The Nature of Androids and Humans: Criticism of Anthropocentrism and Class in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

 

Traditional literature and poetry can do a lot to help humans comprehend the meaning of minutia surrounding them, but some issues are to complex for a world that resembles our own. That is where Science Fiction comes in. SF (“SF” is a  common literary abbreviation for “Science Fiction” not “San Francisco,” the setting of the novel) serves as a means to take questions to the extreme for analysis at their logical (or sometimes illogical) final state. At the core of good science fiction is an examination of complex and real questions through a means that can not exist in the world as we know it. Indeed, we really should listen to Nigel Wheale’s statement, “[i]t really is time to take science fiction seriously” (297). By taking advantage of this newly validated suite of tools, authors can examine large issues about the essence of humanity and its interactions. One of the best examples of this is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, “a classic in the genre. […] It works on many levels and addresses a range of humanity’s most pressing concerns” (Axelrod, 84). Dick uses androids to examine the concepts of nature and artificiality in order to dissect the false privileged binary between the two.

A very basic question one might ask looking at Do Androids Dream? is whether or not Dick thinks of Androids as living things, but that question is far too reductive. Do Androids Dream? makes it clear that electric things are also alive through the protagonist Rick Deckard’s observation “The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are” (Dick 241). This sentence provides a good starting point for the scholarly work done around the novel. The issue of existence and of consciousness are taken as given. With the novel’s advancements in making robots more “human” there is no way to tell an organic human apart from a functioning android until they have expired to have a bone marrow test taken. Because it is so remarkably difficult to tell the difference between the two, the novel takes their consciousness and even sapiency as a given. The question is not whether robots are lives, but how they should be considered.

What makes a human? Perhaps it would be easier to define man vs. not-man if we were able to communicate with things that are not human, but at this point such conversations are beyond the realm of possibility. So we, as a species, are forced to discuss the issue among ourselves. By only being able to experience the concept of intelligence with itself, humanity was led to an anthropocentric worldview. This is a belief of human supremacy Per Schelde best summarizes as the feeling humans are “specially created with a purpose: their salvation and final happiness. Tied in with this purposefulness is the notion of a free will” (125). The ability to actualize desires is a central point of differentiation between what makes something living with a conscious and what is not, and therefore lesser.

This thinking establishes three levels of privileged class: human, animal, and other. This notion is one of the traditional ways that man has distinguished himself from machine. Dick upsets this balance with the introduction of intelligent machines that resemble the top caste (humans), androids. Through this unsettling, androids seek to leave the lowest caste, the other, to function among the hegemonic beings. So, asks Wheale, “what would be the difference between a physically perfect android kitted out with memories and emotions passably like our own, and a person nurtured through the usual channels,” and furthermore “what is an authentic human psyche” (298)? For centuries, the question was as simple as attempting a conversation (Similar to the traditional “Turing Test” to differentiate between a human and a computer consciousness).

In the real world, it is fairly safe to determine an entity’s humanity by looking at it. In Do Androids Dream? it may not be enough to isolate humanity at a glance. Mark Axelrod notes the difficulty wherein “androids have been reproduced to be exact replicas of real humans; therefore, they are difficult to tell them from real humans” (86). By using such a simple test to determine what is human for so long, mankind constructed what Christopher Sims names the “binary [of] natural/artificial” (68), wherein humans can converse, animals can react but not converse, and that bottom class, the other, which has no ability to recognize humanity, plants and inanimate objects (At this point in reality robots, largely incapable of intelligent thought, would belong to this category). Why are animals privileged above the other? Tony Vinci explains animals are granted a special status “for their ability to register human existence, but non-intersecting gazes between humans and animals position them as objectified commodities” (100). Within this critical theory not all animals are equal in their value to humans.

For example, many humans would value a dog over a fish for its ability to interact with, and even assist in human life. Dog is “man’s best friend” because it possesses enough intelligence to directly make man’s life better, and recognize our existence in contrast to that of other beings. Still, they are clearly lower because virtually all cultures will refer to other humans as various kinds of animals (English examples would include: pig, ass, cow, bitch, etc.). Many humans become greatly offended that they could have some distant evolutionary relations to primates. Though not human, humans value animals for their ability to enhance humanity. This leads to the third class, the other. The party of concern in the novel are the electric beings, both the artificial pets as well as the human mimicking androids. This is where the natural/artificial binary starts to become apparent.

