Christopher A. Sims
The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Under U.N. Law each emigrant automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.—Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (16)
Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it.—Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (4)
Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set on post-apocalyptic Earth in the Bay Area of California. World War Terminus has devastated the population of Earth and left it nearly uninhabitable, forcing survivors to emigrate to Mars or one of the other unnamed colony planets. As incentive, emigrants are given free android servants to accompany them on their voyage and serve them on Mars. The androids are extremely sophisticated and are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. The novel explores the moral implications of enslaving a human-like biological machine, but more centrally uses the invention of a humanoid replica to critique and define the essence of humanity; whatever qualities distinguish humans from androids become the essential aspects of humanity. Rarely, an android slave will kill its master and flee Mars for haven on Earth. Bounty hunters are employed by the remaining police agencies to protect the small but determined communities of humans who refuse to emigrate and those who are prevented from emigrating because the degenerative effects of living in a radioactive environment have drastically lowered their IQs. The novel examines the psychology of bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he “retires” escaped androids. In this essay I am interested in analyzing the way in which technology is described in the novel and what the relationship is between humans and technology. The essay will also investigate the novel’s representation of human psychology confronted with the near extinction of its species and the stratification of the human population across the colony planets. Kevin McNamara, in his essay “Blade Runner’s Post-Individual Worldspace,” writes that the novel “registers its protest against the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracies and technology”(422).1 I intend to argue in this essay that the novel instead registers its protest against the dehumanizing effects of individualism and demonstrates how technology can be used as a means to reclaim the essence of humanity.
But what is technology? Most would agree that, on one level, technology is the adaptation of available material or knowledge into an instrument or process that provides humans with an advantage over their environment. Technology can imply abstract structures such as language and mathematics, as well; both are efforts to organize and systemize the human experience of reality, and both become instruments that give humans an advantage. The word “advantage” in this context suggests an evolutionary framework, in which all forms of life are struggling with one another (or at the more congenial level, using each other) in order to increase their own chances of survival.2 From this perspective technology might be considered as an evolutionary adaptation that humans have acquired and used to gain dominance over the other forms of life or aspects of nature (rivers, weather, raw materials, etc.) on the overarching ecosystem we call Earth.
When considered as an intellectual drive for kinds of adaptation that will preserve, extend, or improve human life, technology becomes inseparable from the idea of what it means to be a human. But technology at the most basic level is not exclusive to humanity. Many other species manipulate existing material in the environment to gain an advantage. Beavers collect wood to build dams, birds gather twigs to form nests, bees construct hives, and non-human primates can wield sticks and basic human tools. Many animals also have, in various forms, the technology of language. A major difference between the human use of technology and that of other animals is that humans have an ongoing dialogue about what technology is; as a result they can make modifications and sophistications on previously existing forms of technology within their own lifetime, which, though possible for other species, is unusual. Other species generally rely on a hardwired instruction for the use of simple technological apparatuses from inherited DNA “memories.” No new developments are made in the design of a hive or a nest. The human relationship to technology is unique because we can examine an instance of technology and locate potential flaws in the design, and through intellectual process modify it to conform to an imagined result and enhance its capabilities.
While I agree with McNamara’s summation that Androids “becomes a quest for an uncontestable essence of human being that separates ‘us’ from the ever more human seeming androids,” I do not share his belief that the novel is also a protest “against the dehumanizing effects … of technology” (422) because I do not feel that Dick’s novel represents technology as a dehumanizing force. On the contrary, I believe that Androids shows us that technology can be used as a guide to return the survivors of World War Terminus to the humanity that they have abandoned for solipsistic individualism. To do this, I must briefly deconstruct the concept of technology, so that it breaks free from definitions that label it as something external to humankind and the human lifeworld. Andrew Feenberg’s conception of the essence of technology in his 1999 work Questioning Technology focuses on demystifying this separation. Feenberg writes: “insofar as we continue to see the technical and the social as separate domains, important aspects of these dimensions of our existence will remain beyond our reach” (vii). The first step in liberating technology from these conceptions is to reunite humans and technology by examining how the novel represents the larger themes of the “natural” and “artificial.” The binary natural/artificial is one of the major structural binaries that this essay will explore, for I believe that Dick is exploring the question “why do we value the natural more than the artificial?” “Why,” he is asking, “is technology considered something unnatural?” If, as Heidegger claims, “everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it” (4), what does it mean to be a natural being chained to an unnatural enterprise? In this essay I explore technology as Dick presents it in terms of an evolutionary understanding, but also in the terms that Heidegger defines in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954). I also will use Feenberg’s analysis of the Heideggerian essence of technology—as well as Feenberg’s own theories on this essence—to help update and concretize aspects of Heidegger’s thought, so that not only will the essay’s discussion of technology be more applicable to Dick’s imagined future, but it will also better illuminate the novel’s commentary on the human relationship to technology.
Heidegger conflates the two traditional understandings of technology—that it is both a “means to an end” and a “human activity”—and calls this conflation the “instrumental definition” (4). Thus the “end” described in an evolutionary context is an advantage, and access to this advantage remains exclusively a “human activity” because the human intellect provides the unique capacity for enhancing existing material and producing increasingly sophisticated instruments. Heidegger warns of the inherent dangers in such advantages, however, because the more modern and refined our technology becomes, the more “the instrumental conception of technology conditions every attempt to bring man into the right relation to technology” (5). It is as if, when establishing an understanding of technology and our relationship to it, humanity devised provisions for ensuring that we maintain the right attitude toward the potential hazards and benefits of technology. The more sophisticated the technology becomes, the more serious the consequences become for misusing the technology. Feenberg recapitulates Heidegger’s central thought as “the claim that technology is a cultural form through which everything in the modern world becomes available for control” (185). Thus “everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means.… We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control” (5). In light of the invention of nuclear weaponry, this advice seems obvious, but it also raises the question “to whom would the control of technology slip if it left human control?” Does this warning suppose that given enough power technology itself becomes an agency set at overwhelming humanity? Or does a loss of human control simply mean out of the control of anyone or anything? Heidegger probably intends the latter, but in Philip K. Dick’s novel we have the realization of the former; the development of an android with artificial intelligence that turns on its master is the establishment of technological agency. Technology is now under its own control. But does artificial intelligence qualify as independent agency or is it merely a simulation of individual existence? Again we arrive at the opposition of natural and artificial and the cultural predisposition to value the natural over the artificial. Androids, I would argue,works at inverting this evaluation, or at least at deconstructing it, by eroding the boundaries between the real and the artificial, between humanity and technology.
