Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Commodification and Consumerism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Commodification and Consumerism Theme Icon

Although Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a work of science fiction, it can also be interpreted as a satire of contemporary American society—a society where everything is for sale and where the mass media ensure that everybody craves the same things.

In his novel, Dick depicts a futuristic society in which the art of “keeping up with the Joneses” has gone out of control. In the future, we learn, families still compete with one another to assert their wealth and taste. The difference is that in present-day America (and 1960s America, when Dick was writing), people assert their wealth by buying cars and big houses, but in the future, it’s all about buying exotic pets. In a short but revealing conversation with his neighbor, Bill Barbour, Rick Deckard feels a strong sense of envy when Barbour brags that he has enough money to buy a horse: a particularly expensive, desirable pet. Rick’s desire to keep up with Barbour and his other neighbors then inspires much of his behavior. After he “retires” three androids and receives a big bonus for doing so, Rick goes to the pet store and buys a goat without so much as a second thought. Even though pets are just the latest form of conspicuous consumption—i.e., not a necessity by any stretch of the imagination—Rick has been trained to believe that he “needs” a pet animal to feel happy, a pretty plausible caricature of the beloved American tradition of outshining one’s neighbors.

Where does Rick get the idea that he needs to buy an animal? In part, his desire reflects his nostalgia for the natural world (see “Animals and the Environment” theme). And yet Rick’s behavior also suggests his imprisonment in a society in which the mass media train everyone to want the same things. From the first page of the book, Dick shows us how, in the future, corporations and shadowy government institutions control the thoughts and desires of ordinary people. Rick’s wife, Iran, depends upon a mood organ—i.e., a product she’s purchased—to feel emotions of any kind. Her desires are, quite literally, identical to those of other people who have purchased the organ. Later on, we also learn that people in the future subscribe to a religion that emphasizes the importance of empathy—i.e., feeling exactly the same things as others—and also involves using a purchased product (the empathy box). While there’s nothing wrong with empathy, it’s telling that futuristic societies deify conformity of thought. As Irmgard Baty notes, the idealization of empathy makes it easier to control the masses: when people are encouraged to think the same things, it’s more convenient to control what they buy and do. This is the heart of Dick’s critique of American culture: the omnipresence of television and radio has pushed people to conform to a consumerist dogma. At its best, social conformity makes humans want to buy certain products; at its worst, it turns them into slaves.

Arguably the biggest irony of Do Androids Dream is that the characters are frightened of robots becoming people, when they should be worrying about people turning into robots. Television and mass communication have convinced characters like Rick and Iran Deckard that the only way to be happy is to buy what everyone else is buying, even if these commodities have no practical purpose whatsoever. Dick’s satire of contemporary American culture is dead-on and—like most of what’s frightening about the novel—not too far removed from reality.

Commodification and Consumerism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Commodification and Consumerism appears in each chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Commodification and Consumerism Quotes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Below you will find the important quotes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? related to the theme of Commodification and Consumerism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Examining the schedule for January 3, 1992, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for. "If I dial by schedule," he said warily, "will you agree to also?" He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.
"My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression," Iran said.
"What? Why did you schedule that?" It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. "I didn't even know you could set it for that," he said gloomily.

Related Characters: Rick Deckard (speaker), Iran Deckard (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mood Organ
Page Number: 4-5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the mood organ, a futuristic device that implants a strong emotion in its user: depression, alertness, etc. The people who use the mood organ can even schedule precise emotions throughout the day, so that they can be guaranteed a strong feeling of alertness at 11 am, or a light melancholy at 10 pm.  (Notice also that the only "real" emotion in the passage is gloom, suggesting that perhaps the emotions generated by the machine are actually more desirable and even more real than ordinary human emotions.)

The disturbing thing about a mood organ is that it renders all humans' emotions the same--if two unlike people both use the mood organ to feel melancholy, then their senses of melancholy will be identical in every way. In general, then, the mood organ is representative of a futuristic society in which the consumption of machines and other commodities has created a bland, homogeneous population.


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As he started toward his car Barbour called after him hurriedly, "Um, I won't say anything to anybody here in the building."
Pausing, Rick started to say thanks. But then something of the despair that Iran had been talking about tapped him on the shoulder and he said, "I don't know; maybe it doesn't make any difference."
"But they'll look down on you. Not all of them, but some. You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic. I mean, technically it's not a crime like it was right after WWT. But the feeling's still there."

Related Characters: Rick Deckard (speaker), Bill Barbour (speaker), Iran Deckard
Related Symbols: World War Terminus
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In Rick's society, humans demonstrate their morality and empathy--essentially proving that they are human, and thereby different from androids--by taking care of animals. Pets of any kind are incredibly rare, due to the environmental devastation caused by WWT, a nuclear apocalypse that happened at some point in the recent past.

First, notice the subtle competition between Rick and his neighbor, Bill Barbour, in this passage. Bill lectures Rick about being a good pet-owner, but in reality, Bill is bragging to Rick about being able to afford an exotic pet. In other words, being a "good" person in Rick's society presupposes having the money needed to buy an animal.

