The Eyeballs Have It

Little did I expect when I went to see Minority Report that I’d spend less time trying to figure out whodunit than thinking about direct marketing.

The flick is nominally a sci-fi crime story. In the future, psychic mutants can predict crime before it happens; hotshot D.C. cop Tom Cruise is accused of being about to kill a man he never met, so he takes it on the lam. But in this high-tech future, people’s eyeballs act as instant identifiers. The entire city is wired with eyeball scanners, so after the warrant is out for Tom’s arrest, the identification system pinpoints him on mass transit and shuts down the entire subway network. Being the hero of the film, he manages to escape this time. But the only way he can circumvent the citywide scanner system is to get an eyeball transplant. (You with me so far?)

The scanner system doesn’t just allow the police to capture criminals-to-be. It also enables marketers to provide the ultimate in one-to-one marketing. For instance, as Tom is strutting through a shopping arcade, voices from the store windows call out to him by name, promoting the products most likely to interest him. And when he walks into a Gap store (yes, despite its current woes, the Gap is apparently going to survive), a virtual salesclerk not only greets him by name but also refers to his last purchase and asks if he wants to buy a complementary product.

The Gap scene got a laugh, most likely because Tom had undergone the eyeball transplant by then, and so he learned via the virtual clerk that the original owner of said eyeballs had definitely been Asian. And that pointed up one of the shortcomings of such intensely personalized marketing: There’s little room for error.

You could interpret much of the film, in fact, as a plea for a simpler, more personal (as opposed to personalized) time. The scene in the arcade, for instance, seemed to be shot with a distorted lens, so that the windows and the accompanying come-ons appeared to attack you from nauseating angles.

Minority Report was meant to tackle the big issues of Privacy, Technology, and Personal Freedom. But from where I sat, it seemed to boil down to how much retailers should be able to know about a person and how invasive they have the right to be. The filmmakers want me to believe that having a virtual clerk greet me at the Gap with “Are your jeans more comfortable, Ms. Chiger, now that you’ve gone up one size?” is a bad thing. And, yes, if the clerk went so far as to divulge my waist size, it would be a very bad thing indeed. But what if the virtual clerk simply said, “Hello, again! Pants similar to the ones you bought last month are now on sale — would you like to see them?”? That wouldn’t be bad at all.

One more item about the movie: Near the end, Tom needs to get into a highly secured area to save the day. He — or rather, his original eyeballs — used to have security clearance. With his new eyeballs, of course, he doesn’t. Luckily, he carries his original eyeballs with him in a plastic bag (don’t ask), so he is able to hold them in front of the sensor and be cleared to enter the highly secured area.

But the reason he needed the eyeball transplant in the first place was that the citywide security system was on full alert to find and capture him. So while the city’s database has him down as a dangerous future killer, the highly secured area does not yet have that information. Even in the future, apparently, it’s still difficult to have one database communicate properly with the other.

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