by Christopher A. Sims
Science Fiction Studies
Under U.N. Law each emigrant automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.—Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (16)
Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it.—Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (4)
Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set on post-apocalyptic Earth in the Bay Area of California. World War Terminus has devastated the population of Earth and left it nearly uninhabitable, forcing survivors to emigrate to Mars or one of the other unnamed colony planets. As incentive, emigrants are given free android servants to accompany them on their voyage and serve them on Mars. The androids are extremely sophisticated and are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. The novel explores the moral implications of enslaving a human-like biological machine, but more centrally uses the invention of a humanoid replica to critique and define the essence of humanity; whatever qualities distinguish humans from androids become the essential aspects of humanity. Rarely, an android slave will kill its master and flee Mars for haven on Earth. Bounty hunters are employed by the remaining police agencies to protect the small but determined communities of humans who refuse to emigrate and those who are prevented from emigrating because the degenerative effects of living in a radioactive environment have drastically lowered their IQs. The novel examines the psychology of bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he “retires” escaped androids. In this essay I am interested in analyzing the way in which technology is described in the novel and what the relationship is between humans and technology. The essay will also investigate the novel’s representation of human psychology confronted with the near extinction of its species and the stratification of the human population across the colony planets. Kevin McNamara, in his essay “Blade Runner’s Post-Individual Worldspace,” writes that the novel “registers its protest against the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracies and technology”(422).1 I intend to argue in this essay that the novel instead registers its protest against the dehumanizing effects of individualism and demonstrates how technology can be used as a means to reclaim the essence of humanity.
But what is technology? Most would agree that, on one level, technology is the adaptation of available material or knowledge into an instrument or process that provides humans with an advantage over their environment. Technology can imply abstract structures such as language and mathematics, as well; both are efforts to organize and systemize the human experience of reality, and both become instruments that give humans an advantage. The word “advantage” in this context suggests an evolutionary framework, in which all forms of life are struggling with one another (or at the more congenial level, using each other) in order to increase their own chances of survival.2 From this perspective technology might be considered as an evolutionary adaptation that humans have acquired and used to gain dominance over the other forms of life or aspects of nature (rivers, weather, raw materials, etc.) on the overarching ecosystem we call Earth.
When considered as an intellectual drive for kinds of adaptation that will preserve, extend, or improve human life, technology becomes inseparable from the idea of what it means to be a human. But technology at the most basic level is not exclusive to humanity. Many other species manipulate existing material in the environment to gain an advantage. Beavers collect wood to build dams, birds gather twigs to form nests, bees construct hives, and non-human primates can wield sticks and basic human tools. Many animals also have, in various forms, the technology of language. A major difference between the human use of technology and that of other animals is that humans have an ongoing dialogue about what technology is; as a result they can make modifications and sophistications on previously existing forms of technology within their own lifetime, which, though possible for other species, is unusual. Other species generally rely on a hardwired instruction for the use of simple technological apparatuses from inherited DNA “memories.” No new developments are made in the design of a hive or a nest. The human relationship to technology is unique because we can examine an instance of technology and locate potential flaws in the design, and through intellectual process modify it to conform to an imagined result and enhance its capabilities.
While I agree with McNamara’s summation that Androids “becomes a quest for an uncontestable essence of human being that separates ‘us’ from the ever more human seeming androids,” I do not share his belief that the novel is also a protest “against the dehumanizing effects … of technology” (422) because I do not feel that Dick’s novel represents technology as a dehumanizing force. On the contrary, I believe that Androids shows us that technology can be used as a guide to return the survivors of World War Terminus to the humanity that they have abandoned for solipsistic individualism. To do this, I must briefly deconstruct the concept of technology, so that it breaks free from definitions that label it as something external to humankind and the human lifeworld. Andrew Feenberg’s conception of the essence of technology in his 1999 work Questioning Technology focuses on demystifying this separation. Feenberg writes: “insofar as we continue to see the technical and the social as separate domains, important aspects of these dimensions of our existence will remain beyond our reach” (vii). The first step in liberating technology from these conceptions is to reunite humans and technology by examining how the novel represents the larger themes of the “natural” and “artificial.” The binary natural/artificial is one of the major structural binaries that this essay will explore, for I believe that Dick is exploring the question “why do we value the natural more than the artificial?” “Why,” he is asking, “is technology considered something unnatural?” If, as Heidegger claims, “everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it” (4), what does it mean to be a natural being chained to an unnatural enterprise? In this essay I explore technology as Dick presents it in terms of an evolutionary understanding, but also in the terms that Heidegger defines in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954). I also will use Feenberg’s analysis of the Heideggerian essence of technology—as well as Feenberg’s own theories on this essence—to help update and concretize aspects of Heidegger’s thought, so that not only will the essay’s discussion of technology be more applicable to Dick’s imagined future, but it will also better illuminate the novel’s commentary on the human relationship to technology.
To Read the Rest of the Essay