To get the most out of Ridley Scott’s new movie Blade Runner 2049, we need to first consider the dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 portrayed in the original Blade Runner.
That movie became a cult classic because of a feeling about the future it conveyed. It invited us to ask a crucial question: as we enter our technocratic future, are we losing our humanity?
Other sci-fi films have likewise tried to generate a feeling of dread over the prospect of a dystopian future. But while Blade Runner got the particular details about 2019 wrong, it got that general feeling right.
Acid rain hasn’t eclipsed the sun, nor have skyscrapers filled with human overpopulation extinguished wildlife. Japanese technocratic culture hasn’t colonized America. We don’t have flying cars, space mining, or robot slaves.
However, the androids that propel the plot of the Blade Runner films are best understood as symbols for our feeling about a technocratic future. Blade Runner’s “replicants” act as mirrors of the humans who are losing their humanity.
This feeling of dread needs to be taken seriously because, as Pope Francis has written in his encyclical Praise Be to You (Laudato Si’): On Care for Our Common Home, “humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.”
Art often functions as a distant early warning system.
Art often functions as a distant early warning system. The Blade Runner films reflect back to us our most pressing contemporary concern, which the Pope calls “the globalization of the technocratic paradigm.”
The movies tell of human beings whose relationship to nature has become one of “a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation.” But this simply holds a mirror up to us today because, as Francis notes, our own “relationship has become confrontational” with the environment.
The source of this adversarial relationship is our belief in a lie, says Francis, “the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods,” which “leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”
But this lie is taken up into the service of an even greater lie: “the idea of infinite or unlimited growth.” Hence, technocratic culture today carries with it the imperative of the upgrade cycle. Yet it turns all of us into servants of the technocratic vision of a few, says the Pope.
“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups,” he writes. “Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”
This social truth gets embodied in the sci-fi world of Blade Runner. It’s the source of our feeling of dread about the unintended future consequences of letting technology use us.
If we leave technology to its default settings, it will have a negative impact.
If we leave technology to its default settings, it will have a negative impact. According to the Pope, the technological paradigm is already doing harm: “Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.”
This cultural reality has an economic engine. In the Pope’s memorable phrase: “Finance overwhelms the real economy.” That is, the pursuit of unlimited growth makes a few corporate shareholders wealthy in a short time. But a real economy that would permit sustainable production and consumption is destroyed.
This warped economic engine, which pursues unlimited profits no matter what harm is done to people or to the planet, also generates political problems. If there is no concern for “more balanced levels of production” and “for the environment,” then we also turn a blind eye to “a better distribution of wealth” and “the rights of future generations,” as Pope Francis notes.
Francis is right to warn us how humanity is failing “to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.”
That’s why artworks like Blade Runner that spring from a sci-fi imagination can be so important. They help us to call into question the trajectory of our current culture. Perhaps they don’t accurately show us our future, but at their best they equip us with the emotional intelligence we need to avert a dystopia.
“We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology,” affirms Francis. But this requires of us “a bold cultural revolution,” which only begins when we “slow down and look at reality in a different way.”