Philip K Dick (1928-1982) published 44 novels and over 120 short stories in a career span of 30 years. He lived as a poor author, but is now seen as an ambassador of science fiction literature and as the scifi writer who not only sparked his readers imagination, but also made us look at our imagination in a different way. He kept asking What is reality?
Philip K Dick had a long history of visions, attributed to schizophrenia, to drugs and paranoia. He doubts reality and the way we perceive reality. These doubts lead him to writing some of the most captivating science fiction stories we know.
Like most scifi writers, Dick is inspired by the science and technology of his time. And he gives a view of what the future may hold for humanity, considering these developments. Overall he took a more darker view on the possible effects of technological change.
His novel ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ (later translated to the silver screen as ‘Bladerunner’) Dick suggests that androids might have conscience and are not just computers going through rapid calculations. He depicts the android very much like humans. In his story they struggle with the questions‘ where do we come from?’. Dick poses the question: If we can create a robot that is virtually indistinguishable from a human, than what does it mean to be human? What happens if a robot has emotions? What separates us from the machine?
In our time, science is on the verge of realising humanised androids. Bio-inspired engineering. So the similarities Dick foresaw between androids and humans are not that far-fetched at all. Roboticist David Hanson actually made android versions of Philip K Dick in 2005 and 2012:
Human-like androids are not the only concept in ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ that occupies scientists today. An important aspect of the novel is the empathy-test. Empathy is seen as an uniquely human trade that the androids lack. The main character, bounty hunter Decker, uses this test on his targets. He also remembers taking the test himself, but eventually starts doubting if this memory is real.
The idea of fake memories is taken even further by Dick in the novel ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ (the movie Total Recall). He describes a thriving market for completely convincing but artificial experiences; implanted memories are a form of adventure travel. After purchasing an experience, the hero in the novel can’t be sure if he’s an average man dreaming of being a secret agent, or if he’s a secret agent programmed to think he’s not.
Neuro-science researches the capabilities of the human brain and current research shows us that overwriting the human memory, link we would overwrite a computer memory, might be biological possible, according to researcher Andre Fenten.
The empathy box in ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ is also a device envisioned by Philip K Dick and becoming reality today: his empathy box is an example of what we now call virtual reality. We now already see a blurring of the lines between the virtual and physical world.
Philip K Dick gives a warning in his stories: it is easy to loose yourself when the technology around you is becoming more and more real. Would you rather be in the here and now? Or would you rather be in a potential fantasy of yours and is the fantasy potentially better than reality?
It’s not just technological advances Dick seems to worry about. In the ’70 he publishes ‘A scanner darkly’, which represents his distrust of the government and intelligence agencies. A lot of surveillance techniques Dick envisioned are in use today: Halo company. What Dick did not foresee is that so many people willingly cooperate in publishing private data (imagine the information we send through social media and what can be seen through surveillance equipment so we feel ‘safe’). Dick imagined more resistance towards these technologies from the main public.
All the data-collection and surveillance gives us a chance to realise another of Dick’s visions: the ability to prevent crime. In ‘Minority report’ Dick describes how ‘pre-cogs’ (paranormal human beings) can prevent when and where a crime will take place. The police than takes action to prevent these crimes. In Memphis the police force already uses predictive analytics and has succes in bringing crime rates down.
In Minority Report, by preventing the predicted crimes, an alternate reality occurs. Of course this poses the question: is our faith predestined or can we change the future whenever we want? And how real is reality? Is there more than one reality? This leads up to the idea of parallel universes, which is the core of the novel ‘The man in the high castle’. In this novel Dick describes an alternate reality, where nazi’s won WWII, but in that reality someone has written a novel in which the allied armies won WWII.
Nowadays, physicists take the possibility that perhaps there are parallel universes very serious. Michio Kaku for example considers there is a multiverse of parallel universes.
Philip K Dick foresaw many possibilities of modern technology that we are still realising today. The term Philip K Dickian now indicates surrealist scifi, a work that is deeply paranoid, funny and scary. To create a sense that reality is not the way it was before. He tended to have a pessimistic outlook on things and warns us for ‘the dark side of technology’