1968–1988–2008: Beyond Blade Runner

Life and work circa 2008.


He had the same questions as everyone. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?
—Deckard, Blade Runner

On an electronic billboard ten stories high, a Japanese woman takes a pill and smiles. Hidden speakers boom advertisements: "A new life awaits you in the off-world colony, a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity." Through the rain and omnipresent yellow fog, we see what look like urbanized Chinese peasants. Far below the gleaming billboards, grubby open-air stalls dispense noodle soup of questionable content.

Los Angeles, 2019. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Of all Hollywood's images of the future, the most striking, a classic example of "if this goes on" science fiction. It is sure to be inaccurate. But it is also true.

In the movie, the Tyrell Corporation genetically engineers artificial people, or "replicants," for use as slaves on colony worlds. Created without emotions, they develop them with time, so they are given four-year lifespans to forestall problems. Replicants are illegal on earth, hunted down and killed by "blade runners"—including Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has quit the business but is drafted to "retire" four runaways. Already weary of killing, he becomes increasingly conscious of his quarry's humanity. Along the way, he falls in love with Rachel, an experimental replicant "more human than human," with memories from a natural woman's past. She saves Deckard's life.

So does Roy, the escapees' brilliant and embittered leader. Enraged at his mortality, he has killed his maker, the genius Tyrell. He means to kill Deckard, as well. But as his own four-year life expires, Roy pulls Deckard, who is dangling from the top of a building, to safety.

"I don't know why he saved my life," Deckard says. "Maybe in that moment he loved life more than he ever had before.

Not just his own life but all life. Even mine." In the end, Deckard heads north with Rachel. Unlike the others, she has no termination date.

The central question of Blade Runner is, What makes us human? In 20 years, the same question will occupy more than the occasional science-fiction writer.

Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart…
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry
—Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble*

At least since the Victorians, the main intellectual debate has been political—a struggle between individualism and collectivism, especially in its Marxian guises. But that conflict, while unlikely to disappear altogether, is rapidly moving to the sidelines—partly because experience has demonstrated that collectivism is neither efficient nor humane. The sanctity of the individual has become widely accepted in theory, although too often ignored in practice. Now powerful forces are beginning to challenge the meaning of that sanctity.

The first is the biotechnology revolution that gives Blade Runner its plot and today's front pages their lead stories. By 2008 the revolution will be the regime, its results entrenched. Those results will spring not from technological prowess alone but from arguments over how to apply it. And those arguments will force us to change, or at least refine, the way we look at individual life.

The first set of arguments, the ones we are having today, concern when, if ever, one individual can be rightly sacrificed to another and who qualifies as an individual. Is an anencephalic infant, born with only a brain stem, a human being whose individual humanity makes it worthy of protection? Or does that infant lack the very essence of humanity? Or, to take a third tack, is that infant indeed a human being but one whose life is destined to be so short and miserable that we do well to sacrifice it to give lifesaving organs to another child?

The questions go on and on: Is it right to grow fetuses specifically to abort them and use their organs or brain cells to cure disease-ridden adults? If the answer is yes, is it right because the fetus isn't an individual or because the benefits outweigh the costs (or, with another slant, the end justifies the means)?

These are not fundamentally political questions. People who agree strongly on political principles, on the primacy, say, of individual rights, can disagree passionately when asked to draw the line between those who qualify for rights and those who don't.

These questions do, however, strike at an issue that has been at the core of many a political debate: How inclusive are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? If forced to choose, do we err on the side of caution, by including as many categories of "persons" as seem remotely justified? Or on the side of convenience, by excluding all but the most obvious?

Biotechnology strikes at our comfortable concept of the individual in yet another way. As we gain greater control over human form and function, it will become possible to increase either uniformity or diversity—to create multiple versions of the same perfection or to express flamboyant individuality. Human cloning will soon be possible. And gene therapy, developed to cure diseases such as sickle cell anemia, could become a way to alter other "abnormalities," from eye color to intelligence. The genes need not be changed before birth; current research promises a time when adults, too, will be able to change the genetic pattern in each of their cells. By 2008, biotech will mean not custom-tailored bacteria but a whole new concept of the self-made man.

Whether people will use body-changing technology to enhance individuality or conformity is unpredictable, more a function of cultural preferences and individual tastes than of philosophy or technology. Indeed, it's quite likely that some people will engineer themselves or their children to conform to standards while others prefer to stand out—much as both Beverly Hills matrons and punk rockers buy hair dye.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
—American proverb

The nail that sticks out will be pounded down.
—Japanese proverb

Amid the miracles and wonders of biotechnology (and in the background of Blade Runner), we are witnessing a cultural shift of world-historic proportions. East and West are fusing, in the most momentous combination of powerful civilizations since Hellenism collided with the Middle East—leaving Christianity in its wake. What exactly this new fusion will produce is unpredictable, as are all cultural transformations. Like Greeks with only the haziest knowledge of Persia and Judea, we can only guess at the future. But there are a few signs already.

