PRINT October 1993

Media Kids

Jurassic Park

Data multiplies. More data is pouring out of more terminals all the time. Nobody can read it all—we need machines to sift through the data, to funnel it to us, to provide us with some kind of eye in the datastorm. We are data rich: we have 500 channels, news channels, CD-ROMs, camcorders, Court TV, the Internet, infotainment, E-mail, fax modems, MTV, the FOIA, and a Genome Project. Data proliferates; it replicates. The paper-less office generates more paper. My own data is on hard drives, hard copies, floppies, and Post-it Notes. I print rough drafts, first drafts, final drafts. We want all this data. Data, after all, is synonymous with knowledge, which, we suspect, is related to power. Democratic computing empowers; data is power, but there’s more data than we can handle. It’s a blizzard of data, an ocean of data, a cosmos of data. It’s what Jean Baudrillard called cyberblitz, and it’s spilling out all over the place.

Be wary of Videodrome, somebody says in the film; “It bites.” Bytes and gigabytes.

Virtual reality makes data palpable, tangible. Data becomes an environment. We can move through it, within it; we negotiate it. We swim in the data-rich seas. Once again, we are the masters of information. The data can be manipulated. Data is good. Data is our friend. Data is the friendly android on Star Trek. But VR isn’t the only virtual reality out there—theme parks, television, and cinema are all virtual realities. Which brings us, somehow, to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Like virtual reality, Jurassic Park’s Jurassic Park is founded upon the management of information to create an elaborately simulated environment. The film presents cloning dinosaurs as a simple problem of programming. As Mr. DNA explains in an explanatory cartoon (shades of Woody Woodpecker explicating rocketry in Destination Moon), genetic material is encoded ’information. A complete chromosomal record can be used as a blueprint for generating new creatures. Data makes it possible to simulate nature, or perhaps to improve on it—to morph it.

By shifting the saurian genesis to the manipulations of human scientists, Jurassic Park distinguishes itself from other dinosaur movies, indeed displaces the significance of nature itself. Otherwise it has much in common with the genre. In dinosaur films the dinosaurs are generally discovered in a lost natural world, atop a volcanic mountain, say, or in an unexplored jungle. A primitive beast will find itself relocated to civilized terrain, and inevitably will run amok there, like the unfortunate brachiosaur displaced to London in The Lost World, or the tyrannosaurus who ends up at a Wild West show in the amusing Valley of Gwangi, or, of course, King Kong, in his brief engagement in Depression-era Manhattan. Jurassic Park, similarly, has a tropical-island setting, and though it seldom leaves this locale, its climactic battle must end at the park’s bastion of civilization, the Visitor’s Center (and do we suspect that the little critters might reach the mainland in a sequel?). There is something uncanny about the trope: the rationalist spaces of civilization are invaded by the rampant, rabid horrors of an unleashed id (der Esse, the it), which has crawled up from 20,000 fathoms or awakened from lts sleep in the wastes of Antarctica or emerged from a primordial jungle. That the attack is usually a response to the actions of civilized humans makes the cautionary aspect more evident: the message is not to “watch the skies,” as The Thing would have it, but rather to watch our selves.

The assault on a contemporary urban space by a prehistoric animal presents a simultaneous conflation of past with nature and of present with culture. Temporality is spatialized: the lost world becomes a faraway place, rather than an utterly unreachable time. And nature, rarely vengeful, is personified by a befuddled “monster” who, when all is said and done, really just wants to go home. The traditional “lost world” conflict, then, is rooted in a radical separation of nature and culture.

But the separation of nature and culture is a fallacy, underlying ecology movements and Exxon refineries alike. “Humans and nature construct one another,” Alexander Wilson writes. “Ignoring that fact obscures the one way out of the current environmental crisis—a living within and alongside of nature without dominating it.”1 The current obsession with this crisis (Save the planet, dude) has generated a tremendous interest in representations of natural environments, but in heavily mediated ways that obscure the dialectical relation to which Wilson refers. “Nature” and “culture” become reified as ahistorical essences. If nature has made a spectacular return, perhaps we ought to say that it has made its return as spectacle.

