhere over the horizon, while Habermas is nevertheless in poor cheer. “There’s a cacophony that fills me with despair,” he admits, speaking not only of large auditoriums but, one senses, the whole medium of digital communication. “From the time the printed page was invented, turning everyone into a potential reader, it took centuries until the entire population could read,” he recently told El Pais. “[The] internet is turning us all into potential authors and it’s only a couple of decades old.” For centuries, the sage goes on, “the intellectual has gained in status along with the classical configuration of the liberal public sphere.” But now, that systemic order “depends on implausible social and cultural assumptions,” which Habermas identifies as “a reading population” and a “mass media capable of directing the interest of the majority.”
Habermas is coming to realize that communication, not biology, is the path technology has taken first to overthrow the safety of systematically structured life. And in lacking the slightest clue of what to do about it, he is far from alone. Even Henry Kissinger—another renowned German intellectual of Habermas’s generation, long portrayed as the keenest or most ruthless intellect in the world—is stumped. “The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order,” he observes. “But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.” Rather than an existential threat triggered by living beasts, thinkers as distinct as Kissinger and Habermas suggest, what we face today is a fateful crisis touched off by nonliving bots.
And not at all coincidentally, Jurassic Park was born into the world at the same time as the bots.
A New World Era
In November 1990, it was hard to see what was ahead. Clearly, one world—the 20th century world of mass movements and mass politics—was ending. That month, Margaret Thatcher was out in Britain, and in Poland, Lech Walesa was in. The Soviet Union conducted its final military parade to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution, and the United States joined Canada and 32 European nation-states to make a formal end to the Cold War in Paris. If any great force seemed on the rise, it was a rehearsal of Europe’s bloody history in the Mideast. That month, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq if Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw from Kuwait.
But, quietly, even more momentous and determinative events had begun. In November 1990, the earliest portable digital camera sold in the United States was shipped. And the first known page of the World Wide Web was written. By 1993, when Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park debuted, the new world was here. Wired had launched to proclaim the new gospel, and the Unabomber launched his terrifying reprisals; the Elysium of Myst and the pandemonium of Doom came to PCs everywhere; Mosaic began to mainstream the Web, and the first online ads appeared right on cue. Even Apple’s first handheld device, the personal digital assistant Newton, went to market.
Real as the biotech fears of its time had been, the heart of Jurassic Park is its piercing look into the ersatz promise of harmony through technology that lords over us, not wires into us. This is the power of its complex counsel that life finds a way. Life, on the book’s account, isn’t just strong enough to triumph over death. Paradoxically much more, life is inexorable in overcoming domestication—in the form of the deadening strictures hubristically imposed by those who would elevate entertainment into a master science. This challenging vision, more than anything else, is why we keep gnawing at Jurassic Park’s great dinosaur bone.
Where Imagination Runs Wild
Near the close of the book, John Hammond, the attraction’s visionary creator, is reduced to a chew toy for his pet Tyrannosaur. For all the power of Malcolm’s incantation, for all the directness of his warnings, Hammond couldn’t let go of a concept he felt held even more magic potency. “We set out to make biological attractions,” he reminded Gennaro. “Living attractions. Attractions so astonishing they would capture the imagination of the entire world.”
Today we are getting accustomed to the idea that overweening ambition leavened by untold riches warped the judgment of the utopian visionaries and systems experts who embraced the internet as a superhighway to progress and peace. For Hammond, however, “the ability to see the future,” and “marshal resources to make that vision a reality,” was just half genius. He prided himself above all on the true leap forward made by Jurassic Park—“that great sweeping act of imagination which evoked a marvelous park, where children pressed against the fences, wondering at the extraordinary creatures, come alive from their storybooks.” Here in the future, the sort of imagination aroused by text and even imagery was inadequate, because it wasn’t incarnate. Trapped in fantasy, imagination lay inert. “Real vision” demanded the real thing—real dinosaurs. Only living attractions, Hammond reasoned, could seize the imagination of everyone. And—the key—only the ultimate amusement park could encompass and safely contain both the attractions and the imagination.
Jurassic Park clearly asserts that neither human beings nor the technological machines they employ, no matter how costly or state-of-the-art, can be trusted to make incarnate imagination safe for living human beings. Even as late as just a few years ago, the internet seemed to pose a fundamental challenge to that claim. Here was a truly universal amusement park, and here were we, inside it, one another’s living attractions, limitless in our ability to arouse and embody online one another’s desires and dreams. Sure, the connections were virtual, but we could always—and often did—meet up offline, carrying the amusement into unmediated reality.
By now, however, we have learned better the hard way. From 9/11 to Iraq, from the financial crisis to the shaking of the European Union, from the abortive Arab Spring to the election of Donald Trump, the masters of the global systems of the post-Cold War world have spent the 21st century continually failing to predict, process, and protect against the behavior of us living human organisms. Yet from the standpoint of today’s technologists of social systems, despite so many serial shocks the rise of the internet has trumped them all.
To some degree, the technocratic elite has managed to contain and mitigate the roaring effects of life on its increasingly automated approach to governance, preserving some semblance of amusement-park living for those safely within the walls. But the ultimate institutional failure to make life safe for the living is the internet, which has now shattered the founding illusion of the digital utopians who believed that if they could imagine connecting the world in universal harmony, they could change the world to embody that dream.
If the outcome of the last presidential election was not enough to bring us face to face with the systemic failure of digital life as a worldwide amusement park for declawed and domesticated humans, Facebook alums and emissaries from Jaron Lanier on up to Mark Zuckerberg have embarked in Trump’s wake on an extended—and, one senses, unfinished—apology tour. In fact, on a scale none of our scientists of automated social systems dared imagine, social media keeps on organizing bad content and bad users into a dizzying array of dangerous niches penetrating to the heart of what used to be safely and supremely mainstream culture.
The Death of the Park
So now, we labor under increasing pressure to flood the zone of social media with safely dull and boring content, the better to keep beastly users and content off our platforms and out of our lives. But the no-platforming isn’t working well enough to rewire the internet. We alone, as Ian Malcolm warned us, can’t find a way to control the dangerous spread of offensive life forms into a social world where everyone is his or her own TV channel.
Increasingly, our hope for the right kind of online censors or police is moving beyond the failed human and human-operated machine model condemned by Malcolm—to the promise of putting the right bots in charge. Surely a park run flawlessly by bots, where we overgrown children amuse ourselves to death without fear of disembowelment raptor style, would never encounter the catastrophes that brought down Jurassic Park? In the turn-of-the-millennium dystopias like Super-Cannes, where human life brutally finds a way, J.G. Ballard suggests that even when we become so prosperous and peaceful that the business park succeeds the amusement park, the beast within is always, perhaps especially, ready to pounce.
Like Ballard’s millenarian novels, Jurassic Park’s deep message warns against the way technology encourages us to dwarf human life—if not blot it out altogether—in the shadow of human imagination. It remains to us to consider whether, this time, today’s deepening disenchantment around the dark amusement park of online life augurs a moment of peak imagination and a coming imagination crash. However painful, that experience may well enable us to retrieve renewed human resources for confronting the beast within—restoring to community and to politics a shared love of life at once chastened and all the more vigorous for that.