Philip K. Dick’s Visions

The surveillance state’s complicated prophet

Burned out from 20 years of speed and an increasingly fragile soul, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is still bleary from getting his wisdom teeth removed when he answers his door to find a smiling delivery girl sent by the pharmacy. Her fish pendant—hippie Christians adopted the mystic symbol in the early 1970s—catches his eye, and a stream of pink light enters his mind.

Dick could never decide if the beam lasted only for a few seconds or was just the beginning of a series of connected visions and foggy revelations that went on for most of February and March of 1974, but he spent the rest of his life trying to interpret this religious experience. He had a persistent hunch that our world—his sunny and prosperous California—was a kind of Reality Overlay under which was a Black Iron Prison. That’s where we really lived, under constant surveillance, dulled by a virtual reality of free will.

The pink ray of light, with its throbbing, Google Image slideshow-style visions of modern paintings and ancient knowledge, predicted our modern world of fiber-optic cables pulsing with the light of our collective thoughts, images, desires, and transactions. When the National Security Agency (NSA) asked telecommunications companies for a tap into this collective consciousness in 2003, the intelligence shop was given its own room, 641A, at the vast SBC/AT&T data-switching center in San Francisco, where “beam splitters” rout the flow of information.

Precognition is a common ability in Dick’s worlds, where chronological time seems more a necessary structure to keep his middle- and working-class heroes semi-sane than a hard reality. Information flows in unpredictable directions, and all parties and interests seek control of it. Business executives, real estate speculators, police, journalists, spies, god-children, clergymen, con artists, drug dealers, advertising agencies, androids, generals, and presidents struggle to understand and predict the consequences of the data they collect.

The race is to get the stuff first. Like the institutional investor hooked to a Bloomberg terminal for 10 hours a day or the psychic homunculi bobbling in the fluid of the police pre-crime station in “The Minority Report” (1956), the NSA/FBI/Silicon Valley surveillance of the data trails we create day and night reflects the usual desire of management to control the situation. To fans of Dick’s paranoid Nixon/Hoover-era fiction and the modern myths it helped inspire—everything from The X-Files to The Matrix—the most recent NSA scandals confirm what has long been a given: constant surveillance by sinister government forces.

There’s no way to legislate out of this, because security isn’t a government monopoly. The fact that the most advanced eavesdropping operation in history finds it more effective just to demand a backchannel into private-sector Internet traffic is one sign that “signal intelligence” has grown far beyond any agency’s ability to control. Now any company can be an intelligence operation. Any individual can be an intelligence operation, as Julian Assange has shown. If the NSA doesn’t siphon and store the information, another entity will. The most important part of the Edward Snowden story is that Silicon Valley and Washington intelligence people move back and forth professionally and consider themselves to be in the same industry.

Philip K. Dick rarely comes up in political debate. He’s got no motivational market theory for libertarians, no gung-ho troops fighting giant insects for armchair fascists, no identity empowerment for liberals. His main policy interest was the drug war. But as always for a writer who routinely rewards his heroes with more uncertainty, Dick spreads the guilt around equally to dopehead, dealer, and cop.

In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), the U.N. sells a monopoly in drug paraphernalia on its Mars colonies while tolerating the black market sales of the drug itself, but it’s the drooling “CAN-D” addicts stuck in boring off-world underground housing who come off worst. In 1977’s A Scanner Darkly, the protagonist is both addict and vice cop, and his salvation comes from a Scientology-style drug treatment center that also grows and distributes product.

Philip K. Dick really was a prophet, and like all true prophets he often couldn’t figure out what the visions meant. His description of impossible-to-block pop-up ads in 1964’s The Simulacra is perfect, even though he sees them as talking flies. The pink informational light pulses of 1981’s VALIS, the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, are not a god but the sum information of humanity. That’s what is pulsing through the fiber optic lines. And that’s what any entity seeking control will tap into, for as long as we use this type of informational exchange and voluntarily create “profiles.” (Did an intelligence agency force modern cameras and mobile phones to geo-tag every photograph we take? The answer hardly matters, because we bought it as a new feature.)

Leaks and mass sabotage can make the dragnet less effective. To end electronic surveillance, though, requires evolution in communication.

“We’ve come a long way since the Rothschilds got dirty rich from signals reflected on mirrors across the channel to France,” William S. Burroughs wrote in the early 1990s, long after he’d lent the title Blade Runner to Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? “One is way beyond primitive cause-and-effect modes of communication. In fact, the whole concept of communication is antiquated.”

