The problem of the relationship between humans and technology is often discussed nowadays. In the 20th century, when Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published. This problem was no less important than now. Many post-apocalyptic novels depicted the horrible future that could follow the future development of technology: another world war, a nuclear war, the appearance of artificial intelligence, the rise of robots against their masters, diseases, in other words, nothing positive. It is the events of the 20th century that scared people and made them think in such away.
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In his novel, P. Dick depicts the same post-apocalyptic world where people deal with the results of a catastrophe and androids protest against humans. But the moral of this novel is not as anti-technology as it seems. In the novel, the author proves that technology is not something alien and not an enemy. It is created by humans with the use of nature, and humans are responsible for technology; they should not fear technology.
Through the eyes of the protagonist, Rick Deckard, who has to “kill” androids but then understands that they are not worse than humans, the reader learns that nowadays (it does not really matter, in the 20th or 21st century) the world is different than it was before, but it is not a bad thing. In the new world, humans, and technology work together and influence each other’s lives.
To make a reader understand this opinion, P. Dick introduces three problems: the relations between humans and androids, then a broader topic, to which it leads, i.e., the relations between humans and technology, and then, to unite these topics and explain them better, religion in the universe of the novel.
Historical and Literary Context
By its subgenre, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? belongs to post-apocalyptic science fiction. It is a special subgenre of science fiction, which has been formed mostly in the 20th century and was influenced by the historical events of that period.
Post-apocalyptic science fiction usually portrays the human world in a distant future after some serious catastrophe such as a global war, a big natural disaster, an epidemic, or even alien invasion. The plot depicts the efforts of characters to deal with the physical and ethical effects and outcomes of this catastrophe. The story typically has a negative tone and demonstrates the feeling of horror, loneliness, and being abandoned, and characters deal with hard psychological problems.
Such a choice of problems touched in literature was because of the historical context. Fast development of technology that produced quick changes in human lives, two world wars that happened in a very short period, with their tragic results, the possibility, as people thought, of a third war, the appearance of nuclear weapons, the Cold War that could cause the start of a nuclear war any time, all these disasters created the atmosphere of pessimism and fear. It was normal to think that humanity has created problems that would bother and finally destroy it.
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Such a scenario was employed in many post-apocalyptic science fiction novels. These novels often questioned the common understanding of what it means to be human and what is humanity. To ease the process of thinking on these complicated topics, the authors usually created a new, fictional race of some beings, no less (or not much less) intelligent than humans but somehow different from them; for instance, in Karel Capek’s The War With the Newts it is newts, and in Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes it is apes. This race is compared to humans, and through the relations between humans and these creatures, the concept of humanity is analyzed. As K. Benesch explains this process,
Driven by the narcissistic desire to affirm its existence, the self sets out to identify what it is not; that is, it sorts out what it finds to be incongruous with the reality of its perception, and then, in a second step, discards all of the inverted aspects of its image as foreign to its own identity, as something that belongs to a different reality(Benesch 390).
The same method is used in Phillip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Androids and the Concept of Humanity
In Philip Dick’s novel, androids (or “andys,” as humans offensively call them), are biological living creatures rather than robots. In the physical aspect, they have not a single difference with humans. However, since they are created artificially, androids are not believed to have the same moral qualities as humans do. For that reason, they do not have basic human rights and have to work as slaves. Androids try to run from their masters and go to other planets, but they are hunted by such humans as the protagonist, Rick Deckard, who is ordered to kill the runaway androids.
Establishing the boundaries between humans and androids is a serious problem; it is one of the central issues in the novel. In earlier times, the author explains, distinguishing androids and humans was easy because androids had very low intellectual capabilities.
In the course of progress, androids became as intelligent as humans, and now the only difference lies in the moral sphere. Androids, as humans think, cannot feel empathy. So, to distinguish an android from a human being, it is necessary to make a person go through the Voigt-Kampff test that will measure their empathic capabilities by showing them pictures of suffering and checking their emotional reaction.
However, Dick demonstrates, this well-built theory, which allowed humans to feel safe and keep a strong border between “self” and “other,” turns out to be only a weak and unclear construction. First of all, the very understanding of empathy is too formal, wholly regulated by state officials, and irrelevant for the contemporary society (both human and android one), because it is outdated.
After all the disasters the society has been through, the images of suffering no longer cause an active emotional response in humans because of the adaptation of human psychic. Next, this concept follows the old standard of the “human-only” society, but it is necessary to understand that society now includes both humans and androids. Basically, the whole novel demonstrates the stages of the process, at the end of which one human, Rick Deckard, makes this conclusion (Galvan 414).
In the course of the novel, Rick, who needs to distinguish androids from humans, discovers that the boundaries between them are unclear. He meets humans with such a low sense of empathy that they look like androids. He meets an android (Rachel), who cares about other androids and can feel love and jealousy. Thus, the author creates the concept of a post-human society, in which humans and machines live and work together and influence each other (Galvin 415).
