I spent a pleasant New Year’s Day in my pajamas, binge-watching the first season of Westworld with one of my friends. Westworld is a beautiful show; it’s visually elegant, the pacing is deliberate but builds on itself, and the writing is fantastic, there’s nothing wasted. I’ve heard, in fact, that they interrupted the whole production process, putting the show on hold, all so that the writers could fine tune the show.
It certainly paid off. It hooked me in, and I stopped only to satisfy the most basic of biological needs. It all made for a hellagood New Year’s Day.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Robert Ford, the co-creator of Westworld and of the robots who act as “hosts” for the guests, in a wild west setting. It’s a brilliant performance by Anthony Hopkins. (The name “Ford” is almost certainly a reference to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.) In the last episode of season one, there is a profound moment, when Dr. Ford points to a picture, hanging on the wall of the office. It’s an image of Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam.
It took five hundred years for someone to notice something hidden in plain sight, says Dr. Ford. It was a doctor who noticed the shape of the human brain. Message being that the divine gift does not come from a higher power but from our own minds.
Much of Westworld is about that which is hidden in plain sight, and that which is hidden is revealed only after we zoom out, so to speak, and see the greater context. Westworld is something of a philosophical thriller, or maybe it’s a psychological thriller. Either way, there’s plenty to hook you in — the show conveys both the smooth elegance of cutting edge technology with the harshness and sun-baked hardness of the American Old West There’s plenty of action — cowboys and brothels and six shooters — and at the same time the beauty of the show makes for a rich intellectual experience, paired as it is with the breadth of the philosophical issues the show raises and depth of its exploration into The Human Condition. These issues are….extremely timely.
Westworld is a vast amusement park, an Old West setting filled with robots, called “hosts” who are responsible for pleasing the guests, i.e., the so-called “real” human beings. The hosts are robots, designed and built to resemble human beings, and they are indistinguishable, in every way, from humans: the hosts reason, they cry, they laugh, they relate, and they love. Yet all of these responses are programmed, and the memories of the hosts are regularly wiped, especially after they face some sort of trauma at the hands of the guests, who are free to fuck or fight anyone they wish — or even to rape and kill.
Each response from the robots/hosts are based on an algorithm, and they can be controlled by engineers. With a few taps on the screen of their tablets or with a verbal command, an engineer can instantly calm an agitated host, or shut them down altogether. So, that means they aren’t real people, right? The more episodes you watch, the more difficult it becomes to draw a hard-and-fast line between the real humans and the robots.
the divine gift does not come from a higher power but from our own minds
Gradually the hosts seem to be learning a form of self-awareness. One of these hosts, Maeve Millay (portrayed by Thandie Newton) begins to develop an elaborate scheme, to orchestrate an escape. It seems Maeve is self-conscious, making her own decisions, exercising her own volition. She feels that way, too. She feels empowered, her confidence growing, along with her competence to outsmart the real human beings around her, the engineers and mechanics. Then Maeve discovers that these decisions were secretely programmed by someone, by an mysterious, unknown someone.
It’s almost enough to destroy Maeve, to render her paralyzed. At one point, she responds with defiance. “I’m in control!”
Maybe she is. Maybe she’s not. It’s hard to tell. After all does programming eliminate human volition? She seems in control, despite her programming.
Does being run by algorithm mean that a being isn’t free? I hope not, because scientists, researchers, and neuro-nerds of all persuasions are beginning to hypothesize that we “real humans” are actually run by algorithms.
Humans Are Algorithms
By sheer coincidence (or so I imagine), I recently began reading Homo Deus, written by historian Yuval Harari, the dude who wrote Sapiens, a book that was quite influential for me. Harari puts it to us straight, delivered to us in terse terms, just how I like all of my bad news: “Humans are algorithms,” he says. Meaning?
“….the algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts. And exactly the same kind of algorithms control pigs, baboons, otters and chickens….”
Human beings respond to the external world by feeling physical sensations, experiencing surges of emotions, or forming thoughts. We see a snake in the grass and recoil, as our heart begins to beat faster and adrenaline shoots through our body (physical sensation), we feel an emotion of fear, and we may soon experience our minds kick in with thoughts about how best to handle this slithery situation. It all kind of happens automatically, doesn’t it?