Feenberg’s conception of the essence of technology divides the essence into two aspects, a functional aspect (primary instrumentalization) and a social aspect (secondary instrumentalization), and then subdivides these two aspects into four reifying moments (203). The first reifying moment in the aspect of primary instrumentalization is decontextualization. In this moment, a natural object is transformed into a technical object by a process of “de-worlding,” in which the object is “artificially separated from the context in which [it] is originally found so as to be integrated to a technical system. The isolation of the object exposes it to a utilitarian evaluation” (203). The concept of a biological humanoid robot is unique in terms of a technical artifact and the human relationship to technology so that it causes older definitions of technology to become simply irrelevant. For example, the androids in Dick’s novel perform a “de-worlding” of themselves and their controllers, because in order to maintain the distinction between androids and humans, humans must be “exposed to a utilitarian evaluation” so that defining characteristics may be extrapolated.
Previous frameworks that regard all technological relationships to be between user and instrument or subject and object cannot accommodate the android, because the android is both user and instrument, subject and object. Feenberg’s definition of the essence of technology is predicated on abolishing this distinction, because he believes that “technologies are not physical devices that can be extricated from contingent social values” (210). The only way to ensure the conformity of the android to traditional power systems and technical paradigms is to insist on maintaining a difference (through the realignment of social values) and on creating a means to measure and identify that difference. Rick Deckard is the inquisitor armed with a test designed to detect the presence of the capacity for an abstraction: empathy. As the novel progresses, Rick slowly loses confidence in the significance and morality of his work, because he begins to realize that the androids themselves are not inherently dangerous, but that the real danger stems from losing our human empathy by guiltlessly enslaving the androids through the moral loophole of antiquated technological hierarchies that privilege the user over the instrument.
Like Heidegger’s essay on technology, Dick’s novel reminds us of the potential dangers of instrumental technology, though Heidegger’s definition extends beyond the conception of technology as a means to an end. Instrumentality, he says “is ... the fundamental characteristic of technology. If we inquire, step by step, into what technology, represented as a means, actually is, then we shall arrive at revealing. The possibility of all productive manufacturing lies in revealing” (12). This is the essence of technology for Heidegger, and becomes the underlying aspect of technology I want to keep in mind throughout the examination of the novel. Technology allows humans to see the environment in a different mode of existence. For example, Heidegger explains that “in the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command” (16). Heidegger very much emphasizes the great power the technological lens provides for humanity, and considers the capacity for this revealing one of the primary responsibilities for humans in their relationship to being. He characterizes humanity’s relationship to technology as a “challenging-forth,” in that the forms of reality “challenge” humans to unlock or unconceal the “energy concealed in nature,” but we must never fail to maintain the proper attitude toward this process (16). So we might envision the objects of reality around us as “standing-reserve” containing the potentiality for reconfiguration, such that energy may be harnessed from them. This process of revealing with which humanity is challenged is a process in which nature participates; it is a collaboration between humans and nature. I believe that Dick’s novel extends this conception full circle by suggesting that the result of this collaboration creates a new entity, namely a technological artifact, which also participates in the revelation of being by enabling a Feenbergian decontextualization or de-worlding of humans. If humans and nature collaborate to cause an unconcealment to come into being, the novel’s technological manifestation, the android, continues the “challenge” and creates an opportunity for humankind to unconceal the essence of nature and themselves, thus returning humans and nature to a mode of being prior to the understanding of the standing-reserve.
Heidegger theorizes that “the unconcealment itself, within which ordering unfolds, is never a human handiwork, any more than is the realm through which man is already passing every time he as a subject relates to an object.... Modern technology as an ordering revealing is, then, no merely human doing” (18-19). This idea, that humans are part of a reciprocal process of creating reality, is, I would argue, fundamental to the major conflict of the novel, which is the psychology of a subject confronted with abject isolation. It is illuminating, then, to look at the novel through Heidegger’s theory of technology, where the relationship of humanity to technology is not the relationship of a subject to an objective realm, but rather to a realm in which nature challenges humankind to reveal the true essence of the objects that are present in the field of being. It is also pertinent to keep in mind Feenberg’s project to reconsider technology not as a force or entity external to human systems, but as something fundamentally integrated in the social networks of the lifeworld. The first danger of the technological lens for Heidegger is that humans will misinterpret what nature is trying to reveal, and therefore will fall under the pretense of a false experience of being. The second danger is that, because of our potential to reveal the latent energy in the standing-reserve, humanity might “exalt [itself] to the posture of lord of the earth” and “in this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct,” and ultimately “this illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” (27). The lonely isolation inherent in this condition is the essence of Dick’s novel. The problem of humankind in this speculated future is not hatred or the dehumanization of technology, but rather that humans have moved so deeply into their own individuality that they no longer experience the reality of other humans. Feenberg’s own summation of Heidegger reminds us that from within the “culture of control” provided by technological thinking there “corresponds an inflation of the subjectivity of the controller, a narcissistic degeneration of humanity” (185).
Central to any discussion of technology in Dick’s novel is the text’s representation of the pinnacle of technological achievement, the android. The android is an organic robot that is designed to be as human-like as possible in terms of physical appearance and behavior. As the technology behind the android brain becomes more and more refined, android behavior so successfully simulates human behavior that an android cannot be distinguished from a human with the naked eye. Considering the android in the framework of the “instrumental” definition of technology means first asking to what “end” is the android a “means?” Dick’s narrator says that the androids were first invented as “Synthetic Freedom Fighters” for use in World War Terminus, but later “had been modified [to] become the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program”(16). In that androids were initially created as a product of warfare and designed as replacement soldiers, they seem to reflect a typical scenario for the human creation of technology. I say “typical” here because Dick is reflecting the historical truth that many actual technological developments come out of military projects. But after the near destruction of the Earth in World War Terminus in the novel there is a more urgent need to pull together as a species and make new habitats on nearby planets, in order to ensure the survival of humankind: the most advanced technology has to be adapted as a means to this new end.
