Narrative and Technology
Me, Myself, and My Empathy Box: Loneliness and Technology through Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Modern Technology
Mercer isn’t fake. Unless reality is a fake.
– Rick Deckard
Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth in California. World War Terminus destroyed Earth and left it nearly uninhabitable, resulting in the mass migration to Mars or another colony. Androids are added into the mix as an incentive for people to move to the new colony, but the androids are so sophisticated and nearly indistinguishable from human beings, calling into question the consequences of enslaving a human-like machine. However, another key piece of technology that is deeply embedded into the daily lives of the people is the empathy box, a device that allows people to connect to it then create a sense of mass empathy with all of the others attached to it through a single thing, such as a man struggling. The empathy box aligns with the attachment people have today to their different tools on the Internet, as discussed in Hubert Dreyfus’ On the Internet. This, like in Dick’s novel, should make us question how dependency on technology and how it has melded into expected social behavior. In Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? technology drives the actions of the characters. From Rick Deckard’s drive to kill androids to the characters’ overwhelming reliance on the empathy box, technology is what drives society, including people today who depend on certain aspects to dictate their everyday lives.
From the start, the androids are created to give a sense of community by which everyone can attach themselves to an android then leave to another colony. Humans create the androids to try and guide the survivors back into a world they knew before World War Terminus. There are problems with humans enslaving what is essentially a human, so cue the empathy box. The empathy box is crucial so humans don’t lose sight of themselves and see one another as androids – empathy being a trait that androids do not possess. But the real problem with empathy in this novel is that humans are enslaving the androids through an old-fashioned technological hierarchy in which humans always possess over the instrument they created.
J.R. Isidore’s attachment to technology is his empathy box, which connects the people into a collective consciousness that shares the pain of Wilbur Mercer, who took an infinite walk up a mountain as people cast stones at him. Marcuse, before his conclusion about the definition of alienation, says when people are confronted with the advanced industrial civilization, they tend to “recognize themselves in their commodities” and that is how social control is anchored. In the year 2012, people are dependent upon their computers and televisions among others, which they function as a form of escape from physical human beings. Isidore, who is not by choice isolated from humans, avoids the anxiety of the silence in his deteriorating apartment by resorting to his empathy box. “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....” (Dick 20). According to Christopher Sims in his essay “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’” humans use technology to merge their experiences with the consciousness of Wilbur Mercer by using 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” (Sims 82).
Marcuse discusses the concept of introjection within his discussion of alienation. He talks about the way that “introjection” is perhaps not the best description of how people perpetuate society’s controls. Because Isidore, and others, are consciously using the empathy box, maintain their own awareness, but are also aware of others. So it would be fitting to conclude that introjection is not the correct term to use because, like Marcuse says, Isidore does not have an inner dimension that is separate from the behavior of the rest of the people. The people aren’t necessarily using the empathy box out of a sense that they feel the need to mold to the others in society. The government has made them feel the need to connect to the empathy box, so it has been a conformity issue among the people, but a force way of collectively using it without the people knowing that it was done to them. Because while both are done unconsciously, introjection seems to imply that the people naturally have conformed together, rather than an outside entity forcing that conformity. A more accurate word, perhaps, would be compulsion, with a force behind it – that force being the government.
We see this form of introjection currently in the form of the Internet. While it’s not something government-controlled, it’s something corporate-controlled, compelling people to see the necessity to use it for the purpose of interaction. But like the empathy box, the consequence is a sense of alienation. In Hubert Dreyfus’ On the Internet, he cites a Stanford University study that says that despite the selling points of the Internet providing an outlet for everyone to relate to one another and interact, it actually does quite the opposite. “… The Internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an atomized world without human contact or emotion” (Dreyfus 50). He notes Second Life as one example in which the Internet does not foster genuine connectivity. In the game, the socially isolated users can communicate through avatars when playing a game of real-life activities. “However, there is a tension between the goal of the lonely people who are geographically isolated and who would presumably prefer to know the appearance of the real people they are interacting with, and the goal of those whose physical condition is a barrier to conversation and who therefore enjoy the possibility of acting as if they were in a masquerade…” (Dreyfus 94).
