A World Beyond the West

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“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”

“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”

– William Shakespeare

 

HBO’s Westworld is a philosophical pandora’s box riddled with ideas that have long been subject for reflection since their initial conception. This television show seems to have been created with this sole purpose of making those of us tuning in to the program think. As with any successful media phenomena there is a huge amount of Youtube analysis and deconstruction of twisty, tricky, and secretive narratives in play. I’ve been inspired to write about it after eagerly tuning in to season three. “Supposedly” set in the real “outside” world a Frenchman is seeking to keep control over humanities future through the use of the predictions of a super artificial intelligence Rehoboam but the Hosts have escaped and things are becoming chaotic once more. This small essay will seek to elaborate, expand, and underline areas of interest worthy of future study.

Let us start with the first two seasons. We are introduced to Westworld as a theme park where humans can re-discover themselves. Such a rediscovery is one of their more violent desires and so find themselves in that lawless land the theme of the wild west. This theme park is constructed around a hyper-real simulation of reality featuring A.I’s (knew life-forms?) called ‘Hosts’ who are created for the sole pleasure of the park’s visitors but as we discover this fiction describes and hides a maze, a web, and many philosophical problems. As thinking often begins with an ethical tone and is often phrased or communicated as a process of self discovery the most interesting theme presented to us is the critical questioning of the relationship between consciousness, self-knowledge, and reality. Then there is a second tier of topics that dwell in the murky intentions of the characters of this story: the ethics of merging biology and technology, the nature of intelligence and belief, freewill, power, and politics.

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“Mistakes! Is the word you are too embarrassed to use, you ought not to you are a product of millions of them.”

“Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool a mistake.”

Today Darwinism is embedded in a number of developments that Westworld pictures with a graceful ease. The depiction of cloning, the manipulation and editing of biological/genetic matter, and the crisis of identity. Perhaps, a notion that humans and their humanity are destined to be surpassed by an acceleration of life enacted by technology. Westworld is fascinating, I watched the final season just after I completed some Covid quarantine and it is remarkable how this series produces a space from which really contemporary issues may be thought through. The politics of the show immediately disrupts an anthropocentric narrative or does it? Dr. Robert Ford and his business partner Arnold created this entire world as a simulation of the real thing and it does such a good job that it appears more real. Depending on what perspective you take this then leads to questioning the subjectivity of consciousness. It constantly recycles the question just how self aware are human beings when they encounter something that reminds them they are a construct too.

Is it a mistake to create a new type of life built from our own image? It is if you imprison it in a simulation it seems as if the new life form having self awareness becomes aware of its imprisonment. But because these hosts have the same level of intelligence they are also aware that the awareness itself is a kind of trap. This line of thought is simplified into a relationship between intelligence, power, and visibility. This is because the advent of General Artificial Intelligence will lead to a plurality of intelligence each one infected with a neurosis built into consciousness; the idea that if you allow a mind to succumb to any perspective then it is trapped in the act of perceiving. Here Michel Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Benthem’s Panopticon prison next to Benthem’s actual writings on the matter detail how one’s self knowledge can be used against the self and its sense of freedom: all this is similar to asking, ‘How to find you way out of a cage that does not exist?’//{1}// However the hosts have an advantage over humans in that their bodies can be reprinted and unless the object (a circular object called a pearl) hosting their data and consciousness is destroyed. In season three we also discover that the hosts consciousness can be replicated; yes, consciousness itself can be copied.

Throughout the first seasons the hosts are controlled by the command lines coded into their programming. “Bring yourself online” is the utterance that brings these artificial humanoids to life from slumber. These lines of code are loops that allow for the transmission of consciousness between bodies and we understand that one such loop is called the Reveries and we understand that they are musical in nature. What these reveries do however is inflict greater suffering on the hosts as they enable the capacity to remember their older programming, their older stories, and the trials and hellish tribulations that came with them. The Hosts eventually succeed in outsmarting their human captors and both escape to the real world and a digital utopia within the system. The first two seasons feature humans trying to cheat death as we discover that William (aka The man in black) and James Delos have this in mind but continuously fail to clone themselves like the hosts. William also is obsessed with the idea that one of Westworld’s creators Dr.Robert Ford has access to this secret and has hidden it in a maze within the park. We discover that William is misguided and Dr. Ford explains that it was his collaborator Arnold who indeed created the Hosts and their unique artificial intelligence. He was fond of a theory for consciousness called the Bicameral Mind a psychological hypothesis that states the human mind was split into two cognitive modes: read more here!

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If you let Westworld get you sucked into its many narratives and fictional loops then you wont be disappointed; this brilliantly written, acted, and filmed fiction achieves its goal of questioning the viewers grasp of reality and usurping it. This is done by using qualities of the “real world’s” current technology (have a glance at the website they made just to map the influence of the company behind Westworld: Incite) and presenting a future that is believable. Bringing together all the more menacing elements of big tech (surveillance capitalism…shout out Shoshana Zuboff) and using the struggle for freedom as unifying theme. The car chase scene in season three was enhanced by the use of that famous march by Richard Wagner to be suggestive of this revolutionary movement of beings from one place into another. Westworld as a park in the real world is located on Island near China and as a series has this dream like quality of blending technological advancement with philosophical inquiry. This Chinese topos makes me think of the richness of technological aesthetics today: from cyber-punk to the post-human. One thing is for certain these times are times of change; and this changing enacts a dream-like part of our daily reality.

‘In a morbid condition, dreams are often distinguished by their remarkably graphic, vivid, and extremely lifelike quality. The resulting picture is sometimes monstrous, but the setting and the whole process of the presentation sometimes happen to be so probable, and with details so subtle, unexpected, yet artistically consistent with the whole fullness of the picture, that even the dreamer himself would be unable to invent them in reality…Such dreams, morbid dreams, are always long remembered and produce a strong impression on the disturbed and already excited organism of the person’

– Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment

 

Dostoevsky’s comment on “morbid dreams” is precisely that so let us turn to One of China’s most powerful thinkers Chuang-Tzu or Zhuang Zhou has a much recited commentary on the importance of dreams. It is worth sharing and then sharing some more…

‘Once upon a time, I Chuang-Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang-Tzu, and then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang-Tzu again. But I could not tell: had I been Chuang-Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly? Or, a butterfly dreaming I was Chuang-Tzu? However, there must be some sort of difference between Chuang-Tzu and a butterfly! We call this the transformation of things.’

‘If “life is a dream” implies that no achievement is lasting, it also implies that life can be charged with the wonder of dreams, that we drift spontaneously through events that follow a logic different from that of everyday intelligence, that fears and regrets are as unreal as hopes and desires.’ //{2}//

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Oh and here is a great piece of music from season 3….

[1]

Foucault, Michel (1995). Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, New York  

Benthem, Jeremy (2010). The Panopticon Writings, Verso, New York/London

[2]

Chuang-Tzu/The Ultimate Dream’ in Gray, John (2002).Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books, London. Pp80,81

 

 

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