June 30, 2002

· Obiter Dicta

The high concept of Minority Report is that gifted “pre-cogs” can see into the future and predict murders, thereby allowing the police to pre-emptively arrest the not-yet-perpetrators. The question is whether we would sacrifice civil liberties in order to prevent crime. But I’m more interested in the film’s own effort to see into the future. Minority Report gives us a detailed vision of Washington, D.C. in 2054. Is it plausible?

Futurology and Social Change To develop the look of the film, Steven Spielberg consulted with a number of futurologists—- people who make a living telling us what life is going to be like soon. Futurology is a notoriously difficult business. Daniel Bell, a sociologist who in 1973 published one of the best efforts at social forecasting, disavowed the label altogether and caustically commented that most of what was written in this area could be written off as “future schlock”. Bell argued that, too often, futurologists picked out their favorite trend (or set of trends) and worked out what would happen if an entire society was reorganized because of it. Usually these trends were technological innovations or problems—- the rise of new media, advances in biotechnology, running out of oil, and so on. A problem with this approach was that it often assumed innovations would simply sweep away what came before them, and remake the world in their image. What actually happens, Bell argues, is that novel technologies overlay existing forms of social organization without obliterating them. So the shift from. say, agricultural to industrial society did not simply replace the former with the latter. Britain was the first country to go through the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The historian Eric Hobsbawm once remarked that if the changes there between 1780 to 1840 didn’t count as a revolution then nothing could. But even in Britain, industrial workers have never been a majority of the workforce. The past was not simply wiped away, and the new order did not take over completely.

The Future in *Minority Report* The film respects this basic point about social change, and this is the main reason its vision of the future is compelling. Spielberg’s distillation of the futurologists’ predictions results in a world that mixes the familiar and the new in a convincing way. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) works in an antiseptic Department of PreCrime that is all perspex and chrome, but the city outside still has ratty backalleys, dumpsters and construction work. He drives a high-tech Lexus, recently assembled on a make-to-order production line, out to his ex-wife’s 20th-century wood-frame house by the lake. It’s convincing.

Two other features of Anderton’s world stand out. The first is that retinal scanning is everywhere. It’s used at work. People casually glance at the scanner as they enter their office building. It’s a tool of law enforcement. In a brilliant sequence, a team of electronic “spiders” search for Anderton in an low-income apartment building. The building’s residents hate the spiders but know exactly how to react to them. And most of all, retinal ID is used to pay for what you buy and (much worse) have products personally pitched at you by smart billboards wherever you go.

The second big change is the transport system. Cars (at least in the urban commuter areas) travel on huge highways that have vertical on- and off-ramps. The road network extends to channels on the sides of buildings, allowing cars to move up and down there, too. They are also permanently on autopilot. The only vehicles we see travelling freely are the Nautilus-like craft that the police force fly to precrime scenes.

How Plausible is it? The use of retinal scanning was convincingly presented, I thought. Its close integration with both legal surveillance and commerce showed a future where both privacy and truly public space have pretty much vanished. You are tracked wherever you go, either by the state or by advertisers. The idea didn’t seem fully thought through, however. Commuters on the metro paid by glancing at a scanner above the door of the subway car. This didn’t seem right: people had to enter and exit the car far too slowly (rush hour is not that polite!). And besides, why have a scanner in every car? Why not just do it as they enter the station? But this is just a quibble..

The transport system, by contrast, seemed very unconvincing to me. It wasn’t the cars and the technology inside them, but the actual road network. It was too big and too tailored to the super-mobile future cars. I don’t see that kind of system being built any time soon. Now, a futurologist who predicted this might say that someone living in 1910 would have thought the idea of a vast interstate highway system similarly implausible. The difference is that now we already have one. There was space for interstates to be constructed in the 1950s, but now that system constitutes a giant installed base that’s unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. For the same reasons, our major cities rely on water and sewer systems that were built a century ago. It’s very difficult to replace—- or even significantly upgrade—- a basic piece of infrastructure once a working version of it is already in place.

Other Leads to Follow There are plenty of other new gadgets that pop up in the film, and in each case Spielberg tries to show how they are well-integrated into everyday life. USA today is updated live on a paper-thin tablet. Surgery is good enough to replace your eyes. Holographic projection is pretty good. Computer interfaces have changed. And so on. Each of these could be looked at in more detail. USA Today tablet: quite possible. Whole-eye surgery: I doubt it. Holography: I’m not sure, but I’m skeptical. The clear screens of the computers and the tiny phones seemed good, but the keyboards were unrecognizable. Radical redesign of keyboards seems very unlikely, again thanks to the path-dependence created by the installed base. (The Gap is still in business, which also seems unrealistic right now.) In each case, the interesting question is, “Given the way things work now, does this innovation seem like it could be a part of everyday life then?”

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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