Over the weekend, my boyfriend and I had intended to watch “Blade Runner 2049,” but after plans fell through, I decided it would be best to revisit the original, as well as briefly skim Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968). For those of you who aren’t Blade Runner fans like I am, that’s the book the franchise was based on. Marveling at the fantastic neo-noir costuming aside, I started to think about cinematic depictions of “the future,” or in Blade Runner’s case, of what is essentially the present.
When immersed in Hollywood imaginations of the future, it’s easy to whine about the lull of our “progress,” but perhaps a better interpretation is that the future is now — it just looks a little different. One could easily argue that though the sort of artificial intelligence (AI) we now use — Alexa for example — are hardly as humanoid as a replicant, we have the ability to use artificial intelligence to conduct daily tasks.
But yet, this isn’t because hyper-realistic AI hasn’t been designed. Humanistic robots have been engineered, including those that resemble Scarlett Johansson and Albert Einstein, and the market for heat-sensitive “real dolls” is booming. Instead, it seems as if for the time being, most consumers don’t really care if AIs “look” like us, and when we do, it’s for umm … activities that typically require what at least appears to be a human body.
As a result, when thinking about “now” versus the “future” as predicted by science fiction greats, practicality and profitability come into play far more than mere possibility. While we theoretically could have flying cars fairly soon — the technology has been made and is currently being tested by Tesla and Terrefugia — we likely won’t. Their development isn’t entirely desirable, much less practical, so long as there are no mechanisms, laws or infrastructure in place to facilitate this technology.
Where our technological advances have been made, however, is far more in style than in substance. Few of today’s cars can self-drive, but they are also sleeker, safer and more aerodynamic than any sci-fi pic could have predicted. Our screens are larger and have a clearer image, our computers and cameras smaller and built in.
In Blade Runner, Deckard used a phone and computer with keys. So whether it speaks to laziness, or just to humankind’s tendency to prefer homeostasis, our technology has been far more for comfort than for revolution, our changes more to accommodate the menial rather than to develop the extraordinary.
Importantly, and perhaps most accurately, the future that Blade Runner and Dick’s novel portray is one that is deeply fragmented, particularly on socioeconomic lines. Whereas the wealthiest are able to move “off world” and use replicants for any imaginable task, the vast majority still exists on Earth, shuffling through smog and heavy rain with antiquated paper umbrellas as police cars fly overhead.
With a booming demand for police drone technology, a growing divide between the rich and poor and pockets of “futuristic” urban growth amidst miles of rural poverty, that depiction may be a little bit easier to imagine.