Did Philip K. Dick Dream of Herbert Marcuse?
Two different writers can often unknowingly make similar arguments in their writing through completely separate means. This occurred in the 1960s when Herbert Marcuse and Philip K. Dick published One-Dimensional Man and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, respectively, within the span of a few short years. Marcuse’s work can be considered a philosophical critique, while Dick’s book exists as one of the most heralded science-fiction novels of all time. But even with their differences in writing style, these authors should forever be connected through these particular books because of the similar argument that each makes regarding technology’s effects on society and the way mankind was—and arguably still is—allowing it to take over our lives in mostly negative ways.
In chapter one of One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse points out that the social hierarchy of modern society has become defined by technology. “The people recognize themselves in their commodities,” Marcuse wrote back in 1964. “They find their soul in automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” In a society without the computers, cell phones and high-definition televisions that define today, Marcuse was already beginning to pick up on a pretty universal attitude amongst privileged cultures that technology can not only provide comfort and entertainment, but it can also shape social statuses and define who we are as human beings. To say that members of society “find their soul” in technology is a very strong claim that surely people back then and today could debate, but such was the strength of Marcuse’s belief that industrial civilization was causing numerous problems that almost all members of society were completely overlooking and that mankind doesn’t use all of the potential that technology holds correctly (Marcuse Ch. 1).
However, this doesn’t mean that Marcuse thought technology to be some evil that ruins the very fabric of our world, but instead he believed that society’s view on technology simply needed to be altered so that humankind didn’t allow it to dumb us down and make us “one-dimensional.” This belief is shared in Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, edited by John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb, when the editors argue in the introduction that Marcuse’s more extreme theories in One-Dimensional Man are often singled out and presented to the public as “superficial representations of his ideas.” Abormeit and Cobb go on to say the following:
“Fortunately, the complexity of Marcuse’s theory of contemporary technology has been recognized by scholars specializing in the philosophy of technology. Instead of a rejection of technology per se, Marcuse developed a powerful critique of a historically and socially particular type of technocratic domination, namely found in advanced industrial society. Instead of an atavistic, simplistic rejection of technology, Marcuse thinks that technology has created prerequisites for a more humane civilization and that new forms of liberatory science and technology can and should be developed to help humanity realize its latent possibilities.”
Here exists an example of two scholars convincingly denouncing any claims that Marcuse was a man set on shedding a completely negative light on technology (Abormeit 20). In reality, he appreciated the positive possibilities that technology presented, and, likely because he assumes that most of his readers can see and attest for the good that technology has produced in medicine and making everyday life easier, he focused on the possible negative implications and obstructions of freedom that can occur in a world reliant on technology, along with the other positive possibilities that technology possesses but that society didn’t take advantage of.
This understated belief of Marcuse’s knowledge of both sides of technology is shown midway through chapter one of One-Dimensional Man when Marcuse discusses his idea that technology provides members of society with the concept that they need things that they truly don’t need:
“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. Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.”
This passage provides a perfect example of Marcuse’s aim in his philosophic writing, particularly in this book. In the very first sentence of the paragraph, he acknowledges that “true” needs that can be satisfied via technology do in fact exist, but from there he shifts his entire focus on the “false needs” that culture forces onto the public and the social problems that these false needs cause unaware people (Marcuse Ch. 1).
While recognizing these brief moments that display Marcuse’s complete understanding of technology and how it affects society in both positive and negative ways establish a strong credibility for the philosopher, it is equally important to recognize that he obviously wanted to leave the reader thinking about the negative consequences of soaking in all of the positives aspects of technology without considering the other side. And as previously stated, Marcuse also says much about the further positive aspects of technology that have yet to be tapped into by society because our culture’s false needs lead people to be content with what they have instead of striving for more knowledge.
Four years after Marcuse’s most well-known book was published, fiction author Philip K. Dick discussed similar ideas in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? From the beginning of the Dick’s book, which is set in 2021 after nuclear war has forced most humans to leave the Earth, the very opposite of Marcuse’s claim seems to be true: The fictional characters value the lives of real human beings and animals much, much more than they value androids and electric animals. But considering the fictional nature of Dick’s work, it shouldn’t take too much thought to realize that by making his characters act with reverence and respect towards living things, his rhetorical point is actually the exact opposite; instead, Dick’s belief is in line with Marcuse’s argument in One-Dimensional Man.
