Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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The Empathy Box Symbol Analysis

The Empathy Box Symbol Icon

The empathy box is a cornerstone of the religion of Mercerism, which, in the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has millions of followers. Mercerists join together with each other by touching the empathy box—when they do so, they’re rendered capable of feeling each other’s thoughts, feelings, and pains—the most literal kind of empathy imaginable. Despite its name, however, the empathy box doesn’t seem to make people particularly empathetic in real life—on the contrary, the world of the novel is bleak, frightening, and cold. In this sense, the empathy box could be said to symbolize the failure of community in the future. Despite people’s best efforts, they’re alienated from each other. Furthermore, the empathy box resembles the mood organ, in that they’re both tools designed to build group conformity by playing on the idea of individual human emotion. In this way, the empathy box might as well be a television, a radio, or an iPhone—a sinister symbol of the homogeneity of mass culture.

The Empathy Box Quotes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Empathy Box. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Ballantine Books edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? published in 1996.
Chapter 2 Quotes

He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones; he felt the same old painful, irregular roughness beneath his feet and once again smelled the acrid haze of the sky — not Earth's sky but that of some place alien, distant, and yet, by means of the empathy box, instantly available.

Related Characters: John Isidore , Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer
Related Symbols: The Empathy Box
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, John Isidore, a mentally challenged young man living by himself, participates in a strange religious event--albeit one that's mass-marketed in his society. John grips the sides of the empathy box, a strange, futuristic device that allows millions of people to feel the same sensations as the box's controller. In this case, the controller is Wilbur Mercer, a pseudo-religious figure who stands for the most popular religion of the future, Mercerism.

As should be clear from the passage, the tenets of Mercerism are vague, if existent at all. John senses that he's climbing a big hill along with Mercer, his leader--but why John, or Mercer, needs to climb the hill remains unclear. It's equally unclear how John's out-of-body experience qualifies as empathy (as the name of the device would suggest). It's often said that empathy is the ability to "put yourself in someone else's shoes," i.e., experience life from their point of view. In the future, however, technology allows people to interpret empathy in a hilariously literal way. Put another way, "empathy" has seemingly come to refer to the literal ability to experience someone else's senses, without any of the emotional or moral connotations of the word. At the same time, this mass-marketed empathy is the defining feature of Mercerism, and, as we later learn, is the defining trait that humans use to identify themselves as different from androids.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated. As in the fusion withMercer, everyone ascended together or, when the cycle had come to an end, fell together into the trough of the tomb world. Oddly, it resembled a sort of biological insurance, but double-edged. As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.
Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.

Related Characters: Rick Deckard , Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer
Related Symbols: The Empathy Box
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rick contemplates empathy and its relationship with the ideology of Mercerism (the most popular religion in Dick's futuristic society). As Rick sees it, empathy is a survival mechanism and nothing more. The biology is simple: if life forms are "programmed" to feel empathy, then they have an automatic incentive to stick together and take care of each other. Over the millennia, humans have evolved to feel a strong sense of empathy for one another, simply because empathy is good for the species.

The problem with Rick's account of empathy, of course, is that it's incredibly cold and callous. For Rick, empathy doesn't have any relationship to morality or compassion--it's just another "tool" to help people survive. Put another way, Rick treats empathy as if it's a purely logical behavior--when in fact, feeling empathy is arguably one of the least logical behaviors of which humans are capable.

In spite of Rick's rather cynical account of empathy, it's clear that empathy has become more and more important to humanity precisely because it's grown scarcer and more commodified. Mercerism, the most popular religion, is based on one principle and one principle along: humans can feel empathy (and, by the same token, androids cannot--thus they are like "solitary predators"). Paradoxically, empathy seems to have become more important to civilization, and yet also cheaper. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Maybe Buster is jealous, Isidore conjectured. Sure, that would explain it; he and Wilbur Mercer are in competition. But for what?
Our minds, Isidore decided. They're fighting for control of our psychic selves; the empathy box on one hand, Buster's guffaws and off-the-cuff jibes on the other. I'll have to tell Hannibal Sloat that, he decided. Ask him if it's true; he'll know.

Related Characters: John Isidore (speaker), Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer , Buster Friendly , Hannibal Sloat
Related Symbols: The Empathy Box
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, John Isidore contemplates a growing rivalry between two famous media personalities, Buster Friendly and Wilbur Mercer. Wilbur Mercer is a supposedly religious figure: he presides over a popular religion called Mercerism, which is practiced by millions of people. Buster Friendly has no religion, and yet he interacts with his fans in much the same way as Mercer--via television and other media. Friendly and Mercer, it's suggested, have a "celebrity feud"--as John insightfully points out, they're both competing for an audience's attention.

