A Spoiler-Free Look at What WestWorld Says About OurWorld
WestWorld deftly explores what few science fiction movies dare to approach. It does so with elegance, humor, and wit, even if it is a little predictable.
Let’s look at the thoughts that remained with me after 10 hours of fairly impressive television (yes, I binge watched it).
If you want a review or commentary on the recent WestWorld season finale, those exist. No comment I can make, nor review you can read can make up for watching the show yourself — if you haven’t already I hope this post will inspire you to begin.
The shortcomings of sci-fi artificial intelligence and where WestWorld hits close to home.
First, the one-sentence refresher (just in case you need it):
WestWorld is a show about artificial people who were made as part of a theme park designed to cater to “real” people.
It also just happens to be set in the American Southwest, which is a fun bonus from a scenery standpoint.
Like many AI-related stories of late (looking at you, Chappie), despite the pitch the storyline is far more about ethics and philosophy than it is about engineering and technology.
Here in RealWorld,
…ever since we flipped the switch on our first machines, we’ve wondered if we’re fated to build our own predecessor.
WestWorld pretends to explore that fate, while instead challenging the audience’s intuitions about sentience and consciousness.
From the days of Turing right up until as recently as Elon Musk’s tweets several years ago, those at the forefront of computation have wondered how humanity’s destiny is intertwined with the machines we continue to build and improve.
Often, we’ve wondered what it might take to build artificial people — and many are hard at work on creating realistic artificial intelligence even today.
The unfortunate and uninteresting fact of our reality is that in the near term we’re much likelier to make a dumb machine or weapon that will kill us all than we are to manage to successfully create a fully artificial person (Read Superintelligence if you’re curious about this).
While I’ve been vocal before about the tone-deafness of the entertainment industry to the real and very story-worthy dangers of machine intelligence, this is, once again, not a story about that.
The mystery WestWorld dives into isn’t tech-driven, it’s personal.
Forget artificial people — Do we even consider natural humans people? WestWorld points out that we certainly don’t act like it much of the time.
The value of stories like WestWorld and Chappie stems from the characters themselves and their relationships with each other and their creations.
WestWorld’s primary question is one that was posed decades ago by Eric Berne.
Can there be real intimacy in scripted interactions?
Are we alone or can we find solace, refuge, and connection in entities that are not people? Are those beings worthy of rights, choices, and agency? If it’s up to us, is there a duty to grant them free will?
Are we willing to grant ourselves free will?
Are we somehow denying our true identity by playing by the rules?
For once, I’m glad WestWorld went this direction. I’ve been frustrated with similar stories attempting to go this route, but WW finally nailed it. Far more interesting than the over-wrought sci-fi trope of our species’ supposed inability to handle advanced technology is the history of personhood.
Humans — in both our world and in WestWorld — have been picky about who we are willing to deem “people” and the writers of WestWorld are happy to call us out on how wrong we might be.
Though we like to imagine the inhabitants of our “real” world high on a moral arc and ready to ascend further, history denies us that bliss.
It’s been barely a century that the majority of human groups have even begun to strive toward treating every variety of our own species like people (and even still we regularly fall short of this idea).
It seems like it will likely be many more centuries before we dare consider which other species are worthy of personhood.
So I enjoy when media offers such a chance to introspect.
The magic which weaves the story of WestWorld asks us to imagine the borders of our own empathy. It suggests that our concept of personhood may not be so strict or even well defined.
By introducing a framework through which consciousness might be accidentally given to robots, WestWorld provides an opportunity to start to ask questions about the importance of our self-awareness.
The story wonders aloud about our ability to relate to each other as people. It points out that we struggle even to imagine one another as complex creatures with internal, subjective experiences and our own sense of agency, much less the robots we might create.
Characters from all parts of the story unapologetically imply that even we great humans, conscious, aware, and sentient though we imagine ourselves, fall prey to unconscious action on a more regular basis than we’d like to admit.
Are we free? Would it matter if we weren’t?
WestWorld season 1 ends in ultimatum:
As individuals we must try, even when it is difficult, to consider the people we share our world with as real.
As real as ourselves. Even if they aren’t, as in WestWorld.
Many of the greatest tragedies in history stem simply from one group of people successfully isolating themselves from the personhood of another group.
West World invites us to see that we aren’t so different or special, and to imagine our real lives as a game that we have the opportunity to play either cooperatively or in fear of each other.
The show points out that no matter how seriously we take our roles in our own story, other people have other plans.
WestWorld’s inhabitants and narratives insist that the beauty of life is in not in winning or losing, nor in being trapped or free. Instead, joy comes from the thoughtful balance of wills against each other and the cooperation of people who find themselves in common circumstances to build something more beautiful than individuals could imagine or desire on their own.
WestWorld’s biggest strength is that in weaving a fantasy about the perils of building a civilization writers did not shy away from showing just how high the stakes can be.
WestWorld exists to entertain its visitors, and strives to give meaning to its inhabitants. To do so, park overseers must be honest about their ethical responsibility and navigate both genocide and revolution.
The challenges of building a peaceful and profitable WestWorld are the same we face in building our own.
Or are they?
Watch it for yourself if you haven’t already. If you need me I’ll be stuck in a loop, rewatching season 1 to catch all of the foreshadowing and waiting impatiently for season 2. See you in the next life.