TCS Daily

Look, Dick, Look

By James Pinkerton - July 11, 2005 12:00 AM

CHICAGO -- It was nice to meet Philip K. Dick the other day in Chicago, at the Wired Next Fest.

Unfortunately Dick, the famous sci-fi author, wasn't quite on his game. In fact, not everybody who visited with him came away impressed. But for my part, I thought it was pretty impressive for Dick to be there at all -- considering he's been dead since 1982.

Courtesy of artist-roboticist David Hanson, an "android portrait" -- able to hear, speak, gesture, even make eye contact -- of Dick was on hand at the show.

The idea was that a visitor could ask it questions, and get an answer from the machine, drawn from a database of Dick's writings. So I asked the Replicant, "Is it true that androids dream of electric sheep?" Alas, the answer I got was sort of disjointed. But what should I have expected from a fellow who authored a novel entitled Time Out of Joint? Indeed, it's hard to imagine that the original Dick was ever entirely joined together, in the humdrum way that most of us are.

In an interview, Hanson told me that he was inspired to get into the robotics/artificial intelligence biz after reading Dick's 1981 novel Valis, which is actually V.A.L.I.S., short for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Said Hanson: "I read Valis when I was 15, and I saw then that AI could be used to help or hurt humanity -- and I wanted to make sure it was used to help." It's evident that Hanson is an idealist, albeit one with heavy support from corporate and academic visionaries. So if you missed Dick this year, come back next year, to the next Next, and it's a safe bet he'll be in even finer fettle.

Indeed, Dick, although stone-cold dead for nearly a quarter-century, is doing pretty well. His 50 volumes of fiction have inspired such classic movies as "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall". And while there've been some duds too, such as "Impostor" and "Paycheck", it seems likely that Dick's oeuvre will continue to be data-mined.

What's his enduring appeal? Better than anyone else, Dick got at the perverse consequences of everyone and everything's being partial, fragmented, and fractalized. That is, whereas the older vision of computers was that they would lead to centralization, as mainframes such as Colossus or Skynet or HAL 9000 took over, or tried to take over, Dick saw that the reality -- or at least what we thought was reality -- would be much different. He saw a future in which technology, including brain-chemical technology, would scatter and shatter traditional modes of thought and behavior.

In the words of cartoonist/writer Art Spiegelman, "What Kafka was to the first half of the twentieth century, Philip K. Dick is to the second half."

Let's think about that a bit. The first half of the 20th century was about totalitarianism, which was perceived by both the right and the left as "the wave of the future."

And so Franz Kafka's work, all of which was written between 1913 and his death in 1924, speaks to that totalitarian perception. In the three decades after Kafka, such important novels as We, Brave New World, Anthem and, of course, 1984 were published, all warning, in their way, against totalizing political regimes.

One might say that the effect of all this writing and prophesying was to immunize the world against totalitarianism. That is, for most of the last century, you could call something "Brave New World-ish" or "Orwellian," and everybody would know what you were talking about. There's a term for this in anthropology: objects that are intended to ward off evil -- such as, say, crosses against vampires -- are said to be "apotropaic".

And it worked. Totalitarianism was, in fact, the god that failed. Instead of centrifugal mainframe "monotheism," we have cyber "polytheism," as PCs, laptops, PDAs and everything else keep distributing computing power in an ever-more centripetal outward direction.

This "Third Wave" has been mostly beneficial, but it has not been flawless. The techno-problems we face today include identity theft, cyber-stalking, trans-national fraud, even "Internet addiction".

But wait! There are even more balls of confusion rolling our way. The Bigs -- big government and big business -- are combining to create something new: call it Big Weirdness, or even Big Paranoia.

The premise of the new movie "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" -- that a husband-and-wife hit team are ordered to "hit" each other -- might have seemed far-fetched, until one considers the recent incident in Iraq, in which Marines and US-hired military contractors allegedly exchanged fire.

And in the meantime, the US government seems to be getting weirder and weirder, ginning up wargame-y scenarios for poisoning and destroying. Murphy's Law, anyone? Terrorism 101, anyone?

You'd never get the feeling that the government counter-terrorists are trying to whomp up business for themselves, would you? That maybe terrorism is the new health of the state?

There's a fine line to be drawn here, threading between the various bobbins of careful, careless, reckless and downright outrageous. And Dick would have loved to be alive, sewing his signature tapestry of precautionary insanity. And who knows: maybe someday he might be "alive" again, thanks to robo-computer geekery.

Down the road, of course, we will see still more, as agreed-upon notions of linearity continue to disintegrate, as adumbrated in a movie such as "Memento". And soon, too, we will further get at that ultimate issue of distributed intelligence -- human speciation, as trans-humanism takes off.

So what to call this Dick-ensian world? Where totalitarianism is shattered like the telescreen in that 1984 Apple commercial?

An optimist might call it "libertarianism." But things rarely go that well. And yet there's no reason to think that the world will go to hell, either, down to dystopianism. After all, Dick himself was, in his own way, a technophile: he even envisioned nanotechnology back in 1955. His point was that the world was unpredictable, not terrible.

One might hope that Dick's work would serve an apotropaic function, just as Kafka's work did. That is, if Kafka and his anti-totalitarian successors helped us to think seriously about the horrors that were coming, maybe Dick and other prophets of post-industrial anomie and dehumanization -- broadly speaking, the "cyberpunk" genre -- will have a similarly healthy and corrective effect on our time.

So what would such a better world look like? A world that heeded The Warnings? Good question. I don't have an answer for that one.

Right now, all I know for sure is that Art Spiegelman was right: it's a Dick-ed world now, and we just live in it. Or think we do.



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