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already considered out-of-date in 2002!), and so on.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
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
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
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
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
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
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.