What replaces current communication methods for those spies and criminals and other multinational interests with a desire for speaking in code? Messages could be grafted onto DNA strands and delivered through a messenger’s hair, or in the stuffing of a certain kind of IKEA throw pillow. Whatever the method, as soon as it is proven to exist, all players will race to figure a way to decode or tap the information streams. Attempts to legislate this evolutionary process will fail. 

This could be just the kind of low-grade oppression and claustrophobia necessary to force humanity to colonize other worlds. Only when a power is impotent to do anything about a perceived threat will surveillance lose its power. Philip K. Dick’s lonely colonists on distant worlds had that much comfort, at least.  

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  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Killazontherun||

    I've been meaning to get around to reading that for thirty years now. One of the few books I couldn't find at the used books stores in Chapel Hill. Bet Jesse Walker nabbed all the copies that came in. My two years there overlapped with his.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The treachery of Jesse Walker is never ending.

  • Killazontherun||

    He likely was frustrated at not being able to find Hayek, Rothbard and Von Mises on the shelves. Found a list on the floor one day, with Man, Economy and State and The Counter Revolution of Science marked off, and Blade Runner not. 'Why, that guy is taking all the Austrian books! I'll fuck him over and buy every Blade Runner that comes through here.'

  • ||

    Oddly I'm having a hard time finding an ebook version even though there's stuff for many of his other works.

  • Dweebston||

    As an epidemic breaks out among the underclass, Billy must save the city from the plague hitting the rest of the city as well.

    Is there a wikipedia tag for drab writing?

  • Dweebston||

    Oh, and only right-wing nutjobs/ Ayn Rand-humping teabaggers/ extremist individualists/ individualist extremists/ and Alan Nourse believe in death panels.

  • Snark Plissken||

    The US has Eugenics Laws? More like the opposite.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Snark Plissken||

    And now stupid people are subsidized to have as many kids as they want.

    I'm not seeing the prophetic part.

  • Jerryskids||

    Eugenics deals with creating an ideal population. What makes you think the government thinks the ideal population is strong, smart, hard-working, healthy people? I know if I were creating a population to rule I would want them stupid, fat and lazy and totally dependent on me for their bread and circus.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Good point. But it's the result of short term political pandering not some long term conspiracy to consciously create an idiocracy.

  • Irish||

    University of California employee says that Obama should use Obamacare to deny 'non-believers' (she seriously used this word) medical care.

    There are definitely leftists who would adore having the opportunity to use state controlled medicine to oppress or murder the opposition.

  • Dweebston||

    Republicans are similarly guilty! Extremists on the right want to deny women access to abortion and birth contr... wait.

  • Sam Grove||

    Or is it?

  • entropy||

    It's common to see impersonal social forces personified especially in scifi.

    Take Atlas Shrugged, does 'going Galt' bring you to a literal place in the desert for a conspiracy of monocled goldbugs to build secret banks and horde technology, or is it a personification of the opportunity costs of over-regulation, beneficial shit that would have happened but didn't on account of the barriers?

    People don't actually 'go Galt' into the desert but any potentially successful invention or business opportunity killed in it's crib by regulatory barriers does go Galt right into the mythical desert of an alternate hypothetical universe.

    Either way, the rest of society sees exactly the same effect, which is why it can be useful to use one pretense to consider the effects of the other with the book narrative. And the smoke-and-mirrors illuminati conspiracies are definitely more entertaining in a novel, and a lot less difficult to understand than reality. It's easy to believe and understand in other people with self-interested motives conspiring these things. It's more difficult to understand it as more of an institutional inclination, with completely unintended consequences, that where ever regulators take over the regular supply of creative and inventive people seems to disappear into thin air.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I know if I were creating a population to rule I would want them stupid, fat and lazy and totally dependent on me for their bread and circus.

    Makes no sense. You either want enough smart people to advance society with new inventions, or you don't want very many at all. There's no need for 300 million fat lazy slobs just to support a decadent life.

  • Satyrical||

    Of course there are. Those 300 million fat lazy slobs are what generate all the ad views and link clicks and drug/food purchases that fuel the sham economy.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Well, we're a year or so away from black-market medicine.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Why the black market part? Even here in the Czech Republic with fully socialized medicine, there are private doctors and hospitals where people with money can get whatever they want.

  • Dweebston||

    In other words, the Czechs are years ahead of the Canadians. Two-tier healthcare is an abomination! Everyone must suffer the same as everyone else!

  • Snark Plissken||

    Really? Private doctors are illegal in Canada?

  • Dweebston||

    No, or at least, not anymore. As I understand it the move to permit private practice is fairly recent and still fairly restricted.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Same way in Costa Rica (from what I hear), socialized health care but in certain situations if you can afford it you try to use the private doctors/facilities. It's basically like public education in the states. If you can afford it, go private, but you still have to pay for the system you don't use.

