Spiritual Poverty – Person of Interest 102, Ghosts

Disappearing people

This episode’s Number, Teresa, is presumed dead and has been living that way ever since her family were gunned down. She has sought safety by disappearing from her life, not contacting the aunt who still loves her. The B story of this episode is Reese trying to find out more about his employer Finch. It turns out that he works as a low-level programmer at the company he owns. He has disappeared into unimportance; we see in flashback that he used his friend as a fake CEO, drawing all the public attention. Both Teresa and Finch have kept themselves safe by fading away from human contact. They have left behind the webs of relationships that should connect them to the world.

Some people only die once. What a weird idea.

But Finch has lost his one friend (we find out later that his name is Nathan Ingram). And so he counsels Teresa to reconnect with her aunt; to not give up on the love and human connection that he has lost. The closing scene of Teresa and her aunt wordlessly embracing is one of the most moving scenes in this season. But this episode also says something echoed in many later episodes: human connection makes you vulnerable. It is Teresa calling her aunt that puts the hitman on to her location. Again and again, Our Heroes will be shown to be safe when they are entirely isolated from broader society; that loving or caring about ‘normal’ people creates an avenue of attack. Having lost his friend, Finch knows this. But he still tells Teresa to rebuild her relationship with her aunt.

What I’m not sure about is whether Finch does this because the threat to Teresa is so much less than to him, and she can perhaps manage to keep what he could not; or whether it’s a vicarious desire, the hope that she can preserve what he has already lost. Perhaps a bit of both.

 

Righteousness

This episode shows us by flashback that saving the irrelevant numbers wasn’t Finch’s idea. He was content to ignore them. (Heartbreakingly, we see Jessica’s face flash up on the screen). It was Nathan Ingram who feels they need to do something; it’s Nathan who can’t really see a moral difference between relevant and irrelevant numbers, the difference that Finch has laboriously coded into the Machine but which (as the mere existence of the irrelevant list shows) doesn’t really exist. Or at least not in moral dignity – in means of protecting life, perhaps there is a relevant distinction. But more on that later.

For now, we have seen that Finch did not start saving lives on his own. He was actually willing to let people be hurt because he needed the Machine to stay secret, so that it could stay turned on and stop terrorist attacks. Something happened – something that gave Finch his limp, changed his glasses from round to square, and killed his friend Nathan. As mentioned in the last entry – moral clarity comes through pain and loss in this show.

 

The system

The cops didn’t realise that Teresa’s family was a professional hit, rather than a murder-suicide. But John the ex-assassin did. The cops didn’t realise that Teresa was still alive, rather than her body being lost at sea. But the Machine the omniscient AI did. Again and again the show tells and shows us that the system is inadequate and incompetent. It has good and bad people in it. But even the good people are held back – people need more. They need Our Heroes. But it’s important to remember that Our Heroes can only be what they are with the help of the Machine. When people in real life suggest that they need to go beyond the law, to be free from restraint, our response should be: are you omniscient?

In a sense the show is already predicating divine attributes of the Machine: it is never wrong, it always knows, but it has to entrust that knowledge to its imperfect (though ridiculously skilled) human agents.

 

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The anonymous hitman of this episode is a physical match for Reese. It’s the existence of people like him that let Reese be a good guy. Without people like the hitman, or the thugs in the open of the episode, Reese might look like a crazed vigilante. But with people like this, Reese’s highly skilled selfless violence finds selfish violence against which it can match itself.

I have to respect the show for giving Reese an equal opponent so quickly (Reese is forced to use guns and is fortunate to get the drop on him at the end). But that’s weirdly one of the strengths to this show. Its characters do make mistakes, they sometimes try their best but fail anyway, and the story keeps moving. Reese will actually be defeated fairly often: sometimes by numbers, sometimes by handicap, sometimes by being outmaneuvered. In a sense Reese and Finch are defined as people who have already been defeated: who weren’t smart or strong enough, or in the right place, to save the people they loved.

You can’t hide from the truth / Because the truth is all there is

Spiritual Poverty – Person of Interest Episode 101, Pilot

Person of Interest sets up quite a remarkable amount of themes and narratives structures in its pilot. I’ll try and briefly describe the central themes, and will point out how they’re depicted as we go through each episode.

