Do humans dream of biological sheep?
George Orwell’s deadline came and went. No doubt for many who read 1984 in the years after it was published in 1949, that date represented an unwanted but inevitable appointment with a soulless tyrannical world.
Two years before his deadline arrived, a later generation, not overly concerned with Orwell, found a new future date to consider: 2019. That was the year director Ridley Scott set his 1982 film Blade Runner, depicting life in post-apocalypse Los Angeles.
The scene was this: Earth is largely uninhabitable. People are heading for the new off-world colonies. Those who remain exist in a dying world where nighttime and rain is perpetual; and those who remain are largely the dregs.
Attempting to break back into this world is a small unit of Nexus-6 replicants, advanced androids indistinguishable in almost every way from humans.
They have escaped an off-world colony and seek a meeting with their maker, Dr Eldon Tyrell.
Tyrell had invested his earlier android models some basic emotions, but these feelings had left them bewildered. They had no life experiences by which to rationalise them.
So Tyrell began inhabiting the minds of latest generation Nexus-6 replicants with implanted memories, which would help them better understand their disjointed emotions and make them more manageable.
Tyrell inserted a fail-safe in the androids: a four-year life span. But the gift Tyrell gave them - of memories, which heightened their emotions - proved to make them less manageable as they developed the most human feeling of all: the desire to live.
In Ridley Scott’s world, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K Dick, certain assumptions are made about the future.
Whether Scott or Dick personally believed this was how the world would look in 2019 is neither here not there; but I am sure many people who saw the film 30 years ago found, like the Orwell readers before them, that much of what Blade Runner imagined was within the realms of plausibility.
In 2019, the world is rendered barely habitable by nuclear war; the population is mostly generic Asian; people travel in flying cars; androids provide the labor and sex force; and mass migration is afoot.
The main product placement in the film was for TDK cassette tapes, Atari games and Coca Cola. Two of those futuristic companies are no longer with us in any significant way.
A recurring refrain of the film is a huge live-screen billboard with a geisha taking pills. I’ve never really been sure what she signified - perhaps a public health warning to take iodine pills to counter the effects of the radiation.
The prospect that androids would be so advanced by 2019 was one aspect that did not seem so likely to an early 80s filmgoer, given that robots were back then little more than stick-figure toys, or huge metal-stamping arms in factories.
But a nuclear catastrophe was not out of the question. It was, and remains, only a question of whether we have the good management to avoid one.
In 1982, I felt certain that by 2019 we would have long left behind our terrestrial rubber wheels and all be heading to the dump on Saturdays in flying utes that avoided mid-air collision using opposing magnets.
A world dominated by Asians also seemed possible in 1982, but it’s the Latino population that is fast becoming America’s prevailing ethnic group.
As for the pill-popping geisha lady, she was a telling prophecy.
Half of all American television advertising urges people to go to their doctor and ask for specific brand-name medicine to treat arthritis or depression or erectile dysfunction or heartburn (the remaining advertising space is for fast food and insurance, both of which cause the heartburn and the erectile dysfunction).
An excellent Wikipedia site called “Themes in Blade Runner” makes tacit link to Orwell’s 1984, noting the film is redolent with a “high level of paranoia” and “the visual manifestation of corporate power, omnipresent police, probing lights”.
Of the film’s persistent Asian imagery, the site points out that when Blade Runner was made, oil prices were crippling and the US was frantic that its big-car era was about to killed off by Japan’s smaller cars.
The theme of losing influence to Asia continues as we get closer to 2019. Now it is the rise of China that gives America its furrowed brow.
The site, which examines the film’s symbolism and is clearly managed by serious academics, claims: “Blade Runner depicts a future whose fictional distance from present reality has grown sharply smaller as 2019 approaches.”
I’m not so sure they’re right, but only you can answer that. Has your buy in to instant communication technology made you more of an individual? Or are you more a corporate and government pawn than ever?
If anything, Blade Runner left you wondering why it was the replicants who showed the empathy and compassion while the humans had so little.
The searching vulnerability of the film’s androids explains why Deckard, the Blade Runner cop played by Harrison Ford, ended up running off with replicant named Rachael, who was the 2019 version of a 1982 blow-up doll.
We are different to what Blade Runner imagined. Not quite as bad. Not quite as good.
In recent weeks we have celebrated the arrival of brand new jet called the Boeing Dreamliner, which is really just another lumbering plane. Dreams of catapulting from remote fishing hole to the South Sea islands in my own private air transporter will have to wait for another lifetime.
Still, we haven’t yet destroyed each other, yet. That’s something.
The real question posed by Blade Runner is not about the physical appearance of the future world, or whether androids are capable of developing feelings. It is whether we are losing ours.
One way to find out is to sit the Blade Runner Voight-Kampff test. This was the series of questions designed to elicit empathetic responses to determine whether an interview subject was android or human.
It measured pupil fluctuation and iris dilation and assumed that an android would not react when presented with certain troubling ethical scenarios, such as whether he or she would be inclined to help right a tortoise that was stuck on its back.
Please relax and look at the screen. Here are your questions:
1. It is 2012. You are reading a media website. There are two main stories. One is about a woman who claims to have had sex with 5000 men over 10 years. The other is about a massacre of children in a Middle Eastern country. Will you read the massacre story?
2. It is 2012. You are watching the old film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With whom do you most sympathise? Nurse Ratched, who seeks order, or the disruptive Randle P McMurphy?
3. It is 2012. A drugged-out man is sitting in the middle of the street eating another man he has just killed. What’s the best first use of your smartphone: call the police or shoot some footage?
4. It is 2012. The Government has plans to build a wall around your city to keep out undesirables. Is this a practical crime prevention measure or does it make you a prisoner?
5. It is 2012. Your country is fighting in Afghanistan because it believes the conditions there are unacceptable. Meanwhile, another boatload of Afghan queue jumpers comes in. Do you believe they should be helped out?
How did you go? Human or android?
Paul Toohey’s American Life columns appear every Saturday in News Ltd apps.
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