The spectacle of nature is nothing new; American painters enshrined its pristine majesty in the 19th century, even as railroads, lumber mills, and urban expansion were leaving visible scars upon the landscape. At the same time, lectures, museums, zoos, and other exhibitions, all redolent of the colonialist enterprise, were presented to a population increasingly isolated from that natural world. Photojournalism, the cinema, and, later, television became important conduits for images of nature’s utopian abundance. What was being lost through expansionism and ecological mismanagement was always being documented.

The same impulse to preserve through a process of imaging is found in a range of contemporary hypercinematic entertainments. Theme parks and simulated safaris provide environments engineered to the perfections of the ersatz (Jurassic Park takes place in such a theme park). A wave of giant-screen spectaculars in the nation’s IMAX and Showscan cinemas—films like The Blue Planet—implore “us” to join together to conserve precious resources.2 What is most worrisome about these hyperreal spectaculars is their quality: how can nature compete with Omnimax? No need to worry—the rainforest may be gone, but the films remain in their hyperbolic glory. In the name of environmental education, nature has been superseded by its own, new and improved, digitally enhanced, reconfigured, morphed-to-the-max image. David Sternbach cites a camera advertisement in National Geographic that “recommends saving endangered species by taking their pictures.” Emily Prager, reporting on home-shopping networks, finds the same consumerist/conservationist impulse in full swing: “‘I got the animal magnets,’ says Mary from Michigan. ‘I’m collecting these animals we’re killing off like mad. I got the Panther. It says there are only 50 left in the world.’”3

“Everywhere animals disappear,” John Berger writes.4 But, filmed, catalogued, and turned into animal magnets, they only disappear from nature. They remain in the cultural data banks, ready to return as needed. Jurassic Park literalizes the metaphor through the narrative device of cloning. No cloning actually occurred on the set, but Spielberg did rely heavily on computers, and on massive databases of anatomies, movements, reflectivities, behaviors, and environments. From this compendium, dinosaurs were constructed, tested for viability, and brought to life within the fictive confines of Jurassic Park.

The narrative, of course, emphasizes the fundamental immorality of all this environmental simulation. “Nature wants to break free,” the chaos scientist proclaims, and he’s usually right. Yet just as Star Wars deployed filmic technologies to tell us to distrust technology, Jurassic Park wants us to groove on, yield to, its illusion of nature. As Spielberg guides our response through his familiar, endless close-ups of characters staring upward and offscreen (downward, in Jaws), wonky attitudes of wonder/fear/confusion/joy etched on their faces, we are, in effect, ordered to marvel at the marvelous, and to wonder at the power of a technology that can usurp nature.

The technology used to create Jurassic Park intersects with the emergent field of artificial life (or “a-life”), which models the complex behaviors of biologically based organisms (or communities) within computerized or robotic environments. In 1987, Craig Reynolds succeeded in modeling flocking behavior with a simple set of rules applied to a community of “boids.”5 Jurassic Park’s herd of stampeding gallimimuses was derived from such research. A-life, not cloning, was the enabling technology behind the film.

In most dinosaur movies the animals are discovered in their once-lost worlds, and the separated forces of nature and technology are subsequently opposed in physical combat. What makes Jurassic Park unique, as well as uniquely disturbing, is that the dinosaurs are manmade. Having procured the data, nature is no longer necessary. Nature, once a separate realm of both Arcadian projection and repressed anxiety, has now disappeared entirely. In Jurassic Park, nature is toothless while data is made flesh. Be careful—it bites.

Scott Bukatman is the author of Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, recently published by Duke University Press.



1. Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p. 13.

2. Susan Davis, writing about Sea World, has noted “a vaguely defined ‘we’ [that] joins the public to corporate interests.” David Sternbach sees the same process at work in corporate-funded IMAX films. See Sternbach, “Blue Planet, Green Dollars” Artforum 29 no. 8, April 1991, p. 18.

3. Emily Prager, “A Home Shopping Trip,” in the “Style” section of the New York Times, 22 August 1993, p. 8.

4. John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?,” About Looking, New York: Vintage International, 1980, p. 26. Berger is discussing the ontological implications of the gaze that we direct toward the simultaneously alien and familiar figures of animals at zoos, museums, and the like. See also Donna Haraway’s “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” essay (in her Primate Visions, New York and London: Routledge, 1989, pp. 6–58), Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Zoo, 1993, and Bill Viola’s video work I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, 1986.

5. See Steven Levy’s excellent Artificial Life: A Report from the Frontier Where Computers Meet Biology, New York: Vintage, 1992, pp. 74–83.