Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.
– Ian Malcolm
Recently, I was reminded of a movie I watched quite a few times during my childhood, and that made quite an impression on me – indeed, on a whole generation of people – back in the day. Jurassic Park is one of the most successful movies of all time, setting the record for the highest grossing movie ever, until Titanic surpassed it in 1997. Though the movie is excellent, the core message behind Jurassic Park isn’t exactly subtle; Jeff Goldblum’s character, the chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, goes on several rants to lay out his and the movie’s point in great detail. That point is not actually a skepticism of technology, but rather a celebration of the natural world, summed up in the phrase ”life finds a way”. When matched against human reason, life wins. When pitted against human technology, life wins. It is the foolishness of thinking to master the natural world that is the core message, rather than the inherent brittleness in technological systems.
This distinction might seem academic, but it is in fact quite important to keep in mind. Jurassic Park was made in 1993, which was a time still suffused with optimism about technology. In one scene, the nerdy teenage girl manages to save the party of survivors from the encroaching dinosaurs by operating the UNIX OS the various park systems run on; if anything, the computer wizardry in the face of danger becomes a sort of metaphor for human ingenuity. The dinosaurs have claws and agility and killer instinct, and that is all well and good and worthy of respect; the humans have computers and smarts, and so they should live as equals rather than think to look down on the dinosaurs, who are just as much a part of the natural world as them.
Again, 1993 was a technologically optimistic time. In Jurassic Park, technology fails, but this is mostly rationalized as technology having picked a fight it just shouldn’t have picked. Nearly thirty years later, however, it is quite hard to watch that movie without noticing just how much technology – or perhaps more specifically, idiotic and needless complexity – really causes all of the problems in the movie, while the dinosaurs are in fact merely dumb animals, opportunistically taking advantage of the blithe lack of understanding on the part of the operators of the park. In that way, Jurassic Park might be a sort of confirmation of at least a variant of the ”monkey with a typewriter” thesis; if you make enough movies randomly about totally unrelated subjects, at least one of them will accidentally just end becoming an incredibly prescient critique of the contemporary economy without ever intending to. Indeed, America is today locked into a logistical crisis that its rulers seem to barely even be aware of, nevermind actually understand, and it closely mirrors the plot of this decades-old classic. In 2021, Jurassic Park seems less of a celebration of dinosaur life than a not-very-subtle parody of the stupidity and obliviousness of the current American elite. This might seem like a bit of a stretch to the reader at first blush, but if you actually recall what happens in the movie, you are likely to see some fairly eerie parallels to today.
To recap the story of Jurassic Park, a genetics company manages to clone dinosaurs from blood encased in amber with the aim of creating a theme park with dinosaurs. However, after a velociraptor escapes containment and kills a handler, the investors funding the park send a lawyer to investigate the park’s safety (the park in fact turns out to be spectacularly, almost comically unsafe, as he soon discovers!). The visionary owner of the park, John Hammond, decides to take the opportunity to bring along a small group of other people on this trip, including a paleontologist, a paleobiologist, the aforementioned Ian Malcolm, and two of Hammond’s grandchildren. They are supposed to have a fun outing, see the park before it opens to the public, and not get eaten by dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the last part turns out to be a lot more tricky than anyone expected.
As it happens, there is also a saboteur at the park, namely the contractor hired to debug the park’s state-of-the-art computer systems, one Dennis Nedry. Nedry is actually tasked by a rival company with stealing the DNA samples of the cloned dinosaurs from the lab in the main building of the park. It when we consider how Nedry does this, and the fact that his attempts at industrial espionage essentially trigger the entirety of the crisis that nearly kills everyone in the cast, that we see some fairly humorous similarities to today. As it happens, Jurassic Park is meant to use its advanced computer systems in order to more or less eliminate the human element (where have we heard that before?) Instead of security guards, Jurassic Park just uses cameras and electronic surveillance. The cars used in the park tours aren’t meant to have human drivers or tour guides; they are a very early form of the self-driving car (this predictably causes a lot of problems), because that is obviously more efficient than having an actual human being giving the visitors their tour and answering any questions that the visitors may have.
There is a catchphrase that is repeated by Hammond at several points in the movie, that he ”spared no expense”. At first, this is said enthusiastically as the visitors ooh and aah at all the fancy automated systems. By the end of the movie, the phrase is said in a solemn, self-deprecating tone, as his guests are eating rapidly melting ice cream against a backdrop where the electrical systems have failed and several members of the cast have been murdered and eaten by the prowling dinosaurs. It’s actually quite humorous to think about what Hammond ”sparing no expense” actually means in context; in reality, it simply means that Hammond put no limit on the amount of money he spent on fancy automated systems (who then all fail), in order to then ludicrously underspend on all human elements involved in the actual running of the park. The hyper-complex Jurassic Park is thus very similar to the logistics system that underpins the American economy, and as it turns out, both these systems made a point out of relying on extremely complex solutions in order to employ as few people and have as little redundancy as possible.