So imagining that the empathy box is substituted with a computer, people are expected to connect through a vast network. However, the consequence is a sense of disembodiment because humans are not physically interacting, which sacrifices the ability of humans to comprehensively grasp a situation, because, as Dreyfus explains: “… As embodied, we each experience a constant readiness to cope with things in general that goes beyond our readiness to cope with any specific thing” (55). So, in relation to the empathy box, it just serves as another tool to attempt to control and otherwise unwieldy population.
Is it truly making the people better off? Iran seems to think so. “… I remember thinking how much better we are, how much better off, when we’re with Mercer. Despite the pain. Physical pain but spiritually together; I felt everyone else, all over the world, all who had fused at the same time” (Dick 171). This would seem to go against the sense of alienation that Dreyfus describes; yet, during this moment, Rick, who is physically present, notes that he feels a distance between them. She’s become dependent on the empathy box, like so many others, which has led them to become detached from reality with other humans. Rick, who doesn’t want to use the empathy box, also feels a sort of detachment then from those using the empathy box. At one point, “Rick stood holding the phone receiver, conscious of her mental departure. Conscious of his own aloneness” (Dick 174). By not using the empathy box, Rick is not melding with society. By using the empathy box, Iran is not alone, like Rick when he doesn’t use the empathy box. “This is what the experience of fusion docs 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” (Sims 80).
But it’s this alienation that is the purpose of the empathy box – to inhibit the production of reality through social collectiveness. The people who tune into the box share the empathy and pent up feelings with the tortured Mercer, but they do so within the confines of their home. After they disconnect from the empathy box, their sense of wanting to take physical action stops. By making everyone feel like they have had a sense of collectiveness, there is no need to take action any further, because Mercer’s suffering can’t be prevented. Scott Bukatman, a cultural theorist and film and media studies professor at Stanford University, says that this “image addiction” is used as a tactic by a controlling government to segregate the people in order to prevent collective action.
In the society of the spectacle, all images are advertisements for the status quo. The commodity is replaced by its own representation, and the fulfillment of need is replaced by pseudo-satisfaction of desire. A citizenry alienated by the industrial-capitalist mode of production is granted an illusion of belonging and participation; the fragmentation of the productive and social realms is replaced by the appearance of coherence and wholeness. (qtd. in Galvan 418)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? shows how technology has ruptured the human collective due to the long arm of some organizational body. The result is alienation and a passive society.
Real-life risk and consequences are not there to incentivize people. Just like the millions who watched the Kony2012 video about the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, they may have raised awareness about him and shared a common sense that something should be done, but an overwhelming majority accept that they can’t go beyond raising awareness because they feel that sharing the common awareness is enough to foster change. Public passion can only go so far in a virtual world, so while a mass group of people may display their displeasure about w war criminal and urge for his arrest, collectivity is sacrificed as there are not consequences to not doing more than just displaying the video on Twitter or Facebook. “Individuals can enter or leave a virtual community much more easily than they can move out of a town they dislike” (Dreyfus 140). Rheingold says it even more boldly when he says “that virtual communities might be bogus substitutes for true civic engagement” (qtd. in Dreyfus 140). There is a detachment from the group’s connection to something and what should be done, just like those attached to the empathy box.
Whenever Rick Deckard engages with Mercerism the first time comes after Buster Friendly blows the lid off the practice, which lends itself to an interesting segment of the novel about how Mercerism and Buster Friendly interact. They compete with one another as they continue vying for the control of the people. Not only are people relentlessly attached to their empathy boxes, their eyes are also glued to the screen when “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends” is on for 23 straight hours. So the people are being controlled by this show, and it also fosters isolationism as people are obediently watching the show. Buster Friendly debunks Mercerism by exposing that all of the scenes and suffering are artificial, thereby throwing out Dick’s religious solution to capturing the essence of humanity following World War Terminus.
