This desire to foster and express a shallow "empathy" in order to gain social status is a clear example of what Marcuse, in The One-Dimensional Man, calls "false needs." He defines false needs as "those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his
repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and
injustice." The false need to constantly express the outer signs of empathy keeps the members of Dick's society, first, working endlessly in order to afford new and better animals, and to maintain the ones they have. Second, contrary to the genuine emotion of empathy which the false empathy of Mercerism serves to replace, it actually instills aggressiveness by increasing the population's disdain for androids and schizophrenic "specials" who are incapable of expressing this kind of conspicuous empathy, due to their own biology or lack therof. Third, and most insidiously, it keeps the government's program of eugenics - the labeling, sterilization, and binding to Earth of specials - unquestioned. It does this through Mercerism's proud claims to include even specials into its fold, quieting any rebellious attitudes they might have by instilling in them a feeling of gratitude for being able to follow Mercer's messianic journey through their empathy boxes. This is made clear when Isidore accidentally reveals himself as a special to Pris:
"But an empathy box," he said, stammering in his excitement, "is the most personal possession you have! It's an extension of your body, it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone. [...] Mercer even lets people like me--" [...] "I'm not very special, only moderately. Not like some you see. But that's what Mercer doesn't care about." (p.64)
The average person on Earth in 2021 has such a deteriorated inner life that interacting with the empathy box seems more genuine an expression of empathy than actually interacting with other human beings. Rather than actually encouraging understanding and devotion toward the people around them, this pornographic experience of empathy turns people completely inward. And this turning inward accomplishes exactly the goal Marcuse gives to false needs: "to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. " There is no resistance in the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep because there is no genuine connection between other human beings which might allow people to actually compare and understand their mutual inner lives and thus identify the source of their own turmoil.
Marcuse describes "false needs" as having "a societal content and function which are determined by external powers over which the individual has no control." This is absolutely true for the world Dick has created in his novel. The characters are bombarded, constantly, with media imploring them to move offworld, to practice Mercerism, and to care for animals. Buster Friendly's comedy program, which broadcasts 46 hours of content per day including both its radio and television broadcasts, is obviously not made by a real human being. Besides his impossible level of productivity, his recurring guests seem to have no other lives except to return to his program again and again. Mr. Sloat, the owner of the electric animal repair company, speculates on pagen 74 that this is possible because Buster Friendly is a superior lifeform from another galaxy. The more likely answer, of course, is that Buster Friendly is simply a name used by several actors (or androids) who produce the show under government direction (the government being the last remaining producer of media on Earth) for the purpose of instilling the mass of listeners with false needs via advertising and ideologically biased content.
Dick's book, therefore, takes Marcuse's vision of a world dominated by false needs to an absurd extreme through science-fiction technology, and presents to us some of the clear dangers of allowing our emotions and our inner desires to be governed entirely by external, mechanized forces.