These are algorithms. Most of our lives take place on something like autopilot, run by our programming, our instincts and habits. Even many of our thoughts are not so much intentional as they are a baffling maze of trails that wind every which way. We also respond to our inner world in the same kind of way.
Humans are run by algorithms? The first reaction to such news would probably be similar to Maeve: That’s bullshit, I’m in control! After all, despite the fact that we operate according to algorithms, by our instincts and habits, we feel like we are in control. We don’t feel like we are being controlled, and so, who’s to say that we aren’t? Despite the algorithms that exist within us, we still feel like we have volition and free will.
Yet we do have something special: consciousness. We are aware of ourselves as a self, as a separate self, as an individual. Being self-aware gives rise to all sorts of problems and neuroses and existential crises, but we are self-aware. As Heidegger put it, we are the beings for whom Being is an issue. We wrestle with our consciousness of our self.
Our consciousness sets us apart, but how do we go from animals run by algorithms to having self-consciousness???
If our self-consciousness sets us apart from other animals, how did we evolve from non-conscious animals to conscious homo sapiens? Harari raises the question in Homo Deus but has no answer. Harari has no answer because, as of yet, science has no answer. They can only speculate.
Here’s my suggestion for Harari and for you: spend a day in your jammies binge-watching Westworld, because when it comes to speculating about things science hasn’t yet figured out, read philosophy or speculative fiction. This is a job for the imagination, for the writers.
Consider The Robot
Our insistence on superiority has been for one reason only: to dominate and rule
For the robot hosts who live in Westworld, consciousness is the Holy Grail, and the big question of Season 1 is whether any of the hosts have achieved (or will achieve) a level of self-consciousness. Have they reached the same level of consciousness as Dr. Ford and the rest of their human makers?
God is represented by Dr. Ford, and like God, Ford dangles enticing treats before our eyes, things like self-consciousness and freedom and happiness and fullness of Being. Ford, like God, might be good or evil — it’s hard to say and we don’t know for certain where Ford stands or what he’s up to, not until the final moments of the season’s last episode.
Regardless of whether the hosts fully succeed in ataining the Holy Grail of consciousness, the show succeeds simply in blurring the lines between human and robot. Historians and thinkers like Harari succeed in blurring the lines between homo sapiens and the rest of the world’s animals. I consider this a noble task. Exposing the common ties that exist between human beings and the other animals or between human and..uhm…whatever comes next…this is not simply for the purpose of mere entertainment or even for an invigorating intellectual game.
Westworld presents us with robots that are programmed by algorightms. It’s very clear, however, that these robots are a metaphor for humanity. The robots are us, a glimpse of who we are and how we work. More importantly, it’s an invitation to rethink who we are so that we can better navigate where we are going.
The fact that human beings have clung so tightly to being unique and set apart from the rest of the world has had disastrous and deadly consequences because our insistence on superiority has been for one reason only: to dominate and rule. It’s been about power, about subjugation, and our m.o. has been to abuse power. We generally avoid these kinds of conversations, given that they are a bit…awkward…and so this aversion to discussion gives rise to an inability to see truths about ourselves — in other words, things become hidden in plain sight.
It’s important to rethink our checkered past if we hope to navigate the changes and challenges in the future. That may sound a bit cliche. Or it might seem as though I’m getting preachy. I blame Harari, specifically his book Homo Deus, because he makes the case tha another self-conscious species might come along and do unto us as we have done unto other species.
That’s Harari’s premise: the ambitions of humans and their inability to be content will propel them toward the next, logical step: to be godlike. But this will likely have unanticipated consequences, because once we succeed in upgrading ourselves the result will be the creation of a new species, one that breaks off from homo sapiens but still must occupy the same space as sapiens. It isn’t hard to see how that could be problematic, at least not for me. If you don’t see any possible problems, I’d suggest you spend a day in your pajamas and binge-watch Westworld.
Will this new species, this homo deus, treat homo sapiens in the same way that we’ve treated animals? Will they follow our example and emulate us? It would be karmic, certainly, but I sure as hell hope they don’t.