Narrative and Technology
Understanding the Empathy Box as a Marcusian False Need
“The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence”(Marcuse, Chapter 1). Herbert Marcuse differentiates these implanted needs as “false needs” as opposed to true needs; the need for food, shelter, and clothing. Marcuse further states, “[most] of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume to accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs”(Marcuse, Chapter 1). Of these false needs, the most striking false need is that of needing “to love and hate what others love and hate.” It is this false need that imprisons individuals the most, defying free thought.
In Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the empathy box serves to link oneself to the feelings of others, allowing all who connect to share the same feelings. As such, this device directly breaks with free thought, casting individuals into repression. Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man helps readers of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? identify the empathy box as a false need that serves to inhibit an individual’s liberty. It does so by imposing itself as a highly personal object, assimilating individual beliefs into one, and lessening feelings of accomplishment.
John Isidore refers to the empathy box as, “the most personal possession you have! It’s an extension your body; it’s the way you touch other humans, it’s the way you stop being alone”(Dick, 64). The empathy box is vital to Isidore’s existence, or at least he believes so, as he is astonished that another being could have possibly left hers behind. An empathy box is not a true need; however John Isidore has been indoctrinated into the belief of the opposite. As Ross Fitzgerald says, “no matter how much she/he identifies her/himself with them and finds her/himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be what they were from the beginning—products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression and domination”(Fitzgerald, 89). This personal feeling Isidore has for the empathy box is not unnatural to the repressed society Dick presents, however it is certainly not how a truly free person would behave. As a “special”, Isidore is already the underdog in this futuristic society. He is looked down upon by others; however the empathy box is there to fill a void created by society itself. One cannot blame Isidore for his pathetic attachment to the empathy box, as the only alternative is complete isolation. Although this may seem to be somewhat paradoxical—Isidore must choose between repression from the empathy box or absolute loneliness—it is society itself that presents both of these options. Society’s labeling of antheads and chickenheads creates this situation. Therefore, the empathy box’s forced repression due to its being highly personal is an inescapable fate for John Isidore. As such, John Isidore will never be able to transcend this repression, leaving him to a fate of unconscious slavery.
The empathy box not only burdens its victims with intimate feelings, but also assimilates the different beliefs its users have into a “one-dimensional universe of thought,” as Marcuse would say. The purpose of the empathy box is to collect the thoughts of all of the simultaneous users and transform them into one shared consciousness. Dick states, “[they]—and he—cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities oriented their attention on the hill, the climb, the need to ascend”(Dick, 20). One might think that a shared belief could be a beneficial thing to society. This shared goal, however, has no important purpose. This collective individual is brainwashed into believing that walking up this hill is the sole thing that they should strive for. This has no outcome which could possibly benefit these individuals, yet the machine tells them they should do so, and they do. I find the passage that follows soon after even more telling, “Who? he wondered, peering to see his tormentor. The old antagonists, manifesting themselves at the periphery of his vision”(Dick, 21). As this collective being is advancing towards the top, closer every day, some “enemy” injures this being. I can’t help but understand this passage as Dick stating that those who go against the popular belief can only be considered enemies. This only contributes to the one-way thinking established by the collective group. This belief is summarized down to: climb up the hill, advance more every day, be like Mercer, any other belief is an antagonist. I wonder, how long have these people been climbing towards the top, with the belief that they will someday achieve this feat? Will they ever reach the top? If they do reach the top, then what do they do? These questions do not plague those who employ the empathy box, as the box is designed to never bring these questions up. I cannot think of a better way to repress the people in a society. When their sole goal is one that will never be accomplished, they will never develop thought of rebellion. This ultimate control causes any advancement to be stagnant. An empathy box serves only to create a false need and to leave its users unconscious of their slavery.
Finally, the empathy box represses the individual by lessening the feelings of joy and accomplishment. In the society of future Earth, it is practice to use one’s empathy box at your peak good feelings. In doing so, you share this feeling with the group consciousness. This sharing does not multiply this good feeling, however, but divides it amongst all of the users. After Rick Deckard purchases his goat, his wife is overjoyed. Instead of cherishing this good feeling after her slump of depression, she instantly declares that they should share the feeling through the empathy box. Iran states, “It would be immoral not to fuse with Mercer in gratitude…I want you to transmit the mood you’re in now to everyone else; you owe it to them. It would be immoral to keep it for ourselves”(Dick, 171). The repetition of the phrase “it would be immoral” is unsettling. In our current society, we do not feel the need to sacrifice our good feelings to others. Generally, such good feelings are treated as rewards, and as such, they urge us to be more productive, in order to produce similar results in the future. In Dick’s society, however, these feelings of joy must be crushed almost instantly. One might think that this is contrary to Marcusian belief, as less satisfaction could potentially cause an empathy box user to stray away from use. It is in fact the contrary, as the users enjoy lessening their experience with the belief that it is their duty to do so. As such, they gain a certain kind of satisfaction through sacrificing their joy. As Fitzgerald states,
A fundamental thesis of One Dimensional Man is that by producing material affluence, the technology of advanced industrial society has the effect of eliminating protest and dissent, and at the same time fostering identification with the established order. As Marcuse says, “If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population (Marcuse, 1969, p.8) (Fitzgerald, 89-90).
The empathy box fits this to a T. The box causes all people to share the same beliefs, “eliminating protest and dissent” and simultaneously causes everyone to agree with set beliefs, such as “you owe it to them” and “it would be immoral”. This agreement amongst all users does exactly what Marcuse means by “serving the preservation of the Establishment.” This assimilation of thoughts can only serve to limit the creativity of individuals and cease any forward movement in the direction of the people.
The empathy box in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? presents a perfect example of a Marcusian false need, according to One-Dimensional Man. This device is one which is imposed upon the individual as necessary for life, although it is in fact far from it. Marcuse states, “Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability…to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease”(Marcuse, Chapter 1). The humans in Dick’s novel have no chance of transcending the need to use the empathy box if they never realize that the empathy box is in fact, not necessary to sustain life. The empathy box is in fact the very disease of the whole Marcuse speaks of. Such false needs are what could bring mankind to the end of ingenuity and into severe repression. Philip K. Dick’s novel is a scarily accurate, although perhaps exaggerated, representation of what society could become if humans subject themselves to similar false needs.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.
Fitzgerald, Ross. “Human Needs and Politics: The Ideas of Christian Bay and Herbert Marcuse.” Political Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 87-108. Web. Feb. 10 2012.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Intro/Chapter 1." One-dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.