Death has no sense of timing, but it sometimes leaves traces of irony. The day Americans were electing an energetic and articulate senator from Chicago as their next president, one of Chicago’s most celebrated citizens lost his battle with cancer.
Michael Crichton, who died on 4 November 2008, was trained as a medical doctor but played several roles in the creative arts world. He was a prolific author of science fiction and medical fiction, whose books have sold over 150 million copies worldwide. He also produced and directed techno-thriller movies, and was the creator of the highly successful medical drama series on television, ER (Emergency Room), now in its 15th season.
In the domain of popular culture, Crichton was best known for writing Jurassic Park (1990). This cautionary tale on unrestrained biological tinkering was turned into a blockbuster movie by Steven Spielberg in 1993. It became the highest earning film up until that time.
Before and since, Crichton used his technical training, vivid imagination and mastery of English to spin some of the most enjoyable – and scary – stories that often depicted scientific advancements going awry, resulting in the worst-case scenarios. A notable recurring theme in Crichton’s plots is the pathological failure of complex systems and their safeguards, whether biological (Jurassic Park), military/organizational (The Andromeda Strain), technical (Airframe) or cybernetic (Westworld).
Crichton was also a talented essayist who wrote perceptive pieces of non-fiction about science, society and culture – including the role of media. It is one such essay that I would like to recall in his memory.
The media world was very different when, in 1993, Crichton riled the news business with an essay titled “Mediasaurus“. In this essay, written for the newly launched Wired magazine, he prophesied the death of the mass media — specifically the New York Times and the American commercial TV networks.
“To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace,” he wrote.
Building on his credentials as the author of a best-seller on dinosaurs, Crichton called this endangered beast ‘mediasaurus’.He added: “There has been evidence of impending extinction for a long time. We all know statistics about the decline in newspaper readers and network television viewers. The polls show increasingly negative public attitudes toward the press – and with good reason.”
He talked about technological advances — “artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page” — that would drive the mediasaurus to their inevitable doom.
Only those nimble, adaptable media products would survive, he said, noting that CNN and C-SPAN were steps in the right direction, giving viewers direct access to events as they happen.
But he had no sympathy for the media. “The media are an industry, and their product is information. And along with many other American industries, the American media produce a product of very poor quality. Its information is not reliable, it has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy but it’s basically junk. So people have begun to stop buying it.”
Like most people who dabble in the imperfect art of foreseeing the future, Crichton got the trend right but the timing somewhat wrong. The mainstream media (MSM) were indeed on the decline but not at the dramatic rate that he envisaged.
In February 2002, Jack Shafer wrote a piece in the online magazine Slate titled “Who You Calling Mediasaurus?” Its subtitle was: “The New York Times dodges Michael Crichton’s death sentence”. It asked and tried an answer the question: Where did Crichton go wrong?
Shafer wrote: “Fables of the near future have a way of never materializing, whether they be fevered dreams of nuclear energy too cheap to meter or fossil fuels too expensive to burn. To be fair, Crichton wasn’t the only one to get puking drunk on the new media moonshine. Many of us spent a lost weekend—sometimes months—in a stupor after reading early issues of Wired. But instead of blotting out conventional media, the emerging Infotopia seems only to have made the conventional media more ubiquitous.”
Shafer asked: “Who would have predicted in 1993 that America’s great dailies (minus the Wall Street Journal) and the news networks would dodge both extinction and irrelevance by erecting Web sites overnight and giving their content away? That they would use their Web sites to keep us informed 24-hours-a-day in a way that we take for granted today but that would have astonished us nine years ago?”
In an email interview with Shafer at the time, Crichton acknowledged his own limitations: “I don’t have a lot invested in whether my predictions are right or wrong; I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I’m wrong, it’s just too early.”
In that interview, Crichton said he wished he had foreseen “the effect of big media conglomerates combined with the universal decision to make news into entertainment. It’s all headlines and chat now. Factual content is way down, accuracy has vanished (it’s not even a goal any longer), and public confidence in media is at an astonishing low. Not surprisingly, audiences are shrinking.”
Crichton admitted at the time that the personalized ‘infotopia’ he envisioned in 1993 had yet to arrive. He scoffed at the Web for being too slow. “Its page metaphor, too limiting. Design, awful. Excessive hypertexting, too distracting. Noise-to-signal ratio, too high.”Now fast-forward to May 2008. The same Jack Shafer, once again writing in Slate, published a piece titled “Michael Crichton, Vindicated”. It was introduced as: “His 1993 prediction of mass-media extinction now looks on target”.
In this essay, Shafer wrote: “As we pass his prediction’s 15-year anniversary, I’ve got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It’s gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren’t going extinct tomorrow, Crichton’s original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist.”
Read Jack Shafer’s full interview with Michael Crichton in Slate, May 2008
Crichton suggested that readers and viewers could more objectively measure the quality of the news they consume by pulling themselves “out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news.” Look at a newspaper from last month or a news broadcast.
“Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen,” he said. “Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content.”
He summed it up with something we already know: “The biggest change is that contemporary media has shifted from fact to opinion and speculation.”
It was interesting to note how mainstream media outlets paid tributes to Crichton this week. He was remembered for the entertaining story teller he truly was, and some even questioned his mixed legacy, for example being an ardent skeptic of global warming – thus batting for the fossil fuel cartels even if only inadvertently.
But I could find few references to his perceptive critique of the mass media.
Who says media likes to turn the spotlight on itself?
PS: I was intrigued to see The New York Times’ reasonably benign obit on the author who predicted their demise. Here’s a collection of Times commentary on him – and some op eds he wrote for them.