Friday, October 21, 2022

Technical metaphors -- A Scanner Darkly

Sometimes, the locus of meaning in science fiction isn't in the "world-building", the broad setting and social and idealogical conditions, but in the specific technologies applied, which can appear almost incidental. 

Consider Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly. It's about addiction, of course, and also dissociation and paranoia, but in the glimmer of the scanner we also trace the scramble suit. The scramble suit reads at first like an interesting gadget, a narrative convenience. It encloses the wearer, flashing a blurred sequence of faces and features at high frequency, scrambling the identity of the wearer, making them anonymous, unidentifiable. Convenient, because the identity of the undercover officer is perfectly concealed, even from other police.

But I'm reminded of something I thought of reading this essay, "Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans", because in the scramble suit you're a fake person because you're concealed, digitized, anonymized, like any number of pseudo-persons who might be online right now generating posts and tweets and instas and reels, pushing copy-and-paste opinions and misinformation that may or may not come from a "real" person or support a real, human agenda. And so, as the cop in the scramble suit can look at the junkie in the scanner and start to forget that they're the same person because they're pretending to be different people all the time, we're not wholly authentic individuals any more; not caught between the real and the fake but increasingly uncertain and paralyzed by not being able to tell the difference.

A Scanner Darkly is much concerned with this dissociation and its corollary, paranoia, and the incoherent patterns of thought that accompany it, but it doesn't spend any time considering the reasons for addiction, only the technical consequences. Substance D, the fictional drug with an unknown source, breaks down the connection between the hemispheres of the brain, bifurcating the individual mind, and so throughout the book we have these mirror-pairs trapped in the darkened scanner: cops and dealers, straights and junkies.

If there's a hint for the reason for Substance D, it lies in the gap between our technological, mediated, scrambled selves and a longing for connection and authenticity we can no longer achieve.

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