Dangerous Technology: Alienation and Passivity in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, different forms of technology take on the forms of being necessary, evil, or a combination of necessary evils. World War Terminus not only destroys the world, but also civilization. In the first chapter of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, “One-Dimensional Society,” he discusses advanced industrial civilization. Specifically, he addresses the concept of alienation that can be the product of technology creating a sort of societal control. In today’s culture, technology also plays a role in isolating individuals from reality when they become dependent on them, such as different forms of social media or alternate reality games. So maybe society now is not so far from the future of Dick’s novel. Marcuse’s conclusions about how technology can result in an advanced form of alienation when they lose their identity and just blend in with society resonates with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with characters immersing themselves in technologies that force a control upon them that they have difficulty connecting with the reality of other humans. The empathy box in the novel demonstrates a specific piece of technology that emphasizes the ways in which social collectively can be diminished, a consequence that can happen in today’s society as technological forms such as the Internet infringe upon human activity.
A prime example is J.R. Isidore, a special, or genetically damaged being who cannot leave earth, who lives alone in his apartment. His story is interwoven with Rick Deckard’s. When Isidore turns off his television, he experiences an overwhelming silence that “supplants all things tangible” (Dick 18). The silence for him, which is something that also covers the earth now, consumes him.
He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way … He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here in his stricken living room alone with the lungless, all-penetrating, masterful world-silence.
Isidore’s passage notes that the silence is entropic. In the novel, the characters sense the entropy of the earth as they almost destroy all of humankind. After World War Terminus, silence consumed the world, resulting in a heightened alienation as people found themselves without human connections. Marcuse calls alienation “questionable” a few times because it’s a more elaborate concept. The reality of alienation is at a further stage, one in which the subject is “swallowed up by its alienated existence” (Marcuse 6). It’s during the silence that Isidore recognizes his loneliness, so he clings to his empathy box to combat the silence.
Isidore’s attachment to technology is his empathy box, which connects the people into a collective consciousness that shares the pain of Wilbur Mercer, who took an infinite walk up a mountain as people cast stones at him. Marcuse, before his conclusion about the definition of alienation, says when people are confronted with the advanced industrial civilization, they tend to “recognize themselves in their commodities” and that is how social control is anchored. In the year 2012, people are dependent upon their computers and televisions among others, which they function as a form of escape from physical human beings. Isidore, who is not by choice isolated from humans, avoids the anxiety of the silence in his deteriorating apartment by resorting to his empathy box. “As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences. They — and he — cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities....” (Dick 20). According to Christopher Sims in his essay “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’” humans use technology to merge their experiences with the consciousness of Wilbur Mercer by using the empathy box. “Mercerism fills the void of religion because, while it provides a source of comfort to isolated individuals, it also supplies a moral framework for humans to live by in the wake of the disintegration of former religious and governmental institutions” (Sims 82).
Marcuse discusses the concept of introjection within his discussion of alienation. He talks about the way that “introjection” is perhaps not the best description of how people perpetuate society’s controls. Because Isidore, and others, are consciously using the empathy box, maintain their own awareness, but are also aware of others. So it would be fitting to conclude that introjection is not the correct term to use because, like Marcuse says, Isidore does not have an inner dimension that is separate from the behavior of the rest of the people. The people aren’t necessarily using the empathy box out of a sense that they feel the need to mold to the others in society. The government has made them feel the need to connect to the empathy box, so it has been a conformity issue among the people, but a force way of collectively using it without the people knowing that it was done to them. Because while both are done unconsciously, introjection seems to imply that the people naturally have conformed together, rather than an outside entity forcing that conformity. A more accurate word, perhaps, would be compulsion, with a force behind it – that force being the government.
We see this form of introjection currently in the form of the Internet. While it’s not something government-controlled, it’s something corporate-controlled, compelling people to see the necessity to use it for the purpose of interaction. But like the empathy box, the consequence is a sense of alienation. In Hubert Dreyfus’ On the Internet, he cites a Stanford University study that says that despite the selling points of the Internet providing an outlet for everyone to relate to one another and interact, it actually does quite the opposite. “… The Internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an atomized world without human contact or emotion” (Dreyfus 50). So imagining that the empathy box is substituted with a computer, people are expected to connect through a vast network. However, the consequence is a sense of disembodiment because humans are not physically interacting, which sacrifices the ability of humans to comprehensively grasp a situation, because, as Dreyfus explains: “… As embodied, we each experience a constant readiness to cope with things in general that goes beyond our readiness to cope with any specific thing” (55). So, in relation to the empathy box, it just serves as another tool to attempt to control and otherwise unwieldy population.