In the opening chapter of Dick’s book, this concept is introduced when one of the main characters, Rick Deckard, is with his electric sheep when his neighbor Bill walks out to see his real horse. The two begin having a conversation about how Bill’s horse is about to have a baby and Rick offers to buy it. Bill, who believes that Rick’s sheep is real, seems confused as to why his neighbor would want to buy a second animal. But then Rick reveals that he doesn’t own a real animal, and Bill is too shocked to answer at first.
“You poor guy,” Bill eventually says, setting a tone for the entire book that technology is looked down upon in this world compared to the reverence the people have for humans and real animals (Dick 9). This tone, which no doubt Marcuse would notice and likely support, continues with much of the storyline of the book following the characters as they try to determine who is real and who is an android, all while contemplating the possibility that maybe they are in fact androids.
By creating a world so respectful towards living life and unimpressed by what technology has produced, Dick gives another outlook of Marcuse’s belief about the lack of respect towards nature and humanity that we display in our current world, which stems from culture’s determination of what humans value and goes back to Marcuse’s “false needs” theory. I believe Dick would probably agree with Marcuse’s assessment that “the prevailing forms of social control are technological in a new sense” and that those who refuse to live by these standards are simply left behind and scoffed at, or as Marcuse says, “The intellectual and emotional refusal ‘to go along’ appears neurotic and impotent.” (Marcuse Ch. 1)
The fact that in Dick’s novel there’s even such a thing as Sidney’s Animal & Fowl catalogue emphasizes his parody of what was important to society in the 1960’s with how people look with pleasure at advertisements in magazines and catalogues for televisions, cell phones, cars, and much more, but for the most part, they ignore commercials about helping animals or starving children in third-world countries. For the most part, this remains true in modern society and shows that while both Marcuse and Dick wrote about this subject roughly a half century ago, their ideas still have validity and should be considered.
But beyond the paradoxical critique of society’s view of technology that Dick introduces on the surface throughout Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? lays a deeper meaning within the novel’s two main characters, Rick Deckard and John Isidore. Throughout the book, the narratives of the two men are contrasted against each other until they meet and have a similar epiphany about what life means at the very end of the story. This parallel structure of Rick’s and John’s personalities is recognized in Patricia S. Warrick’s book Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick:
“Each man returns home in the evening a changed man. Rick, the killer, is transformed by love; John, who loves and nurtures, is altered by violence. Each, prodded by anguish, discovers the answer to the question of how a human is different from an intelligent machine that resembles a human…The Isidore chapters are interwoven with the Deckard chapters, the action in one echoing the other but reversing it. Deckard destroys; Isidore heals” (Warrick 123).
With Rick and John seemingly being two halves of one complete person, it can be argued that Dick’s point is that while most members of society seem content to continue living their lives unaware of what technology is doing to culture, there exists some greater desire in the human soul that still yearns for knowledge and wants to accomplish more with technology than creating bigger televisions, a faster internet and smarter phones. As humans like Deckard and Isidore, we all seek to understand ‘the meaning of life,” but we oftentimes live our daily lives with that aim in the background until something happens to bring it back to the forefront.
So what should we do with these two authors both suggesting that society in the 1960s needed to pay more attention to the negative and untouched aspects of technology because, while the bonuses of living in a modern world are great and easily recognizable, the problems are still there and relevant?
The answer is half in recognizing their argument and half in doing something the problems caused by technology. Marcuse argues that we will “progress” as a society until the point is reached where technology takes over all facets of everyday life and Karl Marx’s “abolition of labor” becomes reality, meaning humans will essentially become useless when technology can do everything a human can and better. If society as a whole hasn’t recognized this fact by the time it actually happens, then Marcuse would probably say mankind is doomed to becoming reliant on technology, if it isn’t already. Some would say that point has been reached with today’s reliance on the internet. Meanwhile, Dick, who originally set Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the year 1992, likely expected this reliance to be reached by that year and his book served as a warning for that. For Marcuse and Dick, writing about 50 years ago, to both provide such similar warnings about technology’s role in the future is both disturbing and interesting. But looking at today’s society in 2013 and its overwhelming reliance on so much technology, it could be argued that Marcuse’s and Dick’s pleas weren’t heeded. And that is very worrisome indeed.
Abromeit, John, and W. Mark Cobb, eds. Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Dick, Philip K. Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 2007. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.
Warrick, Patricia S. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. Print.