By Steven Kotler
This article ran in May, but we’re trotting it out again because the movie just hit theaters this week
Editor’s note: In this summer’s most talked-about movie, “A Scanner Darkly,” Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover narcotics agent losing his grip on reality in an America that has lost the war on drugs. And were this film just a warning call, that would be one thing. But as Truthdig contributor Steven Kotler argues, the best science fiction can be both predictive and prescriptive. So it’s worth asking: Might this film inadvertently channel us toward the very dystopia it is warning against?
IF THE BEST science-fictional dystopias are the ones that seem all too believable, this summer’s movie version of “A Scanner Darkly” seems poised to take its place next to Orwell’s “1984,” Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca.”
Based on a 1977 novel by the late Philip K. Dick (author of works that inspired the movies “Minority Report” and “Total Recall”) and directed by Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused”), “Scanner” gives us our first look at a post-drug-war America. Twenty percent of the population is addicted to “Substance D”—D for death—a drug that’s 100% addictive and 100% debilitating.
To fight the plague, our government has turned the lemon of the drug war into the lemonade of totalitarian control. With narco-spies on every corner and informants in every cupboard, Linklater’s movie presents a land where paranoia reigns supreme. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother iron fist, “A Scanner Darkly” gives us governmental oppression that’s two-thirds mind-fuck and one-third surreal tragedy—in other words, something very akin to what we’re seeing from the Bush administration.
Not that this should be too surprising to anyone. But that, at least, may be part of the problem. There is a peculiar and longstanding trend for science fiction to play both a predictive and a prescriptive role in our world. That is, in addition to being a warning call about the police-state possibilities of an ever-escalating drug war, “Scanner” may actually be showing us the way.
Take our conception of robots, for example. When Carnegie Mellon created its Robot Hall of Fame, one of the earliest inductees was Robbie the Robot from the 1956 MGM flick “Forbidden Planet.” While the term “robot” was coined in 1921 by writer Karl Capek in his play “R.U.R” (Rossum’s Universal Robot), a derivation of the Czech word robata, meaning forced labor, it didn’t creep into popular usage until MGM threw $1.9 million behind “Forbidden Planet” (a blockbuster sum in those days), turning Robbie into the iconic face of a then-burgeoning field. But his impact—the suddenly popular notion that robots must take a humanoid form—influenced the field far more than anticipated. As Wired magazine recently pointed out, “for decades the word robot was synonymous with Robbie’s bulbous figure.” For this reason, scientists spent much of the latter half of the 20th century trying to build machines that fit this cinematic projection, before realizing the fundamental flaws in the humanoid approach (it wasn’t until Honda debuted its android ASIMO in 2000 that anyone got close). Fred Barton, who sits on the Robot Hall of Fame inductee board, sums this up nicely when he says, “It’s been 50 years, but Robbie is still the most imitated and sought-after robot of all time, despite the fact that he was originally the product of a movie studio.”
Nor is this phenomenon limited to the cinema. Back in 1982, William Gibson wrote “Burning Chrome,” a short story that ran in the now defunct futurist magazine Omni. In that story he posited the notion of “cyberspace” as a sort of mass “consensual hallucination.” This was a good 15 years before the Worldwide Web went worldwide, but a good number of technophiles have argued that Gibson’s predictive fantasy became the model upon which the Internet was built.
The online treasure trove Wikipedia explains further:
While cyberspace should not be confused with the real Internet, the term is often used simply to refer to objects and identities that exist largely within the computing network itself, so that a web site, for example, might be metaphorically said to “exist in cyberspace.” According to this interpretation, events taking place on the Internet are not therefore happening in the countries where the participants or the servers are physically located, but “in cyberspace”. This becomes a reasonable viewpoint once distributed services (e.g. Freenet or bittorrent) become widespread, and the physical identity and location of the participants become impossible to determine due to anonymous or pseudonymous communication. The laws of any particular nation state would therefore not apply.
And in a peculiar combination of mediums, Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” became a very different story in Ridley Scott’s movie “Blade Runner,” but both predicted a bleak environmental future where animals are so rare that robots have replaced pets and a vast underground black market churns on the sale of exotic species. Well, here we are in 2006, and Sony’s AIBO has become the best-selling robot in history and the current Interpol estimate of the exotic pet trade runs to $10 billion a year—an illegal trade figure surpassed only by that of drug dealing.