The android in Dick’s novel then becomes “the ultimate incentive of emigration: the android servant as carrot, the radioactive fallout as stick” (16). The other incentive for people to emigrate is that “[l]oitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race” (16). Earth’s environment has become so hostile to human life that simply by venturing out of doors people can actually become so damaged biologically that they are no longer considered human, but rather part of a human subspecies euphemistically called “specials.” “Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind” (16). The hierarchy of humans, specials, and androids is established, and the novel works to emphasize the treatment of the three groups by one another by concealing the true “identity” of each character. Humans are at the top of the hierarchy and are not subject to any prejudice; specials are given pejorative nicknames such as “chickenhead” or “anthead,” and are treated in a condescending and indifferent manner; androids are killed on the spot if found on Earth. Interestingly, though, unless their identity as android is known, each is treated like a human instead of an inert object of technology, and this is what I wish to examine next. Dick’s creation of this unique type of technology is significant, I would argue, because it is exactly this deceptive potentiality that allows the android to challenge humans to redefine their own ideas of technology and of themselves.
According to Feenberg’s conception of the essence of technology, humans, when relating to technology, perceive function before form, and this backward mode of perception is primarily what causes this relationship to be always already fractured. This mode of perception is a result of “an initial abstraction [that] is built into our immediate perception of technologies,” because we encounter technological devices as “essentially oriented toward a use” (211). The illusion or confusion the androids present to this process enables a technological device to be considered for its aesthetic qualities first and its function second—if at all. Bypassing the usual immediate reduction of a technical artifact to its function allows humans to come into the right relation to technology—to possess an attitude that reflects the technical sphere’s inextricable overlap into the social sphere. As Heidegger maintains, and Rick Deckard ultimately discovers, everything depends on a proper attitude toward technology. Jacques Ellul corroborates this idea, when he remarks that the “‘technical phenomenon’ is not so much a matter of devices as of the spirit in which they are used” (Ellul, qtd in Feenberg 207).
Because of their impeccable design in terms of mimicking human behavior and aesthetic appearance, androids become a model for the right means of technological process and end product as their form inverts the normative mode of perception enacted by a human encountering technology. This confusion lends itself well to a philosophical reading of the representation of technology in Androids, but within the context of the novel the Rosen Association’s ever-increasing accuracy in replicating the human form and human activity leads to many of the story’s main conflicts. The question now becomes why Dick’s androids are designed to be so utterly human-like. If they are manufactured to be servants, what is the need to invest resources into the refinement of their brains so that they convincingly perform “human-ness”? Deckard presses Eldon Rosen, head of the largest android manufacturing company, the Rosen Association, on this issue: “Nobody forced your organization to evolve the production of humanoid robots” (54). Eldon explains that “We produced what the colonists wanted.... We followed the time honored principle underlying every commercial venture.” Poignantly, the reason the colonists wanted androids to be indistinguishable from humans is that androids are a technological solution to the major conflict of the novel, the lonely human condition. Abject loneliness or isolation may seem like an unusual conflict for a novel, but this novel is concerned with exploring the human psyche following a global crisis and the near extinction of the human race. What would it feel like to be one of the few survivors of an apocalyptic war, and to be forced either to emigrate to a new planet or to stay on Earth and literally degenerate in the radioactive environment? The novel urges us to consider this question, and then asks us to consider if the human capacity for developing technology can be used to create an instrument that allows us to manage the post-apocalyptic psychological condition. Androids are used as a means, not to the end of servitude, but of companionship. A television advertisement for androids exclaims, “the custom-tailored humanoid robot—designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE ... [is a] loyal, trouble-free companion in the greatest, boldest adventure contrived by man in modern history” (17-18). Can an artificial life form give the human mind the camaraderie it needs not to feel alone in the universe? A woman interviewed by a television announcer peddling androids remarks, “having a servant you can depend on in these troubled times … I find it reassuring” (18). So while some people are not tempted by the governmental offer to emigrate and remain on Earth, despite its hostile conditions, because “deformed as it was, Earth remain[s] familiar,” others can be comforted by the companionship provided by an android (17). Those who choose to stay on Earth’s dilapidated surface live “constellated in urban areas where they could physically see one another, take heart at their mutual presence” (17). Whether the company is with fellow humans or artificially manufactured humans, the novel reminds us that human beings are social animals and that companionship is a necessary component of psychological well-being.
The social aspect of human life becomes the defining link between androids and humans. The novel proposes that while humans have empathy for all living things, androids, being purely logical entities, can only simulate empathy. Empathy is the paramount tenet of Mercerism, the newly established theology to which all surviving humans belong. The Voigt-Kampff test that Deckard administers to suspected androids measures the emotional response of its subjects to determine if empathy is genuinely present in the subject or is instead being performed. The premise of this test is that in humans emotional responses are instinctual and that the initial response to stimuli cannot be controlled. Androids, on the other hand, while programmed to simulate an instinctual emotional response, require a delay of a fraction of a second to produce the simulation of empathy. The Voigt-Kampff empathy test uses this discrepancy to distinguish whether the emotional response is genuine or artificial. Bounty hunters become arbiters who, by administering an empathy test, separate human from android. In the conflict that provides the action of the novel, a ship full of escaped androids has crash landed on Earth. These androids are a new type who have “Nexus-6” brain units, and are the most sophisticated androids ever created. Rick is sent to the Rosen Association’s headquarters to see if the Voigt-Kampff test can accurately detect a lack of empathy in the Nexus-6 model androids, or if they are too advanced to be exposed by the test. If the Nexus-6 cannot be detected by the Voigt-Kampff test, then there is no way of distinguishing this new model from humans other than a bone marrow analysis; however, because of a court ruling that protects people from self-incrimination, no one can be forced to take this test.
