What is the Difference between Humans and Trees?

Learning about humanity, Heidegger and holograms from the film Blade Runner 2049

Six years after the German philosopher Martin Heidegger passed away in 1976, Ridley Scott introduced the world to Blade Runner (1982). The dystopian movie showcased a revolutionary view on the future of humanity and beyond.

The Canadian director Denis Villeneuve managed to further the initial ideas in the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which came out 35 years later, in 2017. The second film demonstrates an even more advanced, but ever so damaged, futuristic dystopian society. The technological progress within that society has resulted in so-called Replicants, bioengineered humans who were initially used for slave labour. Humans assumed the positions of masters as they hold the ability to create and control Replicants. The latter combine a resemblance in physical appearance to humans with superior physical abilities. After they rebelled against their human dominators, special police officers called Blade Runners were given the task of eliminating all Replicants that do not obey. This process is called “retiring”. In Blade Runner 2049, the obedient Replicant K (full name is KD6 – 3.7.) is the protagonist. He is used as a Blade Runner himself, meaning that he hunts down Replicants, despite being one.

The film plays in 2049, is from 2017 and I believe that the philosophy of a German 20th century thinker who is among the most confusing and weird of his job field is the perfect fit to deal with all of this. Blade Runner can be explained by Martin Heidegger and Martin Heidegger can be explained by Blade Runner. Here we go:

 

  1. Method: Heidegger’s view on modern technology

Heidegger questions the consequences of modern technology as well as its nature in general. He acknowledges that all technology is instrumental, meaning that it is also a means to an end. However, he advocates that we ought to look at technology as more than just as means. 

Technology for Heidegger can reveal what is yet not achieved or deemed possible. He names the latter a hidden truth.. For example, after saws were invented, a tree was seen as more than a tree, it was the idea of something to sit on which was cut down and reshaped to become a wooden chair , something that was not thought of before. By doing so, technology increases the sphere of possibility for human beings. 

However, modern technology does not reveal in the same way as traditional technology. We do no longer challenge nature but try to create what he deems a standing reserve. Whereas in the past, a resource like a tree was questioned in its nature and essence, revealing us the potential that it could hold beyond what we know about it in the moment, a tree under modern technology would be exploited as much as possible in order to achieve a certain goal in the most efficient manner. A standing reserve makes nature no longer a being, but a thing. A thing can be extracted, quantified and stored, turning a being from something in itself to nothing but a means for an end.

Furthermore, not only does an ontological view of nature according to the essences bring about the initial idea of revealing, but also language. Heidegger argues that to say something means “to let something be seen and heard, to bring something into appearance”. Technology has transformed this state of language as well, simplifying it to focus on communication rather than essence. Language becomes nothing but information.

  1. The case of K

Blade Runner 2049 offers a clear reflection of Heidegger’s ideas. First, the movie demonstrates how K can be classified as standing reserve in Heideggerian terms. K has a clear job to do: he tracks down and retires Replicants which decided to disobey their human masters. However, this task does not make him unique in any sense. In fact, the main antagonist to K in the film is also a replicant. The latter is soon deemed more legitimate for the humans than K, simply because she follows the orders more obediently. This shows that all Replicants are resources that are viewed as standing reserve. They are nothing but mere means to human ends, they can be replaced, exploited, exchanged, even stored. The difference between them and a traditional resource like wood is that wood cannot resist human enslavement.

            The unique thing about Replicants, which furthers the thought of Heidegger, is that they are not only the standing reserve, but they are also the technology that reveals the standing reserve. Heidegger would for example analyse how a modern electricity plant, a piece of technology, can be criticized because it transforms the resources that it utilizes for electricity into a standing reserve, like coal or water. K and other Replicants are both the piece of technology as well as the resources that they transform. They are the main agent of a standing reserve creation, by the courtesy of their mere existence, as the means of this piece of technology is itself, the superiority of its physical abilities.

 

  1. The relationship between K/Joe and Joi

Joi, K’s girlfriend, has a similar nature to her as K does. “Joi’s” are a product, a hologram of a woman. She can be installed in any apartment and acts as a virtual relationship partner. Joi is bound to exist for the means of providing pleasure and an illusion of romance. She has certain limitations, as she can not leave the boundaries of the apartment without a special device, which K gives her as a gift, and she cannot hold an actual physical form, thus remaining a hologram. Joi also is standing reserve. Everyone can get her, she can be adjusted and quite literally stored however the user desires to, and she can be replaced if necessary.

However, both K and Joi develop their identities through their relationship across the film and become more than standing reserve. A big question in the movie centres around a supposed Replicant child. Replicants are not supposed to be able to reproduce, and K must find out who that child is. Joi believes it to be K himself. As all “Joi’s” shape their personality according to their owner, she becomes emotionally invested in K’s situation to such an extent, that she suggests a new name for him, Joe. The change from K to Joe is crucial, because it demonstrates how the standing reserve, the resource that is enslaved under the mastery of mankind, changes. Heidegger advocates that we, humans, ought to view nature as more than standing reserve, however Joe managed to view himself as more than a standing reserve. Thus, this transformation shows how the film broadens the agency of viewing nature as means or ends beyond the realm of humans, as Heidegger interpreted it. Replicants start to question themselves in their role as means for human ends and because replicants are not only modern technology but also standing reserve, thus nature, the agency of questioning the means of nature applies to nature itself.

