June 25, 2015, by Andrew Gibson
Jurassic World: Frankenstein for the 21st Century? (Jack Stilgoe)
I was speaking yesterday at the Circling the Square conference in Nottingham and asked to say something about responsible innovation. Here’s the gist of what I said. I’ve been told to issue a SPOILER ALERT!, although I don’t think I’m giving away much of Jurassic World in harvesting its narrative.
Frankenstein is almost 200 years old. It remains the default parable of irresponsible innovation even though it was written in the 1810s, when experiments with electricity and surgery were capturing the imaginations of Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and co. In the early 21st century, hopes and fears swirl around synthetic biology, geoengineering and de-extinction. While scientists stake their claims on various imagined futures, we watch Jurassic World.
In 2012, the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, writing for the Breakthrough Institute, explored the Frankenstein story. Why, he wondered, do we persist in confusing the monster with its creator? Langdon Winner had argued in 1978 that the problem was Hollywood. The many films of Frankenstein switched the villain from the scientist to the monster, stripping the human protagonists of their agency and reinforcing the message that monsters are bad and red lines must not be crossed. Latour argues that monsters are normal (in any case, as the scientist Henry Wu says in Jurassic World, ‘monster is a relative term’). The challenge is to find ways to love our monsters. Responsible innovation is about taking care of science and technology, not cordoning it off from society.
I think Jurassic World offers three important lessons about responsible innovation. The first is about social learning. Jurassic World is one big déjà vu. We wonder why the lessons of the first theme park, whose relics are hidden in the jungle around the giant new resort, have been ignored. We are told that it is different this time. The science has moved on. Gene-splicing technology has become more precise and the behaviour of the animals is understood well enough to allow trainers to hang out in the velociraptor pit.
Whenever a new technology comes along, the public are told that lessons from past examples have been learnt and that any new questions of bioethics, nanoethics, neuroethics etc are being taken seriously. This seems reassuring, but it creates a form of institutional blindness. The technical particulars of the science are rarely the most important thing. Public concerns about science and technology tend to relate to its politics. (It’s worth noting that, in Frankenstein, Shelley says very little about the Dr Frankenstein’s experiments during the story – the scientific context is discussed in the book’s preface).
The second lesson is about containment. Technologies are never as predictable as we pretend they are. Nuclear power stations, genetically modified crops and self-driving cars are not just things. They are so tangled up in social relationships that they are a form of social experiment. We don’t need Jeff Goldblum’s chaos theorist to tell us that dangerous technology cannot be perfectly contained. In Jurassic World, the security has been upped considerably. We have concrete dinosaur prisons and a private army. The dinosaurs all have tracking devices, enabling a computerised panopticon in the control room.
But, as Charles Perrow describes in his seminal book on the Three Mile Island reactor, accidents will happen and the attempt to prevent them through technological means may paradoxically make them more likely. Jurassic World is isolated. It is in effect an island laboratory. Even if the 20,000 guests of the resort are unwitting participants in the experiment, we are reassured that the experiment has limits (notwithstanding the odd pterodactyl and the T-Rex that rampages around California in the second film).
Much innovation cannot so easily be contained, nor does it want to be. In some areas, such as geoengineering, human germline modification and gene drives, a lack of containment is precisely the point. Geoengineering only counts if it takes place at a planetary scale. And gene drives are designed to redraw the DNA of whole populations (of, for example, mosquitos) as they breed uncontrollably. The original Jurassic Park film was made before ‘de-extinction’ had entered our vocabulary. Enthusiasts for real de-extinction are now excited not just by the prospect of seeing a mammoth in a zoo, but also by the idea of recreating ancient ecosystems. Science will work to understand and contain risks, but we should not kid ourselves. Uncertainties will always remain.
The final lesson is about the politics of science. It is easy to forget that the key to Jurassic Park’s downfall was old-fashioned personal greed. The dreams of a philanthropreneur, imagined as naïve but pure, were undone by an employee’s plan to steal genetic secrets. In Jurassic World, another billionaire with no wish other than to create joy has unwittingly employed a man who wants to weaponise velociraptors. The lesson for responsible innovation is that we should not ignore the connections between science, profit and power. But we should also question what science is for. Adam Smith (also at the Circling the Square conference) argues in Research Fortnight today that Jurassic World reflects society’s concerns about corporatisation. But neither the film nor scientific institutions are willing to take political questions to the heart of science itself. Smith argues that films provide something approaching a complete picture of public concerns about technology, making public dialogue redundant. As a supporter of public dialogue (full disclosure – I’m a member of the Government’s Sciencewise panel), I would say that dialogue involves more than extracting public opinion. It also invites scientists to consider afresh their responsibilities.
In Jurassic World, Wu offers a scoundrel’s get-out: ‘If I don’t innovate, someone else will’. Thankfully, science doesn’t work that way. Scientists and society both have choices about the futures they create.
Coda: The film has already made a billion dollars at the box office, bringing to mind a book by techno-optimist Chris Anderson. Watching the infancy of Web 2.0, Anderson reasoned that our ability, through Web technologies, to search through a ‘Long Tail’ of possibilities would lead to the imminent ‘death of the blockbuster’. Jurassic World and the rest would seem that the blockbuster was alive and well, not least because people don’t behave as technologists would like them to. Like velociraptors, we like hunting in packs. Perhaps this is another cautionary tale of the dangers of technological determinism.
This article was originally published in The Guardian here.