I’ve been meaning to read some Philip K. Dick for years, but I never quite got to it. A friend of mine at work had this audio file kicking around on his computer, though, so I figured I might as well start here with one of his most famous works. I can’t remember if I enjoyed the film adaptation of Minority Report or not. I never could stand Tom Cruise (even before everyone else caught on), so that may have tarnished my experience, but all I really remember from the movie was the awesome, but probably impractical, computer interface he uses.
The Minority Report takes place in a future world where crime is prevented by the invention of Precrime, a system which uses three mentally disabled people with gifts for precognition (procogs, they’re called) to predict crimes before they happen. The predictions are put into a computer, analysed, and the potential criminal is arrested. It’s deemed the perfect system, until the Precrime inventor’s name comes up.
I enjoyed this both for the questions it raises and for the interesting narrative. It’s a short story, or possibly a novella, and I’m a little torn on whether I’d rather this be a full length novel. The ideas beg for a more in-depth treatment, but the protaganist is a bit of a douchebag. He’s fighting for what he believes is right, but I definitely don’t agree with his goal, so it would be hard to follow him for a full novel’s length. It doesn’t really matter, though, because I think Dick managed to get across what he wanted at this length. I’m a little blown-away by how much he does actually manage to convey in such a short time, in setting and in idea.
What’s really interesting about this story is the idea of multiple timelines. The public thinks that only one prediction is made, but each precog can come up with different timelines. As long as two timelines match (or are similar enough), they become a majority report, and the third becomes the minority report. So really, if the precogs predict a future outcome, it’s still only a possibility. Factor in the idea that knowing about your personal report will invalidate it, since your future will change as a result, and it all becomes a tangled web of uncertainty that’s being used to incriminate people.
It brings up the question: is the system worth the risk of false positives if it essentially eliminates crime? It’s reduced all crime by 99.8%, and murder is something that no longer really happens. This is an extreme example, in both the risk and the benefit, but it relates to what we see happening in the world today – airport security, for example. Is it worth being treated as a criminal before you’ve done anything wrong, on the chance that they might stop someone getting harmed? What’s the balance between safety and discomfort?
People like to toss around the phrase if it saves one life, it’s worth it, but does that really hold true? Life’s all about compromise. We allow cars, airplanes, alcohol, tobacco, and fatty foods in our society. These are related to a huge number of deaths each year, yet we’ve decided that their benefit, or at least our freedom to make the choice, is worth the chance.
In the case of the precogs’ reports, while you may not end up committing the crime, there is a real timeline in which you would. You may not end up murdering someone, but there are circumstances in the future that would, without a doubt, lead to you murdering someone. Is it right to remove someone from society knowing that they do have the potential for murder within them, even though they may choose a different path?
I’d guess that most people would choose free will over safety, but who knows? There are a lot of people who don’t seem to care what freedoms are taken away until it affects them personally, by which time it’s too late; it’s a lot easier to give away your rights than it is to get them back.