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
Commodification and Consumerism Quotes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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."