Androids as a Metaphor
By Carl Santavicca
In the information age technology has advanced at an incredible rate as well as its integration into everyday human life. As Philip K. Dick presents a dystopic future world where humans and technology interact at almost every turn in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep we must look at the question posed by the creators of the: “ ‘What were your instructions,’ Eldon Rosen asked. ‘if you wound up designating a human as an android (Dick 53)?’” This is a very valid question in a novel that blurs the lines between what is real and what is constructed, and how both humanity and technology can be exchangeable with one another. What does this alternation between humans and androids signify and how does it relate to the reality, or lack thereof, of Philip K. Dick and the period in which in which he was writing?
First we must examine what makes an android an android and how they differ from humans, as they exist after World War Terminus. The Nexus 6 android, as it is presented physically, is indistinguishable from humans. These androids however, lack empathetic response that can be detected by the Voight-Kampff test: “ ‘This records fluctuations of tension within the eye muscles. Simultaneous with the blush phenomenon there generally can be found a small but detectable movement of’ ‘And these cant be found in androids’ Rachel said. ‘They’re not engendered by the stimuli question; no. Although biologically they exist potentially (Dick 46).’” This empathy, or lack of, is what separates humans from androids throughout the novel.
The human trait of empathy can be seen very evidently in the desire of humans to own and care for an animal; this is evident when Rick is talking to his neighbor about his horse and Rick’s desire to own a real animal (Dick8-10). Sometimes the humans can even be empathetic to those who cannot show empathy in return. Both Deckard and Isodore care for electric animals; they also show affection toward some androids they encounter, Rick toward Rachel and Isodore toward Pris.
The humans in certain situations however, do not always convey empathy to one another; for example the interaction between Rick Deckard and his wife Iran is very programmed and non-empathetic. “If you dial,” Iran said, eyes open and watching, “for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. Ill dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up until now seem like nothing (Dick 4).” The entire interaction between Rick and Iran is saturated with irony, and symbolizes the robotic reaction they have toward one another despite the fact that they are supposed to love each other.
It’s as if the androids are a foreshadowing of what the humans could become if they lose their empathetic response. There are already ways in which the humans greatly resemble the androids in their day-to-day behavior. Take the mood organ and empathy box for example; they program moods and feelings into the humans as a computer programmer would program certain actions into an android. Also as an example upon meeting Phil Resch, Deckard questions Resch’s empathy as well as his own due in large part that they kill androids with little empathy toward the android itself.
It should also be considered that this story was written in the 1960’s and greatly symbolizes how Philip K Dick viewed the world around him. First it should be noted that from a young age Dick was a diagnosed schizophrenia, and a drug addiction later followed that would often cause him to have issues differing reality from imagination
(Prophets of Science Fiction,
This can be seen in both the humans and androids from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Aside from the obvious
difficulty differentiating android from human, Deckard struggles with his
perception of what it is to be empathetic and is at one point doubtful whether
he could pass the same test he administers to the androids. On the android end
of the spectrum Rachel Rosen does not at first believe she is an android due to
false memory programming. The concept of real vs. false is also symbolized in
the ongoing battle between Buster Friendly and Mercer; this battle (between
Buster and Mercer) is also symbolic of another battle ongoing at the time this
book was written: the political struggle of liberalism and conservatism that
was prevalent in 1960s. Mercer symbolizes the peace and love one with nature
movement while Buster Friendly is more reminiscent of the commercialism of that
time period. Lastly this can also be
read as warning against the dangers of technology. During his life Dick would
have witnessed the TV become a popular fixture in American households, as well
as the advent of the atomic bomb, lasers, and eventually computers. Dick
touches on all of these, i.e. radioactive dust, laser tubes, mood organs,
almost as if to say humans are becoming more and more reliant on these things
and therefore ultimately becoming less human in the end (Prophets of
Science Fiction, 2011).
Overall Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep paints a bleak view of the future, where overstepping the boundaries of technology blurs the perception of what is real and what is not. This coupled with dependence on technology can create generations of people that are truly disconnected with reality.
Dick, P. K. (1968). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep . Toronto, Ontario: Random House.
Prophets of Science Fiction. (2011). Science Fiction Channel.