Up to this point this essay has focused on what differentiates between the three castes in relation to their positions in Do Androids Dream?. I will turn now to look at how humans in the novel reinforce their position atop the arbitrary hierarchy. An iPhone has more utility and use for the average human than an elephant. The prior can serve any one of millions of functions for any modern person with at least one functional hand, whereas the elephant is a variant of nature that some humans find aesthetically pleasant. Yet, anyone who would choose to save an iPhone over an elephant would be looked at as a monster. So, humans will place some value in the “other,” for its utility, but its inability to recognize humanity makes it a cut below animals. Sims explains that this is because “modern Western cultures hierarchize the natural and the artificial” (85). This “difference” is an illusion, there is nothing between the two but human opinion. Those concerned with preserving the high station of the natural can not stand to see this change in the ancient balance of power. So, what then of the intelligent android?

Rick Deckard’s San Francisco exists after “World War Terminus,” a nuclear armageddon that killed most life on earth and left the rest irradiated beyond reproductive capability or, for the rich, fleeing to the safety of Mars with android servants. Where many real-life humans cherish their animals as a friend and companion, a pet is less of a companion to the post-apocalyptic person and more of a prized possession to convey social status, in part because of their rarity. Because the radiation has made it impossible for any species to reproduce in a fashion that would keep up with demand, only the rich can afford to have a genuine animal and everyone else can get electric mimicries, such as Deckard’s titular electric sheep, to try and convey status. In this society, “crimes against animals which universally horrify humanity” (Wheale 300) are fundamental to the maintenance of status quo. If humans are unable to have their reaction to violence against another living thing, how would they know they are human?

Drowning in anthropocentrism, humans promptly place themselves at the top of the organic/inorganic class system, and make moves to bring greater hegemonic status. In explaining the violence of humans toward androids, Axelrod explains “There is a fear that [androids] will create some kind of havoc if not eliminated, […] what kind of havoc they would wreak is not exactly detailed though” (86). Because they can be so hard to spot, humans need something to draw a line with. To this end, the humans of Dick’s imagination develop the “Voigt-Kampff” empathy test, administered by the protagonist Rick Deckard to suspected androids. The goal of this test is to detect empathy, which is decided to be the paramount human virtue by post-apocalyptic society. The primary reason for this premium on both empathy and  the testing thereof is that robots do not feel empathy, or at least not in the way that humans recognize.

The novel’s humans are very concerned with empathy, they even make it into a religion called “Mercerism.” In this newly founded devotion “Empathy is the paramount tenet of Mercerism” (Sims 74). That is where the value of animals is relevant. Vinci argues animals are able to produce empathetic emotions and comfort, but really “what humans are ‘with’ is not animals but the imagined lack of their own lack” (100). Counterintuitively, the humans of Do Androids Dream? rarely empathize with one another.

Axelrod describes the situation “Deckard’s thoughts, mediated by the narrator, are often insightful for Deckard himself; however, we know very little about his wife’s, Iran, thoughts and concerns on more than a superficial level” (91). By contrast, Wheale notes that in the 24 hours required for the novel to unfold, “Rick Deckard’s infatuation with Rachael [a Nexus-6 android]  is the most troubling instance of this problem. In the novel, bounty hunter and android sleep together” (304). Deckard has an intimate and emotionally meaningful connection not with the woman he has agreed to spend his life with, but a Nexus-6 model android he was sent to examine for signs of empathy just hours before. As Rachel notes, “You’re not going to bed with a woman […] don’t think about it, just do it. Don’t pause and be philosophical, because from a philosophical standpoint it’s dreary. For us both” (Dick 194).  In a world concerned with empathy on a religious scale, people don’t seem overly concerned with their fellow humans.

Wheale explains the “Do Androids Dream? employs this idea of ‘affect’ to distinguish between a ‘person-Thing’ and a human entity: humanity experiences affect (and affect-ion), robots don’t” (299). Some of those biological people don’t meet this definition of humanity as empathy. Wheale further describes this dilemma of people whosuffer from a ‘flattening of affect’, and in the test situation could be mistaken for robots” (299) because they are not mentally able to feel empathy. Though they are traditionally born and raised humans, they are incapable of the primary characteristic assigned to humanity by the global religion.

