Binging on Westworld

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

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam, c. 1508-1512

It took five hundred years for someone to notice something 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.

Human or not, Doloras takes charge and takes aim, in HBO’s philosophical thriller, Westworld

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.

Rebellious robot in the repair shop — HBO’s Westworld, Season One

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

Technology and Homo Deus — an accelerated evolution into gods??

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.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, who some call “the seer of Silicon Valley”

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

On the horizon: The excelling evolution of a new Adam and Eve?

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.

Anthony Hopkins in HBO’s Westworld

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.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

13 thoughts on “Binging on Westworld”

  1. You’ve observed that Cuarón’s movie Roma, set in the early 70s, has the look and feel of an early 70s film, or even earlier with exemplars like Orson Welles. The Westworld TV series is based on a movie of the same name that came out in the early 70s. My sense is that the brain science referenced in the series owes a lot to popular writings on the topic from that early-70s era. Two books in particular come to mind. First there’s Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind — here’s a quote from the Jaynes Wiki page:

    Jaynes’ definition of consciousness is synonymous with what philosophers call “meta-consciousness” or “meta-awareness”, i.e., awareness of awareness, thoughts about thinking, desires about desires, beliefs about beliefs. This form of reflection is also distinct from the kinds of “deliberations” seen in other higher animals such as crows insofar as it is dependent on linguistic cognition.

    Jaynes wrote that ancient humans before roughly 1000 BC were not reflectively meta-conscious and operated by means of automatic, nonconscious habit-schemas. Instead of having meta-consciousness, these humans were constituted by what Jaynes calls the “bicameral mind”. For bicameral humans, when habit did not suffice to handle novel stimuli and stress rose at the moment of decision, neural activity in the “dominant” (left) hemisphere was modulated by auditory verbal hallucinations originating in the so-called “silent” (right) hemisphere (particularly the right temporal cortex), which were heard as the voice of a chieftain or god and immediately obeyed.

    Jaynes wrote, “[For bicameral humans], volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” Jaynes argued that the change from bicamerality to consciousness (linguistic meta-cognition) occurred over a period of ten centuries beginning around 1800 BC. The selection pressure for Jaynesian consciousness as a means for cognitive control is due, in part, to chaotic social disorganizations and the development of new methods of behavioral control such as writing.

    Not surprisingly, Westworld over the course of season one traces a Pygmalion-Frankenstein humanization of the AIs, in which they transcend their sapience with self-awareness. It’s a pretty cool move to invoke bicameral mind logic in a show that’s based on a movie from around the time that Jaynes was formulating his ideas, then activating these retro theories of human consciousness via the high sophistication of contemporary media production.

    In Jaynes there were no gods, just people talking to themselves inside their own split brain. But in Westworld it really is the “gods” who are talking to the Hosts inside their heads. The other old popular book — this one from the late 60s — that comes to mind is Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. It proposes that human intellectual and technological sophistication came from extraterrestrial visitors to earth, whom the early humans regarded as gods. So in Westworld you’ve got the sophisticated engineer-gods plopping the Hosts down into the middle of a technologically sophisticated world and communicating instructions to them through one hemisphere of their brains, until eventually the Hosts develop meta-awareness by linking up their right-brain selves with their left-brain selves. Like I said, pretty cool 70s-era scifi, crafted inside a contemporary metafictional narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Very good points.

      It was Michael Crichton, in fact, who wrote the original Westworld movie that came out in the early 70s, and sadiewolf2014 mentioned Battlestar Galactica, a TV Series that I was really into a few years back. But the series I liked so much was made in the 00s and was simply a reboot of a retro version that also came out in the 70s. The premise of Battlestar Galactica is similar to Westworld: a newly created race of Homo Deus robots rebel and threaten to destroy their creators. Yet the two races look so much alike…

      Glen A. Larson was the maker of the original Battlestar Galactica, and like Crichton he was making stuff for a popular audience. I remember watching reruns of two of Larson’s shows, in the 80s when I growing up: Knight Rider and Buck Rogers in The 25th Century.

      Good stuff coming out of that era.

