anthropology voight-kampff style

Leon takes the Voight-Kampff test administered by Holden

Some nights ago I got a friend of mine, a hopeful young anthropologist, well sloshed and had him suffer some expert interrogation—sorry for the evening’s script’s mean psychological twists, pal ;-) Among some other things I squeezed out of him, he confessed that recently he had done some payed-for business anthropology assignments.

The handbook they gave him contained a heap of pages filled with questionnaires seemingly right out of “Notes and queries in anthropology”—from the pre-Rivers era he meant. Stated so quite vehemently, in fact. All of this reminded me, again, of Philip K. Dick’s “Do androids dream of electrical sheep”, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, based on the former, and the fictitious Voight-Kampff test in particular.

The movie “Blade Runner” deals with some profound philosophical questions which are right within anthropology’s core. E.g. What is human? Remember: Anthropology. A discourse on human nature.” (Encyclopædia Britannica 1771: I, 327)

The story is set within a dystopian future: The blue planet is heavily polluted and hardly anymore feasible as humanity’s habitat. Therefore the better-off live off-world, in the colonies located on other planets. Only the unlucky, those who are not allowed to emigrate to the colonies because of biological or psychological ‘defects’, or those who have a job to do, remain back on Earth and rough it in the mega-cities.

Los Angeles has developed into an urban sprawl overtowered by Tyrrell Corporation’s pyramid, wherein the creator gods dwell. The Victor-von-Frankensteins finally have done it and have invented human-shaped synthetical organisms, androids, called “replicants” in the story. They are the ones who do the hands-on jobs, working as servants, labourers, prostitutes, and mercenaries.

Ironically replicants are not allowed on Earth. They have to stay at their assigned places, in mankind’s new paradises, the colonies, and it is forbidden for them to enter the man-made hell, polluted Mother Earth. But, driven by at first unknown motives, time and again groups of replicants escape from the colonies and undertake the risky journey to Earth. More often than not they have to commit homicides during their dary enterprise.

Enter the main protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), blade runner. The blade runners are a kind of freelance policemen whose job it is to hunt down escaped replicants on Earth and to “retire”, to kill them. A blade runner is paid per “skin job”—per succesful kill, that is. Less than a peon: a bounty hunter. A blade runner is a hangman, a killer. A butcher backed up by law and the public authorities. “A goddamn one-man slaughterhouse”—in the words of Deckard’s superior Bryant.

But the blade runners play a twinfold role—besides being executioners, they are examiners as well. Because before retiring a replicant it has to be made sure that she or he indeed is a replicant, and not a human being according to the then valid definition. As Tyrrell Corporation’s motto is “More human than human” this is not an easy task. Luckily, despite of Tyrrell’s ongoing efforts, replicants still lack one human capacity: empathy.

The social and not-so-social sciences, the humanities, and not-so-human-ities, and natural science jump in here and furnish the blade runners with a helpful tool—the Voight-Kampff test. Basically the test consists of two components: Carefully worded questions and statements designed to provoke emotional response, and a machine measuring biometric data like respiration, heart rate, ‘blush response’, and iris contraction. Weirdly enough the machine exhibits a human trait itself—it breathes. Syd Mead, who designed the machine [Mead is credited as ‘Visual Futurist’] describes its invention like this:
Syd Mead's production sketch of the Voight-Kampff machine

Ridley [Scott] drew a sketch of this machine, which he said was an exotic kind of lie detector, and it reads the iris’s contractions. When you lie, or are under stress, your iris tends to contract or expand. The Voight-Kampff machine would center on the pupil and the operator would have a full-screen enlarged picture of the iris. The machine would measure the contractions of the iris and put it on a graph or something.

Ridley wanted this machine to be fairly delicate, briefcase size, easily portable, but it also had to look very dangerous sitting on a desk, very threatening, and sort of like a giant tarantula. Since it isn’t dangerous because it’s large, it had to be dangerous because it’s threatening. So we decided it should breathe. My rationale for this was that the machine would draw in air samples in the immediate area. When you are scared or apprehensive, our body gives off an odor. And I think it’s minute molecular detachments of protein or something that your sweat glands give out. So your chemistry changes when you’re tense. You unfold the machine and it starts itself as soon as the subject walks in the room; its arm moves around and focuses at the subject’s eye. It’s sort of alive in a way all by itself, and its very, very threatening.

In the end the Voight-Kampff test is a retro-hi-tech supported interview, designed to find out if an individual is human or not by determining if there is ‘enough’ emotional response. According to Deckard for an experienced blade runner it takes 20 to 30 cross-referenced questions to determine if a subject is human or not. All that is positivism and reductionism at its best.

It’s a little far-fetched, agreed, but in a way the Voight-Kampff test and the prominent role it plays within the Blade-Runner story, is a critique of anthropological methods of old. Of course the profession nowadays shuns away from these methods and deems them having been gravely ill-advised. On the other hand, what my young friend has told me about the realities of contemporary commercial business anthropology … it’s astounding where retro pops up as a fashion. Goes quite well with cyberpunk’s retro-futurism.

Now compare the Voight-Kampff test to seemingly common practice within contemporary market-research business anthropology: Two-day participant observation, backed up by naïve questionnaires. It’s not only grand extrapolations based upon paper-thin empirical data, but methodology neglecting the human condition. Someone lacks empathy here.

During the next winter term I will teach a seminar called “cyberpunk”, I guess. During the first session “Blade Runner” will be screened, and afterwards there will be a discussion on the movie’s philosophical and anthropological implications, on anthropologists not being blade runners or bounty hunters, or raiders of the lost arc, on us not interrogating people law-enforcement style, on us not being detectives or counter-insurgents. Instead I want to convey the message—and have it discussed—that we are more kin to cyberpunk-writers who exactly criticize all the aforementioned.

In the end filling someone up with booze, while simultaneously filling up oneself, is a far better method for gaining information and understanding. Natural conversations develope quite easily.

Out of our minds.

A close-up of the Voight-Kampff machine