I’ve been thinking about “Forbidden Planet”, the classic science fiction film from 1956. It was a proto-Star Trek based loosely on “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare. Although I think 60 years is well past the statute of limitations for spoilers, I warn you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen it and hate spoilers and plan to maybe see it someday.
In the film Leslie Nielson, as proto-Captain Kirk, lands on the forbidden planet to investigate the fate of an expedition that hadn’t been heard from in 20 years. He finds that the entire expedition has been killed, except for the brilliant Dr. Morbius and his hot teenage daughter Altaira. Then the crew of the proto-Enterprise starts getting killed by an invisible monster.
The big sci-fi reveal of the movie is that the planet used to be inhabited by a race called the Krell who were much smarter than humans and accidentally killed their entire race in a single night 200,000 years previous to the events in the film. Turns out they had created an amazing machine that linked all their minds in a planetary network in such a way that whatever they thought of would be transformed into material reality. It wasn't explained in detail but I assume it worked like “I want a milkshake”; poof a perfect milkshake appears. “I want a robot”; poof a functioning robot appears. The machine had a tremendous nuclear power supply (matter and energy are the same thing but it takes a lot of energy to make a little matter) and was still operational.
What destroyed the Krell was “creatures from the id”! “The id” was a Freudian concept and Freudianism was a form of pseudoscientific quackery that was in fashion in the mid 20th century when the film was made. Essentially, the Krell were super intelligent yet they still had horrible base thoughts, evil thoughts, violent thought, petty conflicts, and dark impulses, which would be picked up by the amazing machine and made physical in the same way as conscious needs and desires . This resulted in monsters, of almost limitless power, which then killed the Krell...every last one.
At the time the movie was made I don’t think there was a good real-world analog to the Krell machine. The lesson of the movie was more abstract- even though we think of ourselves as creatures of reason we are not. Any technology created with good intentions could easily, ultimately, destroy us because...well...we suck and there is nothing can be done about that.
Given that it was the 1950s it is likely that the writers had atomic weapons in mind; or maybe all applications of nuclear power. Or maybe it was just a vague warning about technology in general.
It occurred to me that since then we have actually built a Krell machine and we call it “The Internet”. True, it can’t yet create physical monsters, but it is going to destroy us just the same. It has two features which support and accelerate each other: It spreads knowledge and it facilitates discussion. That’s all it takes to make us murder our civilization.
With the internet anyone can publish anything and assert and/or attempt to demonstrate that anything is true. Everyone can have his own opinions, facts, and religious zeal.
With social media everyone can have discussions with anyone, anywhere, anytime and without the normal human connection that physical presence provides.
The first few years of the internet were swell, and we came to depend on it. But there is an interesting phenomenon which repeats with just about every successful internet application. They start out pure and good and slowly become cesspools of graft, hate and despair. Consider eBay. In the early days, eBay allowed regular people to sell used stuff. When it was new, people asked “how can I trust strangers on the internet?” and the answer turned out to be “because early adopters are guileless good hearted nerds”. So people would take a chance and buy something and be amazed by how much better the deal was than they expected. Or if they didn’t like what they received, they were amazed by how easy it was to undo because everyone cared about his reputation. And we assumed this would last forever. People are good. The internet is a community of the superego of society!
It didn’t last. That success, the wiff of easy dough, attracted worse and worse people. It attracted people who developed systems to maximize their extraction of money from others, sometimes scrupulously, sometimes less so. If their reputations suffered they might start again with new identities. They started selling counterfeits. They gamed search results.These days you can still buy things on eBay, but you need to be careful. You can’t escape society’s id.
It seems every new generation of users needs to learn or ignore this lesson for itself. In the early days I frequented the forum at “Joel on Software”. Joel Spolsky had a wonderful audience of nerds and the discussions were amazing. But Joel limited the discussion to software topics and he moderated harshly. We protested! We were all smart, interesting people acting in good faith. Why couldn’t we discuss TV or politics?
The answer was that Joel was wise and had previously experienced, on earlier Internet chat rooms, the shit-show that emerges when you don’t aggressively moderate. The terrible people drive away the not terrible people. It happens slowly. Someone writes something controversial and someone else agrees, maybe because he was surprised someone else in the world shared his “controversial” opinion. Then a good-thinker would push back and bad-thinker would double down in the other direction which tickled the id and forced the other side to triple down and so on and so on until it’s HITLER, HITLER!!!!!!. Every single time. Joel was right. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Parents can’t have nice things because the children will ruin them. That’s what everyone complaining about bias and fake news on Facebook thinks. I'm the parents; they're the children. Everyone is wrong. We are all the parents and all the children. We are all superego and id and like Dr. Morbius we are powerless to stop the monster from burning through the nigh impregnable Krell alloy door.
I’m super duper rational. Trust me, I’m several standard deviations from the norm in the Spock direction of the Kirk/Spock axis. Yet one time on the Joel forum a guy wrote something back to me that made me sore and I told him that he wouldn’t speak to me that way if we were having the discussion in person. One thing led to another and next thing I know I’m trying to arrange to meet the guy in person to have a real-world fight. I was young, but not as young as you’d like.
If I can’t resist the id monster within me on the internet, you can’t and the average dope certainly can’t. Dr. Morbius couldn’t and he was twice as smart as I. In fact, often the arrogance that comes with high intelligence makes it worse. I have highly intelligent friends who deny that it makes it worse and claim it makes it, in fact, better... and that makes it even worse.
In "Forbidden Planet", Commander Adams, not Dr. Morbius, figures out what happened to the Krell. He declares the Krell had built the machine which made id monsters and that it could not be turned off. They had been rational for a million years so they would have been completely surprised when the machine began to manifest their worst emotions and send out monsters to take revenge and steal and murder and rape and snark. Adams (who, earlier in the picture, was revealed to be far less intelligent than Dr. Morbius) cracks this mystery that had baffled Morbius for 20 years. Dr. Morbius was too smart to see it. Even worse, when all the pieces were laid out for him, he still couldn't put it all together and infer that the monster that killed the other colonists and sabotaged the ship and was coming to kill him and his daughter, is his own subconscious activating the machine. Adams spells it out for him and then he's finally like "oh yeah now I get it, sure!". Then he adds a bunch of smart guy talk so he'll be less embarrassed but we all know he fucked up.
Based on experience with social media, I suspect that the Krell not so much didn’t understand the monster creation process, and not so much had built a machine that could not be shut down, as they had built a machine they didn’t want to shut down and just blamed the monsters problem on the other Krell. Surely each Krell though he was not producing monsters. “All my own thoughts are good. I would never create a monster and send it to kill my enemies. I hate no one. I am all about reason and facts. On the other hand, once those other Krell, those wrong thinkers who support the rise of Garthalianism*, have created monsters, my mind must create monsters to fight back, you see…”
And then they all fucking died. The entire million year Krell civilization disappeared in one night because of the most awesome invention ever.
Maybe this will not be our fate. After all, the great machine was more powerful than the internet, and the Krell had far more powerful minds and evolved on a different planet and so likely had a very different psychological makeup from us and a completely alien culture and were fictional.
As experts who do research will tell you, good science fiction almost always comes true. So I am pretty certain we are fucking doomed. I hope we can hold off until after I am dead. To later generations I can only say:
“Sorry about the mess”
* "Garthalianism"- I made this up. It wasn't in the movie. I don't speak Krell and have no idea what ideas would make them need to kill