Person of Interest Is the Perfect Show for the Snowden Era

THE MACHINE: Person of Interest

Episodic still via CBS

The CBS drama Person of Interest tells the story of “the machine,” a total surveillance system designed to detect acts of terror. Its creator, Harold Finch, discovered that although the machine could predict all manner of events—including murders—the government considered these crimes irrelevant. Consequently, Finch and his ass-kicking partner in crime-fighting, John Reese, decided to use this “irrelevant” data to intervene and prevent the crimes from occurring.

Earlier this week, June Thomas spoke with creator Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and executive producer Greg Plageman about their thoughts on technology and big data.

Slate: Since the show went on the air in 2011, there have been all kinds of revelations about real-time monitoring and surveillance, especially last year from Edward Snowden about the NSA. What drew you to this material more than three years ago?

Jonathan Nolan: I’d grown up in the U.K. where the surveillance apparatus went into place in the 1970s in response to the Troubles with the IRA. When I was a kid, we moved to Chicago, and I was surprised to see you could live in a large city in which you didn’t have cameras on every street corner. Slowly but surely over the course of my lifetime, that Panopticon hauled itself across the Atlantic and set up shop all over America, most notably in New York. The question that always fascinated me as a kid was, “Who’s watching?” The flaw with the Panopticon is that you can’t look at every camera. Which, of course, naturally raises the question: What could? Scotland Yard can’t. The NYPD can’t. But artificial intelligence and machine intelligence is already solving problems and doing things that are very complicated. The car that I now drive can, with a pretty astonishing degrees of accuracy, drive itself, certainly on the freeway.

The application of machine intelligence to problems that humans are not very good at is something that we’re very interested in. People are fascinated, for whatever reason, by human drama, and the idea that cameras are capturing ambient stories. These days it’s often a snippet of surveillance from the last time a person was seen, and so on. That story’s very sad and horrible, but it was always suggestive to us that this was a great arena to play in.

Slate: It’s funny that you mention self-driving cars. So much technology is moving toward acting autonomously, which in a way is what the machine is doing now. It doesn’t seem like Harold can communicate with it; Root is waiting for it to contact her. It’s not quite that the machines are taking over, but they are sentient.

Nolan: This is something we’ve been interested in since the beginning of the show. We think so much of our relationship with machines in patriarchal terms or hierarchical terms, as if they work for us. My phone works for me, right? What the Snowden thing has revealed conclusively is: absolutely not. Just like television is not about providing you with drama, it’s about providing you with commercials, and we put the drama in between to keep you there. Your phone is there to sell you advertising and to tell multinational corporations about you. It’s not there to provide you answers; it’s not there to avoid a traffic jam. That’s not what they’re selling. That’s the sweetener. The reality is our relationship with technology is already upside down; it’s just that this is the year in which Americans and everyone else is learning that for the first time.

Slate: But Person of Interest takes a positive view of technology in that Finch and Reese are using the machine and the information it provides for the sake of justice. They’re preventing murders.

Greg Plageman: I think, in terms of an Orwellian entity, it’s always been associated with a negative. On the show, when we talk about something as powerful as the machine, one of the interesting things baked into the premise is to dispense with the version where we automatically assume that the thing is coming to destroy us. In fact, its initial intent was the opposite, according to Harold Finch, but when it evolved beyond his grasp, when it became something bigger. What does it become then? What does it become in terms of its intentions and what it wants to do? The interesting thing is that the machine has moved itself, it is still disseminating numbers to us—both the relevant and the irrelevant—and it’s actually communicating with Root. So now it’s doing three different things, and we’re not quite certain as to what the machine’s intent is going forward. We think that’s just a fascinating territory to explore.

Slate: Jonah, you have a history of writing about memory—one of your short stories became your brother’s movie Memento. In recent weeks, the show has been exploring memory, especially when we saw young Harold helping his father who had Alzheimer’s and later his college buddy who has also lost the power to recall the past. The machine is providing really positive assistance here. 

Nolan: Absolutely. Human behavior has changed in the last five years with the widespread adoption of smartphones. Once again, we are outsourcing aspects of what we do to a machine that is better at them than we are. Machines are much better at remembering things—with qualifications. I was talking to someone the other day who was horrified to realize that he’d  put all his family photos onto DVD-Rs and discovered that after just four years, they were starting to develop errors. I remember things from when I was 3 years old 33 years hence. In terms of long-term durable storage, the human mind, paradoxically, is pretty good, but it’s very fragile. So we begin to rely more on Evernote or Flickr or the cloud. The idea that we’re essentially pushing pieces of our life narrative into the cloud to retrieve it is logical, terrifying, and fascinating.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Update, Jan. 17: This blog post was updated to note that the interview was edited and condensed.