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News From Nowhere – New Tech as Plot

September 25, 2011

Watched PERSON OF INTEREST pilot earlier tonight.

The challenge in writing stories where a new technology, or adapted technology, serve as a plot focal point, is not in teaching the audience how it works, but in making the tech’s use immediately recognizable and understandable. Nobody ever has to understand how something works so long as they’re conditioned to understand why (wi-fi works because we said so) or they’ve seen it before (the Andersons have one of those).

We saw Guillermo Del Toro do a Q&A in front of Mimic about two weeks ago and he, hilariously, referred to films technological exposition as being close to: “The bullshitanium is about to erupt!” And he’s right, of course, but film isn’t television. And that shit doesn’t hold up week after week.

We knew what the code was in Lost (cold war conditioned) and we generally understand what Rover does after we see him hound and flatten Number Six once. We understand that CSI is bullshit, but it’s also scaring you straight bullshit, instilling a fear that the police can use satellites to find you from a pube they found on that clown you murdered even though you set him on fire.

PERSON OF INTEREST utilizes surveillance as their plot manufacturer. A secret government surveillance system spits out social security numbers of those in danger/a danger which our two leads will then hunt down and save/destroy. The show is littered with 9/11 references, which explains why New York city has become the most heavily wired city on the planet.

The challenge for the show isn’t in selling the pre-crime – we have dozens of examples of that (usually failing) from Minority Report’s bald savants to Wanted’s doom loom. Hell, an American agency has begun implementing pre-crime based on a computer program which predicts moments of interest for property crime or property destruction.

The challenge for the show is selling the constant always present surveillance, which the world (outside of England) is both a) not familiar with (they aren’t paying attention), b) aren’t comfortable with (talk to anyone over 30 about identity theft and watch them clench and sweat).

The world of constant, all-encompassing surveillance is frightening. Just ask anyone with a Facebook account. People are generally not comfortable seeing themselves identified as number or having tabs kept on them.

The only time people get ID’ed in a prime time show (a sheet of paper is printed out with their name and information on it) is because they’re a suspect or a victim. And PERSON OF INTEREST has turned New York City into an even split on that.

So though the show might pick up, that is the grave they’ve dug for themselves. An interesting premise based on tech that makes people uncomfortable. I’m willing to say that they’d have better odds in lasting if Caviezel was digging through people’s trash every week, trying to find receipts for murder weapons.

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