Philip K. Dick's Visions: The Surveillance State's Complicated Prophet

By Layne, Ken | Reason, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Philip K. Dick's Visions: The Surveillance State's Complicated Prophet


Layne, Ken, Reason


BURNED OUT from 20 years of speed and an increasingly fragile soul, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is still bleary from getting his wisdom teeth removed when he answers his door to find a smiling delivery girl sent by the pharmacy. Her fish pendant--hippie Christians adopted the mystic symbol in the early 1970s--catches his eye, and a stream of pink light enters his mind.

Dick could never decide if the beam lasted only for a few seconds or was just the beginning of a series of connected visions and foggy revelations that went on for most of February and March of 1974, but he spent the rest of his life trying to interpret this religious experience. He had a persistent hunch that our world--his sunny and prosperous California--was a kind of Reality Overlay under which was a Black Iron Prison. That's where we really lived, under constant surveillance, dulled by a virtual reality of free will.

The pink ray of light, with its throbbing, Google Image slideshow-style visions of modern paintings and ancient knowledge, predicted our modern world of fiber-optic cables pulsing with the light of our collective thoughts, images, desires, and transactions. When the National Security Agency (NSA) asked telecommunications companies for a tap into this collective consciousness in 2003, the intelligence shop was given its own room, 641A, at the vast SBC/ AT&T data-switching center in San Francisco, where "beam splitters" rout the flow of information.

Precognition is a common ability in Dick's worlds, where chronological time seems more a necessary structure to keep his middle- and working-class heroes semi-sane than a hard reality. Information flows in unpredictable directions, and all parties and interests seek control of it. Business executives, real estate speculators, police, journalists, spies, god-children, clergymen, con artists, drug dealers, advertising agencies, androids, generals, and presidents struggle to understand and predict the consequences of the data they collect.

The race is to get the stuff first. Like the institutional investor hooked to a Bloomberg terminal for 10 hours a day or the psychic homunculi bobbling in the fluid of the police pre-crime station in "The Minority Report" (1956), the NSA/FBI/Silicon Valley surveillance of the data trails we create day and night reflects the usual desire of management to control the situation. To fans of Dick's paranoid Nixon/Hoover-era fiction and the modern myths it helped inspire--everything from fiche X-Files to The Matrix--the most recent NSA scandals confirm what has long been a given: constant surveillance by sinister government forces.

There's no way to legislate out of this, because security isn't a government monopoly. The fact that the most advanced eavesdropping operation in history finds it more effective just to demand a backchannel into private-sector Internet traffic is one sign that "signal intelligence" has grown far beyond any agency's ability to control. Now any company can be an intelligence operation. Any individual can be an intelligence operation, as Julian Assange has shown. If the NSA doesn't siphon and store the information, another entity will. The most important part of the Edward Snowden story is that Silicon Valley and Washington intelligence people move back and forth professionally and consider themselves to be in the same industry. …

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