True and False Needs: Humans vs. Androids?
Let us cross examine Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” with Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Looking at both of these works, we see that they both take a good look at society, Marcuse examining systems like capitalism and topics like societal control, while Dick projects into the year 2021, examining human life in a post war climate where the earth itself is currently becoming less and less sustainable.
In Chapter One of “One Dimensional Man,” Marcuse introduces the idea of “true and false needs.” True needs being those that are absolutely essential to life, and false needs are those which are “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice”(Marcuse, Chapter One). We can use the idea of false needs to examine some of the societal elements in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
The keeping of animals immediately springs to my mind. Because of the almost apocalyptic conditions of this nearly post-earth, many animals are rare or even extinct, and owning one becomes a status symbol. As early as the first chapter of Dick’s novel we see one of the main characters, Rick Deckard, fretting over owning an electric sheep rather than a real living animal. His jealousy over his neighbor’s pregnant horse is obvious, and while he is ashamed of owning a electric animal, he attempts to guilt his neighbor into selling him one of his horses since owning more than one animal would be considered a violation of the principals of “Mercerism.”
These false needs repress Deckard, trapping him and leaving him unbalanced in societal expectations. “The prevalence of repressive needs is an accomplished fact, accepted in ignorance and defeat, but a fact that must be undone in the interest of the happy individual as well as all those whose misery is the price of his satisfaction” (Marcuse, Chapter 1).
We can construe the desire of owning an animal as a mere “false need” but the underlying issue at hand very much has to do with the true human need of affection. Rick craves a real animal because his electric sheep is incapable of reciprocity, incapable of empathy. According to Mercerism, empathy is what separates humans from androids, true life from false life.
However, the once black and white line between humans and androids becomes skewed as the story develops. There are characters like John Isidore who are considered “chicken heads,” humans that do not have the same mental capabilities as other humans, and are therefore lesser beings. Then there is Rachael Rosen, an android nearly capable of passing for a human being.
This is where the human idea of empathy becomes muddled. Although Rachael failed questioning from the Voigt-Kampff scale, her simulated responses were close to actual human responses. As part of the questioning, Rick tells Rachael his briefcase is made of babyhide. Her response is intriguing: “He saw the two dial indicators gyrate frantically. But only after a pause. The reaction had come, but too late” (Dick, 59). At this moment, Rachel herself finds out she is an android, and seems unsure of how to process the new information. She resists the comforting touch of Eldon, which can either be taken as a human or inhuman reaction. She is a new breed, a Nexus-6, one which at this point in the story we are incapable of fully discovering.
Perhaps in the coming chapters, as we examine Rachael in fuller detail, we can see if she is purely androidal, without desire of false, repressive needs, or if androids dream of their own repressive needs, maybe even electric sheep.