Which brings us back to “Scanner.” Dick’s dark prophecy stems not only from his own experiences as an addict but also from his living through the early years of our drug war. In 1972 President Nixon appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to investigate the country’s burgeoning desire for altered states. The commission suggested that the answer to our woes lay in decriminalization of marijuana and a policy of control based on medical risk. Unfortunately, since Nixon had been elected on a talk-tough, act-rough platform, this was not quite the solution he had in mind. Instead, he militarized the problem, declaring war on drugs and breaking all kinds of laws in an effort to win that fight.
It seems little has changed. Last week, after what the New York Times reported as “intense pressure from the U.S.,” Mexican President Vicente Fox decided to “reconsider” his desire to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Never mind that experts on both side of the border felt that such a law would make great strides toward dealing with Mexico’s horrible corruption problem (primarily a graft system built upon its drug war) and addiction problem (Mexico treats addiction as a legal matter, rather than a medical matter). The United States, locked blindly into its zero-tolerance policy against drug possession, and determined to eschew any semblance of creativity or fresh thinking in the fight against drugs, prevailed upon Mexico to abandon its experiment. As always, American puritanical militarization prevails over common sense.
In the nearly 30 years between Dick’s book and Linklater’s film (the 30 years where sci-fi’s prescriptive tendency would have gone to work), America has amassed a track record of human rights violations to rival most dictatorships in its prosecution of the drug war. Countless people have died or have been incarcerated, and the problem still festers. Today, drugs are cheaper, purer and more readily available than ever before. According to Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, “The U.S. is currently experiencing record levels of overdose deaths, record mentions of drugs in emergency rooms and a 50 percent increase in adolescent drug abuse since 1990,” and all this while the police are reporting record numbers of drug arrests and the largest prison population in world history. Not to mention that we continue to spend about $30 billion a year on a war that the vast majority of experts feel cannot be won.
As far as the other elements of Dick’s dystopia, well, businesses, schools and government jobs increasingly demand drug tests. Police departments across the country are still using illegal wiretaps and surveillance methods, while undercover stings based on bribery of informants, entrapment and false arrest have become par for the course. The Supreme Court lately held that those illegal searches and invalid warrants do not render the evidence inadmissible so long as the police act in “good faith.” And a good thing too, since last week USA Today reported that the National Security Agency “has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.” As for property rights, it was U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) who recently summed things up nicely: “Federal and state officials now have the power to seize your business, home, bank account, records and personal property all without indictment, hearing or trial.”
While we have not yet reached the “Scanner” point where our troops are invading foreign countries under the “auspices” of substance control, we are damn close. Back in 1996, then-“drug czar” Barry McCaffrey, a retired general, said of the drug war, “It makes us all very uncomfortable to see uniformed military units getting heavily involved.” These days they’re certainly involved. Eighty-nine percent of police departments now have paramilitary units. The National Guard currently has more counter-narcotics officers than the DEA has agents on duty. And, according to the defense contractor trade publication National Defense, DynCorp, a $1.4-billion, 20,000-employee government contractor, “supports drug war operations at both the front and back ends—from airborne crop-dusting in Colombia to asset forfeiture experts who work at 385 Justice Department sites in the United States.” And there are the recent words of then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft: “I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, re-launch it if you will.”
So was Dick just reading the tea leaves or was he, instead, showing us the path of least resistance? Does Linklater’s movie serve as a warning or a way? And will the release of the film pave the way for even more acceptance of abuses of our civil liberties at the hands of authorities? These are perhaps the hard metaphysical questions that surround illicit substances, but before they’re dismissed out of hand, remember that last January the Supreme Court ruled that if you’re pulled over for speeding or not wearing a seat belt or any other negligible driving offense, the cops can bring out drug dogs to further investigate without violating the Fourth Amendment. As writer Thomas Pynchon, himself a sci-fi dabbler, once pointed out, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
Steven Kotler is a freelance writer whose 2000 novel “The Angle Quickest for Flight” was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. His work has appeared in 31 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, Discover, Details and Men’s Journal. His second book, a nonfiction work, “West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief,” goes on sale in June.
Courtesy Warner Independent Pictures
In the upcoming science fiction movie “A Scanner Darkly” Keanu Reeves plays an undercover drug agent who loses his grip on reality as he navigates the underworld of an America that has lost the war on drugs.