“The Tyranny of an Object”: Technology and Representation in Blade Runner (1982) and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”

“The tyranny of an object… [is that] it doesn’t know I exist” (42) explains Deckard in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel which went on to influence Blade Runner. Deckard makes this claim while comparing the Rosen owl to his artificial sheep. The line suggests that objects are tyrannous because they lack empathy and are artificial. However, Deckard’s proclamation becomes more complicated once he discovers the owl is fake. The question then is not whether an object is tyrannous, but if it was ever an object. Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner film continues this discussion on representation by suggesting that technology complicates the distinction between reality and artificiality. In this post, I will discuss how the various devices in these works function like video games, and how this relates to the works’ broader conversation on the difference, or lack thereof, between androids and humans. I will also discuss how technology manipulates representations of empathy, and in doing so, challenges the concept of authenticity and character.

Before developing these ideas, I should note that Scott and Dick’s works are so radically different that this post will not detail every adaptation change. I have trouble even associating Blade Runner as an adaptation of Dick’s novel, that is how different the two are. Rather than focusing on the narrative details, I will address the thematic similarities and differences. Allegedly, neither Scott nor his screenwriter David Webb Peoples read Dick’s novel before production (IMDB), which suggests that the film translates only the basic plot and themes of the text. These themes later developed between the various cuts and editions of the film, and today I will focus on Scott’s preferred final cut. This includes the famous unicorn dream sequence and a prolonged version of Pris’ death.

What Is Technology?

Technology is the way we define ourselves versus the other, or in this case, versus animal and android. This leaves the question; what is technology more specifically? According to Christopher Sims, who writes on individualism and techno-relationships in Dick’s novel, technology “is the adaption of available material or knowledge into an instrument or process that provides humans with an advantage over their environment” (67), which means that technology is both the consequence and product of adaptation. Humans adapted to use technology, and then adapted technology to further adapt. This means that using technology, and advancing it, is as natural or instinctive as adaptation itself. Dick’s novel focuses on naturalized technology, where devices are primarily used to show humans that they are human. Therefore, these devices bring people together by defining them as human.

For instance, the Voight-Kampff test tells you if you are an android through the “capillary dilation…[or] the primary automatic response…[in] reaction to a morally shocking stimulus” (Dick 46). Although the test happens in both the film and novel, I want to focus on the movie scene where Deckard tests Rachael. This sequence positions the viewer as the Blade Runner, a bounty hunter/assassin. Both Deckard and the audience decide around the same time that Racheal is an android because of one shot. The camera itself becomes an extension of the Voight-Kampff device, as like the equipment, the camera picks up on involuntary reactions by zooming in and focusing on specific body parts.

In addition to the Voight-Kampff detector, the novel includes several other emotion-based devices. These complicate the results of the Voight-Kampff, as the objects like the mood organ can manipulate the unconscious and the subject’s emotions. For instance, the first line in the novel is “A merry surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard” (3). This line immediately informs the reader that the characters need artificial emotions which they can externally control. The novel also suggests that people need mood organs to distract and comfort them from the overwhelming silence which surrounds them. Dick’s text refers to silence as “the absence of life” (5) and suggests that “silence- meant to supplant all things tangible” (20) by spreading across everything. This explains why televisions are so prevalent in both film and text, as they distract and fill empty noise. Television is a way to defend yourself, and without it, as Isidore experiences “as he stood by the inert TV set…the silence…[is] visible…and alive” (20).

The empathy box and Mercerism are another way to combat this overwhelming silence in the novel, as Mercerism provides “mutual babble of everyone…[which] breaks the illusion of aloneness” (23). Because Mercerism can create actual wounds, as players have stones thrown at them, the game/religion demonstrates that what is artificial can also be authentic and real. This reading complicates the relationship between subject and user as the game encourages empathy in the real world. As such, Mercerism devices influence society, which means that the game controls the player, not the other way.

Technology and Representation

The way society relies on these devices also relates to the way they rely on androids. Both novel and film deal with the issue of representation, or how we represent ourselves versus others. In other words, what qualifies as an object and how can that definition be stabilized. Sims suggests that “Androids deconstruct the boundaries between real and artificial, or between human and technology” (69) by imitating humans. As such, androids are dangerous because they can perform as humans, or as Sims later describes “the danger is not within the final product of the android [as a weapon], but rather in the way the android is perceived” (75) and treated. To situate this question of perception and representation, I am going to first discuss the difference between the humans and androids, and then how the text and film complicate these differences.

Deckard begins the text by imaging that killing androids is like turning off a television. This should be no surprise, as death is a difficult issue in both text and film. Death is everywhere in these works, and its presences raises an interesting point, as the Blade Runners in Dick’s novel are fighting for an already dead planet. Eventually, they will die from radioactive dust, and the replicants only live for four years in total. So, why hunt the androids? If they are just going to die, and the world is already half empty, why kill them? The answer, to define and maintain the boundary between us and them. This leads to another question. If the androids present a threat by looking so similar to us, then why make the androids so humanoid?

The characters in the novel often refer to the androids as ‘Andys’, which is a human name. Although figures like Deckard and Iran believe that the androids are unhuman, they still call them a human name. The film does something similar by calling the androids replicants. They are no longer just computers, but something which replicates and mirrors a human. They are a reference to humans, not technology. Deckard’s boss also refers to the replicants as “skin jobs”, which implies that androids wear human skin. As such, both the text and film emphasize that the androids are in every way physically similar. The only distinction in the film are their inhuman glowing eyes.