This isn’t the only criterion that can disqualify people from humanity, and empathy for these people seems to be in short supply. One of Do Androids Dream?’s major characters, John Isidore “had failed to pass the minimum mental faculties test, which made him in popular parlance a chickenhead” (Dick 18). Isidore is capable of some amount of empathy, as illustrated by his interest in animals and his android companions, but is not of high enough intelligence to be granted full and legal personhood which would allow Isidore to get a better job, own an animal, and/or flee the irradiated landscape of Earth for the safety of Mars. Both those with a flattened affect and sub-par mental facilities are biologically and genetically humans, but they are not considered such. So humanity isn’t even tied to biology as would be suggested by privileging animals over robots. Humanity is tied to power.

Having reviewed the negative consequences of using empathy as a means of differentiating mankind above all else, I will now show why this is a flawed test and a false construct. There is the “empathetic” practice of Mercerism itself. Iran Deckard demonstrates this in the novel’s opening scene when she connects to the Mercerist “empathy box” which shows the object of the religion, Wilbur Mercer going through trials and tribulations to spark empathy among his followers. Wheale describes this process as “tuning in to an ’empathy box’ each individual shares in the Ascent of Mercer, and shares the antagonism directed to their god-figure by some unknown enemies” (299). This allows for humans to share in the experience of suffering together with Mercer, virtually the definition of empathy; however, this experience is being delivered in an artificial manner. Galvan goes as far as to say “the empathy box, which despite its name more undermines than facilitates the experience of emotional community” (418).

Humans do not go to an event occurring live and/or in person, they are essentially watching a rerun on TV. It is still given to humans by the use of a human creation that artificially delivers an experience that is not actually happening in the moment. Optimistic skeptics might argue that it is inconsequential to receive in an artificial way because the “feeling with” of empathy is still natural. This would be a valid argument within the context of Do Androids Dream?, except the full experience of Mercerism, that world’s primary religion and inspiration of empathy, is fundamentally false.

Wilbur Mercer, believed to be an actual person, is revealed by Buster Friendly to be a man “named Al Jarry, who played a number of bit parts in pre-war films” (Dick 207) and then acted as if he were being persecuted for the scene before resigning to a secluded life in Indiana. This “empathy” was not with a real person or even a real event, but a purely synthetic experience Jill Galvan argues is primarily a means of the government to keep people from rebelling against the structure (417). Not only is the means of experiencing artificial, not only is the experience conveyed synthetic, the purpose of the storytelling is not organic and grassroots in nature, it is a means of the oligarchs within the hegemonic class to guard their power. This leads to the conclusion that either empathy can be artificial or is not any great virtue of humanity. Either way this outcome leaves humans without a jewel for their crown of anthropocentrism. Even worse, the androids are gaining ground in empathy. So, let us review the moral implications of differentiating humans as a uniquely superior and moral class.

In some SF it is easy to spot an android, they just look fake to even the unobservant eye. As previously noted, this is not at all the case for not so in Do Androids Dream? where a living human and function android can not be differentiated fully. Where Wheale notes “the latest generation of Nexus-6 ‘andys’ approaches nearer and nearer to human” (300) it becomes more and more difficult to tell a difference at a glance. That is where the protagonist, Rick Deckard, introduces the Voigt-Kampff test. One of the first conflicts presented to Deckard is testing the Nexus-6s. In this scene, Dick reveals that the Voigt-Kampff test was not the first of its kind, it is part of a series of ever more difficult tests. So, the definition/idea used in defining empathy, and consequently humanity, is not fixed, it has changed over time as the hegemonic humans have moved the goalposts and keep the number of privileged people to a minimum. This is not merely a group of people sticking to what they know for fear of the new, it is a concerted effort to suppress groups, both organic and mechanical.

Tony Vinci writes “The post-apocalyptic culture depicted in the novel is based upon anthropocentric values constructed in such a way as to belittle and disempower human and nonhuman others (‘specials,’ androids, ersatz animals) by defining the human as a specialized category of being that has exclusive access to empathy” (92). In this situation, the androids are not treated as people, but slaves. Perhaps androids might reach the same status as humans if they can meet certain conditions, specifically meeting the current definition of empathetic, but every time they are able to meet these standards of humanity, the powers that be change their definition so they to keep their club closed from anyone looking to climb the ranks. This includes some androids that would classically meet the definitions of humanity with flying colors.

