Westworld (no spoilers!)

westworldWay back in 1958, science fiction author and critic Theodore Sturgeon coined the term Sturgeon’s Revelation. Which is that “90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” This became known as Sturgeon’s Law while Theodore’s actual law (from a 1956 story) — that “nothing is always absolutely so” — is forgotten. (Philosopher Daniel Dennett expanded the Law to say that 90% of everything is crap!)

I’ve always found this applies especially to science fiction TV. And in this Anno Stella Bella era, there is a lot of SF TV, so naturally there is a lot of crap. (Honestly, I don’t even pay attention to the SyFy channel anymore.)

Happily: HBO’s Westworld … not crap! In fact, it’s a gem that offers many facets worthy of (non-spoiler) thought and discussion…

¶ Computer games: As computer games become more lifelike and immersive, the difference between the experience of game violence and real violence becomes less and less. What does it mean to kill realistic computer game “people” — either other human players or AI constructs — and what does a world where that’s common do to people (if anything)?

Specifically: Does it desensitize us to violence? Does it normalize violence? Does it make us more willing to see violence as a viable solution?

How truly different is destroying extremely lifelike pixels from the real thing?

And what if they’re not just pixels on a screen but physical beings operating in a physical world? The line between game and real becomes little more than a label.

A key phrase in the series is a quote from Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends.” We can ask how true that might be with regard to the violent delights we take from games.

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¶ Entertainment: Another place where lifelike immersion makes fantasy extremely real. As opposed to actually practicing violence, what does merely watching it do? Does it normalize violence or make us less sensitive to it?

The fundamental question: As virtual reality becomes more like actual reality, what effect (if any) does it have on us? In particular, what about those who would indulge in what society brands wrong, illegal, or immoral?

For example, if virtual reality allows pedophiles to enjoy realistic virtual sex with minors… how do we feel about that? More importantly, what effect does that actually have on the pedophile and on society?

There is some indication that the freely — and easily — available internet porn may have some effect in reducing rape. If it’s true that virtual sex can prevent would-be sexual criminals from acting in the real world, isn’t that a good thing?

Westworld raises that question to a new level: What if the virtual reality wasn’t just perceived — a sensory fake — but physically tangible? What if you could have your way, whatever way that was, with animated human dolls so lifelike they don’t even know they aren’t real?

At one point Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) asserts that the hosts (robots) passed the Turing Test after one year (of deployment in a development environment). In other words, they achieved — early on — robots so lifelike they were indistinguishable from real people.

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¶ Which raises another question entirely: What rights might a “thinking” being have (one that was indistinguishable from human)? Assuming the robots got even better since the early days, the question of AI rights becomes very real.

Ford asserts that consciousness is nothing special, even in humans, just a set of programmed responses. He ties suffering into the rise of self-awareness (which sounds reasonable, actually).

An acute question here concerns the difference between a being that appears conscious and one that actually is. From the outside, what’s the difference? From the inside, presumably, the self-aware experience of reality is hugely different from having none. This is, essentially, the infamous Chinese Room.

So we are challenged to think about the consequences of making extremely lifelike robots so cogent they “believe” themselves to be real in a context where they remain mere casual playthings to treat as we want. Toys we can destroy and torture.

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Westworld also challenges us to think of these robots (and by extension other game figures) from their point of view. The device of story characters having some awareness they inhabit a story isn’t new (Terry Pratchett, among many others, used it brilliantly — it’s just one reason I love his stories so much).

But what an interesting thing to have story characters start off ignorant and discover their true nature, not just as fictions, but as playthings!

What is it like to discover your existence is pre-programmed and that your short story repeats over and over without real change? What is it like to discover you exist solely for the pleasure of others? What is it like to discover your memories, your back story, your whole illusion of a life, is fake, made up, never happened?

What is it like to think you have free will but to discover no such thing exists for you? What is it like to think you are a free being only to discover your life is nothing but a trolley car on a repeating track?

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¶ Philosophers have ever argued that much of this is true of human existence. There is an as yet unanswered questions whether free will truly exists for us (and if so, what is its exact nature). We don’t really know whether the future is mutable or fixed and unchangeable.

Westworld frames this human free will question in the robot world. Like us, the robots act as if they have free will. They believe they make free choices when, in fact, those choices are driven by a script.

This also raises the question of a world-creator who wrote the script. The robots are programmed to not recognize any aspect of their true nature. They cannot understand any reference to knowledge beyond their scope.

How do we know the same isn’t true for us?

The situation and plight of the robots recapitulates ours in terms of free will and how we got here. A possible difference (for all we know) is that the robots really do have creators!

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Isaac Asimov, a father of science fiction, and arguably the father of modern robot stories, felt that such stories broke into two broad categories: Robots-as-menace (typically an extension of the Frankenstein myth — which itself is an extension of the Prometheus myth — don’t mess with stuff above you) and Robots-as-pathos (which tends to see robots as a kind of differently abled human).

