DOA Q&A: Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick-Illustration: Tonjiboy

At a time when the whole world feels like it's falling apart, who better to talk to than someone who suggested that might be the case?

Science fiction has long shaped the reality of modern media, but well before writers like William Gibson conceived the concept of cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer, or Neal Stephenson envisioned online virtual worlds and massive multiplayer games, there was author Philip K. Dick. Back in the '50s and '60s, when sci-fi was still relegated to pulp magazines, Dick was pushing our collective envelope on what constitutes reality, and how the rapid, unchecked acceleration of electronic media was both altering it, and in the process, altering who we are as human beings. In the decades that followed, Dick's works have been adapted by Hollywood (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, etc.) and adopted by the media marketplace in ways that might well have horrified Dick had he lived to see them. Here, in a posthumous interview borrowing heavily from some of Dick's own writings, Media has conducted a bit of a mash-up - a DOA Q&A, if you will - to better understand what was going on in the mind of one of our most influential media futurists.

When you were writing science fiction stories and novels back in the '50s and '60s, did you have any idea how prophetic they would prove to be half a century later? And specifically, how your visions would help shape the reality of media today?

Philip K. Dick: Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can't talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful. A few years ago, no college or university would ever have considered inviting one of us to speak. Then, suddenly, the academic world noticed us, we were invited to give speeches and appear on panels - and immediately we made idiots of ourselves. The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority?

I can't claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?

Well, given the fact that we are interviewing you posthumously from the future, we'd have to concur with the importance of the reality question. But tell us, how can media shape our sense of what is real, and who we are as people?

Dick: 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. However, it also disappeared for the other characters in the story ... which makes no sense, if you think about it. Unless the other characters were figments of his punched-tape fantasy. Which I guess is what they were.

So are you saying that how and what we experience through media is as real as what we experience in the "real" world?

Dick: It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question "What is reality?" to someday get an answer. One day, a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. 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 - and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.

So, what's wrong with that?

Dick: Sometimes when I watch my 11-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it's all misunderstood. And the thing is, just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy and reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is: Be passive. And: Cooperate.

But is that a problem with media, or is it a problem with the way governments and organizations use media?

Dick: I ask in my writing, "What is real?" because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.

The bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly - spurious humans, as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans.

Isn't that a little hypocritical of you? As a science fiction writer, you've created more than your fair share of fake realities, many of which have helped shape our current reality - virtual worlds like Second Life, video games, and online role-playing. Aren't you just as culpable?

Dick: The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. George Orwell made this clear in his novel 1984. But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions. If you can get them to see the world as you do, they will think as you do. Comprehension follows perception. How do you get them to see the reality you see? After all, it is only one reality out of many. Images are a basic constituent: pictures.

This is why the power of TV to influence young minds is so staggeringly vast. Words and pictures are synchronized. The possibility of total control of the viewer exists, especially the young viewer. TV-viewing is a kind of sleep-learning. An EGG of a person watching TV shows that after about half an hour, the brain decides that nothing is happening, and it goes into a hypnoidal twilight state, emitting alpha waves. This is because there is such little eye motion. In addition, much of the information is graphic and therefore passes into the right hemisphere of the brain, rather than being processed by the left, where the conscious personality is located.

Recent experiments indicate that much of what we see on the TV screen is received on a subliminal basis. We only imagine that we consciously see what is there. The bulk of the messages elude our attention; literally, after a few hours of TV watching, we do not know what we have seen. Our memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blanks are filled in retrospectively. And falsified. We have participated unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality, and then we have obligingly fed it to ourselves. We have colluded in our own doom.

And I say this - as a professional fiction writer - the producers, scriptwriters, and directors who create these video/audio worlds do not know how much of their content is true. In other words, they are victims of their own product, along with us.

Speaking for myself, I do not know how much of my writing is true, or which parts, if any, are true. This is a potentially lethal situation. We have fiction mimicking truth, and truth mimicking fiction. We have a dangerous overlap; a dangerous blur. And in all probability it is not deliberate. In fact, that is part of the problem. You cannot legislate an author into correctly labeling his product, like a can of pudding whose ingredients are listed on the label ... You cannot compel him to declare what part is true and what isn't if he himself does not know.

Thank you, that was really interesting. Really.

Editor's Note:This Q&A is extrapolated from Philip K. Dick's 1978 essay, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later."

1 comment about "DOA Q&A: Philip K. Dick".
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  1. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., October 8, 2009 at 11:27 a.m.

    Whoa, dude!

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