9/11 and the home front

Our two main characters, John Reese and Harold Finch, are both creatures of September 11. Both of them have arrived at their present states by hearing a call to action in response to September 11: John rejoins the Army rather than leaving to be with Jessica, and Finch builds the Machine. Both of them return to their vocations with the desire to prevent further attacks. Almost all American television has been touched by 9/11 in some way. Shows that involve criminal investigation of some kind – NCIS, Criminal Minds, etc – have been most affected by the need to understand the attacks, and make the American response to them part of the show’s world without actually working through the trauma. PoI makes the processing of 9/11 an integral part of its characters’ backstory.

But both John and Finch had their 9/11-renewed vocations challenged by the loss of a loved one. And not from terrorism, Islamist or otherwise – from homegrown human evil. Finch and Reese have had their understanding of evil and loss forcibly widened. The wolves are not just at the gates, they are manning the walls. As John says to Detective Stills:

Went around the world looking for bad guys. But there were plenty of you right here all along.

Note that Finch offers John not just paid employment but a purpose. A way to contribute to the world and find meaning in life. John ceases to be an assassin; Finch has already ceased to be simply an incredibly rich man. They both ceased to exist by being presumed dead – their old vocations symbolically killed them – and found new life through a new vocation: saving people through the irrelevant numbers. In this show, names and legal identities become just a series of masks and clues. You only need a name when you’rein trouble – its purpose is legibility for institutions and systems.

PoI finds its characters’ real existence and identity in what they do, their actions and their purpose.

The Machine, surveillance naivete, and prevention

The Machine reduces its apparent omniscience to a Social Security Number: Diane Hansen. John and Finch identify two main threats to her life: the man she is prosecuting and an ex-lover/co-worker. But these two men turn out to be Hansen’s targets rather than threats to her life; she herself is working with a ring of corrupt cops; and the confusion over who needs help nearly gets Reese killed. Even with access to all Hansen’s data, her home, and personal surveillance, our heroes are completely mistaken about her. More data does not mean more understanding. And this fact exposes the need for PoI to be, in some measure, a science fiction show.

Prevention through surveillance is a central idea of the show. With enough feeds the Machine can predict violent crimes and warn Our Heroes in time. This is simply the extension of the post-9/11 security state to crime as well as terrorism. Let us have enough data, let us see everything, let us trace everyone, and we can prevent these things from happening. More surveillance means more security.

But though surveillance obviously does help prevent terrorist attacks, it does not prevent all of them. And it exposes us to different dangers which PoI explores as it goes on. In order to make the (apparent) core premise of saving the Numbers work, the show needs the hand-wave of the Machine. Its infinite capacity for analysis means that it never makes a mistake – unlike humans, including Our Heroes, who get things wrong all the time no matter how much data they have.

Let me repeat that. PoI thinks that for total surveillance to be effective, we need an artificial intelligence to run it. As the show goes on, the rise of AI will become the central storyline, and we will see that it’s even more complicated and difficult than that. But for now: the assumption that every Western government has been pushing about domestic security for years needs a science fiction premise to function. Let that roll around your noggin.

Love

John’s main loss in this episode is the obvious absence of Jessica, who we’re told died while he was serving halfway around the world. The full story is actually much worse. But look at how Jessica is depicted in this episode: she is the person who connects John to the world. That’s a line that will get used a lot throughout the show. It hasn’t been developed a lot yet, but just note that PoI believes that love is a transforming force.  Less cheerfully, it also believes that you can lose it. More on the depiction of romantic love as the show goes on.

Justice

The negative side of justice, the way the system of police and courts is a tool for evil, is shown by Hansen and Stills and their little operation. It is also shown a little by Finch springing John from custody: through the application of money, what are huge barriers for Hobo-John become no obstacle at all.

Fusco hangs in the balance: not attached to justice, but not in it for the money either. His loyalties are simply too small. He sticks with his friends even though they’re corrupt murderers and thieves. It’s interesting that John makes a distinction between Stills et al on one hand, who reject the idea of fidelity to the system and the ideal they should serve, and Fusco on the other, who has loyalty to the wrong things.