Before Rick departs for the Rosen Association, his superior, Inspector Bryant, asks Rick about the possibility of the Voigt-Kampff test failing to detect empathy in a human being. The result of this error would be that a human would be killed, and no one would know until a bone marrow analysis was performed on the body. Rick thinks that this is a purely hypothetical situation that would never occur in the field, but Bryant explains that a group of Leningrad psychiatrists believe that a small, “carefully selected group of schizoid and schizophrenic human patients” could not pass the Voigt-Kampff test because they have what is called a “flattening of affect” (37-38). Anthony Wolk, in his article “The Swiss Connection: Psychological Systems in the Novels of Philip K. Dick” (1995), points out that Dick was heavily influenced by reading the psychiatric writings of J.S. Kasanin on schizophrenia, and that the Voigt-Kampff test is almost completely derived from these works. Wolk correctly reminds us, however, that “what Dick does with these essays ... is more profound than employing surface allusions” (103). While Wolk’s research is provocative, Wolk’s application of this research to Androids appears to have things out of order. He remarks that “the androids, by doing poorly on the test, resemble schizophrenics” (108). It would certainly benefit the androids to be mistaken for human mental patients, but within the reality of the novel a failure to pass the test results in retirement, not institutionalization. The danger is entirely for schizophrenic humans who, if subjected to the Voigt-Kampff test, would be “retired” without question.
This overlap is the first of many complications with which Dick disrupts the clear delineation between androids and humans in the novel. If empathy is the unique human essence that technology cannot successfully reproduce, does a human whose affect fails to represent the expected emotional response cease to be a human? Wolk argues that with this dilemma Dick is “questioning the conventional psychiatric paradigm that takes proceeding from the concrete to the abstract as a sign of mental health” (108). Androids and schizophrenics are viewed as detached and inhuman because of their predominantly abstract mode of thought. What is fascinating about this indictment is that Feenberg’s reconceptualization of the essence of technology is centered around viewing the technical artifact as a concrete, social aspect of the lifeworld, and not a purely abstract and functional instrument external from social networks: “as mere physical objects abstracted from all relations, artifacts have no function and hence no properly technological character at all” (213). Perhaps Dick is pointing out that the human relationship to the android is the same as (if not inferior to) the android’s relationship to animals, and while this is the expected moral position for humans to hold, androids are destroyed for a similar perspective—a perspective that is solely informed by human programming! When Rick arrives at the Rosen Association Building in Seattle he is greeted by Eldon Rosen’s niece Rachel, who is agitated by the police interest in their operations. In an attempt to placate Rachel, Rick explains that “a humanoid robot is like any other machine; it can fluctuate between being a benefit and a hazard very rapidly. As a benefit it’s not our problem” (40). This statement reveals the potential danger inherent in all technology, as well as Rick’s attitude toward androids. The dormant threat that lies within any technological instrument can only be actualized by human intent, and can be reduced to a statement about the nature of humankind: there are good people and bad people. Heidegger’s conception of technology is not so much a moral prescription as it is a social imperative, and Androids, although Dick does address this concern, is more interested in exploring other aspects of the human relationship to technology.
In Heideggerian terms, humankind’s relationship to technology is a collaborative effort between nature and humanity, as nature is always already challenging-forth the revealing potential of human beings’ technological capacity, by presenting its constituent objects as the standing-reserve. The danger for Heidegger is not that humans could reveal the potential to create weapons of mass destruction from the standing-reserve, but rather that humans could misinterpret the way in which the standing-reserve is revealing itself and project a false reality onto an object, instead of letting the object unconceal itself truthfully. In this conception of technology, the danger is not within the final product of the android, but rather in the way the android is perceived. If androids are perceived in the “instrumental” mode, then they are merely an artificial solution to the problem of human loneliness. Seen in this pragmatic fashion, the androids become contrived substitutes for actual human company, and this intellectual disconnection between the presentation of human-ness and the knowledge that this is a human construct would cause the performance to fall flat, and to fail to accomplish its psychological goals. If androids are not seen as technology at all, however, but as real people, then the illusion becomes reality and the owner of the android can find genuine companionship in a machine. Is this perspective on the nature of androids more accurate than the instrumental conception, and therefore less dangerous in a Heideggerian sense? Or is it more dangerous, because we know that androids are in fact not the same as human beings, and because ignoring the distinction is projecting a fallacy onto reality? While Heidegger is interested in describing the essence of technology as humanity’s revealing the standing-reserve of nature, in this novel, I would argue, Dick’s introduction of a humanoid machine deconstructs and de-worlds the notion of “human” and reveals what Dick sees as the essence of humanity.
When asked to distinguish the human race from other species, most people point to the human’s superior intellect or some effect of this intellect. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? makes the usual definitions of the idea “human” ineffective, however, because within the reality of the novel there exist humanoid robots who are physically identical to humans and are endowed with a complex intellect that has the ability to reason. What traits or features then are specifically human in this scenario? The only way to define humans in this reality is to examine the differences between androids and humans. While conceptually there are many differences, the novel primarily explores the human capacity for empathy. Empathy is not logical in a purely rational framework. An individual does not gain an apparent advantage by empathizing with another, at least not if we imagine advantages as those qualities or behaviors that benefit the individual’s immediate survival. The Nexus-6 androids “surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence,” but “no matter how gifted as to pure intellectual capacity, could make no sense out of the fusion which took place routinely among the followers of Mercerism” (30). The spiritual fusion of Mercerism is an actualization of human empathy that I will explore later, but what is important to note here is that androids in the novel do not have the requisite empathy necessary to participate in this religious event. Dick’s narrator says,
Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida. For one thing, the empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve. (30-31)
The key to human empathy from the perspective of the novel, then, is the group instinct. “The humanoid robot constitute[s] a solitary predator,” while humankind hunts and/or lives together (31). The novel explores the psychology of the isolated human and the condition of loneliness, suggesting that at the biological level humans strive toward membership in the human community and ideally never feel completely alone. This is the theory, of course, but in practice several characters in the novel do not feel the warmth of the human community and wonder if they are connected to anyone or anything at all. This isolation is existential in nature, and Wolk reminds us that “it was Rollo May’s introduction of the existentialists in Existence that transformed [Dick] as a writer, that gave Dick a world view, which in turn he gave to his characters and his novels” (102). Dick suggests that the designers of the androids in the novel felt that dependency on the community of other androids was a liability and removed this trait from the engineered instinctual system that underpins android consciousness.
