Failing the Voight-Kampff

Tyrell: Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris…

Deckard: We call it Voight-Kampff for short.

In the future as imagined in “Blade Runner” by author Phillip K. Dick and later film director Ridley Scott, the only way to tell man from “replicant” (humanoid robots) is empathy. No matter their strength, immense intelligence, emotion or sense of logic, these replicants are only distinguishable from humans because they cannot imagine what it is to be anything other than what they are.

Deckard, the story’s all-too-human protagonist, is frayed to the point of insanity by a career spent “retiring” these robots.

“The report read ‘Routine retirement of a replicant.’ That didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back,” he laments.

That is cold wisdom from the lips of a man wearied by a world in an imagined dystopian future. It is a nightmare meant to jar us so that we can awaken to the reality of our present condition. And it is chilling when you hear similar pronouncements being made about present-day technology outside of the pages of science fiction novels and films.

Robert Gates recently told a gathering of fellow soldiers:

My hope — and it is a faint hope — is that the remaining adults in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country’s finances back in order, end the sequestration of military dollars, and protect military capabilities that are as necessary today as they have been through the last century.

When a former Secretary of Defense argues against becoming hooked on drone warfare, he approaches the issue from a budgetary standpoint. But his concerns aren’t just budgetary. He is deeply concerned American politicians—a group of men and women with a centuries-long reputation for a simpleminded understanding of warfare—have come to regard drone combat as “bloodless, painless and odorless.”

Why wouldn’t they? Killing is being done by joysticks wielded by men in front of interactive TV screens. It has been reported that the experience had to be enhanced and made similar to popular video games like “Call of Duty” in order to keep drone pilots focused on hunting and killing instead of reading books and Facebooking while on the job.

In “War,” Sebastian Junger’s treatise par excellence on the complexity of battle, the author presents a glimpse inside the mind and motivation of soldiers.

The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.

It all comes back to love and perhaps the deepest sort of bond imaginable, which might come as a surprise to those who regard battle as completely treacherous. But what kind of bond can be formed in a glorified man cave by these remote pilots who are playing an apparently inaccurate video game for hours a day? What is their experience of war and what are their actions doing to the families of the innocents left in smoldering piles day after day?

I don’t know. But it seems apparent that warfare, the craft requiring the most care and attention of its practitioners with the exception of parenthood, is nothing but anarchic savagery without the presence of empathy.

Empathy isn’t simply imagining the experiences and motivations of others. It is a clearing away of the poisonous dominator mythology to see the interconnected web joining all things. It allows us to set the stakes of the game appropriately by imagining the roles of each player.

More importantly, it is a true strike at the root of vulnerability. Being able to rain hell on enemies real and imagined without the possibility of a loss on our side reinforces only the illusion of invulnerability. Less vulnerability today is actually more tomorrow.

Killing by remote is antithetical to the stakes we want to set. It is antithetical to our beliefs about ourselves. And this isn’t just a matter of empathy. It is a matter of policy.

Just as I have been surprised and motivated by the actions of Pope Francis, another man in a position of power taking his responsibilities so seriously has become a source of inspiration.  In the corridors of power, his voice speaks loudly, compassionately and with reason and empathy.

Former Secretary of Defense Gates is intent not only on protecting our nation, but also our ability to pass the Voight-Kampff.