Westworld is poised to give us plenty of the former. (There’s even an apt quote at one point from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.) We always knew it would; such was the movie. What’s an unexpected delight — and part of what makes the TV series so rich — is that we also get plenty of the latter.

What happens if you wake up from your dream of being a free individual only to discover you’re a created plaything of the gods. Your explicit purpose is to be used for fun.

And what happens if, once awake, you learn you are superior to these creators in nearly every way?

Science fiction author Fred Saberhagen wrote The Frankenstein Papers, which re-tells Shelly’s tale from the monster’s point of view. Westworld does something similar with its robots — puts us in their shoes.

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¶ Yet another facet of the Westworld gem: Look at it in terms of storytelling. It is a story in itself, but it’s a story about stories and storytelling.

At a surface level, it’s about the stories told in the park for the guests to enjoy, so at this level it’s about storytellers: Ford and his mysterious purposes, Lee Sizemore and his wild narratives, and Delos with their commercial motives.

There is a belief, especially among writers and serious readers, that fiction — lots of fiction — make for a better person.[1] We feel that fiction explores deep, important truths about life, and on that basis we often excuse extreme and dark forms of storytelling.[2]

In the last episode Ford, in his speech to the board members, references this belief and talks about the deeper purpose of storytelling: to find and redeem ourselves:

“Since I was a child I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this: a prison of our own sins. ‘Cause you don’t want to change. Or cannot change. Because you’re only human, after all.”

Ford is saying he once believed it, but has come to realize that dark and violent stories don’t redeem humans, they’re just dark and violent indulgences. They are “violent delights” without real meaning; we don’t learn lessons from them.

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¶ Shakespeare (that master storyteller!) figures repeatedly in Westworld. The Peter Abernathy robot was a Shakespearean scholar in a very early story, and there are Shakespearean quotes and references throughout the story. Especially that crucial one from Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends.”

That quote is important for being an apparent command, but also for being an apparent keynote. The violent delights of Westworld (and by translation, of computer games and media entertainment) have violent ends.

Certainly many believe our diet of media violence in what we watch and play is significant in making the world the (messed up) place it is. Those concerned voices seem drowned out in our love of voyeuristic violence.

Westworld, ironically, uses some of these same devices to make its points. And, yet, notice how mechanical and not sexy the nudity is. (At least one observer has pointed out how those chairs make every robot’s butt look ugly.)

And, somehow, the rare violence against actual humans (William and Logan, for instance) somehow manages to seem more shocking than worse waged against the robots. Is it just knowing they’re robots or some trick of the storytelling, I’m not quite sure.

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Bottom line for me, if it’s not obvious, very much thumbs up on the show. I’m giving it a high Ah! rating, but if the following seasons live up to the first one, I may very well bump that to a Wow! rating.

Most TV SF may follow Sturgeon’s Law, but Westworld is clearly a sterling exception. Some excellent, rich, and fun storytelling by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (and all those working on the show)!

(And I didn’t even get to touch on the use of music, which is a whole other interesting aspect of the show!)


[1] I believe this is true. When I rant about the “Death of a Liberal Arts Education” part of what I’m ranting about is the lack of literary fiction in modern lives.

And, yes, I absolutely think literary stories are significantly different from TV and movie stories. Consuming only media-based stories is to never experience fine dining.

[2] An almost canonical example is the use of a rape scene to set up a character’s motivation and/or later actions (especially revenge). An extreme example of this is the justifiably controversial I Spit on Your Grave. Count me among those who find this an ugly and not at all redeeming use of free speech and “artistic expression.”

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Westworld (no spoilers!)

  • mwlange

    Westworld is on my list of shows to watch, though I haven’t caught any yet. I might start collecting seasons of it. To be fair, though, HBO has spoiled other shows because of gratuitous nudity/profanity. It’s not that I’m inherently against them, but I do think they go overboard in justifying being a premium channel.

    At any rate, it’s one of several noteworthy shows out there this year. Personally, I’m happy that “Stranger Things” has gotten positive attention, although it is Science Fantasy and not Science Fiction. My hope is that Netflix might develop some good science fiction shows.

    Also, there is a show called “Incorporated” on SyFy that I’ve been interested in, despite it being a rehash of future evil corporations. Have you caught it at all?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, well, I suppose Sturgeon’s Law applies to all that HBO does, too! One has to sift through the chaff to find the 10% of wheat. They’ve produced Veep and The Newsroom and a few other gems, so the rest is just the price we pay, I guess. Some of it is a matter of taste, too. Game of Thrones, for example, is very well done and wonderful if you like that sort of thing, but I don’t, so it doesn’t do anything for me.

      I know very little about Stranger Things. I’ve never gotten around to having a Netflix account. I keep meaning to, but some how I just haven’t been able to get into the whole online media thing. [shrug]

      I don’t recall that I’ve ever heard of Incorporated. (As I mentioned, I don’t pay much attention to the SyFy channel.) According to Wikipedia, it takes place in “a dystopian 2074 Milwaukee” and, I dunno, I’ve kinda had my fill of dystopia… or maybe it’s that this world seems increasingly dystopic to me, so I long for more positive fare.

