My eldest son and I watched Blade Runner the other day (the 1982 International Theatrical release, which included the somewhat-controversial voiceover), and he commented about how unremarkable a lot of the technology in Blade Runner actually is. This got me thinking about the nature of the technology used in the fictional year 2019, and I tried to figure out, in my own mind, why it would be so ordinary.
The Absence of Technology
It appears that, except for synthetic animals, some voice-controlled computers and anti-gravity, most people don’t appear to have an enormous amount of technology around them. Granted, the writers didn’t anticipate the rise of mobile computing, but whose to say that we won’t go back to payphone-like devices and stop carrying small computers in our pockets? If you look at Blade Runner, and then look around the average home, frankly, technology is actually pretty invisible.
It is easy to forget just how much technology we are surrounded by today. A modern car is one of the most technologically advanced pieces of equipment you or I will ever own. We have computers embedded in refrigerators, stoves and even toasters. There are coffee makers with bar code readers which are used to provide brewing instructions for the drink mix in the container. Any technology, even in the world of Blade Runner, is likely to be fairly inconspicuous unless you actively look for it.
But what about comparing Blade Runner to universes like that found in Star Trek? Aren’t they both science fiction universes? I don’t believe we can’t use Star Trek as a guide partly because the context isn’t the same. Star Trek spends a lot of time on starships. Of course you’re surrounded by technology. You’re inside a critical piece of technology, the ship itself. But when the crew beams down to the surface, typically the only overt technology is whatever they transported down with them. Homes, offices, shopping plazas may have different decor, but they aren’t showcases of amazing technology. There are other reasons why a Star Trek comparison may not be valid that I will discuss later in this piece.
Is Earth A Technological 3rd-World?
But even knowing that a lot of technology works for us behind the scenes, and that “everyday technology” isn’t an essential element of Blade Runner, there is another perspective to consider: that Earth is a technological 3rd-world. The most advanced piece of technology is a Nexus 6 Replicant, and they aren’t allowed down on Earth. There are Replicants that are allowed, specifically animals. A live animal is apparently obscenely expensive in this time period, but even artificial animals are beyond the reach of ordinary people.
There is other technology, but like our modern-day world, tends to appear a bit passé. Consider the Spinner, the flying cars used in the movie. They appear to be used primarily by government agencies (like the police) and high net worth individuals. Even Deckard, who is presumably compensated with above-average pay in his job, can’t afford a flying car. The cars themselves, other than the flying bit, are otherwise pretty much just “cars”. They get you from A to B. Like cars today. A Toyota Camry may be a technological marvel when compared to a counterpart from the 1960’s, but it’s still just a car.
Beyond that, technology does seem a bit “backward”, at least for a future setting, and that brings up the 3rd-world comment: the best technology may be used in the off-world colonies. People are abandoning Earth. The planet appears to be, to some degree, “used up”. Those that stay either can’t leave because of physical or economic limitations, or are among the few who do want to stick around. When you consider what we see in the movie, it appears that only a wealthy few live truly comfortably, and only a few middle-class live reasonably well.
How can you draw this conclusion? Consider the only 2 middle-class characters we see: Rick Deckard and J. F. Sebastian. Deckard, being a former cop, can probably get some strings pulled to get a nicer place than he might normally afford. Sebastian, though, is a top genetic designer, and apparently works closely with Eldon Tyrell. Not many CEO’s of massively large companies have a dedicated chess board to play against a single employee, and with some continuity and regularity, based on the comments made. But here we have a top scientist, presumably paid top dollar, who lives alone in a run-down and abandoned building. Does he own the building? It isn’t clear from the movie. Is Sebastian more interested in spending his money on materials for his “toys” that other creature comforts? Perhaps. It wouldn’t be out of character. But it could also be that the “good” places that are left are rather expensive, it is easier for him, and his hobbies, to live in what amounts to something of a dump.
Blade Runner Isn’t About The Technology
Technology isn’t front and centre in Blade Runner, except for the Replicants, mainly because Blade Runner isn’t a technologically-based movie. The movie explores moral issues around creators and the created. It is about the rights and responsibilities of the creator toward a new, sentient lifeform that they have created. It is about the rights of that lifeform in the universe. Star Trek may explore this briefly, from time to time (such as the episode The Measure of a Man in the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation). But the show doesn’t usually dig all that deeply into moral situations, mainly just enough to get the message across, but not necessarily to explore it in any real depth. In the end, a lot of what Star Trek is about is the technology, typically as a plot device to advance the story. Blade Runner is about the consequences of essentially playing God.
If anything, a better comparison might be the re-imagined universe of Battlestar Galactica. The re-imagined series, and the prequel series Caprica, explore a similar issue. It explores questions about the roles of the creator and the created. At what point does an invented machine become it’s own lifeform, and entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as the creator? Does a new lifeform have the right to rebel against its creator, even violently, if it the newly created feels the creator isn’t doing the right things?
In this sort of setting, the technology becomes a secondary element. It can be more difficult for day-to-day technology to suddenly become a deus ex machina to get the protagonist out of a jam (or to contrive the situation in the first place). We see this sort of thing in Star Trek time and again: the replicator solving a problem, the transporter, phasers, the warp drive. It isn’t all the time, for sure. Characters and their abilities certainly solve their fair share of puzzles and problems. But, from time to time, you can see the writers got stuck, and use the technology to fix the problem so the story can keep going. Star Wars can also fall back on this, with the solution inevitably being some new tool or feature built into R2-D2 that we have never seen before, and may never see again.
Just as a contrast, though, we can consider I, Robot. Here, too, is a story exploring the relationship between the creator and the created. In this movie, though, amazing technology is front and centre throughout the story. The difference is the main character is rebelling against this new technology when and where he can. This movie showcases advanced technologies, but still manages to not let it get in the way of the bigger story. Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica have gone a different route to try to explore the same issues.
The Technology We See Is Actually Amazing
The technology involved in creating artificial animals, and more importantly, artificial people, is actually quite amazing when you think about it. We’re a very long way away from that now. Even the Spinners are pretty impressive. It isn’t that Blade Runner is devoid of technology. What’s striking is that it is treated in such an ordinary way.
But technology itself isn’t the focus. In the end, it’s a story that explores moral issues in the context of human invention. You don’t need a ton of flashy technology to tell that story.