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Probably best known for his work in Virtual Reality, Jaron Lanier is a composer, computer scientist, visual artist and author. He lives in new York City.

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as the advertisements that automatically incorporate passers-by, the interface gloves (which are already considered out-of-date in 2002!), and so on.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 not).

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 technologists.

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 reacting against.

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 some disappointments.

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 creatively?

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 in sight.

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.

© 2002 21C Magazine