      One thing I’ve realized is that after over 50 years of being a serious science fiction fan (like, up until around 2000 I could challenge people to name an SF work I hadn’t read or seen and almost never lost) I’ve definitely become a bit jaded. There is so much that seems derivative and rehashed to me now. Some of the new stuff keying off the latest technology (like nanotech) has been interesting, but SF has been addressing the AI question since at least Asimov!

      I didn’t expect to like Westworld at all. Remakes rarely impress me. But Nolan and Joy and the cast have elevated this into something both thoughtful and thought provoking. It easily manages my number rule for SF (and all fiction): Don’t piss me off. And it satisfies my other big ask for stories: Take me some place new.

      The only thing holding me back from a Wow! rating is that we’ve only seen one-fifth of the story. Given what they did in season one, the next season will be crucial!

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I’ve had this post in my cue for way too long, but I didn’t want to read it in a hurried way. Well done write up! I sensed these themes at work (and more, as you mention with the music) but I hadn’t quite articulated them to myself. I’m looking forward to your other posts on WW. Now I get to be lazy while you figure out whatever themes I sensed…I know I can trust you to do a thorough job!

    The point you make about violence in games and media as a sort of societal release valve to prevent real crimes from happening is something I hadn’t considered. Now you’ve got me thinking about the meaning of Westworld in a different sense, as something not quite as finalized as I’d originally thought. My first impression was that the show meant to depict human nature in a very negative light. Once thrown in a certain circumstance, we’ll resort to violence, and our higher ideals are tossed out the window. This is essentially Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—we are nothing in ourselves, but will to power; justice is the interest of the stronger, etc. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I should take a step back from that thesis to see Ford’s character more objectively rather than as a lens or mouthpiece for the entire meaning of the show. In other words, maybe he too is a mere pawn in the story, a fallible character, and perhaps he too has something to learn. In that case, the potential for the story to change into something more interesting than “we are only (immoral or amoral) humans” is greater. After all, what happens if fiction is ultimately meaningless? Don’t they say that art imitates nature? Ergo…Life is meaningless? Well, that seems like a lazy adolescent conclusion to me. But if the story takes on Ford’s beliefs and challenges them, I think I’ll be a lot more interested in the series. (Especially since the last episode ended in what seems be a violent straight-forward robot takeover, except that some humans elect to become robots. Yawn.)

    I hope I’m making sense?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! The more I watched WW, the more I came to like it. As you may recall from our earlier conversations, I was a bit iffy on it at first. But, man, it sure grew on me!

      Let’s be very careful about spoilers in any conversation here. We don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the show. We can really get into it in the third, mega-spoilers, post.

      “…violence in games and media as a sort of societal release valve to prevent real crimes…”

      It’s a very complex subject, and we don’t really know what effect our hyper-real media and games have on us, yet. On the one hand, it sure seems like we’re ramping up into a normalization of violence, which is very bad. But, OTOH, if it also acts as a safety valve, then what? Which effect dominates? How do we even study this?

      “Once thrown in a certain circumstance, we’ll resort to violence, and our higher ideals are tossed out the window.”

      Certainly not a new theme! Many authors (and as you mention, philosophers) have explored it, and it is definitely a component in WW. What is the effect of being able to act “evil” with no direct penalty? Many video games today offer the opportunity to be a black hat rather than a white one.

      Again: Safety valve for our darker side to exercise harmlessly (or is it?), or does it encourage and normalize those darker angels?

      My gut sense is very much aligned with that key quote: These violent delights have violent ends.

      “Now I’m beginning to wonder if I should take a step back from that thesis to see Ford’s character more objectively…”

      Yes, agreed, I think it would be wrong to assume Ford speaks for the heart of the series. And I suspect Ford’s earlier views in contrast with his later views may speak to some important point, but I have a strong sense WW is focuses on raising the questions. It may not provide answers (it doesn’t seem to have so far).

      I’ll be watching to see if the series has more to say about the nature of consciousness. Ford has asserted that it’s nothing special and, further, seems to consider human consciousness rather messy and problematic.

      I very much agree: flawed character! (They’re the most fun, anyway!)

      “Ergo…Life is meaningless?”

      Could be. I’m not sure the conclusion is that fiction is meaningless, so much as that it does not have the redemptive or illuminating power many believe it does. (But is that the fault of the fiction or the careless reader? I know which I believe it is. Hint: I think fiction is awesome.)

      I think Ford’s beliefs will be challenged. Or at least illuminated further.

      As you’ll have read by now in the later posts, I’m not convinced the ending is what it seemed to be. Seems to obvious and simplistic to me. And I think another quote, the Alice in Wonderland quote about nothing is what it is and everything is what it isn’t, may be very significant!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s a funny Westworld joke I just heard:

    Q: Why wouldn’t Dolores let William eat the corn?
    A: Because the maize wasn’t meant for him!

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