Caia Caldwell February 10, 2012
Narrative and Technology
Societal Control: Distractions and False Needs
In Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, he discusses how “products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood. And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life” (Marcuse 12). When read through Marcuse, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep presents numerous examples where products in the fictitious novel socially control society and regulate the population through “false needs” as identified by Marcuse, and distractions (Marcuse 4). Yet when we go even further and apply Marcuse and Dick to society today, we come to understand that these musings on societal control are not antiquated, or relegated to a past era or fictitious world, but are relevant and vital to examining the society we live in.
Marcuse was concerned with analyzing a “society that finds people distracted by sports, fun, and technology, and pursuing the ‘false needs’ generated by advertisements for consumer goods, and settling into the Happy Consciousness that no longer wonders whether there are alternatives to the status quo” (Box 173). This leads directly to the TV/radio show prevalently mentioned throughout the first half of the book: “Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends.” Extremely popular, the show is watched religiously by humans and androids alike, providing asinine amusement, un-stimulating, stupid humor, but most importantly a distraction for the masses. If the population wasn’t entertained, maybe they would begin to question the appalling conditions they live in (the radio-active dust, for example), and how miserable their lives really are.
The same asinine entertainment is found in society today. From reality shows to sitcoms, television draws in and mindlessly entertains billions of people. We can compare “Buster…” to a show like The Jersey Shore. We find the same silly prattle, inconsequential issues beings discussed, but also audience appeal, and effective distraction techniques. It is unimportant to know whether Snooki is going to break up with her boyfriend after he found out she cheated on him, but the masses want to know. This distraction technique is a form of societal control because “a sense of well-being is fostered by the media and consumer goods” (Box 174). Just like the characters in the novel, we’re comforted by the normalcy of stupid entertainment. Earth may be falling apart, devastated by World War Terminus, however its inhabitants can still always turn to “Buster…” which gives their lives a sense of normalcy and well-being.
Another consumer good found in Dick’s novel is the Penfield. The device allows inhabitants of Earth and Mars the ability to “dial” their moods, letting them change, choose, and regulate how they feel. When Iran, Rick’s wife, wakes up grumpy, he tells her to “dial” to a better mood. This device is not only abnormal and creepy, but also a perfect way for the Government of Other Entity to control the population. The use of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and other pharmaceutical drugs to regulate moods is a common practice in current society. Drugs like Prozac, Xanax, and Zoloft allow their users to “swallow” their moods and change the way they were feeling before in an effort to escape.
An interesting similarity between the Penfield and these specific pharmaceutical drugs is that they are both status symbols. The Penfield is expensive, and only a certain economic class of people can afford it. This is also true of anti-anxiety/anti-depression medicines. If your insurance does not cover the medicine, than the consumers must be able to pay out-of-pocket for it. The homeless man on the street is not taking Xanax, the middle to upper class suburban soccer mom is. This again is a demonstration of ‘false needs” its “productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need…” (Marcuse 9).
Animals in Dick’s novel are also viewed as status symbols, especially when the owner is in possession of a genuine creature that is not mechanical. “Sidney’s catalogue” gives the value for animals, and people feel proud owning one, such as Rick’s neighbor: “ ‘My horse,’ Barbour declared beamingly, ‘is pregnant’ ” (Dick 7) Animals are also directly linked to empathy, and feelings of being human. The human population has shrunken tremendously after World War Terminus, and the population clings to anything that reminds them of the old world (an alternative example of this fixation is “pre-colonial fiction”). But in addition to being linked to empathy, animals once again display a “status.” If a person is wealthy, they might own a real sheep. If a person is poor, they might own a cricket if they’re lucky. This is proportional to someone who owns a brand-new Mercedes, to someone that owns a 1985 Chevy Astro van in our world. In the novel, animals have replaced the prized commodity of cars.
An ironic thing to note is that in the promoting of cars today, or any other such advertised “false need" the commercials commonly use animals. Just sampling the Super Bowl commercials, viewers see huskies in promoting Suzuki, a golden retriever with a Volkswagen, and polar bears as the furry lovable icon of Coca-Cola. What can we learn from these observations about our society? “Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination?” (Marcuse 8). The media has somehow taken the image of animals and exploited the empathy bond found them and human. This manipulates the viewer in the novel to obtain animals as possessions, or in present day, be persuaded to buy the product.
The final product to discuss is the androids themselves. But instead of viewing them as a product, we’re going to view them as Rick does--as a threat, job, war. As Marcuse puts it, “Mobilization against the enemy works as a mighty stimulus of production and employment, thus sustaining the high standard of living” (Marcuse 21). The Government uses the idea of a common enemy to mobilize the people in a way that does not undercut the government. “Fear has become a primary tool of distraction from such characteristics of one-dimensional society…” (Box 180). In the novel, it is Rick’s job to hunt down and “retire” androids that have escaped to Earth and are attempting to pose as humans. This fear (though seemingly unjustified) has created employment for Rick, as well as bounty hunters and policemen alike. This highly visible “war” on androids provides a distraction from other issues and allows humans to bond and unite in the fact that they are human. The U.S. also uses war a tool for "production and employment” as well. America’s “trend toward aggressiveness and violence does not lack apparent functionality or usefulness. Instead, what might be thought of as a set of randomly occurring characteristics in society can be redescribed in sociological terms as functional support for a system organized around commercial and financial benefit” (Box 177).
Using Marcuse, we can see that the societal controls using false needs and distraction techniques found in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? can be found equally in society today. The idea of viewing our world through the lenses of Marcuse, juxtaposed with Dick’s novel is not to start a panic, or rejection of our government, but to be aware of our society. We have become, in many ways, similar to a “one-dimensional” society Marcuse so vehemently warned against, as demonstrated by the similarities found between Dick’s fictional world, and current society. We must always remember ideas put forth by Marcuse are just aimed a past time in history: they directly relate to society today.
Box, Richard C. “Marcuse Was Right: One-Dimensional Society in the Twenty- First Century.” Administration Theory and Praxis. Vol. 33 (2011). pg. 169- 191.
PittCat: Ebscohost. Web. Feb. 9 2011.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. New York: Del Rey
Books, 2007. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.Print.