Living in This Material World

We are living in a Philip K. Dick world.

I don’t mean this in the usual way. Folks do tend to toss around comparisons between our world and those conceived by the noted science fiction author a little too easily, especially as it pertains to issues of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the like. But while Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does ask the question of where to draw the line between real people and androids, a much more insightful case of “what is real?” pertains to the robotic animals that people buy. You see, it is, after all, the future, and mankind’s activity has resulted in the death of many species; as the characters of the book inhabit a typical capitalist society, animals become a commodity and a mark of status, and where real animals are unavailable, people invest a lot of money in simulacra, in these fake, mechanical creatures that try to look as real as possible. Your neighbors don’t envy your car—they envy the sophisticated sheep you keep on the roof, almost looks real, doesn’t it?

As Sean Carroll notes at the end of his book The Making of the Fittest, human activity on this planet—first with the birth of agriculture and second with the birth of capitalism—has had a profound effect upon other species, instituting a selection pressure upon numerous species that has resulted in the loss of fish stocks all across the world, to name but one instance. Where once there existed abundance, now there is but scarcity. Cape Cod isn’t just a name—it was a description of the abundance of cod that could be caught there. But Europeans soon exploited those stocks beyond their capacity for regeneration, so much so that no fisherman could earn his keep trawling those waters today. Repeat this story across the world, and you have Planet Earth under the dominion of Homo sapiens.

As more and more people produce greater and greater need for the basics and luxuries of life, we move into the era of simulacra. Numerous news outlets have reported that your dinner at the nearest sushi restaurant is not what you think—fish are regularly mislabeled, with cheap fish being sold as something more expensive. Fraud in the olive oil industry is so rampant that most people, even connoisseurs, these days would likely reject the real stuff in favor of the bottle cut with cheap safflower oil, as that is what we have come to know. Factory-raised chicken consists of rather stringy meat culled from swift-growing, flavorless breeds that has been injected with a flavor solution so as to approximate that chicken taste we do so love. Europe was recently rocked by revelations that horse was regularly being sold as beef and that there was likely a shitload of pork in everything—so much for those kosher or halal meals.

We live in a time of fakery because we live in the era of capitalism, which will always aim for cutting corners. But cutting corners is not the only issue here. We live in a time of fakery because there are simply too damn many of us to enjoy “the real thing.” We’ve already fished so many species to near extinction. To have pasture-raised beef for the whole planet would decimate what stands of forest still exist. (Not to mention that we’re already reaching a crisis point in many corners of the world about whether to have space to live or space to grow food, and those town and country conflicts are only becoming more dire.) As all these pressures come to a head, the impulse for fakery and fraud will only grow, the illusions become more elaborate, because, after all, even if we know that we are eating fake food, we don’t want it made obvious to us, because we still believe that we have our dignity, and besides, we still want to be one up on the neighbor. we still want to be able to convince ourselves that we are having a taste of the real world.

Yes, it gets me down sometimes, and the only solace I can find is the fact that I don’t have children myself, so at least my contribution to the cycle ends here. But that’s not enough. I don’t have the answer, but I know that this isn’t enough. If, like many Philip K. Dick characters, we can demand access to reality, then we have to demand it in all forms, and we have to make possible a world in which all have their chance to experience and enjoy reality.

In other words—justice.

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