On the same day the federal government announced it would release a the rulebook for autonomous cars, Kanye West joined Instagram. If you assumed these two events were unrelated, you were — bizarrely — wrong. West’s first Instagram post was a static shot of a the self-driving “Johnny Cab” from Paul Verhoeven’s cult science fiction film classic: Total Recall. Is Kayne trying to tell us something?
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid — man with a severely manipulated memory —Total Recall is based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale.” Though the story differs from the film in many ways — the main character is named Quail, not Quaid, he never actually goes to Mars, etc. — both depict a futuristic world in which the implantation of false memories is a common enough to be a recreational activity. But, a more timely and relevant detail from both is the idea of self-driving car figuring into the plot.
In the original story Dick writes “… the cab carried him back to his conapt at the residential end of Chicago…” implying that the cab is in charge of the destination and in fact, knows where to go. (Coined by Dick, “conapt” is a portmanteau for condominium and apartment.) Dick’s narrative touch with this is so light that you could interpret the self-driving car is a flying car if you wanted.
In the film, the self-driving Johnny Cab is definitely land-based and its onboard A.I. a little more overtly pronounced; it’s a kind of drive-thru-window robot with a cantankerous personality. Notably, the Johnny Cab in the film has its self-driving function usurped when Arnold’s Quaid decides he needs to rip it apart in order to drive the car himself.
What’s Kanye’s take on this? Posting a still image of the Johnny Cab on Instagram at the same time the government defines regulations about self-driving cars can’t be a coincidence. The manipulation of media and the perception of personal freedom is a big theme in all of the work of Philip K. Dick, including “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale.” Meanwhile, Kanye presents himself as someone who values his own freedom to express his viewpoints, while at the same time manipulating his own media image to make artist statements. We “remember” Kanye differently today than we did a few years ago, and that change of perception isn’t too different to how memory is changed in Philip K. Dick books.
Or perhaps this is easier to explain: in Total Recall Arnold has a tough time wresting control of the Johnny Cab away from the chatty self-driving robot. Maybe Kanye’s just worried that self-driving cars are coming to steal our freedom.