A Minority in Minority Report

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by kmguru, Jul 18, 2002.

  1. kmguru Staff Member

    Computer scientist and composer Jaron Lanier, who was recruited to help Steven Spielberg imagine the dystopian future presented in the film "Minority Report," has posted his thoughts on the experience and the nature of optimistic imagination in science fiction. It's an interesting read for the futurists and Philip K. Dick fans.

    (This is an example of how Science, Hollywood and Society come together.)

    A Minority within the Minority

    By Jaron Lanier

    A while back I was asked to help Steven Spielberg brainstorm a science fiction movie he intended to make based on the Philip K. Dick short story "Minority Report". A team of "futurists" would imagine what the world might be like in fifty years, and I would be one of the two scientist/technologists on the team. The other team members included an anthropologist (Steve Barnett), a city planning expert (Joel Garreau), and so on.

    Various past and present demos I've worked on were given design makeovers and portrayed in the film, such as the advertisements that automatically incorporate passers-by, the interface gloves (which are already considered out-of-date in 2002!), and so on. I also seem to have influenced the script, by suggesting the idea that criminals might gouge out eyeballs to fool iris-scan identity-matching machines (though in fact such machines can already tell if an eye is alive or not).

    I did NOT come up with the transportation system, by the way- that was mostly influenced by Neil Gershenfeld of the Media Lab, who was the other science/tech person.

    The movie seems to me to have turned out really well, and it also seems to be well-liked by critics and my friends who have seen it. I wonder if I'm biased. I feel myself to be part of the Internet Age, which at its best is a period of participatory culture, so I probably find this movie easier to appreciate because I participated in making it. I usually find "big" movies terribly distant and alienating because they are produced so far away from me and relegate me to such an extreme position as a consumer.

    What I'd like to comment on here is the nature of optimistic imagination in science fiction. Spielberg was intent on finding a positive message and a happy or at least happy-ish ending, which on the face of it was not a viable idea. Philip K Dick was not a happy ending sort of guy.

    The Dick-to-Spielberg bridge in the last reel ended up working more successfully than I had imagined it could. The script seems to me to make a classic existential point. Here, approximately, is the message I think the movie ends up expressing: "Belief in free will makes itself so, but also makes so a certain level of uncertainty, danger, and chaos, which is a worthwhile and noble price to pay." There's also an assertion that American civic traditions, like the Miranda rights, will take on even greater significance as technology moves forward, defining a sense of personhood beyond the reach of technologists.

    I say "ends up expressing" because big movies are made collectively, even in a case like this where there's an extremely powerful director in control. So the meaning of movies can't be fully premeditated. A movie isn't a person.

    I remember one afternoon when an almost tangible transition occurred in the room. Before that moment the movie's identity had seemed elusive and convoluted, twitching between Dickian ennui and paranoia and Spielbergian fascination and idealism. The early visualizations of Minority Report's world even looked like classic 1950s science fiction illustration, the very sort of idealized future that Dick was reacting against.

    After a sudden, curious, and magical moment, the movie's identity somehow coalesced, and even though it was still early in the process, it was clear that the project would gel as a whole. Suddenly everyone was seeing the same imaginary world.

    This was a thrilling experience for me, but one that was tempered by some disappointments.

    Let me get a personal one out of the way first. It's annoying to fall through the cracks of the Hollywood ontology and not get a screen credit, even though we experts have been prominently acknowledged in the film's publicity. Caterers are part of the Hollywood machine, so they get screen credits, but "futurists" are not. Oh well.

    A more important disappointment for me was that I think there's an essential kind of optimism that ought to be portrayed in science fiction, but it seems to be beyond our imagination at present. Instead of making existential points by pitting people against technology, why not portray people using technology beautifully and creatively?

    I presented all sorts of ideas for what information technology might look like in fifty years, but the least noble of these were the only ones that stuck.

    Nowhere in Minority Report do we see people interacting with each other creatively using technology, nor do we see people inventing wonderful virtual things for each other. We see no children inventing their own technological culture, as is already commonly happening today. Philip K. Dick didn't live long enough to see that, and I want to believe that if he had he would have been forced to write a different kind of science fiction.

    The characters of Minority Report are uniformly either consumers (who are used by the advertisements, the animated cereal box, etc.) or elite controllers (the precrime officers who get to use a zippy interface.) Three-dimensional displays are used for recorded images, but not for live contact.

    The optimism I longed to see at the end of Minority Report was not only an assertion of what it is to be human, but also a synthesis in which those empowered humans would then use technology well. I would have loved to have seen Tom Cruise's character use that fancy glove-based interface to make a warm and charming virtual greeting for his pregnant wife, instead of posing with her with no technology in sight.

    This is the happy ending that Hollywood seems incapable of portraying.

