In MONTAG's Today’s Dystopia series, our writers explore the dystopian worlds of classic fiction, and see if our world has slipped closer to the fictional one since it was published. Is our cool new technology bringing us closer to a future we’re afraid of - or is it already here?
Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly was set in the then-distant future of 1994, and its resemblance to today's world is not coincidental: Dick based many of the events in the novel on his experiences living with drug addicts in the 70s, and he dedicates the end of the book to those people he based the characters on who died or suffered permanent consequences:
"This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyhow. "
With the help of his then-wife Tessa, and Judy-Lynn del Rey, head of Ballantine Books' science fiction division at the time, Philip K. Dick set their stories in a familiar dystopia: the constant-surveillance police state. The book, and Richard Linklater's rotoscoped film adaptation in 2006 (featuring permanent dystopian protagonist Keanu Reeves), follow an undercover cop and addict named Bob Arctor, who is tasked with surveilling his own household, including himself.
This vision of dystopia, with large portions of the population addicted to drugs churned out by a government which profits off of them and while persecuting them, draws on several themes that are present in all of Dick's fiction: mistrust and paranoia towards authority, loss of bodily autonomy and privacy, and identity crisis.
But how close have we really come to this version of Orange County in 1994? More than twenty years later, here's how the drugs, tech, and politics stack up on a scale from 1-5 little blue flowers.
Substance D: 4 out of 5 little blue flowers.
"There's no weekend warriors on the D, you're either on it or you haven't tried it."
"Mors Ontologica" is the scientific name of the little blue flower which is the source of Substance D. This fake Latin name translates to something like "metaphysical death," and the drug is also called "Slow Death," "Death," or simply "D."
While Dick clearly has empathy for his drug-addled protagonists, he does not glamorizing drug abuse or addiction in any way: we only see the negative effects of Substance D; the petty arguments, irritability, violence, paranoia and psychosis of addiction.
The opening of the film and the book is a memorable scene where Charles Freck, one of the addicts who lives in Bob Arctor's house, is convinced he is covered in bugs (specifically, aphids). He spends the first five minutes of the film scratching at himself, showering, bathing in bug spray, showering his dog, shaking and squirming.
Another addict named James Barris, who lives with Bob, tells him in a diner after this incident: "There's no weekend warriors on the D, you're either on it or you haven't tried it." According to another scene, 20% of the population at this point are classified as addicts.
According to statistics for 2015 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% of all people over age 12 in the US used illicit drugs in the prior month, and this number has been increasing over the last decade, since 2002. While this may not represent the true population of addicts, the US is also currently suffering from an opioid crisis, in which an estimated 2 million people are currently addicted to prescription pain relievers and/or heroin.
While statistics for 2016 and 2017 are not complete, the trend of increasing substance abuse and dependency leading to death shows no signs of slowing down.
And although the government isn't directly funding the production of opiates, allegations of drug trafficking by the US government, including the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, put the Substance D phenomenon firmly on the side of plausibility.
Scramble suits: 4.8 out of 5 little blue flowers
In the police state of the book and film, undercover narcotics agents are anonymized by "scramble suits" which protect their identities from other agents. This is how Bob is able to investigate his own household, and hide his identity as an addict from his employers (for some time).
The book explains that the technology in the suit was invented by someone named S. A. Powers at Bell Laboratories, after a psychedelic experience that sounds rather similar to Dick's own in 1974 which inspired his Exegesis writings and the book VALIS, among others:
"Basically, his design consisted of a multifaced quartz lens hooked to a miniaturized computer whose memory banks held up to a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people: men and women, children, with every variant encoded and then projected outward in all directions equally onto a super-thin shroud-like membrane large enough to fit around an average human. As the computer looped through its banks, it projected every conceivable eye color, hair color, shape and type of nose, formation of teeth, configuration of facial bone structure--the entire shroudlike membrane took on whatever physical characteristics were projected at any nanosecond, and then switched to the next."(A Scanner Darkly, p. 12-13)
Without involving crystals or micro-computers, it's safe to say that facial recognition technology has already come a long way, and facial mapping is as common as Snapchat, so it should now be very possible to upload a bunch of human face data and randomize it to create a mask that would be undetectable, at least to a computer, as a single person.
Artist and technologist Kyle McDonald has already demonstrated something similar:
With the popularity of apps like Face Swap and augmented reality technology being developed by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and literally hundreds of startups, there's an almost-zero chance that people won't be wearing others' faces for fun in real time, if not for anti-surveillance reasons.
And as for the rest of the suit, fashion designers like Adam Harvey have already been working on anti-surveillance clothing including HyperFace, a fabric designed to elude facial recognition algorithms by dint of too much data, Stealth Wear, which protects the wearer from body heat-seeking drone cameras, and CV Dazzle, arguably the most futuristic-looking hair, makeup, and clothing styles, which obscure the face from computer vision.
With these technologies already in place and only requiring their combination with some kind of membrane material discounted as an industrial byproduct, the scramble suit is practically extant.
Police state and 24/7 surveillance: 3.5 out of 5 little blue flowers
In his normal life, Bob Arctor is your average guy who is part of the population of Substance D addicts, and he is monitored like everyone else: phones tapped, location triangulated, and at risk for exposure and arrest at any time. The film shows a scene while he is on the phone with his dealer and girlfriend, Donna, in which someone is tracking both of their movements on a map via their cell phones, and can also zoom into any live image a la Google Maps and identify them using a seemingly comprehensive database of citizens.
The government also regularly lets themselves into people's homes to install camera systems that monitor their behavior and employs agents to review these tapes, reporting and correlating suspicious activity related to drug use and trafficking. The government-funded rehabilitation facilities called New Path are the only place where people are not constantly scanned and monitored (which is a perfect place for the growers of the little blue flower to hide it).
While the ubiquity of technology like Google Maps and CCTV make this technically possible, the manpower required to run this kind of surveillance-state call center is unrealistic, it would all be done by computers correlating location and social media data.
And the government doesn't have to bother collecting the information themselves. The old-fashioned paranoia of bugged telephones or living rooms has now been supplanted by covering your webcam with a piece of tape.
We are all always already tracking ourselves voluntarily: geotagging Instagram and Facebook posts; Google Maps marking, Foursquare, and Yelping our favorite locations; connecting to the same circles of people as on our social networking platforms through 3 or more different messaging apps. If someone wanted to know your location 24 hours per day, it would be fairly easy to guess from all of this data, but the worst thing they will do with it now is try to sell you things.
Total score: 4.1 out of 5 little blue flowers
"Even though its technically a science fiction movie - we're living in science fiction right now,"
In an interview with Alex Jones, who features in the film briefly as an agitator with a bullhorn who is bundled into a black government van – more commentary on Jones' evolution from exactly this, to conspiracy-peddling media mogul (turned performance artist?) can be found here – Richard Linklater said of the story: "Even though it's technically a science fiction movie - we're living in science fiction right now."
And Today's Dystopia's score agrees: with a 4.1 out of 5 score, we can see clearly that A Scanner Darkly comes very close to being yesterday's tomorrow's dystopia today.