It’s not really clear to me how John makes this distinction. Whatever surveillance informed John’s decision is not shown to us (though we do see some underlying moral pain bleed through as Fusco gives testimony). What Fusco does show is that bad guys aren’t all in it for the same reasons. Is John projecting his break with the CIA onto the possibility of Fusco’s redemption? No. I think at this stage John sees Fusco as more of a useful asset than potential ally. But keep an eye on Fusco – he is the moral centre of the show.

What about Carter? Yes, Carter is the character who embodies justice and confidence that the system can be made to work, not just suffered under or manipulated. She embodies true justice because she’s still a person. She does her job with integrity and compassion. She can empathise with John as a returned serviceman while running his prints. Because Carter believes in the system, she and John are obviously going to come into conflict.

Because John and Finch do not subscribe to any system.

Just two pals talking about becoming Precognitive Batman.

Violence, lethality, and legitimacy

I’ve become less and less comfortable with this aspect of the show. A lot of the egregious execution of this theme comes later, but the problems are present here in seed form already. Finch needs someone like John to intervene and save Numbers: not just hired muscle, but someone with CIA tradecraft and extensive combat experience at all ranges. The difference is made clear when John humiliates two of Finch’s guys in three moves to walk away. John’s skills are demonstrated even more clearly when he walks into a room of guys with handguns and disables them all with shots to the leg.

Here’s the thing: in real life, that leads to a lot of people dead from blood loss or impaired for life. Yes, I know, it’s fiction and John has magical CIA aiming skills. But this show already pulled a pretty big hand-wave with the Machine; sometimes it feels like all my Suspension of Disbelief Points went into that and I had none left for the fight scenes. And those fight scenes aren’t stylised or obviously ridiculous: they’re tightly shot, frenetic, believable, they appear realistic. But they’re not.

In everything else this show plays so close to reality, with so much of its technology and themes pulled from the present, that it’s hard to connect with what PoI says about present surveillance norms while passing over what it says about present violence. This is a problem that most Western television and film shares. Perhaps it’s not fair to take fault with PoI on this: it’s simply how it was brought up. But for a show that has so much to say about unaccountable centralised power, it sure loves giving that kind of power to Our Heroes. But it’s OK – they’re the right people for the job. John doesn’t kill except when he wants to. He can disable people without permanently damaging them. He’s violent, but only when necessary to save lives.

This is the other problem – well, not problem, but uncomfortableness – with the violence of Our Heroes: they decide when to use it. John and Finch are quite comfortable with taking justice into their own hands. Finch might not like violence but it’s not out of respect for the law. John’s use of violence is justified to the audience by the subordination of this violence to saving Numbers. Purpose and vocation again; they don’t just give identity, they give moral justification.

Spiritual Poverty – Intro

Person of Interest began as a structure to tell Batman stories without requiring the license or world of Batman. It grew into a story about many things, increasingly showing its hand as near-future science fiction rather than gritty street justice. So it explored the morality and utility of ubiquitous surveillance. Redemption. Altruism. The moral authorities by which we justify violence. But surprisingly, at least to me, one of the key themes in seasons three and four was the application of divine-human relationships to the relationship between humans and artificial super-intelligences.

It is rare for a modern TV series to intentionally use so many religious concepts to tell its story. Neon Genesis Evangelion was a Japanese series soaked with Christian imagery and symbols – but the creator Hideaki Anno has admitted that these symbols were used because they were unfamiliar and interesting to a Japanese audience. Evangelion has a great deal to say about the difficulty of honest relationships between limited human beings, but it does not intentionally use Christianity as anything other than a source of visual inspiration.

Person of Interest both is and is not similar to Evangelion in this respect.

The premise is this: after September 11th Harold Finch built an AI – the Machine – to watch all the USA’s surveillance and electronic information feeds and identify terrorists before they could attack. Because Finch didn’t trust the government as far as he could throw them, the Machine only gives them the Social Security number of the relevant person. As part of its process the Machine can’t help but identify people about to attack or be attacked in non-terrorist violent crimes. Following a personal crisis, Finch stops ignoring these non-terrorist or ‘irrelevant’ numbers, and season one begins with Finch hiring an ex-CIA assassin named John Reese to intervene in violent crimes.

