The following guest post by Mike Wood and Dustin Stoltz is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.
“The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity.” (Berger and Luckmann 1967:89)
Philip K. Dick’s story “The Autofac”—published in 1955 and recently adapted as an episode in Amazon’s series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams—takes place on Earth after an apocalyptic war. All institutions are destroyed save the Autofac, an automated mega-factory that controls every aspect of production—collecting resources, manufacturing, and shipping—for every product humans need. Created before the war, the Autofac continues production, and is completely beyond human control.
In the 1955 version the Autofac’s provisions afford a certain quality of life for communities it serves. Some humans live outside these communities, and are disdained by the focal characters as “ruins-squatters,” “tattered scarecrows, gaunt and emaciated living among the ruins.” In the 2018 adaptation, however, the Autofac produces unceasing shipments of useless objects which remain unopened; as a result, there are no tidy communities, and the focal characters are emaciated and living among ruins. In both versions, the Autofac’s operations and physical structure are so extensive that it inhibits any human production or freedom of movement; blocking paths, stripping resources, and polluting the land.
The main plot consists of a group of humans trying to shut down the Autofac. They decide that the first hurdle is a lack of communication. Although the Autofac observes and hears “customer” complaints about specific products, there is no way to speak with the Autofac about the production as a whole. The humans enact a clever solution: they reject a product, and when the Autofac asks what is wrong, they respond “the product is thoroughly pizzled.” Confused by this nonsensical response, the Autofac sends out a customer service android to speak with the humans.
Rather than recapitulate the entire plot and deny readers the enjoyment of the unfolding narrative, we want to draw attention to the ways the story can be a pedagogical tool to facilitate discussion of social structures (understood in the more commonsensical Pre-Giddens, Stinchcombe/Merton sense). The story is easily incorporated into a semester/quarter as the 1955 story is roughly the size of a short article at 9000 words, and the 2018 episode is about one hour. We’ve also done some of the heavy lifting by coming up with what we think are three promising discussion topics.
1. The Autofac is a massive, far-reaching system that deeply impacts human life, and despite being created by humans, is beyond human control. What real-world social structures are similar to the Autofac in these ways? How are they similar? How are they different?
There are specific entities that do resemble the Autofac—perhaps, ironically, Amazon most of all—but it can easily be abstracted to more general social structures, such as the state, capitalism, gender norms, religious institutions, education systems, automation, and algorithms—you name it! The story, like many good science fiction stories, offers an extreme example of a pervasive social phenomena: asymmetrical power. While, social structures are not outside the control of everyone, they are usually beyond the influence of most people.
2. In both the 1955 and 2018 story, the humans try to create change by opening a dialogue with the Autofac, which they accomplish by giving a nonsensical response to a routine question. As a result, the Autofac sends out a representative. Thinking of the various social structures the Autofac may represent, how do people today try to create change? Is the emphasis on communication naive?
Both stories open up a discussion about mobilization and strategies for social change, and comparing the two stories adds additional insight: in the 2018 adaptation, the conversation with the Autofac’s representative is crucially important to destroying the Autofac. In the 1955 original, however, it accomplishes nothing, and change only happens by manipulating two Autofacs so they destroy each other in a war over limited resources. The comparison raises questions about how people bring about effective social change.
3. In the 1955 story the humans wonder whether shutting down the Autofac is a good idea. In the 2018 adaptation they believe they can only survive by bringing it down. Why do you think their perceptions differed? What parallels might this have to today?
Comparing the two stories on this point facilitates discussion of the relation between perceptions of a social structure and one’s relation to that structure. The term pizzled—which, because of this story, has come to mean faulty, in some unspecified way—points to the ambiguity surrounding human dissatisfaction with the Autofac, and we might add, comparable social structures. What exactly is the problem with the Autofac? That is, do social structures become oppressive when they leave demands unmet, or when they are outside of actors’ control? Or, both?
In the 1955 story, the village is cared for by the Autofac, yet they resent the Autofac because it doesn’t allow them to do anything themselves. In a way their resentment echoes Hayek’s argument in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” that, because knowledge is decentralized and often tacit, especially knowledge of what individuals want, central planning in the form of the Autofac could never truly meet demand. What the villagers want is, perhaps, unspecifiable and thus necessitating self-determination to be satisfied.
Interestingly, in the 1955 story, when the Autofac shifts to wartime production and shipments cease, the village begins to deteriorate and the residents begin to wonder if they have done the right thing. The resemblance to James C. Scott is strong: “The state… is the vexed institution that is the ground of both our freedoms and our unfreedoms. My case is that certain kinds of states, driven by utopian plans and an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects, are indeed a mortal threat to human well-being” (1998:7). The humans don’t want to completely destroy the Autofac, in fact, they would like to “seize the means of production,” so they can dictate what is produced.
In the 2018 adaptation, the human situation is much more dire. Indeed the connection to Hayek becomes much stronger, as the Autofac believes it knows exactly what humans need and yet provides nothing that the village finds useful. Furthermore, its destruction of the earth is deeper and more total. In contrast to the 1955 story, they see destroying the Autofac as a matter of survival. Merely controlling would not suffice, as it would only further deteriorate their already precarious situation.
The clever endings of both the 1955 and 2018 stories, while very different, are thought provoking, and could spur several more discussion questions. However, again, we want to avoid spoilers. Go read and watch!
Mike Wood and Dustin Stoltz are PhD students in Sociology at Notre Dame.
Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality. Anchor Books: New York
Dick, Philip K. (1955). “Autofac.” Galaxy Science Fiction. 11(2):70-119
Hayek, Friedrich A. (1945). “The use of knowledge in society.” American economic review, 35(4), 519-530.
Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like a State . Yale University Press.