On Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1967) and the films Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Blade Runner (1982).
What makes us human? Dick’s novel about androids emphasized their lack of empathy, while the movie adaptations portrayed the “replicants” as plenty capable of emotion, but unjustly treated as servants or targets.
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All of these works are about a demonized “other” that is similar to humans but not granted “personhood.” A bounty hunter (“blade runner,” the term used for the movie, was actually taken from an unrelated book) kills these outlaws and is supposed to feel no remorse. But what if he’s an android himself? What if he doesn’t know he’s an android? Or what if he’s attracted to the android? What if he finds himself feeling empathy for androids? What if he is assigned to kill an android that looks just like the one he just had sex with? What if he’s an android in love with a programmed hologram girl who has sex with another android that the hologram girl is (nearly) synchronizing her motions with? Dark humor and/or long, slow visual effect shots set to atmospheric music is what!
One of the more interesting features of the book is the religion, Mercerism, that involves a) status and ritual attached to taking care of an animal (which are hard to obtain, as most were wiped out in World War Terminus), and b) having a technologically induced multi-users-feeling-each-other online trip up a Christlike Sisyphus’s mountain. Both of these things are supposed to embody this ethic of empathy, but they may be more like social control à la 1984 lite. Or maybe not: the ubiquitous TV host “Buster Friendly” who best conveys the spectacle ends up being an android who has it out for Mercerism. Mercer himself (the guy climbing the hill with whom the people bond in the ritual) is both a self-admitted phony and an authentic divine intervenor as he appears to two characters at key moments in the book.
As is often the case with thoughtful fiction, there’s a tangled mass of themes thrown out there and not explored in any systematic philosophical way (in the book and the films), and you get the feeling that key philosophical questions are simply being written as answered according to how the author happens to devise the details of the situation. For example, there’s no real reflection on the question of whether machines can actually think or self-reflect; they’re simply given as fulfilling all the normal qualities of personhood apart from some emotional abnormalities. They’re even made of biological material (so Searle should be OK with them thinking). So the question is just, are humans justified in treating them poorly, given that many of those humans themselves act without empathy, without appropriate affect, without truly authentic motivations or an independently achieved real appreciation of life? Clearly, the answer is “no,” but luckily there are more interesting things going on in the book and films beyond this simple implication of the depicted conception of humanity.
Buy the book or try this online version. If you’ve never seen Blade Runner, watch the climactic scene featuring replicant Roy Batty’s goofy monologue. Also, here are the excised monologues. Here’s a clip from the new film.
Errata testifying to Mark’s senility: I said I bought the Blade Runner DVD in 1991, but DVD players did not exist at the time. It was 2001.
End song: “Wounds and Nihilism (Quantum Androids),” written for this episode by Tyler Hislop (feat. Mark Lint). Listen to Tyler on Nakedly Examined Music #24.
Dick pic by Olle Halvars.