The paradox concerning the human condition that the novel confronts is that humans can feel excluded from the human community even in the presence of other humans. If there is a biological disposition within humans to be socially inclined, why do some humans resist or fail at that socialization and feel alone? I must point out here that Dick’s novel was written well before the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976), and as a result the biological foundation on which some of the principles of the novel rest may not be credible to those readers who have a detailed understanding of Darwinian evolution and the current developments in the realm of evolutionary biology. But regardless of the scientific cause of human loneliness, several harrowing descriptions of abject isolation in the novel dramatically affect the psychology of the characters, and their significance for understanding the novel. Silence is usually the precipitating force that makes a subject aware of itself and the absence of other nearby subjects. In the case of J.R. Isidore, a special living alone in a suburban apartment building, for instance, when he turns off his television set he is met with:
Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose up from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came, it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won. (20)
The silence described in this passage is so insidious that it becomes a living force that means to “supplant all things tangible” (20). The language here amplifies a typical understanding of loneliness, by animating the absence into a devouring monster. The silence acts to undo all human achievement and to erase the presence of humans on the Earth. For a survivor of World War Terminus living amidst a disintegrating civilization, loneliness carries more weight than the usual conception of a “lack of company.” Loneliness becomes the feeling that the entire history of mankind is evaporating; any evidence of our existence becomes subject to the unraveling force of the silence.
Contemplating his own experience of isolation, J.R. begins to consider if others feel the same way.
He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way. Or was it peculiar to his peculiar biological identity, a freak generated by his inept sensory apparatus? Interesting question, Isidore thought. But whom could he compare notes with? He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here in his stricken living room alone with the lungless, all-penetrating, masterful world-silence. (20-21)
This passage expands the definition of the silence by giving it an agenda that connects with universal entropy, the tendency of the universe to unravel all complexities and all modes of organization. Human meaning is not necessarily a phenomenon of which the universe has any “awareness,” in the sense that it is a target of entropy, but the novel suggests in such passages as these that by destroying all that humans have made, entropy will have conquered the human attempt to organize reality into a recognizable human realm. Perhaps Androids is suggesting that this is in essence what human existence is all about, attempting to organize the chaotic universe. If this is indeed the inevitable human agenda, the ultimate human enemy then would be entropy, because the actualization of entropy in the human world space would make every human effort futile.
Another major theme of the novel is the human struggle against futility, which is more generally the human desire to assign purpose to life and the existence of reality itself. Are humans on this planet to accomplish some task or to achieve some triumph? What does it mean then to believe that humans have a purpose, and yet simultaneously to accept entropy as the preferred state of the universe? Should we bother doing anything at all if human existence can be absolutely erased and forgotten? J.R. Isidore’s own concept of “kipple” attempts to answer these partly metaphysical, partly existential questions. Isidore later explains that “kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself” (65). “The First Law of Kipple [is] ‘Kipple drives out nonkipple’”; when no one is present to fight the kipple, the kipple will completely take over a space. Isidore bleakly concludes his explication of “kipple” by stating that “no one can win against the kipple ... except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But I’ll eventually die or go away, and then the kipple will take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute, kippleization” (65-66). The inevitable despair that comes from facing the reality of the universe’s drive to entropy in this novel is alleviated by invoking what might also be considered a technological development: religion.
The way in which this novel handles religion is one of its most fascinating accomplishments. Dick introduces a new theology called Mercerism, to which every single surviving human belongs, and he has all of the other major religions simply disappear. There is not even a mention of how the mass conversion took place. The only remnants of the old religions are traces of empty rhetoric in cases where characters use the words “god” or “Jesus” as expletives devoid of any spiritual significance. But what is Mercerism exactly? J.R. explains that while the universe itself is moving toward “kippleization,” there is a force that works in opposition to this degeneration: “the upward climb of Wilbur Mercer” (66). So Mercerism is a positive force that moves against the will of the universe. But how do its practitioners practice? Who is Wilbur Mercer? What are the mandates to which the followers subscribe? The best way to grasp Mercerism is through the text’s description of the experience of “fusion” that every Mercerite undergoes via an “empathy box.” In the passages examined earlier, J.R. is nearly overcome by the silence of his empty apartment building. To combat his anxiety he decides immediately to “grasp the handles” of his empathy box (21). Holding onto the handles and turning on the empathy box transports the user into a spiritual domain, and allows for a fundamental shift in the way in which the user experiences reality.
When he turned it on ... the visual image congealed; he saw at once a famous landscape, the old, brown, barren ascent, with tufts of dried-out bonelike weeds poking slantedly into a dim and sunless sky. One single figure, more or less human in form, toiled its way up the hillside: an elderly man wearing a dull, featureless robe, covering as meager as if it had been snatched from the hostile emptiness of the sky. The man, Wilbur Mercer, plodded ahead, and, as he clutched the handles, John Isidore gradually experienced a waning of the living room in which he stood; the dilapidated furniture and walls ebbed out and he ceased to experience them at all.... And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones.... He had crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging—accompanied by mental and spiritual identification—with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences. They—and he—cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities.... (21-22)
The experience of Mercerism through the empathy box is an extraordinary event that merges the consciousnesses of all individual users and deposits them into the consciousness of Wilbur Mercer on his climb. The process does not subsume the user, however, and the resultant group mind is not controlled by Mercer per se. It is a consubstantial union: the individual awareness is maintained for each user, but each also becomes mentally aware of all the others. This is the remedy that humanity has created for itself to manage the destruction of its most sophisticated and powerful attempt at civilization and the dispersal of the remaining human population. The destruction of every global civilization includes the disintegration of all religious institutions, and this removes humanity’s source of comfort and solace in the face of the most persistent metaphysical questions. Mercerism is the substitute created by Dick’s humans to satisfy their souls, when in the novel’s scenario of the unprecedented nature of near extinction, perhaps traditional religions no longer provide sufficient comfort. Mercerism is made more powerful than previous religions by the technological achievement of the empathy box and the psychological opportunities it provides its users. As Wilbur Mercer climbs the hill, he is continually struck by rocks thrown by unknown assailants, and each user is physically injured by the rocks, even though his/her physical body remains outside of Mercer’s domain. As the group mind condensed into the singularity of Mercer, considers the relentless persecution and the endless climb, it wonders, “In what way is this fair? Why am I up here alone like this, being tormented by something I can’t even see? And then within him the mutual babble of everyone else in fusion broke the illusion of aloneness. You felt it, too, he thought. Yes, the voices answered. We got hit, on the left arm; it hurts like hell” (23). This is what the experience of fusion does for the practitioners of Mercerism; it creates an empathetic synthesis of every human mind. From within this synthesis each individual has the knowledge that he or she is not stumbling through reality alone, that there is in fact an “other” with whom we can actually connect and commiserate.
