Minority Report: Spielberg’s precognition

Minority Report shows that a world without crime is not necessarily a good thing. The FBI should take note.

Sandy Starr

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Would you like to live in a world without crime?

If so, what price would you be willing to pay for such a world? Steven Spielberg’s new blockbuster Minority Report, based on a short story by legendary science fiction author Philip K Dick, pursues this question into uncomfortable territory.

The year is 2054, and murder statistics have been successfully reduced to zero in the US district of Columbia. Three psychics are used by the Columbia authorities to predict the future, and on the basis of these predictions, people are arrested for crimes they have yet to commit. The film is set at the moment when this system of crime prevention is about to be rolled out nationally.

Tom Cruise plays the chief of the Department of Pre-Crime, the special unit that carries out these preemptive arrests. Imagine his quandary when the psychics employed by his department predict that he will soon be guilty of murder. As he goes on the run from his own colleagues, he is forced to question the justice of a system that arrests people before they have done anything wrong. He is also forced to question his own free will – is he condemned to a predetermined future, or can his actions in the present result in a different outcome?

The suspension of the presumption of innocence, in order to guarantee the prevention of future harm, is explored by Spielberg through the fictional device of precognition. But this scenario has become a reality since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, with the presumption of innocence compromised by both the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act (1) and the recently expanded surveillance powers of the FBI (2).

US attorney general John Ashcroft defends the FBI’s new powers on the grounds that ‘if you want to prevent, you can’t limit your investigators to investigating only crimes that have been committed’ (3). Follow that logic through to its conclusion, and you have the world depicted in Minority Report. As US News put it, in a recent article comparing Minority Report to present US antiterrorist initiatives, ‘perhaps, the future is now’ (4).

At one point in Minority Report, an FBI agent, questioning the accuracy with which crime can be predicted, prefaces his comments with the apology: ‘I’m not with the ACLU on this, but.…’ The implication is that by 2054, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (5) will be seen as a group of marginal extremists, rather than as a custodian of our essential liberties. Perhaps John Ashcroft might welcome such a future, as he has argued that ‘those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty…only aid terrorists’ (6).

Something else in Minority Report that bears a disturbing similarity to the present day, is omnipresent surveillance by the state and widespread collection of personal data. This is achieved in the film largely through retina and iris scanning, which is one of the key identification methods being pursued in biometrics today (7). This technology is used in Minority Report by companies to target their advertising – which is incredibly annoying, but doesn’t really have any serious consequences. The real problem comes with the use of this technology by the state.

Attempting to track down Tom Cruise after he has gone on the run, the authorities send a number of small, spider-like robots scurrying through a tower block to scan people’s eyes for identification. Spielberg cuts to an aerial shot over a cross-section of the tower block, depicting the robots intruding into every apartment and climbing up into people’s faces. Some people protest, and children are confused and frightened. But most of the inhabitants of the tower block unquestioningly stop for a moment, let the robot take the scan, and then continue with whatever they were doing.

The point is chillingly clear: this kind of intrusion has become a mundane fact of everyday life, and people have been forced to learn to accept it. There are those who ask – today, let alone in 2054 – why anybody would have a problem with surveillance for the purpose of preventing crime, unless they have something to hide. But this powerful sequence in Minority Report is a stark illustration of what gets lost, when the prevention of crime overrides all considerations of liberty.

Those who get arrested in Minority Report for the crimes they are allegedly about to commit, are sentenced to a grim fate which is all the worse for being supposedly humane. This shows a society trapped between its determination to erase crime, and its squeamishness when it comes to punishing criminals too harshly. If arrested, you have little or no recourse to judicial process. The ‘right to an attorney’ is referred to, but this is clearly little more than paying lip service to civil liberties. Those arrested are incarcerated in a narrow tube, and put to sleep for an indeterminate period.

The film depicts an enormous chamber of such tubes, each of them filled from top to bottom with subdued prisoners. The device that subdues you is placed on your head while you are being read your rights. The reaction of the arrested to these devices in the film is always one of pure terror, as a large portion of their conscious life is about to be wiped out in one stroke.

Steven Spielberg is one of the only filmmakers in the world today in a position to make science fiction films with both an enormous budget and an uncompromising vision. Minority Report, and also last year’s Spielberg sci-fi film AI: Artificial Intelligence, both capture the director in an experimental mode, exploring big ideas and taking risks. The experiments may not always be successful, but their spirit is to be admired.

AI was widely slated for having a happy ending, which many believed to be tacked-on. Minority Report may attract similar criticism for the tone of its conclusion. But it would be unfortunate if a fashionable contempt for happy endings obscured the idea that Minority Report drives at consistently, right up until its closing credits.

A crime-free society is not necessarily an ideal society. It may, in fact, be the worst society of all.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Attack of the ‘Dickheads’, by Patrick West

AI – a film of two halves, by Allison Felus

spiked-issue: Film

Official Minority Report website

(1) See Online insecurity, by Sandy Starr

(2) See Intelligence tests, by Sandy Starr

(3) ‘FBI throws off post-Nixon shackles’, Jan Cienski, National Post, 31 May 2002

(4) Throwing away the key?, Angie Cannon, US News, 24 June 2002

(5) See the American Civil Liberties Union website

(6) Testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 6 December 2001

(7) For an overview of iris scanning technology and its possible future application, see Iris recognition: the technology, on the iris-scan.com website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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