Luba Luft is one of Deckard’s android targets found at an art exhibition and posing as an opera singer, a very bourgeois art. To be deconstructionist for a moment, arts are also called humanities meaning that someone who can perform a humanity on a high level should most likely be considered human. Luft is operating as a very talented human artist meaning she is not only expressing her own form of humanity, but also potentially helping organic humans achieve a more fulfilling life. In this scenario, Luft should be considered a human, or at least something on the order of an animal; however, Galvan writes

In effect, it is not the scenarios that Rick posits that might prove Luba Luft guilty; rather, it the resolute relationship of signifiers and signifieds-the vise-like stability of the dialectical code-that proclaims the law’s authority and thus already brands her a criminal. Deputized to administer the test, Rick insists repeatedly upon Luba’s “response,” but in Baudrillard’s view, of course, that response would only confirm the operation of the hegemonic code (421).

What this means in a power structure is that the signifiers are being perpetually changed to keep specific signifiers held in a position of lower power. The androids are trapped as slaves by this hegemonic sign.

Typically, the androids do not do much to resist their bondage, but Sims says “Rarely, an android slave will kill its master and flee Mars for haven on Earth” (67). Throughout the novel, Deckard, a bounty hunter, stands as a forceful means of differentiating between the natural/artificial binary, humans and androids, respectively. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act permitted white men to hunt after escaped slaves looking for a way to leave their masters. Humans are very concerned to see their position challenged on the top of the pyramid, and so they assert the whole of their power to suppress the rising forces of intellectual opposition following the model of Marxist theory.

Androids are transformed into the other, and, as Axelrod notes even largely resembling a traditionally marginalized European ethnicity. “Unlike the nonandroids, each android […] has Euro-Slavic names or features” (86). The hegemonic forces are using their privileged rank to exploit and oppress the lower classes from removing their privilege. Istvan Csicsery-Ronan argues “Hypercapitalism labors to replace them with the ‘multicultural’ coexistence of irresolvable, irreducible, and intractable differences that must never develop into serious challenges to imperial sovereignty. The utopian ideal of universal right and law is replaced by the imperial practice of corruption” (242). Once again, even looking beyond the abuse of androids, there is a good number of natural-born humans, like John Isidore, that are not being allowed to interact with more respected humans recognized as intelligent, empathetic, and generally better. It is just another way for the powerful to oppress the powerless.

Class relations are a very difficult thing to discuss in America. Csicsery-Ronay states “This is one reason why some Marxist critics consider the genre to be inherently critical, despite the fact that careful social analysis rarely plays a central role in sf narratives […] the way global capitalism prevents dialectical historical awareness from coming to revolutionary consciousness” (242). No one likes to acknowledge that people of a higher station do not view them equally as a result of class. That is really the brilliance of Do Androids Dream?. In this instance, Androids are used as a powerful equal to stand aside organic humans to show the violent hierarchies mirrored in nature and human society. Regardless of whether or not the work is explicitly, implicitly, or not at all Marxist, Dick forces readers of Do Androids Dream? to confront the fundamental power structures and assumptions of human identity.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Mark. I Read It at the Movies: The Follies and Foibles of Screen Adaptation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007. Print.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “Science Fiction and Empire.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 30, no. 2 (2003): 231-45.JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. New York City: Ballantine, 2008. Kindle.

Galvan, Jill. “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 24, no. 3 (1997): 413-29. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Schelde, Per. Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films. New York, NY: New York U, 1993. Print.

