Genies and Bottles

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” I said.

I don’t remember what prompted my remark, but Leah, my daughter, had an interesting reaction.

“Maybe you can. What do we know about genie-world?”

I laughed.

“Well, true, but it’s an expression…”

“I know, but why is it? What are the rules of genies? Who knows?”

She had a fair point. If I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s T.V. show that I loved when I was growing up, was any guide, genies went back into their bottles regularly. I remember the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. It was colorful and decadent with silk draped on the walls and velvet cushions. Not a bad place to hang out actually, though it seemed quite limited. Jeannie blinked, turned into purple smoke and went back in when directed by her ‘master’ or when she was angry at him and wanted to sulk. In hindsight it was a ridiculous show. I think I knew it was ridiculous at the time but couldn’t resist the romantic angle and attractive characters. But, I digress.

Sometimes when you stop and think about the expressions we use, you realize that they aren’t what they seem. In this case, the first known use of ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’ was in Tales of the Arabian Nights in 1706. We are familiar with the story of Aladdin, but there was actually another earlier one. The moral of that story, though, was the opposite of our use of the phrase today. In the original tale a quick-thinking fisherman outwitted the genie, convincing him to get back into his bottle, thus avoiding the mischief the genie might have wrought. How the message evolved to take on a different meaning, I don’t know. It is not the only example of the transformation of language or concepts over time.

The question posed by the genie and the bottle, or Pandora’s Box, is still relevant. Once an idea is out in the world, can you contain it? When I was growing up, we talked about this in the context of the threat of nuclear weapons. We wondered if the existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to their use. Thankfully it hasn’t, at least not yet. They remain a threat, but steps were taken, and treaties were signed, to reduce the risk.

Today I think about it in terms of social media. Is it out of our control? Sometimes it feels like it is. Disinformation takes on a life of its own.

But social media doesn’t have to be that way. Some will find this objectionable, but regulation would help. We all know free speech isn’t unfettered, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, there are limits to hate speech, etc. Some of the standards that are applied in that context should be applied to the Internet. It is a matter of having the will to do it and applying the resources to the task. It needs to be a cost of doing business for Facebook and Twitter. God knows they make enough money! Newspapers and magazines have fact checkers and editors. Wikipedia has found a way to deal with the need for facts – it isn’t perfect, but it does pretty well compared to the wild west of other of social media platforms.

I know that the devil is always in the details (another expression worth examining since I’ve also heard it said that God is in the details too). I’m not suggesting it will be easy to regulate but we need to start. The fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. The damage to our culture of the current hands-off approach, in sowing division and inspiring violence, is a real threat to our democracy and our society.

It is indeed time to put the genie back in the bottle and I believe we can.