Second, it's important to note that humans think of pet-care as an almost nostalgic act; a reminder of a time before WWT, when there were trees and animals in abundance. To own a pet is to gain access to humanity's vanished past. In general, then, animals exemplify many of the key themes of the novel: consumerism, memory, empathy, and the environment.

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.

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 15 Quotes

Rick said, "I took a test, one question, and verified it; I've begun to empathize with androids, and look what that means. You said it this morning yourself. 'Those poor andys.' So you know what I'm talking about. That's why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be a depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you're depressed; I always thought you liked it and I thought you could have snapped yourself out any time, if not alone then by means of the mood organ. But when you get that depressed you don't care. Apathy, because you've lost a sense of worth. It doesn't matter whether you feel better because if you have no worth — "
"What about your job?" Her tone jabbed at him; he blinked. "Your job," Iran repeated. "What are the monthly payments on the goat?" She held out her hand; reflexively he got out the contract which he had signed, passed it to her.

Related Characters: Rick Deckard (speaker), Iran Deckard (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mood Organ
Page Number: 174-175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rick Deckard admits to his wife, Iran, that he's begun to empathize with the androids whom he's been tasked with hunting down and "retiring." Up to this point in the novel, Rick has defined empathy as the ability to feel a bond with other human beings--here, though, he expands his definition of empathy to encompass a bond with androids and animals. As a way of staving off his guilt and anxiety (and showing off his new bounty hunting rewards), Rick has purchased an expensive pet. He continues to play by "society's rules"--when he's sad, he sees no solution other than shopping, just as his friends and neighbors do.

Rick's interaction with Iran in this passage is important because it brings up the idea of apathy in contrast to empathy. While the human characters in the novel define themselves according to their ability to empathize with others, they're more notable for their disillusionment with emotional connection of any kind whatsoever. Rick has previously felt disconnected from his depressed wife, and here, when he reaches out to her and opens up about his feelings, she interrupts him to discuss money. Both characters, struggling to feel an emotional bond with anyone or anything, can only attempt an apathetic, futile solution to their problems--shopping therapy.

Chapter 20 Quotes

"Rick," she said, "I have to tell you something. I'm sorry. The goat is dead."

For some reason it did not surprise him; it only made him feel worse, a quantitative addition to the weight shrinking him from every side. "I think there's a guarantee in the contract," he said. "If it gets sick within ninety days the dealer — "
"It didn't get sick. Someone" — Iran cleared her throat and went on huskily — "someone came here, got the goat out of its cage, and dragged it to the edge of the roof."
"And pushed it off?" he said.
"Yes." She nodded.
"Did you see who did it?"
"I saw her very clearly," Iran said. "Barbour was still up here fooling around; he came down to get me and we called the police, but by then the animal was dead and she had left. A small young-looking girl with dark hair and large black eyes, very thin. Wearing a long fishscale coat. She had a mail-pouch purse. And she made no effort to keep us from seeing her. As if she didn't care."

Related Characters: Rick Deckard (speaker), Iran Deckard (speaker), Rachael Rosen , Bill Barbour
Page Number: 226-227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rick Deckard, who's just finished retiring the final androids on his list, returns to his home. There, his wife Iran gives him some bad news: his prized goat (which he's paid for using the bounty from retiring the androids) has been pushed off the roof. Based on Iran's description, we can tell that it was Rachael, furious with Deckard for killing more androids after her attempts to dissuade him from doing so, who killed the goat.

Rachael's behavior is petty, spiteful, furious--and, in short, eminently human. Throughout the novel, there have been many attempts to define human nature. While most of the characters in the book believe that to be human is to feel empathy, Dick suggests that being human is a much uglier, nastier business. Rachael's decision to kill the goat is arguably more recognizably human than any of the acts of empathy we witness in the novel.

Chapter 22 Quotes

"Do you want to use the mood organ? To feel better? You always have gotten a lot out of it, more than I ever have."
"I'll be okay." He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, still bewildered. "The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are."

Related Characters: Rick Deckard (speaker), Iran Deckard (speaker), John Isidore , Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer
Related Symbols: The Mood Organ, The Toad
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Back in his home, Rick Deckard is disappointed to discover that the "miraculous" toad he found in the middle of the desert is just an electronic toy, and therefore not very valuable at all. Rick is frustrated--he'd thought that his toad would bring him lots of money, and that its discovery was a kind of religious miracle.

Yet in spite of his frustration, Rick still seems to experience an epiphany in this passage. Rick has been trained to believe that things are "real" if and only if they pass a rigorous test: if they can be purchased for a high price in a store; if they pass a Voigt-Kampff test, etc. Here, however, Rick seems to change his mind. Even a fake spider has its own kind of life. Rick characterizes the life of a robotic spider as "paltry"--but of course, the life of a "real" animal (or a real human being!) is just as paltry in the grand scheme of things.

What Rick realizes about animals applies to robots and people, too. Even robots, it's implied, have lives, thoughts, and feelings. Dick subtly implies the shift in Rick's thinking by noting that Rick refuses to use the mood organ. Rick refuses to accept socially-approved definitions of emotion, humanity, or life. Instead, he chooses to feel his own emotions and construct his own definitions of life and human nature.