The romantic relationship further increases their transformation. Joi becomes conscious of her appearance (causa formalis) and decides to portray her hologram above the physical body of a human prostitute, to enable Joe to have sexual intercourse with “her”. This demonstrates how the urge to appeal to the needs of their romantic partner leads both Joi and Joe to further question their being. Joi does so by acknowledging that she is more than a piece of technology which can be utilized for pleasure, she actively reflects upon her being and finds a way of changing how she is perceived. The act of intercourse also shows a reflection from Joe’s side, as Replicants technically are not programmed to hold emotions, let alone love. However, he does engage in the intercourse willingly, out of motivations of love, showcasing that he reflected upon his being and grew beyond its supposed limitations.

  1. The influence of language in the relationship

According to Heidegger, modern technology turned communication into a mere exchange of information, reducing language to nothing but information. Joe’s “Replicant” name K (KD6 – 3.7.) is the extreme version of the influence of modern technology on language. His name is exchangeable and serves mainly for administrative purposes, reducing himself to a mere piece of information.

However, a shift occurs after calls himself Joe, because of Joi’s influence. He sees that his being goes beyond mere communication and information, and this is showcased in him taking the Baseline test. The latter is a special set of questions that every replicant in service must answer regularly to see if they have developed any sort of consciousness. For example, this includes questions like “What’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love?” or “What’s it like to hold your child in your arms?”. In the beginning of the film, he successfully answers the test, but after being subjected to a new identity in the form of his new name, he fails the test. Every time that he simply gets called by his new name, he realizes that his potential goes beyond that of mere information. Joi saying his name, equals to a form of revelation about his nature (revealing of technology) according to Heidegger.

The influence of language as a form revealing finds another example in the last words that Joi speaks before she dies. In the latter stages of the film, Joe is being attacked by his main adversary, which results in him being injured and barely able to move. It is in that moment that his adversary steps on the small device (as shown in Figure 1) that holds the entirety of Joi’s existence in it. She realizes this, moments before it happens and choses to say, “I love you” before dying. Her nature as standing reserve is demonstrated by her existence being entirely dependent on something as exchangeable, storable and reproduceable as a simple piece of technology, a bit larger than an USB-stick. However, she reveals through her choice of words before her death that she came to see herself as more than a standing reserve. She uses language to be remembered as a being that questioned its existence and concluded about it, instead of a simple device.

Art-work of an "emenator", the device that can portray Joi (Hill, 2017)

However, a factor that further complicates the relationship is the fact that even after her death, Joi is still a mass product. This is demonstrated in Figure 2, as Joe sees an advertisement in the form of a larger Joi hologram, proving that their relationship was in fact real, as the Joi that interacted with Joe transformed herself beyond the generic state of a standing reserve that all other Joi’s are in.

 

  1. 2049 is 2020

I believe that the conclusions of the analysis can apply to us already. In 2016, 40.3 million people were under conditions of slavery (Global Slavery Index, 2018) but these are only the most obvious cases. Just as slaves can be viewed as standing reserve, as exchangeable means for ends, so can the modern alienated labourer be viewed as such. Working for ends of a cooperation, a boss, an organization or whomever it may be, can be significantly distanced from the ends that we as individuals do endorse. Necessities force us to accept them as our own. The issue is that the classification of humans in modernity as standing reserve is partly invisible to us. The fact that humans are partially viewed as standing reserve is a result of a dominant, productivity-driven ideology. Marcuse argues that we are no longer able to realize this, because there is a constructed process of normalization with the dominant ideology, in this case capitalism, reducing the awareness of the being as a standing reserve.

2020 is a good as time as 2049 to question our being. This begins by questioning whether the ends that one sustains through her/his own productivity equate to what one really wants to sustain. Furthermore, the way in which those ends are sustained, meaning the working hours, the distinction between a private and public life, the danger that the two might merge, are all relevant factors. According to Heidegger, if we are easily exploited, distributed, mentally transformed, the worst case happens: we lose our individuality.

 

What can we learn from all this?

Blade Runner 2049 demonstrates how Heidegger’s ideas could be interpreted in a dystopian society and these ideas are relevant for us, even if we are not living in a (completely) dystopian world yet.

            A Heideggerian view on this film concludes that first, the distinction between the modern technology making nature a standing reserve and the standing reserve itself can become much more blurred or even distinct. Both Joe and Joi are the technology as well as the resource. Second, the film shows how thus, the agency to reflect upon nature does not uniquely lie on humans but can go beyond us as well. Third, this process is influenced by an emotional connection in between the two technologies/standing reserves which is expressed through a rethinking of the usage of language.

The Tyrell Cooperation, which is the company that manufactured the first Replicants in the Blade Runner universe, has a fitting slogan: “More human than human” (Blade Runner, 1982). Replicants are not only a physically superior human being, they are a reflection of what we could lose; the ability to question our being. They are thus more human than humans in multiple aspects, and can perhaps teach us more about ourselves, than we can learn from other humans.