Most episodes involve Finch and Reese identifying a ‘number’, trying to understand who might hurt them or be hurt by them, and then resolving the situation. The basic structure of the show explains, critiques, and in some ways embodies the extremely weak understanding of normative surveillance in Western culture. As their never-ending quest to protect goes on, Finch and Reese confront groups and individuals with very different views of what the rise of artificial intelligence means for humanity and the current pattern of the world. Several of these groups explicitly frame the rise of AI using God-worshipper relationships.

Of course, ‘God’ is not used anything like the orthodox Christian understanding of the word. And that is my focal point for this series: how does Person of Interest use the idea of divinity? How do the religious presentations of AI define themselves? What religious traditions are being appropriated, and how are they being interpreted? The show’s understanding of God-ness will hopefully illuminate its broader assumptions about humanity, technology, and history.

We will begin at the first season of the show, when ideas of divinity were an undercurrent rather than a main theme. It is more helpful to trace how this theme developed in an organic way, in conversation with the more central topics of surveillance, centralisation of power, and artificial intelligence.

Notes on Liturgy: Eschatology and Reality

Christians have a great many blessings in Christ: redemption, comfort, healing, holiness. Much of our corporate worship is praise for these blessings. That is right and good.

But many in the congregation, on any Sunday, will be suffering. Some of us will be caught in the darkness of this world: in sin, in pain, in despair. And for those people, talk of Christ’s blessings for those who love him can sound ridiculous.

The way to speak to pain is not to back down at all on Christ’s power as risen Lord, or on his love for his people. To retreat from that is to leave behind all Christian hope. God does bless his people in Jesus.

We need to include the eschaton in our worship: that Jesus has not yet returned, creation has not yet been remade, and we are not now what we will be. So when we hear scripture promise us blessings, the Christian hears it with two horizons: now, and Then. The day of the LORD. The last day. When everything is made new.

It is this element of Then, the end of history seen in the future, that lets Christian talk of blessing go on in a dark world, amongst suffering congregants, without becoming detached from reality. Christian worship cannot leave behind or downplay its eschatological element – its constant dissatisfaction with the world as it is.

If we do, we become detached from reality.

The 500 Project: 1517, 95 Theses

In October 1517, an Augustinian monk and lecturer in theology named Martin Luther circulated 95 Theses: a series of logically connected statements that he wanted to debate in public. Luther had some pointed questions about how indulgences were being sold. These indulgences were a monetary contribution to the Church which stood in for, or cancelled, an action or cost that had already been assigned to someone by their priest. These assigned actions are called the sacrament of penance. They were woven into the religious fabric of Europe.

But some of the indulgence sellers were talking up their services in ways that made Luther uncomfortable. They seemed to suggest that buying indulgences could not just cancel an assigned penance, but actually cancel the penalty of sin itself – the penalty that God had assigned, rather than what a priest had assigned. Luther thought that this kind of talk about indulgences moved people away from true repentance and acts of love. In the Theses he condemned the way indulgences were often described and put them back in context as one small way of demonstrating contrition. Luther thought the change of the inner person and their actions mattered more to God than indulgences.

BEER

Cooper’s Mild Ale is exactly what it claims: a beer for you to enjoy without much pressure. It has a hint of hops. It has a bit of sharpness on the tongue, and that lingers for a few moments. But Cooper’s Mild does not ambush you with a big hit of flavour. It doesn’t make camp on your palate and boggle your taste buds. It tells you what it is with the first sip and it doesn’t change.

All you’ll find here is a refreshing cold beer with some flavour. It’s exactly one standard drink. You can hand it to any friend, and unless they don’t like Beer In General, they won’t hate Cooper’s Mild.

Luther’s Theses were the beginning of a firestorm of debate, of religious and social upheaval, of wars and almost-wars, that would reshape Christian Europe. But in 1517 all that was unimaginable to Martin Luther. It is easy to approach him on our terms, seeing only the seeds of the man he would become.

But historical moments are not self-aware. They can spring from clear and straightforward motivations. The past is complicated. It doesn’t always need a complicated lens.

We can all sympathise with the Luther of this moment: a serious thinker putting hard questions to hucksters who were exploiting true religious feeling and the authority of the church. Anger at those who feel no shame can lead down shadowed paths. But that does not make the anger shameful. It remains a noble passion, a duty igniting:

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.