Philip K. Dick’s stories are meditations for the Twitter era. His writings were never as popular in his lifetime as film adaptations have been since then. If you’re familiar with films and TV series like Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Man in the High Castle, or A Scanner Darkly, but you’ve never even heard of Ubik, probably his most famous novel, then you’re in the majority. Even in my own English department, where a colleague teaches Ubik regularly, most of the students have never heard of him even though they’re all familiar with the many films.
Partly Philip K. Dick’s posthumous success can be attributed to his weirdness, which can be flattened out and made more accessible by adapters. A more important reason, though is that Dick was a man before his time. In the 1960s and ’70s, when other writers were dealing with life in the Space Age, Philip K. Dick was far more interested in questions of memory and identity. Now, over three decades after his death, the issues he raised have become more pressing than ever before.
We live in an era in which people are desperately trying to construct their own identities, yet they struggle with the problems of memory: How can I be someone different when my memories press in on me? I have any number of students who want to identify other than their biological gender, but they run into serious problems of memory. Not only do they remember being their biological gender, but those around them also have those memories, so our culture attempts to compel speech of those around them to comport with their new gender identity.
In academic culture, for example, currently many of my colleagues will include in their email signatures their “preferred pronouns.” While some no doubt do so in a cynical fashion to signal their political and culture allegiances, the constant iteration of the pronouns is a tacit battle against memory. Someone who legitimately wants to support a person’s new identity still often forgets that they are now compelled to use a new pronoun, so these signatures can act as a reminder or a reference work. So, for example, a couple of years ago a colleague asked me of another, “Does she identify as he now? Or something else?” Uncertain, I looked through my emails to find the most recent signature — in other words, to learn what I was supposed to remember.
Or, let’s take Elizabeth Warren’s life-long claim to be Native American, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that it was a legitimate belief that she held because of family lore. We all have family lore, inherited memories, and we construct our identities around them. When someone asks me where I was born, or what my mother’s maiden name was, or where my father was raised, I answer these questions with total confidence, even though all my memories of those things are second-hand. I construct my own identity around inherited memories of those kinds, but if it turned out that, like Leslie Knope, my parents had lied to me about where I was born, would that false inherited memory change my identity?
On the other hand, let’s assume that Warren always knew that her family lore was nonsense, or even that she cynically invented it — could Warren then, by enforcing the speech of others (like with email signature pronouns) and living a lifetime building new memories within that identity, re-construct herself? Before we scoff at the idea, I should point out that most of my siblings are adopted, but when people ask me who is adopted and who is not, after so many decades I often get confused, enough with the siblings who are not the same race as our parents. I often literally cannot remember without thinking about it.
In recent years, social media memory eruptions have become common. When someone becomes a public figure and others want to discredit them, we comb through old tweets, posts, videos, or photographs hoping to find something offensive. And although a lot of public debate has been about the ages of the people, and whether a teenager is as morally culpable as an adult, Philip K. Dick’s relevance comes when we instead ask about memory.
Often when people are confronted with some past offense against orthodoxy, they immediately deny it. Perhaps they are all liars, but if so, they are very poor ones, since presumably the accuser has some evidence in the form of an old tweet, video clip, etc. I think more likely they deny it because they legitimately don’t remember the thing in question, and honestly believe that they couldn’t have said or done the thing. They assume that no evidence exists because they think the charge itself is bogus. Are they truly the same people that they were if they not only don’t remember it, but disbelieve it of themselves?
Cancel culture itself is part of our memory enforcement regime. If you are “cancelled,” that means that you are to be shunned, to be removed from the public square except perhaps to be re-pilloried later. If you are an entertainer, people are not allowed to review your work positively. If you are an academic, your colleagues are not supposed to cite your work regardless of its validity. If you are a friend, you are friend no more. Cancel culture is a compelled memory hole.
Philip K. Dick offers meditations on all these things, though without cheap or facile answers. Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) asks about implanted memories — if I remember a lifetime that happened to someone else, is that not as if it happened to me? It challenges us to ask, “What if the things I remember were other’s memories? Who would I be?” So often transgender questions deal not only with the sense of the body as a construct (literally so in Dick’s story), but also the problem of feeling like my memories are really mine even when all the evidence shows that they could not possibly have been mine.
Minority Report is also about memories, but this time about how we are constructed by the memories of others. If I will commit a crime in the future, I of course do not remember that now, but if others had the power to see into the future, are their memories of what is to come not also valid? Often #MeToo allegations are reduced to a “he said / she said,” but that formulation assumes that both parties remember it the same way, and one is simply lying. A better way to frame it is “he remembers / she remembers,” because each of us has been in a situation that we remember radically differently from someone else who was there. While that more subtle framing might not be as satisfying as “you’re a liar,” it allows us to consider the issues with more nuance.
The Man in the High Castle isn’t important because the story offers an alternate reality, but rather because it offers alternate memories, a huge Mandela Effect. What if we literally remember our history differently? For example I never experienced 9/11 (I was on camping in the wilderness, and didn’t even hear rumor of it until 9/13), so I understand the social changes that followed very differently than most other people. Or, to use an example that is not particular to me, if we pretend Bill Cosby never existed, that does not change the fact that a generation of men took the character of Cliff Huxtable to be their idealized model of fatherhood.
If you were hoping that this article would suggest that Philip K. Dick was in agreement with you about your favorite hot-button topic, or that he was in disagreement and should be cancelled, neither is true. The weirdness of his tales defies such simplistic categorization, and that’s all for the better. Dick’s stories act as meditations for us about the nature of identity and the problems of memory. He’s not a weapon for us to use against out ideological adversaries. Properly understood, Philip K. Dick’s writing should create empathy in us for those who remember life differently than we do.