How PERSON OF INTEREST’s Bleak Near-Future Became Our Reality
By Brian Walton on January 14, 2014
The digital world is so interconnected that the phone in my pocket can now play the movie on my TV. Our devices and lives are dependent on the hum and whir of technology and being able to tap into the larger world around us. As this digital world grows, it begins to encompass our work, entertainment, homes, and our security. The military, police and federal justice system are online too. Everything is wired.
With the amount of data that can now be collected about a human being, predictive patterns can emerge. Audi unveiled a car at the Detroit Auto Show this week that could measurably predict when a parking spot was going to open up on a busy street. We are there. So what would happen if someone came up with the right algorithm to connect all the data and predict when a major terror incident would occur? What if it predicted every violent crime? Would it be abused? What if the Machine processed that data and didn’t like what it saw? That’s the crux of Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman’s Person of Interest, which is currently in its third season on CBS.
The show follows the partnership of technologist Finch (Michael Emerson), the developer of “The Machine,” and Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former military black hat, as they track down violent crimes before they happen. The characters do this by finding the victim/perpetrator of the crime using the only information The Machine will give them, the associated person’s Social Security number. A Bat-family of sorts has formed around the two characters as they deal with corrupt police, the feds, government assassins and insane hackers. Ultimately, though, it’s the show’s debates on civil rights, surveillance and responsibility that keep the show engaging and socially important. Nolan’s The Dark Knight had delved into a few of the issues that he thought were ripe for commentary, but with it being a big budget superhero movie, he needed another vehicle to clarify his thoughts on the matter:
“The one thing that we were never quite able to do in the Batman movies, you never quite got that quintessential Batman moment of him rescuing a person from a banal, ordinary act of violence. The moment that that character had devoted himself to. You know, his parents were killed in an incredibly banal act of violence, a robbery. They weren’t killed by some massive conspiracy to take over Gotham City. No, they were just killed for a f–king pearl necklace. For nothing. So Batman’s choice to get out there and intervene in these irrelevant crimes, crimes that don’t matter to anyone except for him for emotional reasons and the people who are involved with them. The extinguishing of worlds, one person at a time and trying to fight against that was a theme that I felt was a really great and really durable one and one I wanted to continue exploring. It’s obviously not unique to comic books. This show has a lot in common with The Equalizer, Miami Vice, The X-Files, there’s an energy there from different places. I felt that dark vigilantism, which is a fundamental component of every hero, even Superman is a vigilante, is so massive in film right now; I looked at television and didn’t see any of it. And frankly, (I) saw a great opportunity to get in there and tell fun stories about the kind of banal, hideous violence that occurs daily in this heightened, comic book way. Which was a language I was very comfortable speaking in after ten years of prepping those movies.”
So if Caviezel is Batman, what were the inspirations for Emerson’s Finch? Nolan responded, “The idea of a technologist being confronted with the burden of technology. I will always imagine there would be someone at Google or Facebook that we would refer to as ‘The Suicide Department’. What do you do? You know there’s an algorithm there that predicts within a reasonable degree of accuracy whether or not someone is about to kill themselves. Because everyone who’s tried to kill themself in the last ten years Googled it first. That burden of omniscience intruding more and more on our reality are software engineers. They’re not superheroes. We thought that was a natural fun relationship. ”
Since the show premiered, Plageman and Nolan have seen their audience become aware of the digital world they exist in, and the writers have found the revelations rewarding. Plageman explained, “We always ran into this in the beginning. Articles would start about the creeping surveillance state and sort of everyone coming to the revelation that it’s not dawning, it’s here and that, in fact, it’s been here for a long time and you just didn’t know about it because it was on the “black budget”. We’re sort of used to this evolution of people coming to understand what is actually going on.”
Person of Interest is unique in the world of procedural dramas. While plenty of shows have been able to claim they’re ripped from the headlines, POI has the distinction of being able to say it predicted them. As The New Yorker points out, the show predicted Edward Snowden a year in advance with its episode “No Good Deed.” When discussing the depths of the NSA spying and how much of what has come to light is in line with the scripting of the show, Nolan is both disgusted and proud to have been ahead of the curve: “Unsurprised. Gratified and also mortified. I think you kind of hope things are better than you imagine they are and then you discover that on the one hand the security apparatus we imagined is every bit as omniscient as we’d imagined. They really are Hoovering up all of your information, in the J. Edgar sense of the word, as quickly as they can and dumping it into servers spread out across the inner-mountain West, where there aren’t any jobs, but there’s plenty of real estate to preserve your digital footprint for all of posterity. But they’re still unable to do anything useful with that information. It’s a little depressing. It’s almost like a dance we’re doing with reality which is fun. Reality has kind of caught up to what we were pitching a couple of years ago. At Comic-Con, where we met you for the first time, we bumped into one or two people that thought the concept was far-fetched. There’s certainly still a science fiction aspect to the show, but the show is a firmware update away from reality, rather than a hardware update.”
Nolan and Plageman are on the same page as to where this data mining will lead: the singularity. “The cornerstone of the show is that out of this arms race of information technology that we’re now thoroughly engaged in,” said Nolan, “cyber warfare, which was a silly idea, a silly phrase fifteen years ago, is now an absolute reality and quite terrifying in its own way. This is definitely the moment we find ourselves in and our idea was that out of the kind of carnage of this aggressive information arms race you might well see the emergence of something that probably in hindsight we’ll see was an Artificial Intelligence. It’s probably going to emerge out of the NSA or out of a data call center like the one the New York Times profiled. It’s either going to be a sales tool or it’s going to be a spy tool.”
With the audience now fully on board with the Orwellian nature of the show, Plageman says his fake world collides with the real one more than he thought it was going to. “On the show,” Plageman responded, “even though there is this science fiction aspect, there’s a heightened tone to the show – we always try to ground that. We always try to use technology that is in existence. That’s actually here and material. So, I’m always surprised when we talk about something in the writers room, whether we’re talk about AI or Ray Kurtzweil and the singularity. Then all of a sudden he’s hired at Google and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute.’ That’s just ridiculous. We’re talking about this now and you see these things converging and you’re going, ‘Okay, what’s that going to look like?’ [Amy Acker's] Root is, to a degree, an acolyte of Kurtzweil, and all of a sudden he’s in the hen house. There’s this non-stop drum beat of material coming our way; We’re even struggling to keep up with to a degree.”
If you are in the LA area, be sure to buy tickets to our next Nerdist Writer’s Panel on September 21, featuring writers from Person Of Interest.