Marcuse focuses a fair section of the first chapter of One Dimensional Man to describing an individual’s needs in a modern, mechanized society. He sums up his perspective on modern needs by saying:
“We may distinguish both true and false needs. "False" 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 1)
Prior to this conclusion, Marcuse presents an argument that if society continues down the path currently set, our needs will no longer be the basics of food, water and shelter because all of these things can be handed to us through our mastery of delegating tasks to automated means. Our true needs will be to free ourselves from the political, economical and social machines that come from these great luxuries. He shows concern that simple freedoms like freedom of thought and freedom from government oppression may be lost because of our complete dependence on the machines provided to us. It is almost a sleight of hand by society; while we accept the benefits of our technology, the technology creates new problems and stress such that we are no more satisfied than when we were before. These problems, while certainly not as detrimental as dying from starvation, still create a riff in our own inner beings. An individual may feel isolated or inadequate due to the social pressures we now have time to implement.
This relates well to the near-futuristic society portrayed in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” This world has been ravaged by another, and likely final, world war. Nuclear fallout sweeps across the land and exposure to the surface over time transforms humans into “special” undesirables. The world is barely inhabitable, so a colonization of Mars occurred to save us as a species. Those who remain on the surface face consequences, be it small inconveniences such as wearing a lead penis sheath to walk outdoors or the real and ever present threat of becoming a mutant – and less than human – through radiation.
To our protagonist, Rick Dekard, these issues do not create stress in his life. The most important thing to him is to own an animal, most specifically a large animal, as everybody has one in this society and it is a sign of status. It is so important to him that he even has a fake, robotic sheep made after his real sheep dies so that he fits in with his neighbors. To no longer have a sheep would be a crippling point of shame for Dekard. As Marcuse wisely predicted, having enough food to eat, or a job, or surviving after a nuclear war or even a mood-enhancing machine does not satisfy Dekard. He can only be vindicated through animal ownership, because that is the common social pressure in his time and place. The precedent of owning a large animal as a status symbol is a completely unnecessary. It is not a true need, as Rick could survive without it. However, the social pressure and the issues that stem from it, such as disappointing his wife or being thought less of by his neighbors, cause him more misery and is a driving force for the narrative.
Most alarming about Marcuse’s predictions is that we as readers may not continually question Dekard’s motives because we are driven by superfluous greed. As Dekard risks his life during his dangerous mission to retire seven androids to collect the bounty to afford an animal, we never stop and ask “Why?” Why must he kill all seven? It’s understandable that Dekard needs a job to provide for himself and his wife, but why the excessive work? Does this really bring him joy or does his lust for an animal only “perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice?”
However, the implications of Marcuse’s truths are severe when applied to our society today. Dekard may yearn for an animal while his world is physically falls apart in a nuclear wasteland, but overall, we are worse off today than Dekard. He has exactly one economic vice. I, and many others, have many which lead me to be overworked and stressed. I want a big house. I want an Aston Martin so I can be like James Bond. I only play Fender guitars because they are the gold standard. The list goes on and on. We are all indoctrinated with these false needs. Douglas Kellner in “Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism,” warns against a monopolistic capitalist society where our desires are presented as needs and power is held by an economic-government elite. While he was warning about the theoretical dangers of extreme political systems, we are already at this point past competition. We are no longer a society based on needs or even desires, we are a society based on Marcuse’s definition of the word “consumer.” We have lost our identity in things and only exist to create and have bigger and better things. If it’s not the newest or the best, we look down upon it. Things no longer serve our needs, they are our needs. We are now working for the technology instead of the technology working for us.
Due to our growing application of technology, it’s getting harder and harder to keep up as well. For instance, I recently got rid of television that was only 7 years old. It was a flat screen and had a 480p resolution. When we bought it, it was amazing. The screen was so clear and it was a point of pride for me. However, it wasn’t a thin television, it had the boxy back part to it. Moving it to college was a pain and I wanted a new one with HDMI ports and 1080p resolution. My old television worked fine, I just wanted a new one. My 3 year old, $2000 Macbook Pro is already behind the latest specs for their $1000 model and is slowly turning into kipple with a broken disc drive and busted frame. This is more than just “keeping up with the Jones’s,” this is a consumerism plague.
Just like Dekard, the pure act of owning something is not our motivation for this unchecked materialistic attitude. It’s the social pressures that accompany these things that lead us to want. As I’m writing this, I’m questioning myself as to why I want the things I do and why I do the things that give me stress. I think college, and more specifically being a chemical engineer, is not only the greatest stress in my life, but also me bowing to social pressure. I was always told I was a smart kid and my parents and family pushed me to apply myself so I could “have a good job someday.” But what purpose does this serve? Is having a high paying job a need or a want? For me, an engineering degree is just an enabler. Like Dekard, I’m doing something I don’t want to do because it fulfills my extraneous wants. But it’s more than that. I don’t want to disappoint my family because they expect a lot from me. The bar is set high, so my need for things I don’t need is even higher. My false needs have dictated my life’s path to this point. There are jobs that don’t require a college degree that someone could work, but no one is willing to stoop to that lower class. I cannot free myself from my Mercusian false needs because of the social pressures that come with that decision, which in fact may make me less human in a nonphysical sense.
Through Marcuse, an analysis of Dekard’s false needs in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” reveals that he may indeed be less human than the robotic androids or the mutated “specials.” He is a product of a society that values certain vain goods over societal needs, such as a surface that can sustain natural life. Although his desire for an animal is intense, it pales in comparison to the materialistic, economically controlled, “Marcusian consumer” society that we exist in today.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.
Kellner, Douglas. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Intro/Chapter 1." One-dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.