In his short story, The Minority Report, Philip K. Dick predicted a future in which crime was non-existent, everyone lived in complete safety, and the government had established an all-encompassing social order. In this imagined future, society had devised a way to prevent all crime before it ever occurred by identifying, arresting, and prosecuting “perpetrators” before they could do any harm.
While we’re not there yet, we’re edging ever closer to that reality all the time.
On a national scale, you don’t have to look much further than the current NSA controversy to see this idea of safety-through-divination playing itself out in everyday life. The federal government, with its own cryptically named precogs, – PRISM, DISHFIRE, PINWALE, etc. – is earnestly striving to identify and predict the next terrorist attack. And, when they make a prediction, people will be detained, killed, or otherwise stopped before they can commit any crime.
That’s what society demands of its security-industrial complex at the moment.
And, why not? The idea of an entirely safe, crime-free society is a compelling one. In our safety-saturated culture, stopping crime completely – especially terrorism – is a goal that most people would heartily support. In fact, it would sound insane to argue somehow that a certain amount of terrorism is good or necessary. It’s definitely neither.
Terrorism aside, though, the idea of predicting criminality raises troubling questions about the relationship between a government and its citizens in a free democracy.
When is the government justified to intervene in the lives of people who have not been charged or convicted of any wrongdoing? I’m not talking here about would-be terrorists conspiring to kill or maim the masses. I’m talking about people being profiled and labelled “high risk” and then subjected to government intervention and heightened surveillance in an effort to prevent them from engaging in criminal behavior.
Chicago, for example, has developed a “heat list” of people it predicts will commit a crime at some point in the near future:
With the help of mathematical analysis, Chicago police hope to home in on people it believes are most at risk of shooting someone or being shot themselves. The strategy calls for warning those on the heat list individually that further criminal activity, even for the most petty offenses, will result in the full force of the law being brought down on them. At the same time, police extend them an olive branch of sorts, an offer of help obtaining a job or of social services.
In a free society, is a mathematical algorithm – no matter how well crafted or intended – just grounds for “warning” people about their future behavior? Is it enough to single them out and subject them to the “full force of the law,” even for minor infractions? If so, what’s to stop the government from applying this same approach to the full spectrum of deviance? Should we send IRS agents out to warn those who match a certain “tax cheater profile” to report all their income, or FBI agents out to do pre-emptive audits of companies that are predicted to engage in fraud?
Would you want a police officer knocking on your door and telling you that a mathematical process had identified you, or someone in your family, as a potential criminal?
Some would argue that if Chicago’s approach saves even one person’s life, it’s entirely worth it. In the abstract, I would definitely agree. I don’t want to see anyone needlessly harmed in any way. But, as we carry that argument out to its potential endpoint, it becomes less and less palatable and more nonsensical.
To create perfect safety, we could establish government assessment units that evaluate every citizen on a regular basis, from childhood on, to determine their statistical probability of engaging in crime, and then provide customized interventions to prevent deviant behavior. Perhaps we could even develop a High Risk Person (HRP) registry that would map out where these future offenders live, work, and play, so that we could all keep an eye out for them. And, of course, if any of these HRPs balked and didn’t follow through with their prescribed interventions, we could arrest and incarcerate them for non-compliance. All in the name of safety.
Sounds like something out of a PKD novel, doesn’t it?
Chicago’s individualized approach to prediction is taking us in this direction. As a society, we need to decide if that’s where we want our system to go. I would argue that we don’t want to tip the balance of power away from individual freedoms and toward more government intervention in our lives, even if doing so might give us an increased margin of actual or perceived safety.
What are your thoughts? Leave and comment and share your opinions!
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