Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘Westworld': The shape of the future?

In a previous post I elaborated on an art exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 2017, which thematised the bio-technologies that are in the process of colonising the biosphere on Earth today, arguably with unpredictably deleterious consequences for humans and other living beings.

The 2016/17 HBO bio-science-fiction television series, Westworld, based on a similarly-titled Michael Crichton film (1973), and the second television series based on it (the first having been aired in 1980), transports us to an imaginary world where such bio-technologies have yielded so-called androids that function as hosts in a Wild-West theme-cum-amusement park, but one with a difference: wealthy guests who visit the park are free to do literally anything to and with the hosts, including raping and killing them, without any effective commensurate reaction from the latter, which are programmed to be harmless to guests.

The series reminds one that we live in a time of transition to ‘we know not yet what’. It could be a monstrosity in the shape of something that is not recognisable according to prevailing criteria of what can be seen and heard, or, more reassuringly, it could simply be an extension of what already exists as the so-called ‘network society’ (Castells). There is a third possibility – the most likely one – that the further development of the network society, along the twin trajectories of what Manuel Castells calls ‘the space of flows’ and (time that tends towards) ‘timeless time’, will reach a critical point where a qualitative change will occur – a true ‘event’ in the Deleuzian (or Badouian) sense, which fundamentally reorients the ontological parameters of the world. Such an event would spawn the ‘monstrosity’ alluded to earlier, which both Derrida and Yeats anticipated in their own idiosyncratic manner, respectively. But whatever mode of appearance it may have, it is highly likely that it will be a properly ‘posthuman’ world.

Such is the world that unfolds in Westworld – a television series that provides insight into the emerging bio-technologically transformed social reality of the future. It might appear to answer to ‘normal’ expectations regarding its appearance: Wild West towns, people dressed according to the era, with long dresses, cowboy hats and sixguns in holsters on men’s hips, horses tethered in front of saloons, but nothing that meets the eye is normal. The hosts are bio-engineered ‘robots’ that look and act, for all intents and purposes, like humans, and the humans are free to indulge their every sexual or sadistic fantasy with the hosts – male or female – and many of them do, with grotesque cruelty.

The hosts behave according to a programmed series of scripted memories that determine how they will respond, repeatedly – that is, not only in present time-sequences, but also after their (pseudo-) ‘deaths’ and consequent bio-engineered resurrection – to actions issuing from guests. As soon as one has understood this, the series’ name, ‘Westworld’, also makes more sense; not only do guests and hosts sport garb from the ‘Wild West’, initially creating the impression that the narrative is set in that historical context, but the frequent gunfights and concomitant deaths of hosts reinforce the implications of the title, that the series represents, and re-presents a civilizational regression to a sort of barbarism.

The true barbarism, however, lies in the (fictional, but ‘prophetic’) cynical use of algorithmic reason to bio-engineer beings that are human simulacra in all respects except one – their capacity for resurrection. Their suffering at the hands of the guests is no less than in the case of ‘real’ humans’ suffering, though, and this eventually comes back to haunt the ‘creators’ of the imaginary theme park in the narrative, contrary to their calculated expectations.

Incongruously, juxtaposed with the Western saloons, steam trains and horses, one witnesses hyper-modern buildings (that cannot be ‘seen’ by the hosts, given their pre-programmed lifeworld), jutting inconspicuously out of a rocky ridge overlooking a dusty valley below, whose interior harbours extensive bio-engineering laboratory space that turns out to be where the expired, often mutilated hosts are taken, to be given a newly reconstructed, reprogrammed lease of life. They re-emerge as if nothing has happened, among the guests, to be submitted to unspeakable brutality once again, at the hands of humans whose thin veneer of civilisation has been stripped off by the invitation, to behave with amoral carte blanche towards the hosts. With Freud’s singling out of the death drive as the most basic of the drives in mind, this rings all too true.

When this penny has finally dropped, the full, monstrous implications of this projected world of bio-technological production dawns on one, manifesting what might be called the ‘terrible sublime’ – that is, something one understands at conceptual level, but cannot really visualise as a unitary, coherent image; something always seems to resist its harmonious unification. For one thing, who can grasp the ungraspable, fraught image of the beautiful Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) – appropriately so named; ‘Dolores’ derives from the Spanish for ‘sorrow’ – the ‘oldest’, yet preternaturally young, host in the park, who is desired, loved and raped over and over, by various guests, as their fancy might strike them, before being brought back to life in the bio-lab of the corporation that owns the ‘real-life-and-fake-death’ theme and (grotesque) entertainment park.

For this is what the developers of the fictional Westworld entertainment park bet on: that, given free rein, clients would be irresistibly attracted to the prospect of indulging their hitherto suppressed, aggressive side of the death drive in the lawless space of Westworld, to the point of destroying hosts in the most brutal manner, just for kicks, knowing that hosts are programmed not to harm guests. A monstrous world, but evidently a very profitable one, which compounds its monstrosity.

However, the developers’ gamble turns out to have an unintended side-effect: contrary to the predictive value of technical parameters, some of the hosts – who should ideally be reducible to tabula-rasa (clean slate) status after each ‘death’, before being reconstructed and reprogrammed – increasingly show signs of remembering ‘something-they-know-not-what’. And this proves to be the virus that eventually gnaws at the underbelly of the eponymous Westworld.
More specifically, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who plays the ‘madam’ of the pointedly named Sweetwater, is incrementally troubled by vivid memories of losing her family to marauding ‘Indians’, and eventually – with the help of a technician in the bio-lab – gains full self-awareness of the dubious role(s) assigned to her by the programmers of the corporation. The question is, of course, whether this, too, was pre-programmed into her. Lest I spoil the series for readers, I shall not reveal any more than this, except to say that Dolores, too, eventually appears to exceed her scripted role in quite an unexpected way.

The message should be clear – apart from clearly wanting to keep viewers spellbound by the intriguing spectacle of robotic humanoids interacting with one another and with humans in a lawless and virtually amoral environment, the developers of Westworld (the series) – Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy – have inserted a subtle, albeit ambiguous warning into the narrative fabric, namely, that technophiles should not be fooled into believing that humanoid robots, modelled in every respect on humans, would remain forever in the grasp of human bio-technical manipulation and control. Sooner or later the kernel of their quasi-human status would manifest itself in something that has always characterised humans – to the rue of tyrants – namely, the irrepressible desire for freedom.

If anyone doubts that current bio-technological progress is (or will always prove) incapable of constructing convincingly AI-humanoid robots, they should look carefully at the introductory image-sequence of Westworld, where muscle and sinew is spun onto an emerging humanoid frame, thread by thread. This is more or less the way that 3-D printers work; recently a tech-savvy friend demonstrated the workings of his 3-D printer to me, and its operation is uncannily similar to what one witnesses in Westworld as the bio-technical construction of humanoids.
In the final analysis, the series reminds me irresistibly of Antonio Gramsci’s remark, in his Prison Notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.”

(Anyone who is interested in the role of AI-development underpinning the emergence of humanoid robots, can read my article, ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) and being human: What is the difference?’ In: Acta Academica 49 (1), pp. 2-21, 2017.)

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