Let me start off by saying the following: If any of the technologies, especially the surveillance technologies such as the retina scanning spiders, in Minority Report come to fruition I think I’ll put a bullet in my head. The hell with that. As it stands we only retain a few of our rights thanks to the Patriot Act and if things keep going the same way we’ll lose even more by the year 2054. Thankfully I’ll probably be dead by that point; I really don’t want to live a life like that.
Don’t let my statement lead you to believe I would ever take my own life–I won’t. The only thing I have is my existence. Regardless of all the material, physical and psychical possessions I have and the relationships I hold dear, the only thing I truly own is my own life, my own experiences. It’s the only thing I know; it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. I’ve lived in a world where computers were ugly, cumbersome, and slow; a world where nobody could get a hold of you unless you were at home. Text messages were science fiction and cellular phones were bulky and expensive. Granted, I was a child but I still remember these days when a person could disconnect from others and still be a part of the system. It’s still possible today but it’s getting harder every day. Pretty soon it might be impossible.
This semester I’m taking a seminar about place and space, asking pertinent questions about the issue. Since we’re always in a physical space what does that mean? What does it mean when a space devoid of place becomes a cultural force, dictating civilization’s path? In essence, what does it mean when the virtual world converges with the physical one?
In this week’s seminar we discussed many issues but the one that really interested me was an innovation called the Sixth Sense technology. It’s a way to merge the virtual world with the physical. Here’s a video about it.
This leads me to Minority Report, most importantly the technology used by the Precrime division for interpreting visions from the Precogs. In Minority Report the Precogs are the result of a heroin-like drug which causes those born by addicted parents to predict future events. Unfortunately, these children only perceive murder. A science experiment gone awry, it led to using them as a law enforcement device. The catch is nobody actually committed any crime, at least not when the Precogs receive their visions, and suspects are arrested and placed into suspended animation before committing any actual offense.
John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the chief of the Precrime division, takes these images, which are downloaded from the Precogs, and dissects them, finding where and when the event will take place and acting accordingly. Attached to his hands are devices (which operate like a mouse) and he shuffles through Precog images. The technology featured in the video above is quite similar, with the digital world merging with the physical one. In essence, it’s “Place 2.0.”
What does all this mean? Does it mean the technology in the video leads to more oppressive institutions which arrested an individual before they break the law? Probably not. It seems highly unlikely psychic humans who see the future will exist, which is why a film like Minority Report is science fiction. However, like Isaac Asimov said, “Science fiction authors foresee the inevitable,” and even though some of the situations depicted in these films won’t come true it doesn’t mean the implications discussed won’t.
Imagine a world where everybody’s using the Sixth Sense technology, walking around with the ability to use their hands as a cellular phone, making Google appear on a wall, or scanning a person’s face and identifying who they are, their interests, and more. Every technology has pros and cons: it takes something away while it gives something. A device like the Sixth Sense technology will undoubtedly speed up communication, help the environment by using less hardware, and overall help the population interact with their environments more efficiently. But what will it take away? Freedom? Autonomy? What about the option to disconnect?
Let’s say, in a future where Sixth Sense is a prevalent as the cellular phone is today, I wish to detach from the digital. How can I? Even if I turn off my device I’m still identifiable by others using Sixth Sense and they can access my name, interests, and whatever other information it gives. Unless I want to live in a shack in the woods somewhere I’m connected even when I don’t want to–I’d have no choice. The freedom to take part or not is autonomy; the inability to disconnect isn’t. A device like Sixth Sense, with all of its positives, doesn’t take away your privacy or allow a government to either: it makes your privacy and rights obsolete. This is what scares me about such technology. My trepidation isn’t based on a fear of state power changing the rules to the game, I’m worried about the rules becoming irrelevant, working only in a world where such technologies weren’t taken into consideration.
In Minority Report Spielberg demonstrates how in his fictitious 2054 retina scanners are everywhere. Advertisements are tailored to the individual (Anderton walks through a mall and billboards for American Express, beer, and other companies speak directly to him) and it’s impossible to avoid being scanned. It’s like Foucault’s panopticon, discussed in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison: a technology like this regulates bodies so they in turn will regulate themselves. One is unlikely to act up if they’re under constant surveillance by these signs. When living in a system where you can be arrested for murder before you act and you’re constantly reminded something is watching you it influences your behavior. In Minority Report there hadn’t been a murder in Washington D.C. in the six years since Precrime’s inception and it’s obvious why–people will regulate their behavior when triggers are in place to remind the individual to obey.
Perhaps we’re in the beginning of this paradigm shift, where interaction with the virtual world doesn’t involve a screen. We’re living in a time when personalized advertisements are becoming more prevalent; just look at the advertisements on Facebook or your e-mail for proof. A few years ago Hulk Hogan called my house telling me to order Wrestlemania because I’d ordered a WWE pay-per-view a few months earlier. At the time I believed it was comical but now I find it intrusive (albeit still a little funny). Once again, there are positives involved with this kind of world, where information is refined for the individual; it’s also a negative because it filters information and discourse into a single niche. People are no longer inundated with information which might clash with their schemas. Information is custom made to fit any ideology or set of interests and this is probably the price we pay for what Neil Postman calls, “information glut.” On the positive side this means we’re free of media which annoys us, allowing for easier access to what we like; the negatives mean we’ve become closed minded, leading to single mindedness. How can there be any kind of intelligent discourse between citizens when the issues aren’t up for public debate? Hopefully the folly of our current media woes won’t lead to the panopticon depicted in Minority Report because I’d rather be dead than alive in that world.
Here’s the trailer