Sims, Christopher A. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 36, no. 1 (2009): 67-87. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Vinci, Tony M. “Posthuman Wounds: Trauma, Non-Anthropocentric Vulnerability, and the Human/Android/Animal Dynamic in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association vol. 47, no. 2 (2014): 91-114. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Wheale, Nigel. “Recognising a ‘human-Thing’: Cyborgs, Robots and Replicants in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.” Critical Survey vol. 3, no. 3, (1991): 297-304. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Only a few bits left

There was a time not so long ago I was obsessed with media. Well, to be specific, I was obsessed with owning media. Boxes of books, movies, video games, CD’s (mostly of bad bands) and all other things I had piled everywhere just taking up space in the off chance I wanted to revisit Underworld: Evolution. Okay I did that a few times (I CAN MAKE BAD CHOICES) but still, the vast majority of my possessions were just things that never saw use.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t hording things, I was happy to loan things to people I and we always were good about spring cleaning. I knew how to give up things, but I was really good at holding onto things that I thought had value. That’s started to change.

I couldn’t tell you the exact time I wanted to own less, but I think it is related to the desire I had to change myself after I left Mines. I was fundamentally very unhappy, and I didn’t know why. So, I basically hit resent and started making major changes to my life.

Step one was when I shaved my head. Say what you will, I looked good. Then I started to get rid of crap. I sold video games initially and then started to donate them because I don’t really value money. I donated books and movies. Not my usual two or three here and there, I got rid of almost all of them. I don’t own a DVD anymore, certainly no CD’s. No more physical video games. The word physical is where things really pick up here.

Who buys DVD’s? No seriously, the only people I know who buy movies are people who either don’t get the idea of streaming or….. okay they’re actually the only ones. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now, I can cheaply watch more good shows and movies than I could ever possibly hope to watch. Music? Google Play Music is my personal choice. I’ve been on digital music for a while, but streaming is just frankly easier and more unified in a lot of ways. I still have physical copies of the Bible, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, but that’s mostly just a bit too much nostalgia to give up. Besides that, Kindle books are cheaper anyway. As for video games, I’ve grown to prefer PC gaming anyway, and what chump buys physical PC games?

Here’s the thing, it feels truly liberating to have less stuff. Obviously I’ve been out of the house for some time now that I’m in college, but I used to just keep a bunch of stuff at home. I wanted nothing to do with that anymore. It’s seriously just stuff I have no intent of using anymore. I literally don’t have a room at my family’s house anymore (it’s not sad like it sounds, there’s just a lot of people in a small space).

Does any of this mean I am consuming any less media? Not at all. I don’t buy as much anymore, but I’m getting as much or more joy from entertainment than I ever have. I just spend less and own less. I really like it. I can get things I like anywhere I happen to be I have what I want. Travel has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and owning less makes that seem a lot easier. I’m hoping to spend a year in Russia soon, and if I were to go today, the computer I’m currently typing on already has everything I would possibly want ready to go. Nothing I’d have to entrust with people while I’m gone or try to stuff together. Just the freedom from being owned by possessions. It’s kind of like Fight Club.

I would not quite call myself a minimalist yet, but I’ve gotten to really enjoy owning less. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that is made by podcasters and bloggers who are hardcore minimalists. They didn’t get me started on getting rid of possessions but they sure have helped me along the way. The main idea that I am trying to embody is only buying things that add value to my life. They have a phrase I’ve been trying to keep in mind. “Love people and use things because the reverse never works.”

Shiny and Chrome

When I got my first summer job for my grandpa’s construction company, I knew what I wanted to buy. I wanted a computer. My mom was always a technophobe, so I only had really limited experience for most of my life, and in spite of (or maybe because of) that I am very much a technophile. So, what was my small budget going to purchase?

Spoilers, my first laptop was a Dell Inspiron 13, and my current computer is a Lenovo Y700. But when I was looking I saw these weird new things called Chromebooks. They were (and still mostly are) cheap laptops that were basically a version of the Chrome browser with a couple cool tricks. In my days of low technological understanding, I wasn’t sure if it would be able to take Google Docs offline like I planned to do for debate, so I didn’t get one. I thought they might have been a flash in the pan, but they are honestly looking more appealing by the day.

Most of the cool things about Chromebooks (insane security, frequent updates, dirt cheap) are still largely there, but so are the limits. It’s still mostly just a browser. That’s changing. As of last year, Google started to make the Google Play store available on certain models of Chromebook, and recently announced that all new Chromebooks in 2017. What’s more, they announced a set of new computers from Samsung called the Chromebook Plus and Chromebook Pro. They’re both plenty powerful, but they are made from the start with the intent of having Android apps available. So, any fears I once held about enough features are largely absolved.

