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“Are we human?” A possible way to answer this question is to ask someone who is not human. So let me ask a “replicant.” This, you may recall, was the name given to the nonhuman figures in the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The replicant was a robot that understood humans well. A sophisticated type of android, it fulfilled a series of literary dreams and cinematic fantasies: the desire to “replicate” the human.

The question “Are we human?” emerges as a fundamental issue in the effort to design a nonhuman entity in the history of cinema as well as in literature. On the eve of the invention of cinema, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s novel L’Ève future imagined an android created by Thomas Edison, the inventor of light and film, and marveled at its humanlike capacities. Many Frankensteins followed, originating in the literary mind of Mary Shelley and subsequently visualized in the history of film. But the replicant of Blade Runner is more equipped to answer our question, for technology has by now grown in its capacity to replicate the human. Anticipating reality, in cinema a human being can now design a nonhuman copy of itself that is no longer approximate, grotesque, or monstrous. The replicant is superior even to the android of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), whose body double still suggested mechanical behavior. No longer machinic, this new replicant is perfectly designed. It is a “skin-job,” and it appears utterly human.

But is it human? Yes, it has the looks. But to look human is not enough to be human. What is the difference, then, if a flawlessly engineered body shows no such difference? Well, the main thing is: the replicant does not have a memory. With no sense of the past, it not only lacks a history but the capacity to recall and to store personal and collective events in its mind. A replicant is unable to express the affect that a memory brings to human features.

To be human, then, means to have a cultural memory. The replicants knew this, and did everything they could to fabricate visual memory. They were obsessed with collecting photographs that could make up for the memories they lacked. If they could only have a past in this way, they could possibly have a future, and live like humans. In the end, then, all the replicants needed in order to be considered human was an archive. Perhaps they simply needed the internet.

Read the full article here.