Michael Crichton, my favorite childhood author, has died. He is survived by his fans’ love (and blood relatives, I suppose). I’ll never forget the postulated intelligent bacteria in “Sphere,” caught in a human machine, which it concludes is a test meant for itself. And no, I’ll never forget the bit in “Next” where he fictionalizes one of his critics then makes him a gay baby-pedophile with a micropenis. You weren’t always easy to love, Crichton; you took unpopular scientific positions and had odd tastes, but you made me strong with wonder. Anyone who’s had a dinosaur named after them (Crichtonsaurus) has done good in my book. Resquiscat in pace, artifex celebrus.
In the course of looking up his many writings, I came across a remarkably prescient speech Crichton wrote in 1993 entitled “Mediasaurus.” In it he criticizes what we would now call “Old Media,” and predicts its downfall to the internet. It contains this charmingly dated yet quite correct analysis of modern media:
Once Al Gore gets the fiber optic highways in place, and the information capacity of the country is where it ought to be, I will be able, for example, to view any public meeting of Congress over the Net. And I will have artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show, that addresses my interests. I’ll have the twelve top stories that I want, I’ll have short summaries available, and I’ll be able to double-click for more detail. How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that?
His perception was, by and large, that big media companies had devolved so much they could never survive the coming revolution. He predicted they had ten years left, max. Politically, he always seemed the intelligent, thoughtful, and informed contrarian—an endearingly rare combination. That quality seemed centered on his insights into how uncivil American culture, and by extension the media, had become. But he was inextricably a part of that media. He never tried to escape it. Quoted from a follow-up interview 15 years later:
The truth is, we live in an age of astonishing conformity. I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly the heyday of conformity, but there was much more freedom of opinion back then. And as a result, you knew that your neighbors might hold different views from you on politics or religion. Today, the notion that men of good will can disagree has disappeared. Can you imagine! Today, if I disagree with you, you conclude there is something wrong with me. This is a childish, parochial view. And of course stupefyingly intolerant. It’s truly anti-American. Much of it can be laid at the feet of the environmental movement, which has unfortunately frequently been led by ill-educated and intolerant spokespersons—often with no more than a high-school education, sometimes not even that. Or they are lawyers trained to win at any cost and to say anything about their opponents to win. But you find the same intolerant tone around considerations of defense, taxation, free markets, universal medical care, and so on. There’s plenty of zealotry to go around.
Now, did you catch that? The careful contrarian will always be willing, even eager to perpetrate paradoxical (yet valid) criticism. And I respect him for both calling out boogiemen and acting as a boogieman at times. I respect that he was so intelligent that he recognized the necessity for it. Or maybe I love that he was smart enough to understand it yet dumb enough to do it himself. No one should be too perfect.
He was good at a kind of writing that sells books and makes entertaining movies—that can’t be underestimated and will surely be remembered. However, I’m sure many will remember him for the contrarianism. Maybe that’s what’s needed or maybe not. But I, I will remember him for the gift of imagination (quite literally). The following passage in Sphere was one of the most illuminating things I read in my young life. I think you’ll understand why:
On your planet you have an animal called a bear. It is a large animal, sometimes larger than you, and it is clever and has ingenuity, and it has a brain as large as yours. But the bear differs from you in one important way. It cannot perform the activity you call imagining. It cannot make mental images of how reality might be. It cannot envision what you call the past and what you call the future. This special ability of imagination is what has made your species as great as it is. Nothing else. It is not your ape nature, not your tool-using nature, not language or your violence or your caring for young or your social groupings. It is none of these things, which are all found in other animals. Your greatness lies in imagination.
The ability to imagine is the largest part of what you call intelligence. You think the ability to imagine is merely a useful step on the way to solving a problem or making something happen. But imagining it is what makes it happen.
This is the gift of your species and this is the danger, because you do not choose to control your imaginings. You imagine wonderful things and you imagine terrible things, and you take no responsibility for the choice. You say you have inside you both the power of good and the power of evil, the angel and the devil, but in truth you have just one thing inside you—the ability to imagine.