Crime Prevention and Future Cities in Minority Report (USA, 2002)

‘Don’t worry, none of your secrets are safe with me.’ This is what a drug dealer tells his addicted client in Minority Report. While on a nighttime run through the empty streets of Washington D.C.’s slum district, Precrime Police Chief John Anderton replenishes his personal drug supply. The criminal recognizes the police chief but ‘reassures’ him that Anderton’s anonymity is far from safe. The sequence starts with an advertisement praising the precrime program that was initiated six years ago to curb the epidemic proportions of the country’s homicide rate. As Anderton traverses the deserted slum district, the ad seemingly follows him everywhere he turns, blasting from the ubiquitous and huge talking billboards that loom from every surface. This advertisement declares crime to be an epidemic – an illness. As Susan Sontag has argued, illness is frequently used as metaphor.[i] Here, too, the crime has become an epidemic that must not be allowed to spread any further. The Department of Precrime – with its intrusive surveillance techniques and military precision – is presented as ‘the cure’ that will eradicate the disease.

Minority Report is set in the near future of 2054. During the pre-production process, the director, Steven Spielberg, invited a group of futurists to a 3-day brainstorming session. Experts in technology, engineering, science, architecture, urban planning, and advertising discussed possible developments in the foreseeable future. The film is a thought experiment about what the near future will be like in terms of technology, urbanism, crime fighting, medicine, and transportation. According to Spielberg, the story is set only a few decades from now because this means that Minority Report does not have to reinvent society to be able to portray it.[ii]

The film is set in Washington D.C. because the production team thought it was reasonable to assume that it will not change as considerably as another city might. There will still be the Washington Monument, the Senate Rotunda of the Capitol Building, and the White House. But the assumption was that around this basic identity of Washington D.C., there would be signs of future architecture and technologies. According to the production designer, Alex McDowell, skyscrapers are unlikely to be built in the city’s centre because of its current building restrictions. This means that such tall buildings would appear in the periphery instead. The production-design team thus imagined that across the Potomac River, there would not be any restrictions, allowing a modern, vertical city to develop. In contrast, the team envisioned the old city, where the fictional slum district, ‘The Sprawl,’ is located, to remain below streamlined high-rises. Architecturally, the team constructed this area of the filmic Washington D.C. much like downtown Los Angeles: as a decaying, dark tenement city.[iii]

The contrasts of these different areas within the city become apparent once Anderton is on the run. At first, he uses the high-tech transportation system, the magnetic levitation (maglev) that features self-driving cars floating up and down the sides of buildings. Then he is forced to retort to the subway, which employs retinal scanners to identify each and every passenger. Finally, running from his former colleagues, he ends up in a filthy alleyway complete with a rusting car. Through the chase, the audience discovers the full range of this contradictory urban fabric. From state-of-the-art government buildings and different transportation systems to decaying back alleys around the corner of high-tech factories: All this seemingly within running distance.

While Minority Report’s precrime is people-centric, real crime prediction is place-centric. Predictive policing (PredPol) is by no means a thing of the science-fiction future, as an article in The Guardian reported in June 2014. Kent police in England, for example, have used predictive policing to tackle robberies and drug crimes.[iv] The Los Angeles Police Department is another one of many police forces today that uses data-driven analysis to identify future crime scenes. Its Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division uses prediction algorithms to determine how likely it is that a crime will take place in so-called ‘crime hotspots,’ which are certain areas in the city.

The opening sequences of Minority Report also establish a clear distinction between the locations of crime: the Department of Precrime versus ‘The Sprawl.’ Subsequent narrative development, however, challenges these perceptions. Anderton, for example, questions the righteousness of the ‘Hall of Containment’ where alleged future perpetrators are held in an endless state of unconsciousness. He uses his knowledge about illegal behaviour to enlist the help of an unlicensed doctor and shady club owner, both located in ‘The Sprawl.’ He also uncovers that the Department of Precrime itself is not the infallible system the advertisements will have citizens believe. The narrative shows that a decaying urban fabric is not representative of crime taking place there. And cutting-edge architecture, while ostensibly radiating transparency and thus legitimacy, is no guarantee to be a crime-free zone.

Real-life predictive policing and its reliance on analysis-by-machine bring with it concerns regarding loss of privacy and government overreach. At the moment, government surveillance can be challenged through the Freedom of Information Act. Other entities, however, such as private companies, are not legally obliged to disclose any information about their surveillance techniques. In an article from March 2016, The Guardian reported that almost 60% of UK fashion retailers are using facial recognition software.[v] This is a technology that only airport security, border agents, and the police used to employ. This changed recently when commercial retailers introduced the technology, ostensibly, to prevent thefts and to identify VIPs to offer them exclusive treatment. Real-time camera images are cross-referenced with a database of known criminals to prevent crime before it happens. Current laws do not account for what private owners of publicly-accessible spaces do with information they obtain about customers. This aids a lack of transparency because a retailer is not legally obliged to disclose the fact that they are using facial recognition software.

According to Minority Report’s screenwriter, Scott Frank, one of the predictions in the pre-production brainstorming session was the complete loss of privacy. Frank argues that ‘[t]he reason is not so people can spy on you but so [that] they can sell to you.’[vi] The film represents a near-future society that has agreed to the complete eradication of anonymous space and civil rights as a trade-off for security. The precrime unit is, on its surface, a beacon of transparency. The department’s headquarters is a building made of glass and bathed in light. Soft curves and metallic surfaces perpetuate the idea that Precrime is an organisation open to public scrutiny that has nothing to hide.

Concealing anything is impossible in Washington D.C. of 2054: Retinal scanners that are operated by private companies and law-enforcement departments alike are all over the city and continuously identify passers-by. Within this diegesis, traversing public space has become the equivalent of stepping inside the world of one personalised commercial after the other – while your law-abiding behaviour is being monitored. Similarly, private space is only private until law enforcement sees fit to invade it in the name of crime fighting.[vii] All this is made possible by the apparently simple utilisation of illness and its treatment as metaphor. Crime is a disease that has spread to epidemic proportions, and surveillance is ‘the cure.’

– Sigrid Preissl May 2016

Notes

[i] Susan Sontag. Illness as Metaphor & Aids and its Metaphors. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1990.
[ii] Steven Spielberg. ‘The World of Minority Report: An Introduction.’ Minority Report. DVD. Directed by Steven Spielberg. UK: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, c2010.
[iii] Alex McDowell. ‘The World of Minority Report: An Introduction.’ Minority Report. DVD. Directed by Steven Spielberg. UK: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, c2010.
[iv] Nate Berg. ‘Predictive Crime, LAPD-Style.’ The Guardian, 25 June 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/25/predicting-crime-lapd-los-angeles-police-data-analysis-algorithm-minority-report. Accessed 7 April 2016.
[v] Chris Frey. ‘Revealed: How Facial Recognition Has Invaded Shops – And Your Privacy.’ The Guardian, 3 March 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/03/revealed-facial-recognition-software-infiltrating-cities-saks-toronto?CMP=fb_gu. Accessed 4 April 2016.
[vi] David Wright, ‘Alternative Futures: AmI Scenarios and Minority Report.’ Futures Vol. 40 (2008): 473-488.
[vii] For example, in the sequence set in ‘The Sprawl’ when the precrime unit, hunting for the missing Anderton, deploys thermal scans and electronic spiders that scan retinas for identification purposes.