Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Hope This Doesn't Come Off as a Conspiracy Theory…
As a libertarian (or someone who likes to call himself a libertarian), much of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man was music to my ears. A dystopian cry for sanity and reason in an age that often forgets such things exist. I do understand that Marcuse would be considered by many to be a libertarian-socialist but, when one is pushed to third party politics, there is not much room to complain. Anyway, I digress. In his prologue, Marcuse says,

Today political power through its power over the machine process and over the technical organization of the apparatus. The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilizing, organizing, and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available to an industrial society (Marcuse, 5).

Looking through the lens of this idea, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep makes sense in a totally different way.
            It is easy to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as an indictment of communism. In many ways, I believe it is. But remember that Marcuse wrote largely about potential for totalitarianism within democratic-capitalist societies. While he and I fundamentally disagree on the idea of socialism, he raises important questions about how developing technology can affect a society that is, in theory, free. In this sense, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep can be seen as Marcuse’s ideas, or warnings (?) put into practice.
            Within Philip K. Dick’s writing, the idea of mood controlling and selection strikes a particular chord with One-Dimensional Man. Specifically, it raises the question of who is really in charge. Are the characters who select their mood in charge because they choose how they want to feel? Or are the manufacturers and standard-setters (government) in charge because they choose how that mood feels? The question has disturbing implications for our own society. We crave the latest technological devices. And, in the context of a consumer based economy the like of which we have in the United States, such cravings tens to take on a more emotional tone. People speak of needing new phones, needing new computers, needing the latest and the greatest.  Never once (and I am as guilty of it as the next Joe Average on the street) do we question who is making the devices and, more importantly, who is pulling the strings.
            I do not think that Apple or HTC, or Dell, or any of the other technological titans of industry have hidden agendas (at least, not sinister ones) for no netter reason that their agendas are plain to see: make money. They are private businesses, free of government funding and therefore are driven by the desire to make a better product than their competitor and thus, take home a greater profit. Unlike the private sector, the government very likely has a more hidden agenda. Just to be clear, I don’t think that the government is covering up secrets about the moon landings, area 51, the JFK assassination, or 9/11. That’s not what I am saying. I am simply saying that our government knows how to utilize technology to its advantage and that we, as a society, need to be careful, discerning, and wary.
            We have seen how important technology is to freedom in a modern society. Without, for example, social media, the protest movements in Egypt during the Arab Spring would never have succeeded. Technology is fast becoming the only means people have left the, when necessary, subvert their governments. What Marcuse was saying and what Dick gives examples to is what can happen if the state gains too great of a hold in technology markets. Dick theorizes that, were this to occur, the very definition of reality might change irreparably. In this context, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep can be seen as something of a warning. 


Ben Nemeth said...

This was a very well written essay. You did a great job of merging Marcuse and Dick's works together throughout the entire argument. I especially like the part about 'needing' the newest technology. I don't think anyone can say they aren't guilt of that. You've found a good way of relating One-Dimensional Man to both Dick's novel and modern society.

I wouldn't have thought this paper came off as sounding like a conspiracy theory if you hadn't mentioned it, but bringing that to light does make your section on the government's hidden agendas seem a little defensive. If you gave an example of the government's use of technology (such as drones or wire tapping) then you wouldn't need to clarify about the moon landing and other theories. It's important to keep the part about Apple and HTC though. The difference between government organizations and the private sector is a very good point.

Adam said...

I liked the questions Ben raised. Rather than being defensive about the idea of conspiracy, you might (like Marcuse!) embrace it, but in a rational rather than paranoid way. A socialist (like Marcuse) might, for instance, point out that the government deliberately manipulates the unemployment rate in order to keep wages from getting too high (thus triggering inflation) - that is, the government is careful to not let things get too good for labor. A libertarian (either left or right) might point out that the state permits and regulates monopolies of many sorts, rather than permitting anything like true competition in many fields.

My point is: you are perhaps a little shy of being extreme here, and end up beating around the bush as a result.

You are reading both Marcuse and PKD well, but past the beginning lack precision - you avoid seeming like an extremist, but you also avoid being precise about how the government creates/manipulates needs. Delving more deeply into the mood organs and how they relate to some technology (the internet? cell phones? spy satellites? social media) in our world is the direction you seemed to be heading in, but you get vaguer rather than more precise at the end.