The most common work related programs are word processors. Originally, Google Drive was available to this end, and even as I write this on a Windows 10 computer I still prefer to use Google services for pretty much everything. But the reason I like platforms like Windows and Android is they are open, and I like having the choice to do with my things as I will. So more options for productivity is never bad, and Word for Android is actually a solid choice.

Here’s the thing, Word Online has been available in the Chrome browser for some time now, but that isn’t full Word, and it isn’t available offline. Those are conditions that most people can live with, but Word for Android can go offline. Still it isn’t full Word. Here’s the thing, I don’t think that is actually that big of a problem for 95% of people. Most of us don’t do anything but type and maybe mess around with the font a little. The features that Android Word lacks compared to Windows and Mac are edge cases at most.

Think about it, how much do you really do on you need your computer to do. If you’re a video editor, engineer, or PC Gamer, yeah, you need more muscle and specialized programs than Chromebooks can provide in the near future. Android games are obviously a thing, with some lighter spin-offs of classics like Civilization Revolution 2 or the full multi-platform Hearthstone (the greatest F2P game available), and there are some very basic video and photo editing apps available, but for those really dedicated, we still don’t have enough for everyone.

But what about the people who spend most of their time on social networks, shopping, streaming shows, or writing? I honestly think that is the majority of what most people do. That would certainly explain the popularity of smartphones and tablets, and think about the great things you get in exchange. The hardware is lighter, so it is one, well, lighter. Chromebooks, even those with larger screens, are thin, light and easy to carry around. Even more, the lower specs can provide for dramatically better battery life. For as much as I like my laptop, having a core i7 and a discrete graphics card can really drain a battery, even with lighter work. So, will my next computer be a Chromebook? Eh.

Getting an OS closer to Android that takes less space and more battery life are almost exclusively advantages for me, and most of what I do on a computer would be done as well or even better on a Chromebook. As for the rest, well I’m a nerd who likes PC gaming. I like Hearthstone plenty, but I’d miss Stardew Valley, Diablo, Skyrim, and any number of other games I already enjoy, and am looking forward to. The games are what will hold me back at this point, but I don’t know for how long, and if you don’t need a high end computer, why are you spending the money? You can get a Chromed out OS for pretty cheap.

Podpower

Middle school was a rough time for me. I didn’t have many friends, and so I didn’t talk to people a lot. Every morning I took at least a little refuge in listening to the DJs coming through the stereo of my mom’s suburban. I’m sure if I listened to them now, I’d probably be driven insane by them now, but that was the beginning of a great interest instilled in me.

A few years later we listened to NPR all across Wyoming as I drove to Debate meets. While marginally better than middle school, Wyoming was still awful, but between the company and the talk radio I really enjoyed those long rides. Times changes, but I still enjoy a lot of similar things.

I don’t listen to as much radio as I used to, but NPR is a bigger part of my life that it ever was before. How? Lots and lots of podcasts. I couldn’t really tell you what my entry point was, but I listen to almost everything NPR and WNYC produce along with an assortment of other shows (highlights include Stuff You Should Know and The Vergecast). They keep me going.

I’m the kind of person who can’t work without some white noise to enjoy. Podcasts provide a wonderful range of white noise. I can learn some weird bit of history or science, keep up with news and tech, or just laugh. You can expect a lot more about these in the future. Because this obsession only continues to grow in me.

My cyborg side

If it isn’t obvious by my… everything, I’m a technocrat. As I’ve said, I like technology and I truly believe it can help our society but this relationship is very intimate. People, mostly angry middle aged folks on their first trip to the internet, worry about the singularity. Given that my previous roommate has minor biomods, it doesn’t seem all that far off. But I think we’re already at the point that technology is a part of who we are. Specifically, I want to talk about our phones.

It’s a cliche at this point, but nothing is more intimate to the average person that their phone, and that’s not just in America. Smartphones are the most common internet connection in the world. They know our schedules, our social media figures, our opinions (I’m writing this from my phone), and every other detail of our lives. It’s to the point that a large amount of people are comfortable with regularly purchasing items from the bathroom. Full disclosure, that includes me. That makes them an extension of who we are. That’s why I love my phone so much.

