“I tried to define the real person, because there are people among us who are biologically human but who are androids in the metaphoric sense. I wanted to draw the line so I could define the positive primary goal of stipulating what was human. Computers are becoming more and more like sensitive cogitative creatures, but at the same time humans are becoming dehumanized”
-Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick author of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, that the original Blade Runner was based upon, dropped the above quote in a 1974 interview with Vertex Magazine. Given the attention economy’s constant vying for our brain space with articles (disclaimer: ahem), videos that play to the lowest common denominator for our emotions, entire political systems getting subverted by electronic espionage and the subtly increasingly intertwined realms of surveillance and marketing, the question seems uncannily prophetic.
Blade Runner 2049, the new visually orgasmic dystopian sci-fi flick with Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, continues to probe the questions Dick raised over forty years ago. And yes, there are many reasons Blade Runner 2049 hits uncomfortably close to home: walking out of the theatre, wandering through the dreamy comedown you catch after engrossing yourself in a cinematic film world, I filtered North Williamsburg through a dystopian lens. The neon lit signs advertising everything, the heads buried in phones scurrying through an eerily lit fog and so forth.
I may be predisposed to low-key hallucinations, but the dystopia of Blade Runner 2049 also exhibits far more concrete parallels to our time: there’s the inequality gap, the child labor and human trafficking, the huddled masses, the environmental chaos and dark opulence of the ruling class. This isn’t to say we’re up on a Blade Runner-esque future. Ours could easily be darker and stranger. Deeper than the setting though, the relationships between characters in Blade Runner 2049 cinematically articulate existential questions peculiar to our time.
Ryan Gosling’s character K doesn’t know whether he’s a human or replicant, or whether there’s a meaningful difference between the two. He and his holographic lady friend Joi exist in a fissured tango, where their attempts at real intimacy are thwarted and made strange by technological barriers. There is the unchecked and sinister magnate Niander Wallace whose messiah complex is eclipsed only by the size of his technological empire.
Ultimately, the question Philip K. Dick articulated all those years ago rings throughout this film: where does the line between man and machine end? Do we know or even care anymore? Would we rather have easy sex robots than the messiness of intimacy? Are we happy living in our tiny dwellings, blunted by advanced forms of entertainment? Can we think for ourselves without the internet?
We’ve hit a point where technology has destabilized not just our outer world, but our inner life. Don’t get me wrong, like everything there’s a salt-and-pepper mixture of good and bad with this situation. On the one hand, I dig the music Spotify’s algorithms dig up for me each week. On the other hand, I’m letting robots dictate the soundtrack to my life. Am I the best self I portray on social media? Do I actually care about this issue, or does my news feed tell me I should care about it? What about dating apps and porn, where electronically mediated erotic stimulation has become so normal we don’t bat an eye? What about the sense of direction we’ve lost to Google maps? When we filter so much of our cognitive and emotional lives through technology, what becomes of the self?
What is the self behind the selfie?
Blade Runner 2049 offers no answers, just elegant metaphors for the ever-deepening technological rabbit hole we’ve tumbled down.
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