Erik Davis contributed the following “interview” with Philip K. Dick to my book, Follow for Now.
After spending the bulk of his life cranking out pulp paperbacks for peanuts, the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick is now finally recognized as one of the most visionary authors the genre has ever produced. While masterminds like Arthur C. Clarke anticipated technological breakthroughs, Dick, whose speed-ravaged heart called it quits in 1982 when the man was only 53, foresaw the psychological turmoil of our posthuman lives, as we enter a world where machines talk back, virtual reality rules, and God is a product in the checkout line.
Dick’s fractured and darkly funny novels have left their mark on video games and rock bands, avant-garde theater and electronic opera. But his influence has been particularly profound in Hollywood. Ridley Scott turned Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Doubleday, 1968) into Blade Runner, one of the most powerful SF films of all time. A 1966 short story formed the basis of the Schwarzenegger hit Total Recall, and Steven Spielberg turned Dick’s tale “Minority Report” into his darkest flick yet. The reality slips and cartoon metaphysics of The Matrix are thoroughly indebted to Dick, and his spirit hangs heavy over Richard Linklater’s astounding Waking Life.
In the course of my current researches into techgnostic religious phenomena, I was experimenting with electronic voice phenomena. I was recording the analog noise between tracks on a scratchy old copy of Karl Muck conducting Parzifal with the Bayreuth Festival Chorus onto a cassette tape. Then I would cut, splice, and process the tape in various ways, and then listen to the results. On the third attempt I heard a voice that I recognized, from a tape once available through the Philip K. Dick Society, as belonging to the late science-fiction writer. More incredible was my discovery that, by recording my own questions on the same cassette tape, I was able to initiate a genuine dialog with this mysterious voice. Subsequent research proved, however, that all of the quotations have already made an appearance somewhere in Dick’s fiction, letters, or essays. Nonetheless, the conversation seems worth presenting:
Erik Davis: Mr. Dick, the world has only been getting stranger since you left us. We are surrounded with clones, identity theft, patented genes, faster-than-light particles, AIBO, and obsessive virtual gaming. Some scientist in England promises to build a chip called a “soul catcher” that will sit behind your eyeballs and record your life. Doesn’t all this sound strangely familiar?
Philip K. Dick: Over the years it seems to me that by subtle but real degrees the world has come to resemble a PKD novel. Several freaks have even accused me of bringing on the modern world by my novels.
ED: How exactly would you characterize those novels?
PKD: My writing deals with hallucinated worlds, intoxicating and deluding drugs, and psychosis. But my writing acts as an antidote, a detoxifying, not intoxicating, antidote.
ED: After years of neglect, most of your books are back in print. Even so, you remain best known as the guy who wrote the book they based Blade Runner on.
PKD: I’ve been calling it “Road Runner.”
ED: Heh. What did you think when you first saw that rainy, claustrophobic cityscape?
PKD: I thought, by God, these guys have figured out what life is going to be like forty years from now. My God! It’s like everything you hate about urban life now, escalated to the level of Dante’s Inferno. You can’t even run in the future, there’s so many people milling around, doing nothing.
ED: Today it seems as if your work will live on through the movies. How was your own experience working with Hollywood?
PKD: They buy and sell human beings. It’s like it says in the Bible about Babylon, they sell pearl, ivory, and the souls of men. And that is exactly what is going on in Hollywood, they deal with the souls of human beings.
ED: Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise made the movie Minority Report out of one of your stories. Spielberg calls it a “gourmet popcorn” movie. Does this mean you wrote gourmet-popcorn fiction?
PKD: I do seem attracted to trash, as if the clue lies there.
ED: What do mean, “the clue”?
PKD: The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.
ED: That’s one of the strongest messages in your fiction, that religious and mystical forces keep breaking into our mundane, technological world. What questions can we ask ourselves to keep us tuned into to these higher forces?
PKD: The two basic topics that fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?”
ED: But people have been hashing out these puzzles for millennia. Isn’t the shifting nature of reality just good fodder for science fiction?
PKD: The problem is a real one, not merely an intellectual game.
ED: How so?
PKD: Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. We are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.
ED: Most of these people aren’t trying to rule the world, though. I don’t buy that big conspiracy view. People just want to make a buck.
PKD: I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.
ED: But if people’s motives aren’t so bad, what’s wrong with them using virtual technologies to spread their messages?
PKD: The bombardment of pseudorealities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly. Fake realities will create fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride — you can have all of them, but none is true.