For starters, economic competition with Asian nations and the growing number of Asian immigrants are beginning to infuse the United States with what we might call the Confucian work ethic. The stereotypical American yuppie, Japanese company man, and Korean-American shopkeeper have this much in common—they all spend the vast majority of their time working, and their friends are most likely drawn from their circle of colleagues.

While Americans often fault ourselves for not working enough, that very criticism is evidence that the ethos of work is changing—and that more than materialism is driving the change. Good employees, especially in service businesses, are expected to work more than a 40-hour week. "Being your own boss" has returned to totemic status; rare is the entrepreneur who works nine to five. And since both men and women are expected to hold jobs outside the home, work, rather than home life, consumes the majority of almost everyone's waking hours.

Asian culture and Japan's economic success, in particular, have also magnified the myth of teamwork, already prominent in American culture. The team values of harmony and sensitivity have become increasingly praised here, helped not only by the Japanese model but also by a push from Alan Alda–style feminism. In the business world, for example, bosses can no longer dish out blunt criticism and expect an employee to "take it like a man." Rather, the burden of making things go smoothly falls on the supervisor, who must cushion the blow. Similarly, creativity is more likely to be a team effort—à la those heavy-handed Nissan commercials, where designers sit around sharing ideas about what customers want in a truck. A world of tightly knit groups provides less room for egos.

Added to this cultural influence is a third factor—a demographic shift that portends an even greater emphasis on group harmony. By 2008, a huge proportion of young adults will be made up of people who spent nearly their entire childhood—from babyhood on—in structured, group environments where individual needs and interests must, of necessity, be subordinated. Even within their own homes, life has revolved not around them, as it did for the kids of the '50s, but around their parents (who were the kids of the '50s).

At the same time, the worlds of adults and children are merging. Twenty years ago, it was unheard of for a professional to bring a child to spend the day at the office. Today, while certainly not the rule, the practice is common. Children go to dinner parties, not just to say a brief hello but to stay the evening. The separation of children and adults was a relatively recent phenomenon, made possible by the Industrial Revolution and fully realized only in this century. In effect, we are returning to the historical status quo.

When they hit college, the baby boom's babies may rebel and demand more attention, less structure, and a world of their own—giving us an intensified version of the '60s. But, more likely, they'll become the quintessential team players, able to go along to get along and perhaps even a little uncomfortable when left to their own devices. They may, in short, turn into American versions of the Japanese.

It is not good for man to be alone.

The current attempt to juggle work and home life is not stable, nor was the '50s-model nuclear family that preceded it. By 2008, we may see the creation of a new kind of social organization—the work team that functions like an extended family.

For many people, work is the most constant aspect of life, the greatest source of stability. And the line between work and the rest of life is rapidly blurring. A work team that explicitly mingles the personal and professional will resolve many of the dilemmas posed by today's uneasy balance between the two realms.

From a business standpoint, team members will be tied to each other, rather than to a company, and may move from project to project, company to company. Yet because they already know how to work together, members will be able to attack new problems effectively. This phenomenon is common in Silicon Valley, where whole teams of people quit one company to start another.

From the demand side, businesses that employ outside teams will find they can streamline their own operations to concentrate on what they do best. Why, for example, should a company whose talent lies in designing polymers have an accounting department? Ultimately, a "company" may consist of a bunch of different teams that have united temporarily. Some of these teams may stay on, forming a stable company, or the whole enterprise may break up after a few years. This fluidity will radically restructure the business world.

By integrating home and work, the work team of 2008 will restructure personal life as well. For starters, it will provide the support once drawn from families. A member with a sick child or ailing parent will be able to call on teammates for help. And since the team relationship will be long-term, everyone can expect to benefit from such mutual aid.

Home and work will be physically as well as psychologically joined: Team members will very likely live clustered together, not actually in the same dwelling but in the same complex. And much work will be done from home, with perhaps a central "office" space. Like the mingling of children and adults, this combining of home and work is the historical norm. In agricultural economies, the farm is the home, and even in commercial societies it's quite common for a business owner to live above the business—and to have the whole family involved in running it. The future may resemble nothing so much as the past.

The world was all before them, where to choose…
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
John Milton, Paradise Lose

We live in interesting times, times in which the most basic of basic assumptions are called into question. Western civilization is disappearing, or, more accurately, being folded into a new world civilization. The family is redefining itself. And now, as only rarely before in history, ordinary people have to consider the question, What is a human being?

In such extraordinary times, 20 years can change the world. The year 2008 will be more different from today than we can imagine. But if I had to guess—and I do—I'd predict a future where individual political rights exist and political debate continues, but where political issues are not primary. Where individual differences are discouraged for their own sakes but encouraged when they benefit a larger group. Where there is less emphasis on autonomy and more on interdependence, and where tightly knit groups provide an oasis in which individuality can flourish. In general, I'd predict a future where the sanctity of the individual, in and of his or herself, is taken much less seriously than it is now. This is not to say that people will be considered unimportant, only that the balance will have shifted.

I'd also predict a future in which that new balance is forever challenged by the same technological progress and cultural mixing that established it in the first place. Change is, after all, the only certainty.

Virginia I. Postrel is assistant editor of REASON.

*Copyright © 1986, Paul Simon. Used by permission.