    Here are some of the reasons this might be true:

    One is that movie people as a whole have trouble understanding the joys of interactive media. It's just a different culture. A dystopian movie about virtual worlds, like The Matrix, can make its way through Hollywood and be distributed, but a utopian movie about an interactive future seemingly cannot. Movie people are subliminally terrified by interactivity. It spells not only a loss of creative control, which movie people would miss more than you can imagine, but also a loss of business model. Napster lurks implicitly inside every shared virtual world that's under the control of its users. The world that seems utopian to me is dystopian to Hollywood.

    To be fair, there's another problem. The utopia I dream of is a world we are in the process of inventing. I don't yet know how to describe it myself. I find this exhilarating. Could Les Paul have imagined the Beatles when he made the first multitracked music? Could early digital sound experimenters like Max Mathews have imagined Hip Hop? I hope to be massively surprised some day by cultural invention inspired by virtual worlds and fancy interfaces. I can hardly expect movie people to fully imagine this stuff today.

    And yet, I still feel we all ought to try. Even a partial result would be joyous.

    The fact that the task is hard masks the fact that it's also taboo.
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  3. Nasor Valued Senior Member

    ”The Dick-to-Spielberg bridge in the last reel ended up working more successfully than I had imagined it could.”

    “Here, approximately, is the message I think the movie ends up expressing: "Belief in free will makes itself so, but also makes so a certain level of uncertainty, danger, and chaos, which is a worthwhile and noble price to pay."

    These are an odd set of thoughts to express in the same paragraph, since the original story ‘The Minority Report’ by Philip Dick had absolutely nothing to do with the themes put forth by Jaron Lanier in the article. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ was a story about people who believed that they had free will when in fact they didn’t.

    Additionally, the plot of the movie had virtually nothing to do with book. Some of the character names were the same, and both stories involved psychic police, but that’s about it. I mean, come on…Starship Troopers had more book-to-movie continuity.

    It seems likely that Hollywood thought the themes in Dick’s story were probably too dark and depressing for the average moviegoer, so they flipped the theme of the movie 180 degrees. This is fine, since it would be absurd to expect Hollywood to make a big-budget movie that wouldn’t appeal to a large audience. But it’s really annoying to see someone associated with the movie congratulating himself on a ‘successful’ bridge from book to movie when they didn’t even try to maintain any thematic elements of the original story. It’s easy to transition a story from a book to a movie when you throw out any elements that you find inconvenient.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2002
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  5. ssivakami Registered Senior Member

    Excellent point.

    A lot of it, IMO, has to do with people's hostility and mistrust towards science and technology itself.
    Most, if not all, people are very much pro-science and pro-technology when it comes to using the products/technology .
    They want the cars, they want airplanes, they want radio and television, they want antibiotics, they want telephones, they want computers, they want the internet.... they want all of that and more. But the science ? No, the science they'd rather not know about. "Science" is a bad word, extremely unpopular ! The standard reactions are either " Oh I'll never understand it " or " Its too heavy reading for me ... just not my cup of tea. " or " Everything cannot be reduced to E=mc 2 " or words to that effect . Its fashionable in many circles to boast ignorance of science.

    And a lot has to do with how the media projects science and scientists as well.
    To quote Ann Druyan (the late Carl Sagan's wife) -
    " ... virtually all of the scientists depicted on television or in popular culture are monsters, really. Either they're socially completely alienated from everyone else, or they've made some pact with the devil, some Faustian bargain in exchange for this arcane information, they've sold their souls, and they're a threat to all of us ! This is true in virtually every movie or soap that you see. ". Thus formed the wrong stereotype of science (and scientists) being cold and mechanical and stranegrs to the beauty and wonder in the universe, when, in fact, science reveals far more beauty and wonder than anything else.

    Then there's the humbling nature of science. Contrary to what many anti-intellectuals maintain, science is by nature a much more humbling enterprise than any religion or political ideology. This is obvious given the self-correcting mechanisms that are incorporated into the scientific method. Regardless of the occasional failures of individual scientists (who are human after all!), Science knows its limitations well and the scientific process recognises and accepts human imperfections and fallibility well.
    Science has made us realise that we're not at the center of the universe. We're not even at the center of our tiny solar system. We're very very young and extremely new to the universe and to our investigations of the cosmos. And as it becomes more and more clear that we are made up of dumb macro-molecules which have shaped most/all of our behaviour patterns and that our brains may be not much different than computer CPUs (except in degree of complexity) it may seem crucial to try and distance ourselves from them as much as possible.

    The very power of science scares people, I suppose. People blame science for nuclear weapons and chemical warfare and similar horrors, not realising that science is but a tool, a method ... to enable us to understand ourselves and the universe we live in better. Nothing more, nothing less. The problems arise only due to ignorance. The average person's grasp of even basic scientific concepts, let alone the latest discoveries of science, are very poor. The scientists to be some elite and secluded group of individuals who dont bother to communicate to the layman. This increases their mistrust of science/scientists even more. The trend is changing with a few scientists taking the popularisation route to the theory development and research one ... but not fast enough.

    - Sivakami.
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