As Minority Report turns 20, we take a look at some of the scary predictions Steven Spielberg’s film got right. 

“Just remember, the best science fiction stories have the most dire warnings about civilisation and the future.”  Steven Spielberg

To realise the world of Minority Report, an adaptation of a short story by Philip K. Dick, Steven Spielberg organised a think tank of experts to imagine the technology of 50 years in the future. In the two decades since, Minority Report has only become more accurate in its predictions of authoritarian tech.

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Washington D.C., 2054. The city is six years into an experiment whereby law enforcement is conducted by the PreCrime police. Led by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the department has eliminated murder from society. The system is dependent on three supernaturally gifted individuals, the PreCogs, who receive and process visions of crimes yet to happen. Anderton and the police then act on this divine information. Everything changes when Anderton is given a prevision of a murder committed by himself, a crime he must investigate to exonerate him and prove that even an all-seeing eye can overlook the truth. In attempting to clear his name of this pre-determined guilt, Anderton uncovers a wide conspiracy and calls into question the entire PreCrime apparatus.

The title itself refers to the sliver of doubt within the supposedly reliable system. Doubts are unacceptable within such clinical perfection, and a minority report will be destroyed to remove evidence of fallibility. If the nation knew, the whole system would collapse. Yet it’s a system built on lies. “The nation,” aptly described at one point as the “land of the blind,” is viewed as a homogenous mass of unsuspecting victims who must be protected from themselves with authoritarianism, no matter their own humanity. Lives become numbers, and zero murder is treated as an absolute good without consideration of the means to reach that end.

Along this crusade for truth, Anderton uses, and is then faced with, artefacts of control which demonstrate Spielberg’s think tank proposals of future technology.

Cuffs of the future

Arrests are revolutionised by the ‘halo’ device, placed around a pre-criminal’s head to subdue them and eventually become part of their cell. But criminals are not placed in the prisons we might expect. They are put into what looks like a chemically induced coma and left in pods stored in the ground, akin to coffins. Their face is obstructed by their halo, replacing their identity and humanity with a looped vision of their crime.

Being held prisoner without due process in a machine that disregards human rights like this accurately predicted the horrors of Guantanamo Bay. Opened in January of 2002, the site is notorious for its unrestrained torture and unchecked detention of innocent prisoners. According to the UN“In 2003, the facility was holding 700 prisoners. Twenty years later, 39 detainees remain but only nine of them have been charged with or convicted of crimes, 13 have been cleared for transfer. Between 2002 and 2021 nine detainees died in custody, two from natural causes and seven reportedly committed suicide. None had been charged or convicted of a crime.”

Minority Report takes this one step further by in fact codifying such practices as due process. None of its inhumanity is outside the jurisdiction of government powers. US President Barack Obama pledged to close the camp once he entered office, yet failed to do so. Trump signed an executive order to keep it open indefinitely, and current President Joe Biden’s review only brought the number of detainees down to 38. While there is still official intent to shut Guantanamo down, its persistence over two decades marks it as a symbol of institutionalised pre-determinism of guilt identical to Minority Report.

Touchscreen worlds

Other devices appear even closer to our current digital capabilities. Anderton’s process of ‘scrubbing the image,’ in which he studies the Precogs’ visions to search for clues, is eerily similar to our omnipresent touchscreen technology. With broad waves of the hand, he can alter the digital image in front of him. Speaking of Spielberg’s idea for this, Cruise said “he created this whole computer language so that he could physicalise it, free it from the keyboard.” The dynamic power of this has become our norm, with motion capture and virtual reality becoming widely accessible.

The manipulation of augmented reality environments is becoming more common, as Guangzhou City has used something called a ‘Digital Twin,’ which operates as an exact virtual copy of the city. Many police departments in the US also use VR for training purposes, creating and exploring various hypothetical scenarios for their officers.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

The eyes have it

Scans are not only used for criminal investigation, as retinal identification allows for transport payment and micro-tailored marketing. Upon entering retail shops, ethereal holograms appear to list off Anderton’s previous purchases and recommend new products. On this, Spielberg said: “The internet is watching us now. If they want to, they can see what sites you visit…The scary thing is, we’ll lose our right to privacy. An ad will appear in the air around us, talking directly to us.”

Their anthropomorphic floating being still seems impractical, but pop-ups, cookies, and automated search ads allow for micro-marketing in the digital world. Often after conversation, ads will appear on personal devices promoting the very products or companies discussed. Spoken about like an eerie coincidence, “they’re listening” is said half-jokingly. But ‘they’ are listening. Data collection is an open secret, denied emphatically by the NSA for years leading up to the Snowden revelations, and even since. 

Take it to the (data) bank

The primary devices of data collection are the Precogs themselves. The hazy impression of their collective vision appears as an amalgamation of dream-like data. Despite the lack of clarity to the image, it’s taken as gospel and acted on without thoughtful consideration or detailed investigation. Granted, the Precogs are always right; their data is divine. But even one minority report casts enough shadow of a doubt to disrupt faith in the entire process, exposing the fallibility of that foggy image. Government collection of metadata similarly constructs a factually ‘true’ image of possible criminals, and acts upon it, without thorough investigation. The ‘official composite’ of the PreCogs’ vision is supplemented by traditional metadata of tax returns or addresses, among other surveillance techniques.

The PreCogs are spoken about as though they are technology. Deified for their soothsaying abilities, we’re told not to “think of them as human.” They are considered divine for essentially acting as data banks for a totalitarian regime. Their worth is in their content generation and storage ability, rather than their humanity. Their existence proves that data is paramount and there are no moral boundaries that can’t be crossed to acquire it.

Droning on

Drones, one of the most contentious topics of contemporary tech, are barely a step ahead in Minority Report. In his escape from arrest, Anderton hides in an apartment complex which is raided by his former colleagues. Thermal scanning is used, turning each individual’s physicality into a single piece of data. Thermal imaging and heat scans are now common practice for many police departments. Like many other similar forms of surveillance, there is complexity around warrants for police use. Yet the access to them remains dangerous, with our security dependent on a state discretion which Minority Report suggests will be soon abandoned.

Mini drones are also used to infiltrate the building. Referred to as ‘spiders,’ the hyper-sensitive anthropomorphised robots are able to detect even a single air bubble from the bath John is hiding in. The overhead shot of the building, made on a practical set, provides a metagaze of the voyeuristic capabilities of the police. Moving from one couple having sex, to another arguing, the possibilities of personal intrusion into everyday intimacy by drones are endless.

Drones are now an embedded part of policing. In a 2022 report by the Electric Frontier Foundation, at least 1,172 police departments across the US were found to be using drones. Intended at one time to combat threats of terrorism, they are now “being deployed in more and more mundane policing situations and in punitive ways.” The most shocking of these was the case of Derrick Ingram, a racial justice activist who was accused of injuring an officer’s ears by speaking too loudly through a megaphone. In response, drones were flown outside his window without a warrant, along with helicopters and aggressive officers. 

Spielberg may have attempted to imagine a rich and detailed world of 50 years from 2002, but in the two decades since Minority Report, our technological form of justice has met and even surpassed the authoritarian surveillance of its dystopia. Sci-fi is an apt mode to explore the future, but the future is coming perpetually quicker. It’s already gone by the time our predictions can be expressed. Reflecting on the film 20 years later, it’s clear that we did not listen carefully enough to its ideas or their echoes in the real world. Guilt is now frequently pre-determined based on individual profiles, unfettered access to our lives is facilitated by enhanced surveillance, and punishment is enacted without hesitation.

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