“Service Call” was originally published in Science Fiction Stories in July 1955. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 21–36.
David Courtland, a researcher director for Pesco Paints, is studying the effects of the California heat on a new type of treated singles, when his work is interrupted by the doorbell. Courtland stops his work to attend to the door, finding who he assumes is a salesman at the door. Actually, he claims to be a repairman, sent to service Courtland’s swibble. Courtland playful teases the repairman telling him he does not want his swibble fixed (in fact, Courtland has no idea what a swibble is). The repairman is deadly serious about his work and insists that the repair orders are for this house. Courtland shuts the door and continues his work, pondering what a swibble is. He was well read, but never heard of it before. He goes back to the door and finds the repair order crumbled on the floor. It reveals that the company the man works for was founded in 1963, well into the future. Courtland contacts his colleagues and asks them to come with a legal stenographer and tape recorder. He also contacts his boss, Pesbroke, and asks him to come over after telling him about the encounter with the repairman. He convinces Pesbroke that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
With the equipment set up, Courtland begins to brief his team. They will ask questions of the repairman in order to find out what a swibble and how it works. Now they only know they are widespread and a common feature of households. Soon the repairman comes back, but suggests coming another time because they have company. Although the repairman is amazed that this group seems to have no idea about swibbles, he starts to provide some answers. The swibbles are a bio-technology that were developed after a war in 1961. After a much larger war in 1975 which was fought between those who wanted swibbles and those who did not. The swibble-owners won that war. The main purpose of the swibble is to maintain ideological unity across the population by gradually shifting people’s ideological perspectives toward the norm. The 1975 was fought by swibbles that rooted out the “Contrapersons.” War is eliminated because no one has any contrary point of view. Courtland and his colleagues point out a contradiction. If the swibbles shift people’s ideological perspective, and the people who repair the swibbles can adjust them, who is really in control? The repairman explains that all they do is keep the swibbles (which are alive) from dying by treating illnesses. With this knowledge in hand, they confess that they are from the past and send the repairman on his way.
It is not clear to the group how they can profit from this. Some think they should find the inventor of the swibble and kill him. During their discussions the door bell rings. At the door is an installment team, with a new generation swibbles for Courtland’s home.
There is a good amount of material packed into “Service Call,” making it a rich story. Its key innovative idea is that there is an easily identifiable relationship between consumerism and ideological conformity. The conformity of consumerism is not merely material. Of course, mass production means we all tend to look alike, smell the same, wear the same haircuts, and fill out homes with the same IKEA crap. “Service Call” points out that the greatest danger of consumerism is that it also makes us think alike. After some trouble, the major characters learn that the swibble is a device that can use some psychic abilities to move people’s thinking toward some norm. It is not given to us what that ideology is. In his role as a saleman, the repairman says: “You know the sense of security and satisfaction in being certain that your ideology is exactly congruent with that of everybody else in the world. That there’s no possibility, no chance whatsoever that you’ll go astray.” (32) At a time of ideological conflicts across the world, Dick was presenting mass consumerism as a way to overcome all of these divisions. He may have been right. Consumerism may have actually played a role in muting ideological struggles. If we look at our conversations in everyday life, they are often shaped by our relationship to consumer goods, television programs, or pre-packaged news.
Is this worse than the ideological conflicts that plagued so much of the last century? Is it not a vast improvement to have some ideological unity instead of ideological conflict? I suppose our answer to this depends on the values we agree on, the way we achieve ideological homogeneity, and what ideas have been suppressed. It does seem that Dick prefers the honest intellectual conflict to the imposed and shallow consumerist unity. Looking ahead a bit, there are parallels between the result of the swibble and the result of the ideological of Relativism in The World Jones Made. In the later example, cultural unity is not achieved but ideological conflict is ended by everyone agreeing to desist in stating opinions. The swibble imposes this agreement, by actually fine tuning our opinions. Since ideology actually works this way in our world, this is the more realistic.
Something that Dick commonly does in his stories is place characters in extraordinary situations and then have those characters pursue mundane goals from it. I do not know if he is alone in this or if this is merely a plot device. In this case, Courtland has met a real time traveler. His response to this extraordinary event is to find a way to profit from it. His goal becomes to figure out as much about the swibble as possible in order to build it. Like the precogs in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch who use their abilities to predict the most fashionable future trends, Courtland cannot look past the profitability. However, I think this is not an unreasonable fear. Given the ideological underpinings of our society, if someone were to develop real superpowers, they would probably find a way to profit from it. (Maybe that is why psychics spend their time reading personal fortunes for 20 bucks an hour instead of plotting their political rise.) Without firmly nailing down this thesis, I can hypothesize that when Dick was done looking at the extraordinary as a possible threat to humanity (corruptible leaders, posthumans who will replace humanity, sociopaths confident in their superiority), he started to explore the extraordinary as simply another part of the logic of late capitalism. This may be the true meaning of what Dick said when he talked about God coming in the form of an advertisement or a piece of trash in the gutter.
Wikipedia page for “Service Call.”
“Service Call” background from Philip K. Dick Fan Site.
Of course, someone is thinking about how to profit from time travel.
Naomi Klein’s book on consumerism and control, No Logo.
Documentary on the same book