In fact, the only reason that two-legged humans even get added to the lunch counter menu at Jurassic Park is because the park turns out to be built with the capability of being run nearly automatically, while also being extremely susceptible to the same thing that is currently wrecking the global logistical system: a phenomenon that in systems theory is called a ”cascading failure”. A failure cascade occurs when you have a system with interdependent nodes, and where the failure in one node causes malfunctions and failures to spread to other nodes, who then in turn spread that failure further. What makes failure cascades so dangerous is that the speed at which nodes fail increases exponentially due to the way the system is set up; as such, a problem in a single node can probably be repaired faster than the rate at which that problem will cause neighboring nodes to fail. Once several nodes go into the red, however, the system becomes, for all intents and purposes, unsalvageable. Any attempts to repair the parts of the system that stop working will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer speed at which failures multiply, and so the only way to fix such a system is to ”reboot it”; that is, remove enough components from it that its parts stops breaking faster than you can repair it.
Funnily enough, this is quite literally the main plot device of Jurassic park. Because the park is meant to run with as few people as humanly possible, substituting automation for workers, it all runs on an all-encompassing, tightly-interconnected, exceedingly complex computer system. Though Hammond may have ”spared no expense” in many areas, he turns out to be incredibly stingy when it comes to hiring programmers; in fact, the villain of the movie, Dennis Nedry, strongly implies that Hammond only hired Nedry because he was the one that made the cheapest offer. Nedry, the unscrupulous and greedy winner of this race to the bottom in quality control, now having access to the code base, introduces code to the park’s systems that will allow him to shut down certain parts of it – namely, the security cameras in the main building, and the door locks between him and the place where dinosaur DNA is stored. Thus his plan is quite simple: disable the cameras and open the door locks, steal the DNA samples while nobody’s looking, and make his getaway.
Nedry does in fact not plan to get eaten by a dinosaur. The reason he nevertheless ends up as dinner for one of the park’s many overgrown lizards is purely down to how idiotically the computer system is designed. Specifically, his attempts to shut down the security cameras work just fine, but then start causing shutdowns in completely unrelated systems; most importantly, the electrical fences that keep the dinosaurs from running wild. In trying to shut down a small part of the park’s functions, Nedry causes the entire system to freeze up and start acting unpredictably. With the computer system now unsalvageable, the only recourse left for the protagonists is to shut everything down. The only way to get door locks, cameras, or fences to work again is to turn off all of the power to the entire park, and then slowly fix every individual system by hand. Of course, as they shut down all of the electricity to all of Jurassic park in order to laboriously reboot the broken computer system, the velociraptors and T-Rex quickly escape and start murdering people left and right.
There’s at least two levels at which this is a fairly accurate metaphor for where the US is today in regards to its broken logistics system. One level is practical: the response to the Covid-19 pandemic was more or less the equivalent to Nedry’s malicious backdoor. In trying to shut down only parts of the extremely complex, interconnected economy, US politicians introduced a cascading series of failures and second-order effects that are now essentially playing haywire on the entirety of that economy, and that aren’t expected – or even likely – to be fixed anytime soon.
In the case of Jurassic park, a solution that would quite literally have prevented all of the deaths in the movie (with the exception of the unfortunate dinosaur handler at the start) would have been to just make the cameras and the door locks not be dependent on the same system that manages the incredibly vital function of making sure the electrified fences have electricity. In fact, the only reason you would possibly build a system where electrical fences stop working if the security cameras shut down is if you – in opposition to Hammond’s oft-repeated catchphrase – wanted to save a lot of money by removing redundancy.
In a similar fashion, the American ”just in time” logistics system has been built around every single part of it being there, unsurprisingly, just in time. If any point of the chain breaks (such as there being containers but no ships, ships but no longshoremen, longshoremen but no truckers, truckers but no truck frames, truck frames but no trucks, trucks but no trains, and so on) the entire system quickly starts failing, like a human body starved of oxygen. If there’s not enough longshoremen in Long Beach, California, the ability of truck manufacturers to make spare parts for trucks will quickly disappear; without spare parts for trucks, the ability to actually unload container ships will rapidly start to dwindle into nothing as the storage space gets filled up. As such, a rolling wave of shortages and blockages are currently playing havoc on many completely unrelated parts of the economy; farmers can’t get spare parts to run their farming equipment. Fast food chains in Florida can’t get potatoes in order to make french fries. Usually, the individual problem or shortage can be fixed, but not before this failure has had time to create several second-order effects, who can then also be fixed, but not before they spread the contagion further.
In both cases, the point of all of this complexity and interdependence is to save money, and in both cases, the only solution once the cascade accumulates enough speed is the system reboot. Unfortunately, in the case of the logistical system, all of that complexity existed not just to save money for some wealthy industrialist like John Hammond, but also to make the consumer goods ordinary Americans depend on cheap enough to be affordable for them, in an economy that has been increasingly deskilled and deindustrialized. Much like the proletarians of Rome, whose ancestors got pushed out of farming as land magnates gobbled up all the land on the Italian peninsula, many Americans today depends on regular shipments of tribute coming in from foreign shores to sustain their own lives. Rome had northern Africa; America, more problematically, has an increasingly hostile China (the Romans, for all their mistakes, never thought to make themselves dependent on the Parthians for their grain!)
