Science Fiction

Philip K. Dick's Visions

The surveillance state's complicated prophet

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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.