In a revolutionary move by Dick, then, instead of technology dehumanizing the individuals in the novel, it humanizes them by reinstituting the human disposition to social collectiveness, and creates a means to assuage the human mind that feels it is enduring its existence alone. The instrumental definition of technology would posit the empathy box as a means to solidarity or collectivization, but in what way does the empathy box represent the essence of technology in terms of Heidegger’s expanded definition? Exploring the revealing process of humanity’s relationship to technology in a Heideggerian sense becomes increasingly difficult as the technology itself becomes more intricate, but one could say that, in the instance of the empathy box, technology is the means through which the true reality comes to presence. One of Feenberg’s critiques of Albert Borgmann’s conception of technology is that in the end, “at best, we can hope to overcome our attitude toward [technology] through a spiritual movement of some sort” (193). Feenberg’s criticism is that a “spiritual movement” is too abstract and farfetched ever to be actualized. In Dick’s novel, however, the spiritual movement necessary to reconfigure the human relationship to technology is realized by a technical artifact. This is another example of how Dick’s novel extends Heidegger’s conception of technology: it shows how the end result of the human/nature collaboration that reveals the technology in turn reveals to humans another mode in which they are present in the realm of Being. The empathy box itself participates in this production of reality and revelation, and returns humans to what might be considered a more original state, where the interconnectedness of humans becomes apparent. Feenberg laments that Heidegger never evolved his own theory to accommodate technology sophisticated enough in its design to disintegrate the technical differentiation of form and function and to allow a synergized perception. Feenberg writes, “Heidegger resisted the idea that technology could share in the disclosing power of art and things, but now this implication of his theory stares us in the face” (197). My own reading of Heidegger and the ways in which the technology of Dick’s novel advances Heidegger’s conception of the essence of technology aligns exactly with Feenberg’s suggestion that “if a Greek Temple can open a space for the city, why not a modern structure?” (197) Further, Feenberg notes that within Heidegger’s own writings, “there is even a peculiar passage in which he momentarily forgives the highway bridge for its efficiency and describes it too as ‘gathering’ right along with the old stone bridge over the village stream. Surely this is right” (197). While this essay’s treatment of Heidegger may at times seem antithetical to some aspects of Heidegger’s conception of technology, it is important to keep in mind Feenberg’s assurance that this progressive reading is a logical step in the face of modern technology and is implied by Heidegger himself. When Mercer notes that the “illusion of aloneness” has been dismantled, we can see that the empathy box has perhaps revealed the true nature of human existence and the Western emphasis on individuality becomes at the very least misleading (23). While McNamara argues that technology is the dehumanizing force in the novel, I would argue that the illusion of fragmented individuality is the dehumanizing concept that technology allows the characters to abolish (422). World War Terminus came about because the empathetic gift of humanity was discarded, and humans behaved more like solitary predators than a group. Rick recalls that “the empathetic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated” (Dick 31). If humans thought collectively instead of individually, they would never be able to visit such evils on one another, because they would not distinguish their enemy from themselves (or at least their enemy’s pain from their own). This is the morality that Mercerism prescribes; every human being is interested in promoting empathy, because a failure to exhibit empathy leads to the suspicion that one is an android. But even though this seems like a worthwhile and positive ideal, is the novel advocating a system of religion like Mercerism? To further clarify the aspects of Mercerism, it is necessary to take a closer look at Wilbur Mercer himself.
Wilbur Mercer appears to the users of the empathy box as an old man in robes. He is not God, a god, or even a deity of a god manifest in the realm of the empathy box. There is something inhuman about him, however, and Isidore reflects that “Mercer ... isn’t a human being; he evidently is an archetypal entity from the stars ... at least that’s what I’ve heard people say” (69-70). So Mercer is elevated to a supernatural status even though he appears to be a normal old man, and while this elevation may look like the product of mythologizing the man Wilbur Mercer, we do get glimpses of supernatural abilities as Mercer recollects his youth: “Childhood had been nice; he had loved all life, especially the animals, had in fact been able for a time to bring dead animals back as they had been” (24). We see that Mercer has a Christ-like resurrection ability and, like Christ, he is persecuted because of these extraordinary powers. He recalls that “they had arrested him as a freak, more special than any of the other specials,” and that “local law prohibited the time-reversal faculty by which the dead returned to life” (24). Mercer is a special, damaged by the radioactive fallout. So in this sense Mercer is not a human because specials are only considered a human sub-type, but he is also a unique case among specials because no other special has gained anything beneficial from the effects of radiation.
Once arrested, Mercer is subjected to surgeries in an attempt to damage the part of his brain that has developed in reaction to the radiation and granted him his powers of reanimating life. When he awakens from his surgery he is in “a pit of corpses and dead bones” and “a bird which had come there to die told him ... he had sunk down into the tomb world. He could not get out until the bones strewn around him grew back into living creatures; he had become joined to the metabolism of other lives, and until they rose he could not rise either” (24). Wilbur Mercer is bound to an endless cycle of ascending and descending, climbing the hill and returning to the tomb world and having to climb out again, over and over forever. This endless cycle is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Sisyphus: participating in this infinite loop with Mercer is a model for individual human existence and the human ability to endure this endless struggle with no other purpose than persisting.