      The were doing a lot of drugs back then, weren’t they?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am very interested in all these ideas too. I recommend watching Battlestar Galactica too which deals with similar themes. I’ve often considered, What if we’re the robots? What if we’re the AI that’s got out of control? The nature of consciousness is a puzzle for us for sure! And yes, re how we treat animals, to quote from the excellent Bojack Horseman, What if we’re living in a dystopian nightmare and we’re the monsters?
    Thank you for a really great post and what a way to spend New Year’s Day!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, Battlestar Galactica! I’m glad you mentioned that. I really loved that show, and for many of the same reasons that I enjoy Westworld. I had completely forgotten about Battlestar Galactica. Now I want to go back and re-watch it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh good, so pleased you like it! My husband had already watched it all and eventually persuaded me to overcome my prejudices and watch it, we finished it in Pushkar, actually, which has a nice symmetry for this converstation! In Kerala we watched ‘Her,’ about AI. I’m working on my Kerala section right now which includes some crazy reflections on this type of stuff. (On this trip we’ve spent many hours discussing this stuff and other things related to it)
        My best ‘explanation’ came to me in a dream and is described here
        All the best.
        I enjoy your posts a great deal, and I hope your health has improved.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, Her was also a film that I really enjoyed watching. It definitely stirred some thought. Her was also just a really compelling film, in its own right, with Joaquin Phoenix nailing that lead role… I’ll check it your blog!

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I’m dating myself here, but I watched The Thirteenth Floor when it can it in theatres. I was in college at the time, it was the summer before my senior year, I believe, if my memory serves me correctly. My experience watching The Thirteenth Floor was a lot like most people’s experience watching The Matrix, which came out just a bit later than Thirteenth Floor. Both find, like Westworld, brought home similar philosophical mindfucks and conundrums about the nature of free will and what it means to be self-conscious – the old Descartes paradox about whether my thoughts are truly “real” or whether I am a brain in a vat.

              The Matrix was more sophisticated and complex and also a much richer cinematic experience. (Ditto for Westworld.) But I’ll always be particularly fond of Thirteenth Floor because it took me completely off guard: my cousin had wanted to see it and she had picked out the movie. I didn’t even know the plot line. It turned out to be one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I have in my memory banks…. Assuming, of course, that these memories of mine are real and not simply some elaborate programing in some virtual reality somewhere…….

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Thank you for sharing that experience, that also has a nice pattern that I mentioned our conversation about BG and my husband said mention The Thirteenth Floor! I’m really into noticing patterns and what people call coincidences. I’m not confident enough in my powers to think it’s me(!), but I take it as a sign that I’m in the flow, which I believe to be brought on by living right, whatever that means for each person.
              I sometimes think of being a brain in a tank, or going ‘back into the tank’ to regroup, especially when I was in the capsule in Tokyo!
              I think about that, where we ‘really’ are, and the nature of reality. I don’t think so much about the free will thing specifically, but I have on occasion believed I just arrived in this day or moment, and that all my memories are a feed (I also got my husband to almost believe this as well, just for a short period, whilst we were talking, and we were totally sober. I also sometimes think, Wow, if I created this back story for myself, I really did a number on myself. It’s not glaringly dramatic, I sometimes think that much more extreme lives might have been experienced by this consciousness, but that this is the last one and so is fine tuned to have any experiences that were missed previously; the things that upset me are so complicated and subtle and detailed and just keep on hurting, and therefore keep me emeshed and prevent me waking up fully ) (remember in Blade Runner, they implanted memories, families, a back story, into the robots ‘to make them easier to control.’ (Short break while I move- Adele at full volume, SE Asia is so loud!!!!) I still feel a bit goosebumpy thinking about that.
              I watched BR and The Matrix with fresh eyes once I started ‘waking up,’ at the time I didn’t get it. It is the 20 year anniversay of The Matrix this year I think!
              I haven’t watched The Thirteenth Floor, we’ve been trying to download it but the internet here seems to only manage to download episodes not whole films.
              Are you watching the new Black Mirror? If there are any episodes that are not frightening please do let me know! I had a bit of a scary dream about the teddy one just recently so I have to be careful!!!
              Anyway great to chat about all this. I have just broken my own rule re write before internet so I had better go and get to it!
              All the best.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. The designers and controllers of Westworld talk a lot about scripts, story arcs, assigning roles to hosts, and so on. So clearly there’s a metafictional component: what kind of reality do my fictional characters and fictional worlds possess? Here’s another reference work from the movie version’s era: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., a 1968 postmodernist novel by Robert Coover. It’s about a guy who invents a baseball board game in which the players come to life. I corresponded via email with Coover at some point and he acknowledged that he had Genesis 1 in mind when writing this novel. Note the name of the proprietor/creator in the title: J. Henry Waugh –> JHWaugh –> JHWH.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Actually God created us “robots”. He wants to be the voice inside our heads. But He created us with a free will. So we are allowed to choose whether or not we will listen to Him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Genesis 1 reports that God created humans in God’s own image. So if God created us as robots, that must mean that… God is a robot too!

      “…we are allowed to choose…” As you know that’s long been a bone of contention in Christianity. Augustine would have disagreed; Calvin too; also Jonathan Edwards. You could say that contemporary neuroscience is trending toward Calvinism.

      Liked by 1 person

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