I’ve watched the first two episodes of HBO’s series “Westworld” and I am fascinated by the premise and some of the questions it raises.
Westworld is fantasy immersion “park” which is massive. So massive that, when you are in it, it seems to have no borders. It’s set in an area that looks like Arizona in the days of the gunslingers. “Guests” come into the park and interact with “hosts”, who are designed or the guests pleasure. The hosts are life-like androids who get better and better with each passing generation as the creators update them and make them more human-like. Guests are given no orientation, no instruction manual. The only guideline is to start in the middle of the park for the most tame experience and to venture outward into increasingly intense experiences.
No one considers the hosts to be human. Biologically they seem to be. They can and do have sex with each other and with the guests. They can and do die on a regular basis. Some guests live out their fantasies to murder and maim without consequence or remorse. Some want to have indiscriminate sex. In fact, one of the dilemmas the designers face is whether they should keep making the hosts more and more human because, as one of the creators points out: “Do we really want the guests to think that woman her husband is sleeping with is a real woman or the man you just shot was a real human?”.
There’s no moral dilemma for the creators because they don’t think of the hosts as humans. They are just very, very lifelike robots. When they are killed or brutalized, they are brought back into the shop, repaired and they have their memories wiped. In case the memories aren’t wiped, because of the omission of one of the technicians, the creators have built in the concept of nightmares. So, if a host is put back into the park without having its memory wiped properly, it will attribute the trauma to nightmares. But, supposedly anyway, the hosts don’t dream, don’t have consciousness and don’t suffer from the years of unspeakable horrors they endure at the hands of the guests.
Periodically, the park ups the ante by putting characters into the park for certain narratives. What’s interesting is the narratives aren’t scripted. They just put in the characters, with their various traits, and they let them play out their roles in an improvisational manner. As one narrative is proposed, Anthony Hopkins’ character, the lead creator shuts it down. It’s too much. The guy proposing this narrative that involves all kinds of horrors, including “self-cannibalism”, says the guests come to learn who they are and they want increasingly bizarre adventures to explore. Anthony Hopkins’ character says “People don’t come to Westworld to find out who they are. They come to find out who they can become.” For some reason, that line particularly stuck with me.
As I’m watching the show, I’m fascinated by the questions it raises about the nature of consciousness. Through episode two, something is going on that the creators don’t understand. The self-correcting algorithms put into the hosts aren’t fully understood even by the creators. We are being shown that the hosts seem to be developing subconsciousness. Memories are bleeding through, unexpected behaviors are happening. The hosts think the memories are nightmares. Are they becoming sentient? Can they become sentient? What is consciousness?
Then, there are the moral questions. As I watch the show, am I supposed to identify with the hosts or the guests? Many guests just come to have a “white hat” experience. Some even want to be the heroes of stories. The hosts will offer different adventures to guests. Do you want to join a posse and go after a bad guy? Do you want to go look for treasure? But, some of the guests are here for a black hat experience. They want to visit the whore house. They want to rape a woman. They want to murder. Is it wrong to “kill” a robot that will reboot tomorrow? Is it wrong to kill a wife in front of her husband when each of them only acts like they are experiencing the unbearable emotions a human would experience?
Then, there is the parallel between Westworld and our world. I compare and I contrast as I’m watching. The comparison is that, when we are here, we are playing a role in a world designed for our pleasure or our testing or both. We cannot be permanently harmed. We interact with this world, exploring it. We are involved in a narrative that is both sweeping us along and that we co-create.
The contrast is that in Westworld while the guests think they are having a totally immersive experience. It’s not nearly to the level of our experience. Before we enter this park, our memories are wiped. We forget we are only playing a role. Instead of thinking we are on vacation for a couple of days or a week, we think this experience is the entire span of our lives. We forget we cannot permanently be harmed or even permanently harm another. If we kill someone or if we are killed, we are “gone”. We have forgotten it’s only game over and we’re back to our real life.
So, do we come here knowing who we are, but wondering what we can become? Do we immerse ourselves into these narratives for that reason? Is this Westworld on steroids where not only the hosts don’t know it’s just a fantasy, but even the guests don’t know?