Jekyll and Hyde: Forefathers of Internet Trolls

There is a degree of serendipity to my first reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I downloaded it to my iPad mostly on a whim, thinking it might be a good idea to dip into some of the 19th-century science fiction to which I am almost entirely unread, save for Frankenstein. (Next up, War of the Worlds!) I expected, similarly to Frankenstein, a book-length recounting of Dr. Jekyll’s agony as he is compelled to rent himself in two. I presumed it’d be chapter after chapter of his turning into Hyde, doing bad things, turning back to himself, and feeling shitty about it, and the moral would be something to do with how dangerous it is to mess with the science of life.

Not at all! You know this, of course, if you’ve read it yourself. (And if you haven’t, spoilers ahoy.) But what a refreshing surprise it was that the very premise of the crisis, a man who has learned to transform into a kind of bizarro version of himself, isn’t even revealed until quite near the end, when Jekyll himself is already dead. It was quite a wonderful book. (And it helped that it was short, as I’m a painfully slow reader, and even I finished it in a single sitting.)

To the serendipitous part. There was something about the specificity of what Jekyll identifies about his Hyde side that screamed contemporary relevance to me. In his closing letter, Jekyll reveals how he was surprised to find that his division of personalities was asymmetrical; there was no even split between Good Jekyll and Bad Jekyll. Rather, changing into Hyde was a way to release all the nascent ugliness within him, and changing back, he found he remained his whole self. Hyde was the monster within Jekyll, but there was no pure angel to balance. Hyde is always part of Jekyll, even when contained.

Here’s how he puts it. When he turned into Hyde…

…my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde. Hence, although I had now two characters as well as two appearances, one was wholly evil, and the other was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had already learned to despair. The movement was thus wholly toward the worse.

Reading this, it immediately occurred to me that Edward Hyde is a 19th-century version of the Internet troll. Ostensibly normal people, whose moral compasses seem more or less calibrated, when introduced to the power and anonymity of the Internet often unleash the absolute worst sides of themselves.

In the most egregious cases, we have trolls who threaten and harass and cause real-world damage. What are these people like in their day-to-day lives, in person? I doubt that most of them would be immediately identifiable as the monsters they become online.

But even for the most well-meaning among us, including myself, the immediacy of the social web can make it too easy for us to slip into hostility, arrogance, and hubris, at degrees we’d blush at if given a moment to pause and consider.

There is a little troll in all of us. There is a little Hyde in all of us.

Henry Jekyll was an entirely upstanding and moral man in his daily life, but he found a way to create a Victorian-era avatar, and project his inner troll into physical world to satisfy his darkest impulses, and add kindling to his baseless rage. In his confession, he notes how Hyde began his independent existence as small and emaciated, having been largely denied sustenance within the whole of Jekyll. But now free, he could nourish himself and grow stronger by acting on his aggression and hate.

That’s right, Jekyll fed the troll. And look what happened: Confusion, fear, chaos, and death.

And what might the future hold? Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson saw it, and we’re already living it. Jekyll also writes in his confession:

With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.

We are not bound by the limits of Jekyll’s story, where a chemical concoction manifests only one additional “self.” On the Internet, it is trivially simple for one person to contain – and project – multitudes.

We have always had Hydes among us, I think, but the Internet has made them more visible, and better able to organize and combine their loathsome efforts, under cloaks of obscurity. In the midst of things like “Gamergate” and the non-stop torrent of rage and abuse to which the social media landscape plays host, it seems to me that there might never have been a time when this book was more relevant. The case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. Indeed, it feels very familiar.

Image by Shutterstock.


Star Trek’s Human-ish Aliens, Vindicated

He has a hat, so I can't tell if he's an alien. But he does have a bumpy nose, so.

He has a hat, so I can’t tell if he’s an alien. But he does have a bumpy nose, so.

The aliens of Star Trek get a bit of grief for looking suspiciously like homo sapiens. I can tell he’s a different species because he has very slight ridges on his nose! She’s clearly an extraterrestrial because she’s got dots on her. And of course he’s an alien! His ears point up, and who would wear their hair like that???

So fine, it’s a fair cop. But let’s be fair, TV budgets are not limitless (particularly for shows for the relatively small nerd demographic), and I suspect audiences would have some trouble relating to, say, an amorphous blob or an intelligent jellyfish-type thing. I have always given Star Trek a pass because I know that a big reason the aliens that normally appear can’t be so alienating to viewers that they put too much of a burden on storytelling. Villainous or intentionally-bizarre creatures like the Crystalline Entity are of course the exception, in which they are alienating by design.

And really, Next Generation-era Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, and others, are really well designed, even if they are a little too humanoid for some.