The equation of Mercer, a religious leader, and Friendly, a TV personality, suggests the cheapening of religion in John's society, and the elevation of entertainment to a form of worship. In a world where media and entertainment have become all-important, religion itself is just another diversion--just another program to watch after work. Furthermore, the rivalry between Mercer and Friendly cheapens Mercer's signature product: empathy. If Mercer himself is just another entertainer, vying for high ratings, then his product, empathy, is just another gimmick designed to attract people's attention. As Dick has already shown, this society's definition of empathy is cold and clinical--which perhaps is why true empathy and compassion are so desperately sought after.

Chapter 16 Quotes

In addition, this android stole, and experimented with, various mind-fusing drugs, claiming when caught that it hoped to promote in androids a group experience similar to that of Mercerism, which it pointed out remains unavailable to androids.
The account had a pathetic quality. A rough, cold android, hoping to undergo an experience from which, due to a deliberately built-in defect, it remained excluded. But he could not work up much concern for Roy Baty; he caught, from Dave's jottings, a repellent quality hanging about this particular android.

Related Characters: Rick Deckard , Roy Baty , Dave Holden
Related Symbols: The Empathy Box
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rick Deckard learns that one of his final android victims, Roy Baty, has previously experimented with drugs in an attempt to replicate a human experience. Roy claims that he's been trying to hallucinate in an attempt to feel a psychic bond with other beings--much like the bond experienced by humans when using the empathy box in Mercerism. In short, Roy has been trying to become human; taking his cues from Mercerism, he believes that humanity consists of the ability to "connect" with others.

Roy's attempts to become human are pathetic, but not for the reasons that Rick Deckard lists here. As far as Rick is concerned, Mercerism is a legitimate religion and "empathy" is a legitimate way to define human nature. The real tragedy of Roy's existence is that he's bought into society's shallow, nonsensical definition of what it means to be human, then "failed" to adhere to such a definition. (Note also that Rick seems utterly unconcerned with Roy's misery--for someone who deals in empathy every day, he's remarkably un-empathetic here.)

Chapter 18 Quotes

"No, it's that empathy," Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. "Isn't it a way of proving that humans can do something we can't do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing. How's the spider?"

Related Characters: Irmgard Baty (speaker), John Isidore , Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer
Related Symbols: The Empathy Box
Page Number: 209-210
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Irmgard Baty sums up the complicated relationship between humans and androids. Irmgard is watching John Isidore, who's been sheltering her in his home, as he interacts with Wilbur Mercer via an empathy box. Irmgard, who knows very well that society defines androids by their inability to feel empathy, points out that the human race needs to persecute robots in order to feel more secure in its own identity. Humans define themselves according to their ability to feel empathy. And yet in the aftermath of a huge war, there doesn't seem to be very much genuine empathy going around. In a pathetic attempt to prove their own capacity for empathy, humans participate in religious ceremonies with Mercer. The problem is that Mercer's empathy box and the mood organ are commodified and mass-produced--and there's not much true compassion that comes from such devices.

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The Empathy Box Symbol Timeline in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Empathy Box appears in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Perception, Reality, and Power Theme Icon
Memory Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
Before he leaves for work, John touches his “ empathy box .” He grips the handles of this machine and feels an electric current. John senses... (full context)
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Perception, Reality, and Power Theme Icon
Memory Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
Still gripping the handles of the empathy box , John, taking on Mercer’s personality, remembers “his” foster parents: they took care of him... (full context)
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
John releases the handles of the empathy box and finds himself back in his room. He sees that his arm is bleeding, and... (full context)
Chapter 6
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
...area in the apartment where she can sleep. He asks her if she owns an empathy box , and the girl replies, “I didn’t bring mine with me.” John rhapsodizes about Mercerism... (full context)
Chapter 15
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Perception, Reality, and Power Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
Rick and Iran grip the handles of the empathy box . As Rick does so, he realizes what Iran gets out of Mercerism. He tells... (full context)
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Perception, Reality, and Power Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
Rick hangs up the phone and grips the empathy box with Iran. He sees a vision of Mercer, an old and frail man. Mercer tells... (full context)
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
Rick stops gripping the empathy box and leaves his home. He mentally prepares to retire the androids, and realizes that he’ll... (full context)
Chapter 18
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Perception, Reality, and Power Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon
...doing so, they remind themselves of their superiority to androids. She also notes that the empathy box makes it very easy for humans to be controlled by a “would-be Hitler.” (full context)
Chapter 19
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Theme Icon
Perception, Reality, and Power Theme Icon
Animals and the Environment Theme Icon
John Isidore finds himself gripping the handles of the empathy box —he just had a profound vision. Irmgard grabs John and tells him to send the... (full context)