Wilbur Mercer is a supernatural being dwelling in a realm accessed through the empathy box; can we trust him as a source? Is he or was he ever a real human, or is he the technological projection of a human into a virtual reality? Buster Friendly, the novel’s famous television personality, aims a probe at the very question of Mercer’s true nature. As with Mercerism, every remaining human watches or listens to the “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends” show on television or the radio. The show is mysteriously broadcast twenty-three hours a day every day and no one inquires too deeply into the matter of how Buster is able to run his show so frequently without any repeats or downtime; it appears in the novel that people would rather be entertained by his hilarious antics than ask these sorts of functional questions. Throughout the novel Buster promotes a “big sensational exposé” (202). Everyone, including J.R. Isidore, loves Buster Friendly, though Isidore at times finds himself irked by Buster because Buster “ridiculed the empathy boxes” and often makes fun of Mercer directly. Buster’s exposé features some cinema experts who, via enlarged video pictures, reveal that the landscape against which Mercer moves is artificial (206). The moon in the sky turns out to be painted, and the stones thrown at Mercer are made of soft plastic (207). When the researchers conclude that the world that Mercer inhabits is in fact an old movie set, Buster remarks that “Wilbur Mercer is not suffering at all.” The exposé continues to dismantle Mercerism by unmasking the figure of Mercer as old, drunk, B-Movie star Al Jarry. When interviewed, Jarry admits that he “made a repetitious and dull film ... for whom he knew not” (209). The mastermind and financier behind Mercerism is also a curiosity for Buster, who wonders “who, then, has spawned this hoax on the Sol System?” The question of who invented Mercerism and why remains unresolved in the novel, as does a greater question: what is Dick’s philosophical purpose in undermining the religious solution he has created for his post-apocalyptic world?
A small group of the escaped Nexus-6 androids, who are hiding out in J.R. Isidore’s apartment watching the exposé, reveal that Buster is in fact an android. This explains his ability to broadcast his show at all hours of the day, but does not on the surface explain his desire to debunk Wilbur Mercer. Buster claims that he wishes to expose Mercer because fusion collects “men and women throughout the Sol System into a single entity ... which is manageable by the so called telepathic voice of ‘Mercer.’ Mark that. An ambitious politically minded would-be Hitler could—” (209). Of course, there is the potential to use the technology of the empathy box as a means of control and, in a way, this is exactly what it is, but Mercer is not a fascist or a tyrant. Whatever “control” Mercer may have over his subjects is really the preference of a particular moral system that favors empathizing with all sentient beings, and thereby encourages its practitioners to replicate Mercer’s philosophy in their individual encounters with reality. “Controlling” a congregation of followers for these purposes is hardly a devious foundation, and as a result there have been no murders on Earth or the colony planets since the advent of Mercerism. The real reason androids despise Mercer appears to be that the religion completely excludes them from its practice and the empathy of its practitioners. Mercerism is “a way of proving that humans can do something [androids] can’t do ... without the Mercer experience [androids] just have your word that [humans] feel this empathy business, this shared group thing” (209-10). A consequence of the Rosen Association’s and other android manufacturers’ continual refinement of the android brain is that androids are created with all the faculties of humanity (except empathy) and are seen ostensibly as human beings, but are not ultimately included in the human community. This creates an identity crisis that inspires some androids to murder their owners and emigrate to Earth, where they might, at least temporarily, pass as normal humans. It is ironic that the feature androids lack, namely empathy, is only reserved from them by a particular definition of sentience. If androids were considered in the language itself as sentient beings, then they would be acceptable targets of human empathy and, through immersion, could perhaps learn to return this emotion. Of course, the logistical reason empathy is not extended toward androids is that it would become morally complex to have the androids serve as slaves on the colony planets. Dick presents a salient example of dehumanization being practiced to justify otherwise morally bankrupt actions and attitudes.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? humans feel the encroachment of the entropic force of the universe, as they nearly cause the species to become extinct. In order to manage the psychological burden of the proximity to entropy and human abnegation, they employ various technological solutions to the problems confronting the race. They first turn a war-time invention, the humanoid robot, into a domestic servant and companion. This arguably accomplishes a variety of goals (e.g., giving a human another human to exert dominance over, which could have psychological benefits), but primarily is a remedy for the disease of isolation and abject, existential loneliness. Next (this sequencing parallels the essay’s plotline and not the novel’s, for the date of the advent of Mercerism is never stated) humans use technology to synthesize their individual experiences into consubstantial union with the consciousness of Wilbur Mercer via the empathy box. Mercerism fills the void of religion because, while it provides a source of comfort to isolated individuals, it also supplies a moral framework for humans to live by in the wake of the disintegration of former religious and governmental institutions. If things were static and clearly delineated, these two technological developments would help humanity to rebuild and regroup. The major conflicts in the novel, however, stem from instances where identities are violated and boundaries are blurred. I would like finally to look closely here at two cases in the novel where there is a fundamental shift in the human relationship to technology, to support my claim that the novel, in fact, emphasizes the humanizing potential of technological achievements and the dehumanizing potential of individuality.
The first example is the android Luba Luft and Deckard’s attitude toward her “retirement.” As a bounty hunter, Rick is charged with the retirement of the escaped Nexus-6 androids, whose ship recently crash- landed in his precinct’s jurisdiction. Having dispatched the first android on his list, Polokov, he sets his sights on Luba Luft, who has been posing as a German opera singer. Deckard remains morally and ethically clean, because androids are not considered human beings and, moreover, these androids had killed their masters in order to escape and thereby became what Mercer deemed as “killers.” Mercer preached empathy for all sentient beings, but those who continually throw stones at Mercer on his ascent are an embodiment of absolute evil called the “killers” and in their own life “a Mercerite was free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit” (32). This is an extremely convenient and ambivalent feature of Mercerism which Deckard exploits to justify his job because, for him, “an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master, which had been equipped with an intelligence greater than that of many human beings, which had no regard for animals, which possessed no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat—that, for him, epitomized The Killers” (32). So Deckard is morally and ethically able to perform his duties, and his justification seems reasonable enough from a Mercerian perspective. As he encounters more and more Nexus-6 androids, however, he becomes less and less certain of his moral position, because the human illusion the Nexus-6 androids perform begins to become a reality.