ED: Some people believe that conscious machines are just around the corner. What happens when the President Lincoln robot at Disneyland wakes up? Will he believe he’s real?
PKD: I once wrote a story about a man who was injured and taken to a hospital. When they began surgery on him, they discovered that he was an android, not a human, but that he did not know it. They had to break the news to him. Almost at once, Mr. Garson Poole discovered that his reality consisted of punched tape passing from reel to reel in his chest. Fascinated, he began to fill in some of the punched holes and add new ones. Immediately his world changed. A flock of ducks flew through the room when he punched one new hole in the tape. Finally he cut the tape entirely, whereupon the world disappeared.
ED: If I remember correctly, the world also disappeared for the other characters in the story.
PKD: Which makes no sense, if you think about it. Unless the other characters were figments in his punched-tape fantasy. Which I guess is what they were.
ED: So what’s the message?
PKD: If I control my reality tape, I control reality. At least so far as I am concerned.
ED: Philosophically, that sort of solipsism has always been an irrefutable option. But as we learn how to manipulate the biological wiring of the brain, those philosophical issues become practical problems.
PKD: I wonder if you recall the “brain mapping” developed by Wilder Penfield. He was able to locate the exact centers of the brain from which each sensation, emotion, and response came. By stimulating one minute area with an electrode, a laboratory rat was transfigured into a state of perpetual bliss.
ED: Recently Michael Persinger has found similar results for religious ecstasy. Maybe that’s how we finally bring spirituality back into our technoscientific society. The funny thing is that when people hear about these discoveries, they can’t help imagining all sorts of fiendish forms of mind control. What’s stopping, say, the government from using this kind of technology?
PKD: Well, the government would have to let out a contract for the manufacture of a billion sets of electrodes, and in their customary way, they would award the contract to the lowest bidder, who would build substandard electrodes out of secondhand parts. The technicians implanting the electrodes in the brains of millions upon millions of people would become bored and careless, and, when the switch would be pressed for the total population to feel profound grief at the death of some government official, it would all get folded up, and the population, like that laboratory rat, would go into collective seizures of merriment.
ED: Heh heh. For someone reputed to be paranoid, you seem remarkably unplussed.
PKD: Paranoia, I think, is a modern day development of an ancient, archaic sense that animals still have that they’re being watched. Imagine you’re a mole, walking across the field. You gotta have a sixth sense that something’s overhead cruising, like a hawk.
ED: Or like a satellite. Today the “hawks” that watch us are not other people so much as recording and surveillance devices. What do you say?
PKD: The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of “My boss is plotting against me,” it would be “My boss’s phone is plotting against me.”
ED: So as machines become more interactive and intelligent, we become more archaic and animistic.
PKD: A native of Africa is said to view his surroundings as pulsing with a purpose, a life, that is actually within himself. Within the past decade, our environment — and I mean our man-made world of machines — is beginning to possess what the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves.
ED: You could say that while humans once saw themselves reflected in the natural world, we now find ourselves reflected in machines. Is this a new development?
PKD: What could a man living in 1750 have learned about himself by observing the behavior of a donkey steam engine? Could he have watched it huffing and puffing and then extrapolated from its labor an insight into why he himself continually fell in love with one certain type of pretty young girl? This would not have been primitive thinking on his part; it would have been pathological. But now we find ourselves immersed in a world of our own making so intricate, so mysterious, that as Stanislaw Lem, the eminent Polish science-fiction writer, theorizes, the time may come when, for example, a man may have to be restrained from attempting to rape a sewing machine.
ED: It doesn’t even seem possible to separate the organic from the technological any more.
PKD: This is going to be our paradigm: my character Hoppy, in Dr. Bloodmoney, who is a sort of human football within a maze of servo-assists. Part of that entity is organic, but all of it is alive; part came from a womb, all lives. One day we will have millions of hybrid entities that have a foot in both worlds at once. To define them as “man” versus “machine” will give us verbal puzzle games to play with. What is and will be a real concern is: Does the composite entity, does he behave in a human way?
ED: I don’t follow you here. Give me an example.
PKD: Many of my stories contain purely mechanical systems that display kindness–taxicabs, for instance, or the little rolling carts at the end of Now Wait For Last Year that that poor defective human builds. “Man” or “human being” are terms that we must understand correctly and apply, but they apply to a way of being in the world. If a mechanical construct halts in its customary operation to lend you assistance, then you will posit to it, gratefully, a humanity that no analysis of its transistors and relay systems can elucidate.
