Social Distraction and One-Dimensional Societies
Marcuse describes a one-dimensional society characterized by the elimination of choice, in which the social and economic structure, a “product of a sophisticated, scientific management,” forces the individual to accept the oppressive nature and “repressive power of the whole” (Marcuse). The role of technology in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? thoroughly depicts a one-dimensional society in the future in which different forms of social control indoctrinate the masses with a “false consciousness” that perpetuates a totalitarian system of capitalism, closely resembling both Marcuse’s predictions and the flattening out of political and financial options for modern consumers facing a widening income gap and monopolistic industry armed with government support. Marcuse and Dick would view the pressure from today’s consumption-based media (social distraction heavily biased by government influence), as a one-dimensional structure “in which advanced industrial society silences and reconciles the opposition” (Marcuse).
A striking similarity between Dick’s one-dimensional, post-apocalyptic society and our own global economy is the social status distinctions that arise between citizens with access to technology and those that experience “a loss of livelihood” from a system that prospers as social division grows between those who can afford the technology that will satisfy the needs of the society, and individuals that cannot. Society then shuns these individuals because they lack an “overriding interest in the preservation and improvement of the institutional status quo” (Marcuse). For example, not every citizen is eligible and can afford to emigrate: “That had been the ultimate incentive of emigration: the android servant as carrot, the radioactive fallout as stick. The U.N. made it easy to emigrate, difficult if not impossible to stay…once pegged a special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history” (Dick 13). Here we see how a society run by one dimension of thought, one objective, leaves individuals unable to distinguish between their needs and the needs of their society (or race), to progress. Of those on Earth, not every citizen can afford a Penfield Mood-Enhancing machine or own an animal, but by attaining these objects, or symbols of status, one gains both class distinction and distraction from the imminent death of radiation poisoning.
The only character we see defy this desire to do what is normal is Iran at the beginning of the novel, who would rather “feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s smart has emigrated” (Dick 3). Although she has the means to afford a mood-enhancing machine, she chooses to experience the reality of her situation as an individual, opposing the needs of the society and the normalized behavior of the affluent class. In a country whose citizens indentify with their material possessions, their type of car, brand of computer, size of house, Iran is an anti-consumer, and she embodies Marcuse’s negative thinking, the only rational defense against the false consciousness perpetuated by the societal need for constantly-growing economy or emigration to Mars. Iran would have boycotted Black Friday this Thanksgiving to exercise her individual needs, and she also calls her husband a “murderer hired by cops,” a jab at his profession. Deckard, who hunts androids to avoid the title of chickenhead, works to maintain his place in society, so that he can buy a real animal and participate in society, but in order to do this, he must kill androids. My father, who worked for himself for years taking over his father’s heating and air conditioning company, recently sold his truck and took a job working at the lower level of a corporation. He traded his freedom as an individual worker making his own hours to working overtime for financial stability, the ability to send his children to college, and to keep up his Apple fan boy image. When I see my father looking into the Apple store window, I see Deckard drooling over the last ostrich in San Francisco’s largest pet shop. Still, it should be noted that when Iran calls her husband a murderer, she considers androids human and therefore rebels against a system that views androids as slaves. In a society that uses android slavery to convince humans to emigrate, Iran seems to retain her individual thoughts in the face of the “repressive whole,” at least in the beginning of the book.
The commercialism that drives this economy is influenced by two forms of social distraction: Mercerism and Buddy Friendly. The availability of empathy boxes and televisions allow most citizens on Earth and in the colonies to satisfy their “need for modes of relaxation, the spiritual, metaphysical… [b]ut such modes of protest and transcendence are no longer contradictory to the status quo” (Marcuse). Both Mercerism and Buddy Friendly serve government agenda that could only be accomplished through mass indoctrination and the perpetuation of a “false consciousness” that confuses the individual’s understanding of his or her own needs. Mercerism gives meaning to a miserable existence by urging followers to protect buy and protect animals, increasing the cost of the ostrich in the window and making it more wanted. Mercerists must buy and own an empathy box, and share their love for their animals, which works like advertisement, convincing more people to circulate money into the system. Animals, a sign of social status in Dick’s world, are now the form of currency, valued more than “specials” (who are, by the way, still human beings), and androids (who, let’s face it, are basically human beings). The hierarchy of living things in this society is based on Mercer’s teachings, which is essentially based on principles that keep society moving, spending money, working, and most importantly feeling so content as a consumer that individuals can no longer pose the threat of social change. Marcuse calls this “deceptive liberty,” when “one-dimensional thought is systematically promoted by the maker of politics and their purveyors of mass information” (Marcuse). Jill Galvin explains that “Mercerism and the ideology of empathy that is its mainstay, far from appealing to innate human characteristics, function merely as the means by which the government controls an otherwise unwieldy populace” (Galvin 416). Repressed individuals like Isidore, and Deckard in the beginning of the novel, live in an illusion of contentment where there is only one dimension of thought driving society and it involves the need to feel empathy, which can only be attained through the purchase of animals and an empathy machine, rather than any kind of social agency.
