We had a chance to talk today with Jonathan Nolan, writer of Dark Knight and the forthcoming Dark Knight Rises, as well as creator of one of the fall's most promising new TV series, Person of Interest. He told us about how his fascination with surveillance technology inspired Person of Interest — and why Batman rejected the very technologies that mystery vigilante Finch embraces in Person of Interest.
And he also vigorously denied being part of internet activist group Anonymous. Perhaps too vigorously. Hmmm . . .
io9: We see the main characters in Person of Interest doing the opposite of what Batman does with the cell phone surveillance technology in Dark Knight. Why is something that's too evil for Batman good for these characters?
Jonathan Nolan: I wrote that material for Dark Knight in 2005. We filmed in 2008, by which point a lot of things had changed. I don't like things I work on to have political didacticism — there are questions, but not messages. So when we saw the similarities between Dark Knight and the warrantless wiretapping scandal during the Bush Administration — well, that put a political spin on something that was intended to be more general.
Batman flirts with the dark side, and I don't think Finch or Reese are more or less heroes than Bruce Wayne. But the difference is that in six years, the surveillance state has gone from a novelty to a given. Forget how you feel the about surveillance state - because in Person of Interest, there are big questions about whether the machine is good or bad, whether what they're doing is good or bad. Finch obviously didn't like it at first, but they're both good guys in a world where the surveillance state is a given. Finch built it and he can't take it back. He has this gossamer thread that he can tug on to get a tiny bit of information from it. Otherwise it's a Frankenstein story and he can't turn it off. Well, we don't know if he can turn it on or off.
In Dark Knight, surveillance was a question. In this show, probably sadly, it was no longer a question. It was a given.
io9: You've got a story here about — and I'm sorry if this sounds cheesy — cyber vigilantes. I wonder if you were inspired by groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous that are using the internet to expose government secrets and fight for causes they believe in.
JN: I'm not affiliated with either Wikileaks or Anonymous - of course, it's not like I would tell you anyway if I were because the whole point is to be anonymous. But really where Finch's character came from was that my wife got sick of me going on and on about the panopticon and loss of privacy. I was struggling with Finch's voice, and she said, "Just make Finch you blathering on about privacy and those sorts of things." So it was an easy transition for me — I'm going to talk about the world being batshit crazy, and everybody is embracing these technologies . . . Look, I understand the appeal of things like social networking, but it feels myoptic to not look at the consequences.
I live in Hollywood, and I can't understand the idea of volunteering information about your social network in a town where less than 50 years ago people were investigated by [the House Un-American Activities Committee] and asked to testify about their social networks so politicians could deem whether they were enemies of the state. Sure, social networking now isn't a liability, but the idea that you would give up that information is fucking bananas.
I've always been intereseted in these issues, and I'm fascinated by the way Anonymous and Wikileaks represent a quantum shift in power through information technology. We cut a speech from Finch in the pilot where he talks about his disappointment when he was growing up, and realized he was in the information age instead of the jet age and space age. Until, he says, that at some point you realize that as banal as the information age sounds, it's incredibly powerful. The hardware is already in place; now we've got a software update that will fucking change everything. By upgrading the firmware, you live in a radically different world.
io9: I love the way Person of Interest shows its vigilantes secretly using government surveillance technologies. Our heroes Finch and Reese worry about how the government is squandering intel. But they don't really worry about invading people's privacy — why is that?
JN: Oh, we'll get to that. In episode 2, we see Finch's longtime business partner Ingram talking about [Orwellian technology]. But there's also always material left on the cutting room floor, and there's a limit to how much we can say. Hopefully you get a sense that Finch is troubled about the implications for privacy, and the possible abuse of this system that's being operated by the government. As we get into the story further, Finch will have to explain to Reese some of the decisions he made in terms of the architecture of the machine and why it behaves the way it does.
His concerns are woven into the actual argument that John Poindexter made in trying to design TIA and some of these other systems, whether they come from the NSA or SAIC or the Pentagon. Many of them converged on this idea at the same time that the best way to protect privacy in a total surveillance system was to track people by numbers. That's where the number idea came from — obviously the easiest way to number people is to use a number that's already in use, like the social security number.
io9: Finch is such an interesting character - is he going to be part of an ongoing mystery?
JN: Yeah. We want to investigate our characters a little bit, because they have secrets. The surveillance state is about the idea that something out there might know your secrets. Our main characters have no fewer secrets than other characters. I wanted to have protagonist partners who are investigating each other. We're not going to have a flashback every week, because that would be tedious; and we're not an ensemble show like Lost. But we will learn more about our main characters over time.