Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep takes place on a ravaged Earth in some alternate future. The novel is an exploration of empathy as the basis of the human condition: among increasingly realistic androids, one of the only ways left to distinguish between womb- and laboratory-fabricated biological matter is the Voigt-Kampff empathy test. The movie adaption Blade Runner focuses on bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s search to destroy the current generation of androids, the Nexus-6, by use of his Voigt-Kampff scale. It consists of several devices that measure physiological emotional responses as well as reaction time to various ethical questions, the idea being that androids aren’t fully capable of experiencing empathy natural to humans.
In Dick’s imagination, technology has progressed enough to allow humans total control over their own emotions. One of a myriad of new commercial technologies, Deckard and his wife use a Penfield Mood Organ to “dial” their desired emotions. We assume this is some sort of chemical-electrical interface that alters hormones, but (perhaps from placebo, perhaps from some advanced science we are not yet aware of) results in uncannily specific moods. For example, one can dial 888: the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it, 594: pleased acknowledgement of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters (yuck), or even 3: the desire to dial in the first place.
However, one common household appliance in fact facilitates a loss of individual emotional control. This is the central tenet of Mercerism, a pseudo-religion all the humans in the novel follow. By grasping the handles of an empathy box, avid users find themselves in a simulation of an old, bearded man named Wilbur Mercer, who eternal treks up a mountain while bombarded by stones thrown by haters. While it’s unclear how it actually works, it seems that the empathy box allows for some sort of collective consciousness in which one feels the emotions of every other human using an empathy box at that same moment. The stones result in real wounds.
Building an electrical device that not just chemically alters complex emotions but actually allows humans to transmit unaltered emotions can have powerful applications, but we only see the empathy box used by Mercer’s fervent disciples. I find it fascinating to wonder why the technology behind the empathy box is used exclusively for practicing Mercerism. Would sharing emotions have the same effect without seeing Mercer’s hike from his point of view while feeling his pain?
First we should wonder: is there any purpose to Mercer’s journey? As much as it seems a reference to Sisyphus’s eternal task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, the hike seems more aligned with practices such as fasting and meditation in Eastern religions in order to reach divinity. The empathy box is a literal interpretation of “oneness” with the world. John Isidore, living alone in a long abandoned apartment complex, describes this effect with almost religious fervour: “‘An empathy box,’ he said, stammering in his excitement, ‘is the most personal possession you have. It’s an extension of your body; it’s the way you touch other humans, it’s the way you stop being alone.’” To join one’s mind to a worldwide human collective is operating as a social, emotional creature at its most fundamental level.
As the premise of the entire book, empathy is the only thing that sets humans apart from the advanced Nexus-6 androids. Repeatedly throughout the novel, we witness androids reacting to various moral situations and displaying a marked lack of central human emotions. For example, cutting off a spider’s legs with no remorse, hunting other androids, and (what I found to be the most strange), losing all survival instincts in the face of death. But the most critical result of an android’s lack of empathy, however much it may pretend to others or even itself, is its inability to use an empathy box. Mercerism is for humans alone.
Perhaps this is the root of the matter. In this world, biological life is very much in the minority. Most animals are extinct, and very few humans remain on Earth. Owning animals grants the same social status as owning luxury cars and mansions, and many, such as Isidore, live completely alone. Compounded with the fact that they are surrounded by sentient technology, it must be so easy to forget what real human interaction, emotion, and empathy means. And so they turn to Mercerism. Despite knowingly inflicting physical pain, cuts and bruises upon themselves, they return to the crude simulation of Mercer’s Sisyphean journey. Do Androids Dream presents the entire human race struggling to survive at the brink of extinction. It is a battle of human vs. machine, the same in all ways except that which can’t be fabricated. According to Dick, empathy makes us human most of all.