Fortunately for Trek apologists like myself, there may be some sound justification for the franchise’s aliens looking a whole lot like human beings. George Dvorsky at io9 explores the idea that in order to achieve anything like a technology-wielding civilization, even an extraterrestrial species might do well — and indeed, may even need — to be very much like us.

First of all, they’d likely need to dwell on a planet’s surface; not swimming in the water, and not wafting about in the atmosphere (thus ruling out the whole intelligent jellyfish thing):

[It’s] very unlikely, says [Fermilab physicist Don] Lincoln, that technically advanced civilizations like ours could have developed on a planet without land masses, like a so-called water world. He believes it’s unlikely that intelligent dolphins will ever develop the technology for spaceflight. “There could be alien cavemen underwater,” he says. “But truly, you can’t smelt metal.”

I’d say that’s this is a) a point in favor of Trek-type aliens and b) a big let-down for believers in mer-people. All those metal tridents and whatnot? No way. Sorry, King Triton. You don’t get to exist.

But here’s the kicker, and it has to do with something called convergent evolution:

If [the alien species is] terrestrial, it would likely have to face the same sort of evolutionary pressures that our ancestors did. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all intelligent civs are descended from primates. But they may all take similar paths on their evolutionary journey, a well-documented phenomenon evolutionary biologists refer to as convergent evolution — those cases in which organisms not closely related independently acquire some characteristic or characteristics in common; mutation in evolution may be random, but selection is not.

Examples include physical traits that have evolved independently (e.g. the eye), ecological niches (e.g. pack predators), and even scientific and technological innovations (e.g. language, writing, mathematics, the domestication of plants and animals, and basic tools and weapons). Looking off-world, it’s not unreasonable to think about similar examples of convergent evolution; there may be certain ecological and sociological niches that are not Earth-specific or human-specific and are archetypal throughout the universe.

And only recently, of course, we learned from the Kepler spacecraft that there may be billions of Earth-like worlds in our own galaxy alone. And if they really are quite Earth-y, there’s every reason to believe that their creatures might evolve to use brainpower and technology to dominate their environment. For that, they’ll need things like grasping digits, limbs to carry them from place to place, light and sound-detecting organs, etcetera.

This is not to say they’d be bipedal with two eyes and ears (or speak English or be able to procreate with other alien species), differentiated from humans only by crazy skull protrusions , but it might mean that they would not seem quite as alien as we presume. They might even make for sympathetic characters in a space adventure story.

We Will Be More Space-Dwellers than Planet-Dwellers

Ian O’Neill covers a high-minded conference discussion about the best protocols for potential encounters with alien species once our own ventures out into the stars. One idea that was new to me was that, though we may cross paths with other life forms, we may not need anything from them, or they from us. For example, O’Neill reports that Kelvin Long of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, says:

[B]y that stage in our evolution, Earth-analog planets would likely be less important to our survival — we would have become more space dwellers than planet-dwellers. Life-giving planets would therefore be more of scientific interest than somewhere for us to simply colonize.

“It is neither a case of moral respect or survival of the fittest but of the fact that we will have evolved as a society which does not need to compete (with indigenous lifeforms),” said Long.

Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar expressed a similar idea:

As for colonizing those worlds containing basic lifeforms, it is less likely that we’d want to hang around very long. “We live in the depths of a gravitational abyss,” said Obousy. Assuming our interstellar descendents has access to huge quantities of energy and resources, “I’m not convinced that we’ll want to go from one gravitational abyss to another gravitational abyss. I’m not convinced that settling on planets or even moons is going to be necessary.”

I find that fascinating. I’d love to see it played out in some quality science fiction. I’m of course aware that such fiction probably exists, but in my somewhat limited experience, planetless human beings are usually so because they are lost, or in some other desperate situation in which folks had no choice but to suddenly set themselves adrift in space. (Or in Richard Russo’s Ship of Fools, no one remembers why they are out in space after several generations.) They are not, in other words, boldly going because they have mastered material existence to such an extent that the “gravitational abyss” of planetary life is a hindrance or novelty. They’re, in one way or another, fucked.

But this idea upends the traditional “Terran” ideas of conquest, inhabitation, and exploitation of new environments. If we aren’t forced to create lives for ourselves on Earth-like (or terraformable) planets, and our existences are best lived in wholly artificial habitats in space, why go anywhere at all? Perhaps our needs would be limited to the rawest of raw materials, simply any matter that we can harvest and transform into anything we might need–like Star Trek’s replicators, but where there is no unreplicatable material like something so crucial as dilithium. Anything would presumably serve the purpose, such as asteroids or other “dead” bodies.

And if we meet fellow civilizations living within similar parameters, also not requiring any new planets to conquer or exploit, there’d presumably be nothing to fight over. Now, that’s where some sci-fi could get interesting. If everybody has what they need, what’s the conflict? Obviously, something would have to go very wrong.