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Google Search, Jurassic World, and the distortion of entertainment

At Google I/O 2019, product management Vice President Aparna Chennapregada demonstrated a new feature in Search built to help people learn more about the natural world: Augmented Reality models of animals, displayed at life size wherever you are. Users can pick where they want the animal to be placed, and then walk around the selected spot, getting a sense of the animal’s scale and presence as it runs through its idle animation, standing still or floating docilely in the air.

Google Brings AR to Search, New Features for Lens

It’s not hard to imagine how this use-case came about. Google is always looking for ways to make its platform more engaging, and using cheap 3D models to add a bit of flair to its educational results for “shark” or “giraffe” is a natural step.

Go ahead and search “shark” on a modern phone and you can probably pull it up. Like many things AR/VR, it’s a compelling demo for a technology that hasn’t really found a way to make itself a fixture of our daily lives.

Last week Google made a blog post titled “Travel back in time with AR dinosaurs in Search”. Google is now extending its AR-animal feature to… dinosaurs, giving users the ability to place a T-rex in a field outside and stand in awe of its scale. It seems like this fits in well with the company’s goal of making the world’s information universally accessible and useful!

But what caught my eye was the second sentence of the post:

We're partnering with Universal Brand DevelopmentAmblin Entertainment and Ludia to bring 10 dinosaurs from the franchise film, “Jurassic World”, to Google Search.

So where previous Search integrations with AR technology hid the provenance of the 3D models Google was showing (relying on the commodity-fetish nature of digital assets that hide the human labor behind them), this launch actually highlights the source, linking directly to the Jurassic World website.

Only there’s one interesting complication: the dinosaurs they show in the Jurassic Park series aren’t real.

And I mean that in a couple different ways!

On one level, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are just plain scientifically inaccurate — for example in a Business Insider post, Jurassic Park paleontologist consultant Jack Horner discussed some of the ways in which the animals were tweaked in order to play better on screen:

"I sat down one afternoon with Steven and he was talking about the dinosaurs and he had all the art work for storyboards, in which all the dinosaurs were grey and brown, and not very interesting," Horner said. "I said, 'Steven we know velociraptor, at least, was probably feathered like birds and probably very colorful.' He just started laughing and said technicolor, feathered dinosaurs wouldn't be scary enough."

So on one level, Google Search passing off Jurassic World as a reputable source creates plain misinformation. The most infamous Jurassic Park myth is that of the “velociraptor” — which in the movies are a 6’ tall pack predator with the speed of a cheetah and a cunning instinct, but in reality were a genus of feathered dinosaur about the size of a turkey.

Adopting the Jurassic World models, the Search results for velociraptor then show velociraptors as the over-large, unfeathered killing machine made up for the movie, even linking to the factually-incorrect Jurassic World info page.

But what’s most interesting to me is the way in which the dinosaurs in the actual fictional world of Jurassic Park are crucially also not real.

While the film is mostly known for its critique of humans who choose to “play God,” the original Michael Chrichton novel discussed at length the way in which the animals needed to be understood not as simply time-traveling 65 million years to meet us in the present, but inherently tied up in the project of private exhibition and all the small modifications required to make that ecosystem work. Built by employees of a private entertainment company through guesswork and genetic engineering, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are always distorted through the lens of the market forces that brought them into the world. From the book (emphasis mine):

“But, Henry, these are real dinosaurs. You said so yourself.”

“I know,” Wu said. “But we could easily breed slower, more domesticated dinosaurs.”

“Domesticated dinosaurs?” Hammond snorted. “Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, Henry. They want the real thing.”

“But that’s my point,” Wu said. “I don’t think they do. They want to see their expectation, which is quite different.”

Hammond was frowning.

You said yourself, John, this park is entertainment,” Wu said. “And entertainment has nothing to do with reality. Entertainment is antithetical to reality.”

Hammond sighed. “Now, Henry, are we going to have another one of those abstract discussions? You know I like to keep it simple. The dinosaurs we have now are real, and—”

“Well, not exactly,” Wu said. He paced the living room, pointed to the monitors. “I don’t think we should kid ourselves. We haven’t re-created the past here. The past is gone. It can never be re-created. What we’ve done is reconstruct the past—or at least a version of the past. And I’m saying we can make a better version.”

“Better than real?”

“Why not?” Wu said. “After all, these animals are already modified. We’ve inserted genes to make them patentable, and to make them lysine dependent. And we’ve done everything we can to promote growth, and accelerate development into adulthood.”

Hammond shrugged. “That was inevitable. We didn’t want to wait. We have investors to consider.

“Of course. But I’m just saying, why stop there? Why not push ahead to make exactly the kind of dinosaur that we’d like to see? One that is more acceptable to visitors, and one that is easier for us to handle? A slower, more docile version for our park?”

Hammond frowned. “But then the dinosaurs wouldn’t be real.”

“But they’re not real now,” Wu said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There isn’t any reality here.

And just as Hammond is in this selection arguing for the need to “keep it simple” and avoid “abstract discussions,” it’s worth examining the likely process followed to bring about this dinosaur update to Search.

One can imagine a partnership with a consortium of major media companies, Universal and Amblin Entertainment, seemed to be an easy way to get access to 3D models that would do well in the public eye for this launch. Slap a link to the Jurassic World website as your source, and you’ve got a beneficial corporate partnership and a blog post that will buy you a little positive coverage! It’s just the practical thing to do, and for a product team looking for ways to demonstrate further value in order to keep their jobs, one could see this as a small win that keeps the machine chugging along.

But of course, behind every practical solution hides the way in which the systems of market logic find ways to shape more and more of our lives. And here a company whose mission is to “make the world’s information universally accessible and useful” might have that mission distorted when it’s going after that mission for profit, controlled by beleaguered software engineers just looking to demonstrate impact for their fall performance cycle.

The result of this distortion in real terms is, perhaps, negligible — a T-rex still cuts an imposing figure, feathered or not. But it’s where these contradictions and complications add up to a system that can no longer sustain itself that change is possible, and in these cracks of representation where life, uh… finds a way.

Fractals You Can Draw (The Dragon Curve or The Jurassic Fractal ...