Dick presents religion in an interesting manner in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with Mercerism. Dick seems to be arguing that Mercerism is a product of technology that has now embedded itself into humanity. The novel demonstrates how technology and humans are linked, and the empathy box is one example of how technology is no only dangerous, but possibly a path to the characters’ salvation. Mercer says that the “illusion of aloneness” has been dismantled, and that the empathy box shows the true nature of human existence (Dick 23). In Kevin McNamara’s “Blade Runner’s Post Individual Worldspace,” he argues that technology is a “dehumanizing” aspect in the novel, which I would have to agree with, and technology in the novel creates this false social attitudes with society when their illusion of collectivity as actually fragmented individuality (423). Mercerism fills the void of religion. It gives a source of comfort to the isolated people, it provides a moral standard everyone should abide by in a world lacking a governmental framework and drastic changes implemented such as androids. However, in terms of assisting humanity to rebuild, their identities are blurred, so they can’t come together as a group to take action outside of the empathy box.
Rick Deckard decides at this time to use the empathy box, to connect with the rest of society through the box. But when he does so, he fuses in a sense with Wilbur Mercer, not receiving the intended results from the box. “‘It’s strange,’ Rick said. ‘I had the absolute, utter, completely real illusion that I had become Mercer and people were lobbing rocks at me. But not the way you experience it when you hold the handles of the empathy box. When you use an empathy box you feel you’re with Mercer. The difference was I wasn’t with anyone; I was alone” (Dick 232). Instead of sharing emotions with others, he feels alone. Yet, he still fuses to Mercer because, even though Buster Friendly says he is a fraud, Rick believes that Mercer is reality (Dick 232). Religion was developed as a physical object, but the novel takes this a step further in saying that it’s not just an artificial object, but it’s also something being embedded into the followers.
Is there a way to overcome this dependence on technology. In Andrew Feenberg’s Questioning Technology, he discusses the separation of the technical and social domains of the essence of technology. He writers, “insofar as we continue to see the technical and the social as separate domains, important aspects of these dimension of our existence will remain beyond our reach” (viii). For in Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it means examining the “natural” and “artificial” presentations of life. In the novel, the natural is valued more than the artificial, and technology is considered to be unnatural. The characters are bound to technology. The novel presents characters who do not genuinely want to be alone. However, this false attachment to technology creates an unrealistic sense of community.
It’s a depressing note to end on – that all of humanity is being controlled. People cannot go beyond the technology that are connected to because they don’t realize the problem they need to overcome. Even as I write this paper, I am gchatting someone on gmail, messaging someone on Facebook, and following a conversation on Twitter. Do I feel connected? Not really. At least, I don’t feel connected in a positive way. The person I’m gchatting with is someone I have to do via Internet more than in person because we’re both to preoccupied to set time aside to talk in person. Therefore, I know him more through the way he constructs words in a small conversation box than I would through how he may react to what I say if I saw his body reactions. The person on Facebook is someone I rarely talk to, but I wanted to share a piece of information. And the conversation on Twitter: I’ve never met the two people in my entire life, and the only thing I know about them is the cartoon of a cat the one man uses for his profile photo and the cartoon presentation of the other man on his profile.
Being connected to these people has not urged me to go beyond the technological barriers set up. That’s because I can minimize the conversations when I don’t feel like confronting a difficult topic, or I can simply ignore what others say online when they offend me or I don’t care. Maybe it sounds Malcolm Gladwell-esque, but people will not act as a group through Facebook. They will act when they all sit down together at a kitchen counter at a diner in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In bringing together the empathy box, Mercerism, and modern technology today, they are all intertwined in that they relate to how collective action cannot be possible for two main reasons. First, the technology is creating a false sense of community through which people believe they are relating to one another as individuals, when actually, they genuineness is lost in the virtual objects to which they are connecting themselves to. Second, because people are connecting themselves to a risk-free element, there is not commitment expected of them that can be called in question, meaning that ensuring action is not capable of checking. For those in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, they need to commit to a philosophy not contained within the empathy box and meant as a form of control. For those today, it means looking outside of the Internet for means of action. Outside of the empathy box and Internet is where the community actually lies that will take collective action together.
Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballatine Books, 1968. Print.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. On the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Feenberg, Andrew. Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Galvan, Jill. “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Science Fiction Studies 73.3 (1997): 413-29. Online.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Introduction, Chapter 1." One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.
McNamara, Kevin. “Blade Runner’s Post Individual Worldspace.” Contemporary Literature
38.8 (1997): 422-46. Online.
Sims, Christopher. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in
Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Science Fiction Studies 36.1
(2009): 67-86. Online.