ED: But if machines become more human, what happens to our ideas of human agency?
PKD: As the external world becomes more animate, we may find that we — the so-called humans — are becoming, and may to a great extent always have been, inanimate in the sense that we are led, directly by built-in tropisms, rather than leading. So we and our elaborately evolving computers may meet each other halfway.
ED: And what happens then? How would you tell that story?
PKD: Someday a human being, perhaps named Fred White, may shoot a robot named Pete Something-or-Other, which has come out of a General Electric factory, and, to his surprise, see it weep and bleed. And the dying robot may shoot back and, to its surprise, see a wisp of grey smoke arise from the electric pump that it supposed was Mr. White’s beating heart. It would be a rather great moment of truth for both of them.
ED: If the future had a slogan, what would it be?
PKD: “God promises eternal life. We can deliver it.”
ED: What worries you most about our deepening embrace of technology?
PKD: The reduction of humans to mere use — men made into machines. I think of Tom Paine’s comment about one or another party of the Europe of his time, “They admired the feathers and forgot about the dying bird.” And it is the “dying bird” that I am concerned with. The dying bird of authentic humanness.
ED: So what is an “authentic human”?
PKD: The viable, elastic organism that can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.
ED: Some people believe that our machines may soon prove themselves even more capable of elasticity and novelty than ourselves.
PKD: We are perhaps the true machines. And those objective constructs, the natural objects around us and, especially the electronic hardware we build, they may be cloaks for authentic living reality inasmuch as they may participate more fully in the ultimate Mind.
ED: So technology may actually be staging the emergence of a higher state of consciousness. Why is this happening now?
PKD: Information has become alive, with a collective mind of its own independent of our brains.
ED: I see. Many people argue that memes are already a form of living information, but they draw none of the religious or metaphysical conclusions you do. How do you respond?
PKD: What does this mean, to say that an idea or a thought is literally alive? And that it seizes on men here and there and makes use of them to actualize itself into the stream of human history? Perhaps the pre-Socratic philosophers were correct: the cosmos is one vast entity that thinks. It may in fact do nothing but think.
ED: So the building blocks of the cosmos are not matter or energy, but information.
PKD: The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. We ourselves are information-rich; information enters us, is processed and is then projected outward once more, now in an altered form. Since the universe is actually composed of information, then it can be said that information will save us. This is the saving gnosis which the Gnostics sought.
ED: Yowza. But the world is so terribly screwed up. How do you explain that?
PKD: We appear to be memory coils, DNA carriers capable of experience, in a computer-like thinking system. Although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, there is a malfunction of memory retrieval. There lies the trouble.
ED: At the same time, you suggest that information can save us. But I don’t understand how information wins in a world defined by entropy and decay.
PKD: Here is an example. A new ambulance is filled with gasoline and parked. The next day it is examined. The finding is that its fuel is virtually gone and its moving parts are slightly worn. This appears to be an instance of entropy, of loss of energy and form. However, if one understands that the ambulance was used to take a dying person to a hospital where his life was saved, then one can see that through hierarchical outranking there was not only no loss but in fact a net gain. The net gain, however, can only be measured outside the closed system of the new ambulance. Each victory by God as intelligence and will is obtained by this escalation of levels of subsumation, and in no other way.
ED: You’re talking about emergent phenomena, the “holons” that Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilber describe. Does this nested process help explain what’s happening with technology and globalization? It seems to me that nobody really understands what’s been unleashed.
PKD: I think we’re getting a restricted view of actual patterns. And the restricted view says that people do things deliberately, in concert, where in truth there are patterns that emanate from beyond people. What we don’t realize is that the billions of discrete and entirely ego-oriented left-hemisphere brains have far less to say about the ultimate disposition of the world than does the collective Mind in which each of us shares. It will decide.
ED: So what do we do in the meantime? How do we embrace the change without losing ourselves?
PKD: Do not believe — and I am dead serious when I say this — do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. Before the new things can be born, the old must perish. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves will begin to die, inwardly.
ED: So you don’t hold out much hope for business as usual.
PKD: I can’t seriously believe that much of our cultural pattern or physical assets will survive the next fifty years.
ED: That sounds pretty pessimistic.
PKD: You have to consider that we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering — I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning — we’re not doing too bad.
ED: Finally, you’ve had twenty years to contemplate the universe from the afterlife. Do you have an answer yet? Do you know what reality is?
PKD: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.