Given the dynamics of a failure cascade, the current system quite simply cannot be restored to 2019 levels of functionality by the simple means of fixing problems as they crop up. At best, you can hope to dismantle parts of this system, reducing its level of complexity until it stops throwing up cascading errors faster than you can solve them. After that, you can start to slowly add complexity back again (though you will, naturally, be just as susceptible to another failure cascade if you do so!) This is far from some airy theoretical point, by the way: what this means in plain english is that if you were somehow reliant on this logistical system (which you, in order to even read this, must be by definition), then the reduction in complexity means that you are going to get poorer. For society’s elites, this decrease in purchasing power will likely be a nuisance at worst. For the people struggling to make ends meet, this logistics crisis will mean significantly higher prices and worsened economic prospects, with no real end date in sight at this point.
This is not a small thing. Keep in mind that 2019, for many Americans and Europeans both, was hardly some mythical year of overflowing milk and honey. But returning to even those not-so-halcyon days of purely ordinary stagnation and economic malaise is now more or less impossible for the foreseeable future. ”Reducing complexity” can thus be understood as permanently destroying economic capacity upon which a lot of people depend just to make ends meet. And while things like onshoring might eventually bring some measure of prosperity back to the pocketbooks of ordinary people, it’s not at all guaranteed to do so, and it is quite impossible for this to happen quickly enough to avoid a lot of pain. Anyway, the question of who will bear the costs of this growing systemic failure is not a technical question but a political one, and the political elites that have caused this crisis are very unlikely to do anything but demand that its victims now shoulder all of the burdens of a catastrophe they had no hand in creating and in fact opposed from the start.
The second level at which Jurassic Park is truly a movie that sums up the current moment is the fact that the dinosaurs do indeed escape their containment and start eating the lawyers. I mean this quite seriously, and not as some sort of witty metaphor. The single most dangerous period for a political system is when it has ignored a looming crisis for years and decades, and then finally, backs snugly perched against a wall that cannot be moved, tries to apply wide-reaching reforms. By all indications available to us at this point, this current crisis for the American economy is as good an example of this dynamic as you are ever likely to find in history; worthy of sitting next to the French monarchy’s multi-decade financial mismanagement that eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the Crown and the calling of the Estates General. In both cases, the elites knew for decades about the problem, but simply chose not to do anything until it became impossible to go on. At that point, with all of its reserves of political capital, legitimacy and loyalty from the subjects exhausted, a regime that tries to fix the mess it has caused is actually quite likely to simply seize up and then fail in a fairly dramatic fashion.
Do keep in mind: there is actually nothing romantic about revolution in actual practice. One only idealizes them in short spurts, or with the benefit of historical or geographical distance. Anyone who doubts this should think a second about the very real revolution that took place in Ukraine in 2013. Do you wish you could have been a part of that? What about living in Ukraine in 2021, dealing with the consequences of that revolution, which includes a long-running economic crisis, not to mention a fairly bloody civil war? I point this out for the simple reason that it is far too common today to see these things through the lens of wishful thinking. In this way, whether a revolution or upheaval is coming comes down to some sort of individualized optimism or pessimism, where the ”optimists” think one is coming and the ”pessimists” caution against such supposedly ”high hopes”. In reality, these things happen because the conditions for them to happen exist. It’s not a matter of Santa either bringing presents or coal for christmas; wishes and hopes should simply not be a part of the calculus at all when discussing them.
With those caveats out of the way, the American elite today resemble the naive John Hammond, without any of his redeeming charm. Just as Hammond, they ”spared no expense” in setting up a system they barely understood and that was made to fail and not be recoverable. Just as John Hammond, they now have to laboriously try to reform their increasingly broken economy, at a point where that reform de facto means making a lot of Americans much, much poorer than they were previously, for what is likely to be quite a significant amount of time.
If the supply crisis really was limited to the world that consumers see when they get to the supermarkets, this problem would be noticeable but not particularly threatening as these things go. If ordinary consumers simply had to deal with weeks of cornflakes being absent from the shelves, with granola being the only breakfast alternative on offer, the 2020’s would likely go down as a golden age of Soviet-style jokes about going to the store. Unfortunately, farmers cannot do what consumers can – they can’t deal with the fact that there are no more wheels for their combines by ordering a few extra wheels for their wheelbarrows. The real crisis of the American economy is currently spreading silently like a malignant cancer underneath the surface, and it is only briefly glanced in media headlines. It will not be solved for years, and it will continue to spread chaos all the while.
That crisis is truly a regime-level problem, just as the bankruptcy of the French monarchy was in its day. And before that crisis is solved, the electrified fences keeping the dinosaurs docile and contained are very likely to fail. Whether the American elites can survive the rest of the movie (with a few lawyers getting eaten on the way, presumably) and make it to that helicopter at the end is anyone’s guess. But our movie has in fact barely even begun, nor have the elites started to grapple with the depth of the problem facing them; there will be many twists and turns and moments of danger in the years ahead before anyone can truly breathe a sigh of relief.
Welcome to Jurassic Park!