According to Sims, “the reason the colonists wanted android to be indistinguishable from humans is that android…[solve] the lonely human condition” (73) by appearing as humans. Rather than creating inhuman machines for labour, the androids represent a lost demographic. They are both powerful machines and familiar. As such, the androids are “an instrument that allows us to manage the post-apocalyptic psychological condition” (73) and isolation. This familiar yet different relationship relates to the uncanny valley. For those unfamiliar, the uncanny valley is “a site of entanglement…[which] highlights and challenges constructed boundaries between human and nonhuman” (Rhee 302). It was created by Masahiro Mori, who claimed that robots which resembles humans too closely would repel us as they are both familiar and not. Deckard describes this phenomenon while talking to his neighbor Barbour. When Barbour notes “It’s not the same,” Deckard replies “But almost” (12). Pris’ death in the film is another good example of this, as she looks human, but her death spasm is eerily inhuman. Both the film and text involve the uncanny valley but do so to locate “where abstracting and normativizing borders around the human have been drawn” (Rhee 311), and to experiment with these boundaries. Scott and Dick’s works thus suggest that there is an unavoidable entanglement between the self and uncanny other (313).

Humans as an Extension of Technology in the Novel

Because the androids are our uncanny other, they risk devaluing the human race. Isadore implies this when he mentions Gresham’s Law to Pris (65) in the text. It is an economic term which refers to circulating too much new currency and causing old currency to be stockpiled, and the market to devalue, the same dilemma facing humanity. It may have already occurred, as both works illustrate that technology is irreversibly tied to humans. For instance, the novel uses technological terms to describe people in lines such as “She then cut herself out of the circuit, leaving him to face the outside world” (34). Because the empathy box, as Isadore describes, is an extension of yourself (66), its language has begun to extent past the device.

Another example of this extension is when Isadore describes that “he found himself fading out, becoming strangely like the inert television set which he had just unplugged” (204). Although the television is no longer on, it continues to influence Isidore. The final outcome of this is Deckard’s declaration that he is “Wilbur Mercer; I’ve permanently fused with him” (233), which suggests that the device has become the person.

The film does extension differently through photographs, like the scene where Deckard enhances a photo. In this scene, the computer is an extension and improvement of the eye. It can also deconstruct an object to find meaning beyond human capacity. While the film does not include any classical art, as the novel does, this photograph resembles an incredibly famous one: the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck. The painting includes a mirror which shows additional details in the scene and further symbolism. Likewise, both the mirror in the painting and film are representations of a representation. They are an additional rendering of something which is already a representation, a mirror in a painting. The novel plays with this idea in the museum scene when Luba wants a reproduction of Puberty (133) and shortly after screams like the “Scream” painting. These moments are layers of representation, as Luba is both a representation of a human and of a painting. Rachael describes this layering effect as “I’m just a representation of a type” (189), or a mechanical reproduction. This explains why Rick is so upset about Luba’s voice, as she is a representation or imitation of art. This likewise leaves the question: can an android, or a representation of a human, make another representation, like a baby, dream, or art piece. Even the title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, centers on this question about representation: can an android dream?

Making More vs Being More: The Question of Birth and Empathy

There are two ways to approach this question of representation; birth and empathy. First, let us look at birth. Infertility is a predominate theme in Dick’s novel, and women are often described as childlike. Deckard describes Rachael as “her body assumed a lank, almost childlike stance” (187) and later that her body was “definitely that of a girl, not a woman” (187). If we consider birth as form of adaptation, then creating androids is the only visible fertility in both film and text. The film develops this trend with its geisha advertisement. It is very quick, but the figure swallows a birth control pill, which suggests the need to control life is not exclusive to android making.

The primary difference between film and text is that Dick’s androids are either malicious or psychopathic, while the replicants in the film are clearly empathetic. Scenes like when Batty mourns Pris’ death demonstrate that empathy is a complex issue, especially when it comes from a representation. Empathy is like role playing, you stand in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine how they would think and feel. By imagining what it is like to be another, you become a representation of that person. This means that if an android feels empathy, they create a representation of themselves in someone else’s position.

Both the novel and film’s ending experiment with this reading of empathy. At first glance, the novel ends pessimistically and abruptly, as the protagonist just goes to bed. However, the last few lines suggest that authentic emotions and empathy have arrived. Once Deckard falls asleep, Iran notes that there is “No need to turn on the mood organ” (243), which implies that Deckard has become independent from the device. Likewise, after she orders the flies, the text notes “And, feeling better, fixed herself at last a cup of black, hot coffee” (244). This is the last line in the novel, the final impression. And it ends with coffee. Or does it? Iran ‘feels better’, perhaps without the mood organ, and she can ‘fix herself’. We can thus read the end of the novel and the end of the film the same way; acceptance.

The frame returns to the novel’s emphasis on acceptance and empathy, particularly in Batty’s death scene. The film builds momentum with these tense moments and the chase scene only to refuse a shootout. It’s story ends quietly with Batty and Deckard’s mutual acceptance. Batty accepts his death, while Deckard accepts the possibility that he is an android (what with the ominous unicorn).

We could read the film’s scene one of two ways. First, Batty saves Deckard because he wants Deckard to emphasize with him. By describing his memories and the way he thinks about the world, he asks Deckard to step into his life, and in doing so, he transfers a part of himself to Deckard. In that way, his memories continue to live within Deckard. Alternatively, we can read this scene as Batty’s triumphal statement, as he has seen things and life which his creators never had control over. He has memories which do not belong to anyone else and will never been seen by another. The fact that these memories and emotions are his is enough to space Deckard. It does not matter if you are crying in the rain, as Batty suggests, but just that you cried in the first place.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The Random House Publishing Group, 1968.

Rhee, Jennifer. “Beyond the Uncanny Valley: Mashiro Mori and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” Configurations, vol. 21, no. 3, 2013, pp. 301-329.

Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner. Warner Brothers, 1982.

Sims, Christopher. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 67-86.

“Trivia: Blade Runner.” IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv

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