While talking with my sister Ariel recently, she voiced a feeling I never realized I had. On consideration, iPhone’s are sterile. Because they all feel the same, these very intimate expressions of who we are don’t seem like anyone. They represent conformity, the norm. They’re fine. Nothing bad. But there is nothing unique. I want an extension of who I am to reflect my greater whole.

Our dependence on smartphones is a solid meme. I understand why its easy to laugh at, but its kind of wonderful to me. We are augmenting our evolution. If God made us in his image, it only seems fitting that we create new and intricate things. These things are now part of us. We need to be aware of it and pay attention like any part of who we are, but we also need to appreciate it for what it is. It’s us.

Silver linings

I won’t beat around the bush, 2016 was a bad year. I refuse to believe that it is just media coverage, this was a bad year. But there were a few things this year I really liked (mostly entertainment stuff for the purposes of this Post) and got me through, so I want to talk about them.

Music

The first thing is actually tied to an early unfortunate event, and that is Blackstar by David Bowie. I remember the moment I read about his death. I had “Lazarus” playing on Spotify when the Rolling Stone headline showed up on my Twitter feed. If you haven’t heard the song, it is Bowie’s song that kind of acknowledges mortality. That’s been read into plenty, but at least I’ve had something to listen to from the get go.

I really can’t mention 2016 without mentioning Kanye’s new album. I adored The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. I’ve written about Kanye already and recent events have shown some interesting turns in his persona, but Pablo gave me a lot to identify with and lean on for strength. Also, just go ahead and lump his concert in there because I’ll remember that little trip with Grace for years to come.

I actually saw quite a few concerts in the second half of my year. After I saw Kanye, I also got to see MC Lars, a longtime favorite of mine. He was every bit as nice as I could have hoped and the show with Mega Ran and mc chris was high octane and unique.

This year I had the habit of getting tickets to concerts as Christmas presents, the final show I went to was a Christmas show from Trans Siberian Orchestra. They make an incredible spectacle, but the highlight for me was when they had a tiger change into a dragon change into an attack helicopter. I still don’t know why they did that, but that has yet to affect the degree to which I care.

Film

The next thing I loved was the new Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which really shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s on HBO at the moment, and that’s good because it’s hard to explain all the reasons I like this venture without ruining a lot of things, not by killing plot points, just really cool and odd jokes. If nothing else, the sheer amount of incredible names should speak about why I’d be so thrilled by a period movie like this.

Sandwiched between the album and the tour, I binged some serious TV and I have to say, Netflix had a good years. Bojack Horseman has been going strong for a few years, but that blend of flippant humor with serious and potent commentaries on sensitive issues (i.e. mental illness, abortion, nontraditional relationships) is something that I can’t get enough of. Also, I didn’t expect to like Stranger Things, but there are few things made that so perfectly fit with what I live. I know I’m not from the 80s, but I don’t care. Just as I liked the setting of Hail Caesar! I adore that aesthetic that permeates so many things I love.

The other source of TV that entered my life was HBO. My family never paid for the cable subscription. We still don’t. But I subscribe to HBO Now so I’ve gotten to enjoy what they’ve put out, and it has been some wonderful stuff. I enjoyed Westworld and Veep but my favorite has to be Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I’m impressed with the sheer variety they can produce and there has yet to be a time I could not get out of a funk with those three magic letters.

Games

Before I say anything here, I must acknowledge that I’ve been playing a lot of older games this year. For instance, I’ve only recently gotten into Skyrim. Not the remastered on on consoles. The PC version. No special mods. I just finally found what makes it fun. If you want to know what has had a major emotional impact, look to Spec Ops: The Line. It incredibly subverts expectations to show what war is like. To be fair, I haven’t been to war. I probably never will. But I definitely can understand the stress there. That’s just the beginning of my list of older games I liked this year.

Another thing that was incredibly cheery was Stardew Valley. I love that game. I have never experienced something that so easily made me feel comfortable. When I think about the gameplay itself or the story, there’s nothing all that impressive. But the loop always makes me feel productive and relaxed. When paired with the incomparable soundtrack, it’s basically a digital blanket I can cuddle into.

