‘Minority Report’: Technology and Free Will


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report showcases the technologies that are used under the rubric of predictive policing. Concerns around governmental overreach into individual freedom are exacerbated when technology that curtails free will is added to the mix.

A 3D rendition of a girl cyborg with wires attached to her head.
Precogs live underground with lots of biometric paraphernalia emphasizing their nature as cyborgs. (Image: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/Shutterstock)

The Precogs

In 1956, Philip K. Dick provided a fresh approach to the questions of free will and criminality in dystopian literature in his short story Minority Report. The story centers around three humans, called precog mutants or simply precogs, who have the ability to see crimes before they happen. They are beings who are partly biological, partly digital.

The Precrime Unit, a special division of the police, is developed around the precogs, and police arrests people before they commit their crimes. Minority Report was also made into a blockbuster film almost 50 years later, of the same name, by Steven Spielberg.

Most definitely, the central new technology that underlies Dick’s vision of a crime-free society are the precogs themselves. The precogs live in this creepy underground area with a pool and lots of biometric paraphernalia, emphasizing their nature as cyborgs. They strangely reveal the names of those to be saved and those to be imprisoned not through the computing equipment, but through a contraption that makes it look like some kind of lottery game, with balls rolling down long glass tubes.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Dick’s Representation of the Precogs

The technologies hinted at in the short story are front and center in the film. The ancillary technologies in Spielberg’s version, most of which speak metaphorically to the main new tech, are the precogs. In the short story, the precogs have little personality and are portrayed only as tools in the machine. Dick’s representation of them is not very human.

He describes them as idiots who babbled  all day long, imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps. Their physical needs were taken care of automatically. They had no spiritual needs. Vegetable-like, they muttered and dozed and existed. Their minds were dull, confused, lost in shadows.

We see the precog mutants through the visitor’s eyes, and we are just as disconcerted as he is, “It’s not pleasant,” he murmured. “I didn’t realize they were so,” he groped in his mind for the right word, gesticulating. “So—deformed.” John Anderton, the protagonist, agrees, saying they are deformed and retarded, that their talent absorbs everything.

Learn more about the definition and origin of utopia.

Spielberg’s Precogs

Spielberg’s vision is completely different. It’s remarkably faithful to the set-up, with the precogs, with wasted bodies and big heads, lost in the wiring of the machinery that works to translate their visions into something usable by police.

Yet, the precogs are not just cogs—as in, cogs in a machine. Spielberg’s cogs are people. Spielberg gives them ironic names, Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell, as in Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett, all seminal writers of detective fiction.

Advertising and Technology

  man with blue eyes having his retina scanned and data being uploaded.
People walk by electronic billboards and are addressed by name as a result of ubiquitous retinal scan technology. (Image: ozrimoz/Shutterstock)

Minority Report operates in a cool world with lots of new technologies, each of which opens up some ethical questions beyond the central tech of the precogs, and many of which speak to contemporary anxieties.

The dystopic world of Minority Report is also rife with direct marketing which exists at a whole new level. People walk by electronic billboards and are addressed by name as a result of ubiquitous retinal scan technology and are marketed to. “The road you’re on,” Anderton says on a Lexus billboard to the police-chief-on-the-run, “is a road less traveled.”

In reality, direct advertising is also an everyday thing as corporations use data mining techniques to make guesses about what each of us wants. Is this a marker of utopia or dystopia? Minority Report does make us question if it is a convenience or a sign that we are voluntarily handing over our free will to corporations.

Gadgets and  Flying Cars

There’s also wearable computing. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in which Anderton, wearing a computer glove, is able to view a crime scene being projected holographically from the precogs’ consciousnesses as if he’s a conductor directing a high-quality orchestra. This, of course, reminds us of Google Glasses and Fit Bits and all kinds of techs that are connected to our bodies and interact with computers.

The flying cars in Spielberg’s Minority Report might be compared to the thousands of unmanned drones currently causing some consternation in American airspaces. Nonetheless, the use of these cars produce a cool futuristic effect. They also are reminiscent of and, perhaps, a bit of a satirical take on the flying car as a recognizable icon of 1950s science fiction, when some imagined that by 2002 we would be terraforming Mars and traveling through air highways.

Learn more about the origins of utopia.

Contrast between Two Worlds

Indeed, one may notice that Spielberg’s movie does a terrific job of capturing Dick’s ironic descriptions of this idyllic world. Spielberg does a particularly great job in his use of contrast. On one hand, Minority Report epitomises this high-tech future, and, on the other, we see suburbs that are recognizably 1950s, with matching lawns, sprinklers, even newspaper delivery, and manicured neighborhood parks with mid-century playscapes.

This contrast, an homage to Dick, somewhere also reminds us that the story was written in the 1950s, by one of science fiction’s most complex and prescient practitioners.

Security versus Freedom

Minority Report exposes the conflict between security and free will. However, this isn’t a tension that resides only in the pages—or on the screen—of 1950s science fiction stories. The technologies used to paint the dystopia are real for us in today’s times, too. Be it their digital advertising or gadgets that are connected to our bodies, we can somewhat relate to this world.

The biggest change that’s occurred in the last 50 years in society is the preponderance of digital technologies. The Minority Report, thus, forces us to question the extent of the use of technology under the garb of predictive policing and what price we are willing to pay for such security.

Common Questions about Minority Report

Q: Who were the precogs in the Minority Report?

In the Minority Report, the precogs were humans who were mutants and had the ability to see crime before it happened.

Q: Where did the precogs live?

The precogs in Minority Report lived in an underground area with a pool and lots of biometric paraphernalia emphasizing their nature as cyborgs.

Q: Which wearable computing does Minority Report talk about?

The wearable computing Minority Report talks about is the computer glove which the protagonist John Anderton wears.

Keep Reading
Literature, Edward Bellamy, and Utopian Activism
Dystopia and the Mechanisms of Totalitarian Rule
Defining Dystopia: Development and Difference from Utopia