Although they appear to oppose each other, Buddy Friendly’s endorsement of emigration also hints to television media as a major influence in the structure of post-colonial Earth, a mode of manipulation for the society to introduce its own needs. Buddy Friendly airs twenty-three hours a day urging listeners to emigrate, bribing them with a slave that “duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot—designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE—given to you on your arrival absolutely free…” (Dick 14). Along with the repulsive rhetoric that fantasizes slavery, the advertisement is also capitalizing on the social division between humans and specials, as well as humans and androids. The ad even makes the listener feel like they are supporting their own needs by seemingly focusing on the individual, but in reality, the colonies are just even more technologically-structure societies run by mechanized slavery and capitalism (resources derived from manufacturing on Earth). They will only consist of superior members of the human race, but who will all accept the consciousness perpetuated by society: mass media and the devaluing of the special and android. The need to do what is normal seeps into the “mind and body of the individual,” and through indoctrination and manipulation, the repressed class fails to realize the totalitarian tendency to use technology as a mode for social control (Marcuse Prologue). At the highest levels, Mercerism and Buddy Friendly aim to bate consumers, and although they appear as though they oppose each other, they both ultimately intend to keep the masses focused on society’s needs. Marcuse and Dick would view the increase of industry lobbyist involvement in politics as a serious example of a society purposefully confusing consumer needs for society’s needs, campaigning to leave all who are already in power, in power by influencing voters with material contentment. Take the Super Bowl commercials, which are made to drive not only consumption, but also a pride for, or consciousness of consumption. The corporations and government/political identities that use wildly expensive forms of communication to gather support and money have no real interest in the consumer, only in the collective, hegemonic need for control. They want citizens to talk about the advertisements the next day with only positive feelings, and purposefully leave out this agenda.
In the same way we see Iran rebel momentarily against the economic social control of the Penfield Mood-Enhancing machine, we see her sucked back into the system through Mercerism and the goat. The androids, however, are affected neither by the mood machine nor Mercerism, and as exiles from the colonies, they know that the propaganda broadcasted on Buddy Friendly’s show is sensationalized and inhumane. Essentially, the androids are non-consumers, seen when Pris refuses Isidore’s food, but society portrays them as if they have no emotion. In this same scene, we see Pris feeling empathy for her own android friends and Isidore. Androids refuse to buy into a system that views them as inferior, despite their matched intelligence and at least somewhat-developed emotions. Reason, in fact, acts as the powerful alternative to the “false consciousness” perpetuated by the technology seen in Dick’s world, and we see the transformation in Deckard as he uses deductive reasoning to question the humanity of the androids that the system—his job and only form of livelihood—forces him to kill. The androids utilize Marcuse’s negative thinking, working against the system blatantly inside the system in the same way that society retains control of the individual in a one-dimensional society through mass media—secretly and out in the open. Only through a refusal to participate in the system of global consumption can one concentrate effectively on his or her own needs, the way Iran switched off her mood machine and the androids escaped the confines of slavery by living in isolation on Earth. Even so, we see the overwhelming power of social control, of a system that sends out bounty hunters to destroy voices of social transformation, in the same way that lobbyists targeting congressmen deny people like my father a voice in economic policy. In the same way, Mercerism and the media industry work together towards the same end, a one-dimensional society in which there is no other acceptable way to live. One must buy into the system to survive, to pay for the affordances of a modern industrialized society even if it means giving up a personal endeavor like my father, killing androids to pay for a goat, or buying an education in government loans that does not guarantee a job, the individual cannot escape society’s needs. Social control makes individuals think the industry cares about them, and in the end, the repressed class cannot rise up because stuck an altered form of consciousness. Marcuse had it right. Negative thinking is the only way to rebel.
Dick, Phillip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Galvan, Jill. Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Science Fiction Studies , Vol. 24, No. 3 (Nov., 1997), pp. 413-429. Published by: SF-TH Inc. Article Stable URL: https://sremote.pitt.edu:11017/stable/4240644
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.