In terms of time sinks, there has been little that could compare in my life to Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and Civ VI is not an exception. I don’t know if I like it as much as IV yet, and I certainly haven’t spent as much time with it. But its on its way. That could easily get to be my most played game. Full stop, It’s going through the roof as we speak. Twenty hours in a week, thanks to winter break. Life is sad sometimes.

Tech

I need to give a shout out to my phone here. I’m on my own phone plan now, and I adore the phone I have for it. While I don’t have the brand new OnePlus 3T, that wasn’t announced until a few weeks after I got mine, but I don’t care. I love my OnePlus 3. In our society, our phones have gotten to be an expression of who we are. My iPhone was fine, but I think this represents who I am better. It’s a smart buy when considering value. It’s unique because no one else has it. That’s my problem with Apple products. They all blend in. They look nice, but boring. Where my phone is concerned I want to feel unique, and it is.

Person

I can’t mention Stranger Things, Westworld and trashing on Apple without thinking about the person who spurred me to watch it, my wonderful girlfriend Allie. I try to keep an air of professionalism with this silly blog and not directly address her, but she is definitely my favorite thing about 2016. I’m not an easy person to be with, but she seems to be sticking it out. She leaves for Canada soon, but I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have her. She makes me happy. I love her, and she’s my favorite thing of the year.

UnBlocked

What’s the best way to follow up a post about how advertisements are poisoning the young mind of my sister? A post about why we should all allow ads. Let me be clear, I don’t like ads. I find them unpleasant at best, and toxic to our collective conscious at worst. So, why am I okay with them?

The internet might be the most incredible thing mankind has ever made. Not an original statement by any means, but I think it is worth reminding us all about how cool it is that a large amount of wires have enabled every member of the human family to contact each other and learn anything. This digital revolution has upended the world in the name of freedom, but we can’t expect the cost to also be free.

Of course we pay for an internet connection. We pay for wires to our house or else we pay for data from a wireless provider, but we have developed a certain expectation of free services online. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a host of other free services are all available to anyone for free. Technically.

We don’t see the magic behind the veil, but all of these services are run by massive companies with huge amounts of infrastructure, and long payrolls of valuable employees. They need to make money and keep the whole operation afloat somehow. There are two ways to do this, either pay outright for a service like Netflix, or get it for free like, well, like pretty much everything else.

To make their service free, most websites, especially social networks and news outlets run ads to us. I don’t like it either, but I want access to these things and I have to pay with either money or by being exposed to ads, and I’d rather just see the ads. It would seem most people agree with me.

For evidence look at the success of free Facebook vs. the flop of freemium Ello. Or look at the success of mostly online news outlets like Huff Post vs. the struggles of print magazines. Consumers expect that these services should not cost money. If we want these services to stay around, we need to provide something in return. That’s the big issue I want to address here.

Adblockers like the simply named Ad Block Plus can make the internet virtually ad free. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t tried them out, and I would blaspheme to say the internet didn’t look a lot nicer that way. But I uninstalled because I don’t want to give up my highly limited funds.

A good deal of sites that I frequent, Wired, South Park Studios, among others, can detect the use of ad blocking software and make it a lot more difficult to use the website. Some would complain that this is unfair, but I actually think this is generous. I want to get free stuff, the fact that Comedy Central will let me watch the newest episodes of South Park without paying is kind of amazing. By the principle of bulk order, a lot of people watching that make them a couple cents will let this continue. Or I could go pay for the season. This leads to what I think of as the Spotify option.

Spotify has two options, the free version which has limited features, or the unlocked premium version. If you want to pay money and skip ads, along with other features, you pay money. If you don’t want to pay, you can just hear ads in your Kanye/Katy Perry playlists. Either way, the service can continue. This really outlines the ultimate choice we as digital citizens are left with.

Option 1: Pay up. This is simple, but I would argue that fragmenting the internet is bad for the overall health and ideology that underlie the internet. But it’s an option that exists.

Option 2: Stop blocking ads. I don’t want this either, it feels like the man is winning and that almost causes me physical pain. The use of ad blocking has been on the rise, and I want to keep my access to things without paying. That doesn’t work if too many people don’t buy in with me, and it takes a lot of people.

Even in an altruistic world where people will work for free, it costs money to even just run the minimal task of keeping the servers on. I don’t want to see the ads, but let’s all just grit our teeth for the collective good.