Humanity V Technology: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Lauren Davison

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Set in futuristic earth left devastated by a nuclear war in World War Terminus, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard on his mission to destroy six androids escaped from Mars. Despite being published in 1968, some of the concepts Dick imagines up in his novel, can be placed in the context of our own society.

Humans and Technology

The novel shines a spotlight on the relationship between humanity and technology, real and fake. In a life where technological advances have created a race of androids (andys), it has become increasingly difficult to recognise a real human being. In Dick’s novel, we explore a  typical sci-fi universe. We are introduced to androids, mechanical animals and technologies such as hovercars. With instances such as Rick flying to work on his hovercar, we see great reliance upon technology. Technology and humans seem to be merging together.

The association between humans and technology in the novel is full of twists and turns. In some ways, humans are virtually dependant on technology, seen for instance, through the mood organs as well as their reliance on Buster Friendly’s TV show. Yet, insensitivity in humans means they have no protests to slaughtering these technical androids. This is regardless of the fact that androids are much more intelligent and share such a close resemblance to them. The way in which technology disrupts the need for certain human interaction seems to eerily foreshadow the society we are immersed in.

The mood organs introduced in the opening stages of the novel are fascinating. One of the pivotal conflicts in the novel is that between the real and fake. Despite the abolition of androids during the events, it was very poignant that even with the naturalness associated with humans, such as the feeling of empathy, which apparently gives them superiority, the moods of humans in the novel are heavily artificial. They can be actively controlled on demand by a machine. Humans such as Iran Deckard appear to be reliant on this technology.

Despite the devastation left by the war, Earth’s remaining humans are left with one form of entertainment. Buster Friendly is the TV personality dominating the life of those left on Earth. He is their version of mass media, a seemingly inescapable presence, similar to the influence media outlets possess in modern culture. With his never-ending programming, he is continuously absorbed by those watching. The TV show seems to be a constant presence within the characters’ lives and its effect is emphasized by the way its absence heightens the loneliness of those remaining, such as John Isidore.

Within the technological world of the novel, the privilege of owning a real animal brings is imperative to Deckard. After the war, real animals are a great rarity. As a result, owning and caring for a real creature is a prized status symbol. Deckard complains of his fake sheep: ‘Owning and maintaining a fraud had a way of gradually demoralizing one.’ But then he reminds himself that ‘from a social standpoint it had to be done…’[1]  Social standing remains important. This lack of animals is particularly unsettling, as they make up such a large part of life. An absence of them is almost unthinkable.

Rick Deckard and Humanity

Personally, I found myself unable to establish a strong emotional connection with the protagonist Deckard. Lacking a genuine warmth, it was difficult trying to sympathise with him, but maybe he was meant to be flawed. Perhaps representing how Deckard considered humans to be evolving. His selfishness is typified in that after a kill, his first thought is the money: ‘Anyhow I made myself a thousand dollars just now, he informed himself. So it was worth it.’[2] Despite being the protagonist for the duration, I saw Deckard as self-centred and didn’t develop any real pity for him when he was anguished or troubled.

Despite the strict violence of police in the novel to commit murder in destroying the androids, humans like Deckard actually engage with elements of the automated creatures in their own lives. Perhaps a hypocrisy of humankind can be drawn. In spite of beliefs construed in the novel,  there is scope to see that humankind are the ones who encompass evil. It appears they have been conditioned to accept cruel murder as the norm. For instance, Deckard’s anxieties initially reside not in the brutal nature of his job, but in his own economic situation. While claiming to possess emotional superiority over the androids, there is undoubtedly a coldness to humans in the novel.

Isolation and Chickenheads

Social isolation encompasses Dick’s earth. The emptiness adds a sadness, a pain to the desolate planet in the novel as it is almost barren, a striking contrast to how we know it. This desertion is encompassed at the start of Chapter 2: ‘In a giant, empty, decaying building which had once housed thousands, a single TV set hawked its wares to an uninhabited room.’[3] Retreating to Mars was the primary focus, but not everyone was given the privilege. Known insultingly as chickenheads, humans whose intelligence and mental abilities have been affected by the resulting dust are forced into a life of loneliness, stated to now possess distorted genes. The vision of Earth as a forlorn environment I found to be very harrowing.

John Isidore is one of these chickenheads. As a special, he is completely alone in his apartment, unable to escape his remote situation. With his more genuine nature, it’s sad to see him basically condemned to eventual death. Upon discovering someone else occupies his building, his desperation for companionship rises. He shows kindness and warmth, offering to bring food to this new flatmate. However, his solitary position can be summed up early in the novel: ‘Once pegged as special, a citizen…dropped out of history.’[4]

A thoroughly absorbing read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is also surprisingly sobering. It is a constant battle between humans and technology. The brutality and selfishness of humans amongst an almost barren earth is especially powerful.  While the sci-fi genre typically promotes futuristic technology as furthering human’s cause, there is an intricate weave of criticism towards human behaviour throughout. Far from feeling out-dated, the novel feels more relevant than ever amongst today’s technology-driven life.

[1] Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, (London: Phoenix, 2012) p.6

[2] Philip K. Dick,Do Androids… p.75

[3] Philip K.Dick, Do Androids… p.11

[4] Philip K.Dick, Do Androids… P.12