The Hollywood film Minority Report, staring Tom Cruise, explores a world in which the police are able to accurately predict, and stop, a crime before it is committed. The conceit throws up all kinds of interesting philosophical questions of course, not least of which is the paradox involved in punishing somebody for an act they did not–and now cannot–perform. While this science-fiction is predicated on the clairvoyant minds of “precogs”, the idea of free-will versus determinism is not limited to this paranormal ruse: hypothetically, if a computer was powerful enough to map and predict the movement of molecules and aggregates in space and time, it too could perform this role. Certainly, we may never construct such a machine–but already there exist millions of digital blueprints (or machines) that predict an outcome based on processing vast sums of data. These are called algorithms.
Hardly a new invention, algorithms are used by the NSA to mine data for suspected “terrorist” activity; they are used by insurance companies to predict risk; and they are used by the police to predict the emergence of crime hotspots. The latter is called “CRUSH” policing, and it was pioneered in partnership with the Memphis Police Department back in 2005. CRUSH stands for “Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History” – and uses IBM software to predict the geography of potential crime:
Blue CRUSH uses IBM SPSS predictive analytics software to analyze past and present information and create multi-layer maps of crime “hot spots” based on various arrests and incidents. MPD is able to evaluate incident patterns throughout the city and connect the dots — such as outside of concert venues; or crime trends, such as increased car burglary on rainy nights. The software enables Blue CRUSH to analyze an array of data in areas as wide as the city’s entire nine precincts or narrowed down to a single block.
Blue CRUSH has greatly expanded over the years and now works in tandem with MPD’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), a $3 million state-of-the-art crime monitoring and analysis hub that opened in June 2008. This unique approach to fighting crime earned IBM and Memphis Police Department a 2010 Technology ROI Award from independent analyst firm Nucleus Research. MPD recorded an 863 percent ROI in just 2.7 months, an average annual benefit of $7,205,501.
According to IBM, the fusion of GIS and statistical algorithms has been, by all accounts, a roaring success: “predictive analytics software and reduced serious crime by more than 30 percent, including a 15 percent reduction in violent crimes since 2006”. Of course, being able to predict and prevent crime is not the same as targeting the systematic causes of crime–although I’ll leave this point for now. Far more interesting is the use of “predictive” technologies to geo-locate crime before it is committed. It is the CRUSH system that directs the police–a perfect example of a technology that once delivered over to the world, then works to change it.
Technology is usually viewed through two distinct lenses: one the one hand, there are those that see technology has determinate of social relations. On the other hand, technology is seen as instrumental–that is, inherently “neutral” and guided by human intentionality; a means to an end. Both views are built on the back of a faulty opposition, however, since the social is thoroughly technological, and the technological is thoroughly social. There is never a clear divide between the two terms. The net result is that changes in technology rewire the human condition.
The management of risk through algorithms is the bedrock of contemporary security. And here security can be anything – from the protection of the “homeland” from terrorism to the protection of corporate financial assets. As Ulrich Bech writes in “World Risk Society”,
“it is not the terrorist act, but the global staging of the act and the political anticipations, actions and reactions in response to the staging which are destroying the Western institutions of freedom and democracy. The restrictions on individual liberties discernible at many levels – from the increase in surveillance cameras to restrictions on immigration – are not simply effects of actual catastrophes (for example, acts of terrorist violence). They are the result of such experiences and their globalized anticipation, in other words, of the attempt to prevent the future occurrence of such events anywhere in the world” (2009, p.10).
Whether corporate profiteering or the “signature strike” of drone warfare, future-facing machines collect information, processes information, and predict activity.
Action thus becomes “preemptive”–a race to secure time itself; if time is understood as the domain of emergence, of becoming. The PreCrime police unit of Minority Report and the CRUSH system of the Memphis Police Department both rush to “get in front of time” by making the future present through technology.
Since the widespread institutionalization of the doctrine of the “preemptive strike” under the post-9/11 Bush administration, the idea that the “world is a battlefield” to repeat the subtitle to Jeremy Scahill’s book “Dirty Wars”, or the spread of what Derek Gregory has called an “everywhere war”, is accompanied by a rush to secure time. That is to say, it is not simply the domain of the spatial that is garrisoned, bordered, and surveyed–the domain of time is heavily militarized and policed.
In short, time, as the unfolding of being, is an inherently unstable force. The use of complex algorithms seeks to leash this contingency with statistical certainty. The war-police: the assemblage of drones, targeted killings, and criminal dispotifs, now resonate together around the (profitable) criminalization of time.
How does this all end?
In Minority Report, there is a flaw inherent to the predictive system: if one knows their future, they are able to change it.