As Deckard enters the opera house where Luba Luft is rehearsing, he notes “what a pleasure” it is to enjoy a production of The Magic Flute (97). Deckard’s love for opera softens his attitude toward Luba. When he later confronts her at a museum, she is taking in a Münch exhibit. As Deckard and fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch close in for the kill, they stop to look at Münch’s “Scream.” Admiring the painting, Phil remarks, “this is how an andy [android] must feel” (Dick 130). This is a masterful analogy for the experience of an android in a Merceristic society. The figure in Münch’s “Scream” “screamed in isolation ... cut off by—or despite—its outcry” (130). Deckard is able to empathize with the figure in the painting, and because of Phil’s comment he begins to empathize with Luba. “Do you think androids have souls?” Deckard wonders (135). Reflecting on Luba, he asks “how can a talent like that be a liability to our society?” (137). Deckard begins to see certain female androids as creatures worthy of empathy, and to wonder if he should get out of bounty hunting altogether. His wife and his boss convince him to continue. At the end of the novel, Deckard looks back on a day that saw him retire six Nexus-6 androids and concludes, “what I’ve done ... [has] become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self” (230). Deckard’s behavior has become unnatural and inhuman because he continued to retire androids after conceding that “electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are” (241). His attitude toward the android as a technological apparatus has turned into an attitude toward a sentient being, because for Deckard androids have ceased to be technological at all. In the instrumental sense of the word “technology,” this allows the android successfully to become the means to genuine companionship. But how does this transformation connect to what Heidegger refers to as the “essence” of technology? When we understand the relationship of humans to technology as a relationship of revealers and the standing-reserve’s potential to reveal, we see that androids reveal that a technological object can become a subject. Dick’s creation of an instance of a human relating to an android can perhaps also be seen as a micro-example of Heidegger’s conception of technology. The androids highlight the notion that the constituent objects of our experienced reality are performing and participating in the production of being just like humans. Dick’s novel creates a scenario that posits the standing-reserve as a subjective presence, which perhaps is a helpful metaphor for revealing the true nature of human experience with reality, and for expanding Heidegger’s definition of technology. Another fascinating aspect of the treatment of the relationship of humans and androids in the novel is that it supposes that not only is technology an utterly human endeavor that brings humans closer to their true essence, but that technology itself can become human.
Finally, I would like briefly to investigate Dick’s representation of technology through an examination of the institution of Mercerism in the novel after Buster Friendly’s exposé. It would seem that Mercerism is doomed after Buster reveals that the entire experience of fusion was filmed on a set, with a washed-up actor playing the part of Wilbur Mercer, but this is not the case. In a panic following the exposé, J.R. Isidore calls out for Mercer, and amazingly Mercer arrives to speak with J.R.: “’Is the sky painted?’ Isidore asked. ‘Are there really brush strokes that show up under magnification?’ ‘Yes,’ Mercer said. ‘I can’t see them.’ ‘You’re too close,’ Mercer said. ‘You have to be a long way off, the way the androids are. They have better perspective’” (214). This is a perfect Feenbergian example of how the natural world is perceived first aesthetically. When we see the moon and the sky we see wondrous phenomena imbued with human meaning, not aggregations of subatomic particles. The androids have “better perspective” because they view the landscape through a technical lens and break the moon apart into its formative raw materials in isolation from its social significance. Mercer openly admits that the sky is painted, and yet here he is, speaking with Isidore. The idea that humans are too close to see the mechanical (or artificial) architecture of religion is perhaps Dick’s statement about the innate physiological capacity the human brain has for the concept of god, which some scientists maintain exists. The novel illuminates the way modern Western cultures hierarchize the natural and the artificial. We have come to prioritize the natural over the artificial, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? suggests, not because artificial implies falseness, but because it implies the object is a result of human will. Humans long to believe that natural objects are artifice as well, but of the will of a superior being. Humans, the novel seems to be saying, do not want to feel alone in their struggle through their lives, and the invention of god helps solve the problem of loneliness and lack of purpose by faith alone. Although Mercerism is exposed as fraudulent in the novel, it still works, and Dick seems to be saying that this is because in terms of the human experience the perception of reality is more important to the production of reality than reality itself. Obviously, Heidegger’s conception of technology and the human relationship to being is an indictment of the notion of perception over and against reality, because Heidegger’s vision longs to disrupt us from projecting concepts and ideas onto reality, and in this way is an indictment of religion itself. While I would not argue that Dick’s novel makes claims one way or the other about the nature of religion (although it surely does), I am interested in how this religion maintains its potency despite contrary physical evidence. Dick seems to be arguing in the novel that religion itself is a technological production that embeds itself into the very essence of humanity. The novel then, far from seeing technology as dehumanizing, is concerned with detailing how technology is fundamental to revealing the true essence of humanity and showing how humans and technology are inextricably linked. Dick uses humanoid robots and the empathy box to argue that while technology is potentially dangerous it is also potentially a path to human salvation.
1. The Gollancz edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has changed the title to Blade Runner to match the title of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film adaptation of the novel.
2. In this exploration of androids and humans I am using a traditional, Darwinian top-down view of evolution, emphasizing individual organisms as the focus of observation rather than genes or other replicators à la Richard Dawkins.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. New York: Del Rey, 1996.
Feenberg, Andrew. Questioning Technology. London: Routledge, 1999.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. 1954. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Colophon, 1977.
McNamara, Kevin R.. “Blade Runner’s Post Individual Worldspace.” Contemporary Literature 38.3 (1997): 422-46.
Wolk, Anthony. “The Swiss Connection: Psychological Systems in the Novels of Philip K. Dick.” Philip K. Dick: Contemporary Critical Interpretations. Ed. Samuel J. Umland. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. 101-26.