Is it truly making the people better off? Iran seems to think so. “… I remember thinking how much better we are, how much better off, when we’re with Mercer. Despite the pain. Physical pain but spiritually together; I felt everyone else, all over the world, all who had fused at the same time” (Dick 171). This would seem to go against the sense of alienation that Dreyfus describes; yet, during this moment, Rick, who is physically present, notes that he feels a distance between them. She’s become dependent on the empathy box, like so many others, which has led them to become detached from reality with other humans. Rick, who doesn’t want to use the empathy box, also feels a sort of detachment then from those using the empathy box. At one point, “Rick stood holding the phone receiver, conscious of her mental departure. Conscious of his own aloneness” (Dick 174). By not using the empathy box, Rick is not melding with society. By using the empathy box, Iran is not alone, like Rick when he doesn’t use the empathy box. “This is what the experience of fusion docs for the practitioners of Mercerism; it creates an empathetic synthesis of every human mind. From within this synthesis each individual has the knowledge that he or she is not stumbling through reality alone, that there is in fact an "other" with whom we can actually connect and commiserate” (Sims 80).
But it’s this alienation that is the purpose of the empathy box – to inhibit the production of reality through social collectiveness. The people who tune into the box share the empathy and pent up feelings with the tortured Mercer, but they do so within the confines of their home. After they disconnect from the empathy box, their sense of wanting to take physical action stops. By making everyone feel like they have had a sense of collectiveness, there is no need to take action any further, because Mercer’s suffering can’t be prevented. Scott Bukatman, a cultural theorist and film and media studies professor at Stanford University, says that this “image addiction” is used as a tactic by a controlling government to segregate the people in order to prevent collective action.
In the society of the spectacle, all images are advertisements for the status quo. The commodity is replaced by its own representation, and the fulfillment of need is replaced by pseudo-satisfaction of desire. A citizenry alienated by the industrial-capitalist mode of production is granted an illusion of belonging and participation; the fragmentation of the productive and social realms is replaced by the appearance of coherence and wholeness. (qtd. in Galvan 418)
Just like the millions who watched the Kony2012 video about the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, they may have raised awareness about him and shared a common sense that something should be done, but an overwhelming majority accept that they can’t go beyond raising awareness because they feel that sharing the common awareness is enough to foster change. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? shows how technology has ruptured the human collective due to the long arm of some organizational body. The result is alienation and a passive society.
Whenever Rick Deckard engages with Mercerism the first time comes after Buster Friendly blows the lid off the practice, which lends itself to an interesting segment of the novel about how Mercerism and Buster Friendly interact. They compete with one another as they continue vying for the control of the people. Not only are people relentlessly attached to their empathy boxes, their eyes are also glued to the screen when “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends” is on for 23 straight hours. So the people are being controlled by this show, and it also fosters isolationism as people are obediently watching the show. Buster Friendly debunks Mercerism by exposing that all of the scenes and suffering are artificial, thereby throwing out Dick’s religious solution to capturing the essence of humanity following World War Terminus. Rick Deckard decides at this time to use the empathy box, to connect with the rest of society through the box. But when he does so, he fuses in a sense with Wilbur Mercer, not receiving the intended results from the box. “‘It’s strange,’ Rick said. ‘I had the absolute, utter, completely real illusion that I had become Mercer and people were lobbing rocks at me. But not the way you experience it when you hold the handles of the empathy box. When you use an empathy box you feel you’re with Mercer. The difference was I wasn’t with anyone; I was alone” (Dick 232). Instead of sharing emotions with others, he feels alone. Yet, he still fuses to Mercer because, even though Buster Friendly says he is a fraud, Rick believes that Mercer is reality (Dick 232). Religion was developed as a physical object, but the novel takes this a step further in saying that it’s not just an artificial object, but it’s also something being embedded into the followers.
While the technology created is meant to establish a connection between individuals to develop empathy, effects of the technology create an alienating effect, when applied to all, has the consequence of hindering society from advancing. Rick Deckard, Iran Deckard, and J.R. Isidore each experience loneliness at some point in the novel. The alienating effect makes them want to form a social collectiveness. “The manifold processes of introjection seem to be ossified in almost mechanical reactions. The result is, not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole” (Marcuse 5). World War Terminus was the product of a lack of social collectiveness, with humans behaving toward one another as predators. But the technology that destroyed the earth now contributes to an alienation effect that Mercerism tries to solve by providing a void to isolated people. A failure to identify with others will mean that people will suspect one another of being androids. And an failure today to actively identify with others outside of technology can result in a passive society, accepting the manipulations forced upon it to maintain control.
Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballatine Books, 1968. Print.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. On the Internet. London and New York: Routledge. 2009. Print.
Galvan, Jill. “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Science Fiction Studies 73.3 (1997): 413-29. Online.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Introduction, Chapter 1." One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.
Sims, Christopher. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in
Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Science Fiction Studies 36.1
(2009): 67-86. Online.