What if someone had access to a mass-surveillance supercomputer that could predict not only acts of terror, but everyday violent crimes? Such is the premise of CBS’s Person of Interest, an hour-long drama thematically resonating with debates over individual privacy and national security.
The supercomputer, known simply as “the Machine,” was invented by Harold Finch (portrayed by Michael Emerson) after the national tragedies of September 11, 2001. It analyzes data from sources around the world, such as security cameras, cell phones, emails, social media, flight manifests, and police radios. It is accurate enough to track a person in a crowd merely by audio, isolating the uniquely patterned sound of their footsteps. And, due to the way it was designed, it is both evolving and learning.
Finch builds the Machine for the United States government to use to prevent terrorist acts, but two things go wrong. First, he discovers that the Machine predicts all premeditated violent crimes, but the government only considers terrorist acts to be “relevant,” disregarding the rest as “irrelevant.” Second, Finch realizes that corrupt parties within the government seek to use the Machine for nefarious purposes. Therefore he limits access to the Machine, making it impenetrable: No one can get into the system (not even Finch), as the Machine’s advanced artificial intelligence adapts to counter any hacker. Furthermore, only two streams of numbers come out from the system, identifying potential victims or perpetrators. “Relevant” numbers are sent to the government. “Irrelevant” numbers are sent in secret to Finch. Each number is a “person of interest.”
Because the government is hunting Finch down, he opportunistically fakes his death to protect his loved ones. “Finch” is a pseudonymhis real name has not been revealed on the show. The inventor of mass surveillance is paradoxically the most secretive individual. Finch has lost his entire public identity. He lives as an unknown, in isolation, a stranger amid the crowds of New York City. He is, as he puts it himself, a “dead man.”
To assist him in the prevention of violent crimes, Finch hires another “dead man”: former CIA operative John Reese (portrayed by Jim Caviezel), who is also being hunted down by the government. Reese, with his cool demeanor and dark, low whisper, is part Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” and part Batman. His past is one of regret. A loved one was murdered when he could have been there to save her. Now he attempts to save everyone who the Machine predicts could be in danger. Finch gives him a rule against killing, so Reese shoots his opponents in the kneecaps.
Finch and Reese both treat the Machine as a means to an end, regarding it with a good dose of suspicion and dread due to its power. Both are dead men walking, saving lives while they run out the clock, waiting for the inevitable event that their enemies discover them and kill them. Rather than use the Machine for selfish ends, they use it to give up their very self-identity in order to save others. They are not exalted. They obtain no renown. They are unsung heroes.
As such they sharply contrast the other parties who are interested in the Machine. Often on the show the Machine is referred to in divine terms, as a “god.” One hacker acquires means of communicating with the Machine constantly, serving as its voiceits prophet. Another enemy seeks to replicate the Machine, creating a more powerful version that will be the perfect ruler of humanity, one that will never have moral failings but that will instead make purely logical decisions for the good of the world. Finch’s reply to this proposal is simple, yet devastating: “I would beware of false idols.”
Therein lies the heart of the show: a warning against a temptation as old as Eden. When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, they were attempting to acquire means of defining their own destiny and mastering their own lives, rather than having their happiness and telos defined by their communion with God. They sought divine independence, and in doing so lost true creaturely freedom. Mass surveillance similarly promises a sort of omniscience, “knowledge of good and evil,” and with it an opportunity to bring order and peace to the world. Yet ultimately such a system is a false idol, for it is through Christ alone that the world has and will be saved. Christ, who humbled himself by taking on human flesh, in direct contrast to Adam’s attempt at self-exaltation. Christ, who sacrificed his life for others rather than seeking his own gain.
A fallen world is not always one of easy answers, and the show is careful to warn against the excesses of power without falling into the trap of simplistic demonizations of either side of the debate. In one episode, a government official is portrayed as relentlessly brutal as she tortures a captive for information. Later, this same official is questioned in the midst of a kangaroo court and she gives an emotional recounting of her experience at the Pentagon on September 11th, and the thousands of terrorist attacks her methods have prevented since then. We, the viewers, understand her motives. We can see the line of reasoning that brought her to this place. In her shoes, we might have done the same.
Yet the same God who gives to the government the power of the sword also commands “you shall have no other gods before me.” A government that takes upon itself semi-divine powers, while at the same time demanding the faith and trust of its citizens, is an idol, on the road to becoming bestial. The sort of power that protects a country from terrorists can also be misused to silence dissenters, or to persecute Christians. Thus, in the name of freedom, freedom is sacrificed. In his desire to become like God, Adam’s very identity as the image of God was broken.
We would do well to look toward a different tree: not that of the knowledge of good and evil, falsely tempting us with a leap toward divine independence, but the tree that was built into a cross, on which God in lowly human flesh took the penalty for human sin and evil. One tree promised freedom and led to death. The other tree provided death but also true life and freedom.
Season 4 of Person of Interest premiers September 23rd on CBS.
Albert L. Shepherd V is a doctoral candidate in divinity at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. This image was modified from Flickr.