  • Satyrical||

    Whats wrong with the Black Market? Its free and unregulated. Its a market that actually conforms to the laws of supply and demand, rather than government rules and subsidies.

  • Killazontherun||

    NC is just coming around to compensating the victims this year.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Nourse even set the year as 2014.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I'm surprised the Occupy mob hasn't seized on Dick's vision of the walled communities of Haves oppressing the dismal rabble of Have-nots.

  • Irish||

    That's probably because the Have-Nots in Dick's books tend to be pretty shitty and pathetic people too. It doesn't play into the romantic vision of the Oppressed Masses that the left likes to harp about.

  • Snark Plissken||

    What do you mean I can't get a job offworld? I have a masters degree in puppetry!

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    That guy was such an over the top stereotype that I still wonder if he was a false flag operative.

  • Killazontherun||

    I think it was in Zap Gun the protagonist gets a draft notice via e-mail. Amazing given the sadism at the heart of the state quite prominent post 9/11 that that hasn't been prophetic.

  • Jerryskids||

    The most important part of the Edward Snowden story is that Silicon Valley and Washington intelligence people move back and forth professionally and consider themselves to be in the same industry.

    Funny how there are two big groups who each think Big Government and Big Business are on opposite sides but disagree on which side is the good side and which the bad.

  • juliajuli1||

    my classmate's half-sister makes $72 every hour on the internet. She has been without a job for eight months but last month her payment was $16159 just working on the internet for a few hours.Here's the site to read more......


  • Xiver||

    my classmate's half-sister

    Wow, that sounds better than the crappy job you have spamming websites. You should give it a shot!

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Philip K. Dick rarely comes up in political debate. He’s got no motivational market theory for libertarians, no gung-ho troops fighting giant insects for armchair fascists, no identity empowerment for liberals.

    He's not commonly brought up, but he certainly has a lot to offer. Besides surveillance and information, something politically relevant in his books is the question of authenticity and indistinguishable fakes. Our obsession with narrative over cold fact means that we are always trying to suss out the authenticity of the candidates' identity and narrative when in the end it doesn't matter because they'll likely vote the same anyway.

    I'm pretty sure we've been electing variations of Nicole Thibodeauxs and Die Alten for quite a while now, and like in Dick's world, most people don't bother noticing. This was one of his prescient conceits- the interchangeable celebrity actor/politician complemented by interchangeable robots, manipulated by a behind the scenes cabal. Even if one doesn't believe in that level of conspiracy theories, it's still possible to see that kind of force at work in the entrenched bureaucracy, the revolving door of former politicians and lobbyists, and the establishment party machinery.

    Hollywood's been mining him for years, I don't know how The Simulacra and Man in the High Castle haven't been made into movies yet. Not that I trust a good job would be done, but one can always dream...

  • Dweebston||

    one can always dream...

    Can you? The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping. Why is that, Leon?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    My mother? Lemme tell you about my mother.

  • Goldwin Smith||

    Will it be an 8 year long flashback?

  • Goldwin Smith||

    Oops I mean a *9* year long flashback?

  • ||

    You know what other dick had visions of a better future?

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    ...Bob Dole's post-Viagra?

  • JeremyR||

    I'm about half-way through his Exegesis, which is some of his journals that was finally published a couple years ago.

    Fascinating stuff, he really literally was a prophet in the religious sense. Only instead of trying to start a religion, he used it for his SF.

  • christopherolken||

    my buddy's aunt makes $83/hour on the internet. She has been laid off for 5 months but last month her pay was $12861 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read Full Report

  • Satyrical||

    Philip K. Dick was absolutely a prophet. Reading VALIS in high school was one of the most intense, "religious" experiences of my life. All of modern sci-fi owes a huge debt to him.

  • James Redford||

    If one wishes to gain insight into Philip K. Dick's technological visions in addition to understanding where technology is headed, see my following article on physicist and mathematician Prof. Frank J. Tipler's Omega Point cosmology, which is a proof (i.e., mathematical theorem) of God's existence per the known laws of physics (viz., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics), and the Feynman-DeWitt-Weinberg quantum gravity/Standard Model Theory of Everything (TOE), which is also required by said known physical laws. The Omega Point cosmology has been published and extensively peer-reviewed in leading physics journals.

    James Redford, "The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything", Social Science Research Network (SSRN), Sept. 10, 2012 (orig. pub. Dec. 19, 2011), 186 pp., doi:10.2139/ssrn.1974708.


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