Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Minority Report Dilemma

The other day my parents sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal written by Brian M. Carney ('Unraveling the Mysteries of Murderous Minds'). The basis of the article is Dr. Theodore Dalrymple’s (aka. Anthony Daniels, a psychiatrist and doctor in Britain’s prison systems for over fifteen years) discussion of the psychological reasoning behind Anders Behring Breivik’s Norway shooting. He explains that there’s a general fascination and desire to “understand” atrocities like this – on both a personal and political level. However, he warns us that an attempt to “figure out” criminals and understand their motivations can lead to a misguided “statistical generality”.

Dalrymple argues that "‘you examine [Breivik] and you come to the conclusion that this, that and the other factor went to create the situation. You wouldn't have any more than a statistical generality.’ But if that statistical correlation could be verified, could it lead to ‘locking up people before they've done anything’?

Hmm . . .

Furthermore, Dalrymple stated that at one point, “the British government . . . wanted doctors to speculate on what people might do” and use this psychological insight to “offer law enforcement their views about who was likely to become dangerous”.  

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

To classical sci-fi (and Tom Cruise) fans it will. The use of psychological mapping to anticipate crime and assist in the pre-identification of criminals Dalrymple discusses sounds remarkably like Philip K. Dick’s Precrime system in the 1956 short story The Minority Report.

For those who are not familiar with Philip K. Dick’s work, the plot of The Minority Report centers around the belief that if we can anticipate crime, we can prevent it. In the story, “Precrime” is a government system set up to eliminate crime before it happens through the employment of three “precogs” (human beings with a talent for precognition). Their ability to forsee criminal events is so effective that Precrime “cut down felonies by ninety-nine and decimal point eight percent”.

However, there’s just one problem . . . the three precogs do not always see the same vision. In the event that differences occur, computers take their precognitions and synthesize them into a majority (the two closest visions) and minority (the dissenting vision) report, so the Precrime unit can proceed in its systematic eradication of crime without concern for the human ability to adapt and change according to their own free will.

Thus the story suggests that the ability to predict and prevent crime before it happens is deeply flawed. In the past when I’ve read Dick’s story (or watched Spielberg’s somewhat bastardized version), I always marveled at this defective penal system. So imagine my surprise – and utter horror – to find that, according to Dalrymple, governments have already taking steps in the same direction. Could it be that our future holds its own version of a Precrime division, headed by a team of government mandated psychologists, sociobiologists and neuroscientists (in place of precogs)?

I’d like to think we’re smarter than that. But I’ve been proven wrong before. Just look at our fiscal policies . . .  


  1. Such a great movie! And one that raises such interesting moral and ethical questions as well. Great post, as usual ( :

    P.s. I blog-awarded you, girlie! Check it out!

  2. Have you heard about the new show on CBS this fall called 'Person of Interest'? It's from J.J. Abrams, and I think it's a computer that's prediting the crime. It's been getting some pretty good buzz.

  3. Julie - thanks for the blog award and sorry it took me so long to respond. I'm a terrible blogger. But I LOVED the award and was thrilled to award you (etiquette or no).

    Jecelyn - I hadn't heard about that show but you're right, it looks really really interesting. I HAVE to watch it now. I love stuff like that, though I swear it adds to my paranoia haha. Thanks for the tip and let me know if you hear of any others!!

  4. We already live in the most monitored society in the world, so, no, that wouldn't surprise me at all.
    Several years ago, a friend of mine's dad had his car insurance premium raised. Why? He'd never once been involved in an accident. Like in 30 years, he'd never once had a ticket or an accident. Statistically speaking, they felt like he was due for one, so they raised his insurance. That sounds about like what you're talking about.

  5. PKD always loves to develop an idea and then completely destroy it. That's what made him such a great writer. Hopefully, this idea never takes off, but it could happen.