Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

By Philip K. Dick

Finished reading on May 10, 2019

Truly a classic, and extremely thought provoking in a way that many other books attempt to be unsuccessfully. One of Dick’s many concerns in his giant body of work is around what is and is not real and true. In this case, he is most concerned with the edge between humanity and computers. This is an especially interesting debate today. For Dick, at least in this book, the primary concern is about empathy: what divides humans from machines is the speed of an empathic response.

Of course, this is all tremendously complicated by the fact that there are people whose exposure to the toxic fallout of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles make them fail the tests that are used for androids. In Do Androids Dream, Dick points out that these characters are in fact not human, labeled as “specials” by those who can still pass the tests. Additionally, the robot manufacturing companies in the book continue to churn out new models that force the tests to be re-evaluated. At some point, the implication goes, they will produce a model that will be totally indistinguishable from humans in ever way imaginable, except that they will die after only two years of life. What is the different at that point?

The other incredible thing about Dick’s writing, which is certainly present here, are the little objects that collect in his worlds. In this case, the wonderful “Penfield Mood Organ,” which allows you to “dial” up a mood (like the desire to watch TV no matter what is on or a feeling of new resolve and purpose), or the “empathy box” which you use to gain collective transcendental religious experience. These little ideas wrapped in objects can be very thought-provoking and often prophetic. How dissimilar are these imagined objects from forms and functions of modern consumer electronics?

★★★★★