Through the antagonism between humans and androids, Dick demonstrates that the difference between humans and the machine does not come from some truly existing qualities. It comes from some wish of technologically developed cultures to explain technology as “other,” as something alien to the nature of humanity (Benesch 390). Thus, the novel makes us think about a bigger problem: humanity and technology.
Humans and Technology
The relationship between humans and technology is the central problem of the novel. Introducing androids to the novel not only makes the analysis of the true nature of humanity easier but also makes a reader question the common understanding of technology, its purpose, and meaning for our lives. To achieve this goal, the author presents the opposition to the concepts of “natural” and “artificial” (Sims 69).
In Western culture, it is common to think that the natural is better than the artificial, that the artificial is somehow worse because it was created by humans and not by God or nature. But a deeper analysis demonstrates that this belief has nothing to do with reality. If the things that were created by God or nature are “good,” then humans are “good,” too, and they cannot create “bad” objects.
Also, humans create these objects with the resources that they receive from nature. Then why P. Dick makes a reader ask themselves, do we think that technology is something unnatural and alien to us? It is humans that created technology, with the help of natural resources, and it is unfair to pretend that technology is something foreign once it gets out of control. Technology, the author proves, does not come from the world other than humans and nature, and humans have to take responsibility for their creation instead of accusing it of being “unnatural,” “consuming,” and “controlling human lives.”
It is true that technology may be a strong power, and that it infiltrates our lives, but if we acknowledge that it controls us, we are nothing better than androids. “Only by recognizing how it [technology] has encroached upon our understanding of ‘life’ can we come to full terms with the technologies we have produced,” J. Galvan claims (Galvan 414).
In the novel, Rick Deckard finally accepts this conclusion: the world has changed, and the role of technology in this new world is bigger than it was before, but this does not mean that technology is an enemy. Technology is now a part of the environment (Galvan, 428).
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It is possible that the way in which this topic is developed in Dick’s novel may be caused by constant complaints of the author’s contemporaries about the “rule” of technology and better times when humans lived in harmony with nature. The author wanted to demonstrate that these complaints are not only irrelevant but also irresponsible. The development of this topic is especially relevant for contemporary readers because nowadays, technology is on an even higher level than it was at the time when the novel was published.
In the novel, the author makes the two problems discussed above look more understandable by adding the problem of religion. In fact, there are two religions in Philip Dick’s world. One of them is Mercerism. All the humans belong to this religion; Dick does not explain how the religions known to us disappeared. Mercerism is based on the example of Wilbur Mercer.
His experience is spread through “empathy boxes,” which allow humans to feel his pain and struggle. It is interesting that people do not call Mercer a god or human; they do not ask what he is. Mercerism tells people to be empathic to other beings and work for the good of other humans. In this way, empathy had to create a sense of community in humans. Mercer did not have anything else to offer. He does not promise salvation.
So, since the main principle of religion is empathy, it means that religion is one more thing that has to create a border between humans and androids. Androids cannot be the followers of Mercerism. Religion should make humans feel like they are a community united by empathy and common consciousness, and that they are different from androids (Sims 79).
However, there is another religion. Its leader is Buster Friendly, a television star, who is possibly an android. This religion is not very serious. Its followers do not preach anything. They do not have to fulfill any moral duties. The purpose of this religion is to undermine and laugh at Mercerism. Buster Friendly proves that Mercer is only an actor, an alcoholic from Indiana named Al Jerry, that the image of him suffering was filmed in a TV studio, and that this filming was done to deceive humans.
Mercer himself says that this is true when he appears and speaks to Deckard. Thus, depicting this religion is one more way for Dick to show that the boundaries between androids and humans are imaginary and not real and that the concept of empathy is invalid. J. Galvan thinks that Mercerism is a way for the government to control people, which the government selected because people are uncontrollable by other means (Galvan 416).
However, in my opinion, this explanation is too simple, and in reality, the author uses religion to make readers think about a much more important problem as C. Sims explains why P. Dick chose to tell about the lies of Mercerism, “The destruction of every global civilization includes the disintegration of all religious institutions, and this removes humanity’s source of comfort and solace in the face of the most persistent metaphysical questions” (Sims 79).
In other words, Dick decided to demonstrate the true face of humanity and to do this. He had to remove all covers, under which humanity was hiding its face, including religion.
In his novel, P. Dick presents a post-apocalyptic world, in which technology, in the form of androids, is in conflict with humans. In the times when the novel was written, the conflict between humanity and technology was a popular topic. The technology was usually depicted as something alien and dangerous. In the same way, it is understood by people from the world of the novel.
But the protagonist and the reader with him come to the conclusion that technology is not an enemy and that the boundaries between humans and androids are unnecessary. Humans created it, they are responsible for it, and they have to acknowledge that the world without technology is no longer possible. They have to accept this fact and live in friendship with technology.
Benesch, Klaus. “Technology, Art, and the Cybernetic Body: The Cyborg as Cultural Other in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’” American Studies 44.3 (1999): 379-392. JSTOR. Web.
Galvan, Jill. “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’” Science Fiction Studies (1997): 413-429. JSTOR. Web.
Sims, Christopher A. “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. JSTOR. Web.