After much fanfare, HBO’s Westworld has proven to be a hit series that was decades in the making. Its creator, American novelist Michael Crichton, first conceived of the idea back in the 1970s, resulting in the 1973 film Westworld, which Crichton wrote, and upon which made his directorial debut.
The 1973 Westworld was innovative on several fronts, perhaps most notably for being the first film to feature 2D computer imagery. Of course, there is the “anachronistic theme park of the future gone awry” concept, a motif we would learn to expect in Crichton’s work throughout the years; most notably his Jurassic Park novels.
Whether with dinosaurs, or with artificially intelligent androids that begin to rewrite the rules set for them by their human handlers, the broader message is, of course, one that involves the human preponderance for doing that with technology which, in the long run, proves to become problematic. It is a long running theme not just in Crichton’s work, of course, but in modern literature in general (one might further posit that Mary Shelley defined this genre of “man playing God gone wrong” with her pivotal story of Frankenstein).
In the early episodes of Westworld, we see the romantically-entwined Dolores and Teddy, a pair of “hosts” within the Westworld theme park whose affections are actually the programed scripting of their handlers back at Delos Incorporated. As the series plays out, certain helpful incentives allowed by Bernard, a technician who oversees a majority of Westworlds “hosts” and operations, seem to foster increasingly unusual—and unscripted—behavior of hosts like Delores.
While the idea of human creations becoming self-aware and overcoming hurdles set by their operators is the most obvious interpretation of this narrative (and hence, Westworld emerges as a warning tale of what future generations might expect with the advent of such things as AI, etc), there is more worth considering in Westworld. Rather than considering the story as merely a parable about what machines could be capable of as they escape the hands of their creators, there is the fun that ensues as we consider how the narrative differs, especially when we put ourselves in the place of the hosts within the park.
This theme was prevalent in the Matrix films in particular, in the sense that human life in the “real world” is revealed to those who have “taken the red pill” to be an experience as avatars, essentially, within a fictional world in which humans have been imprisoned. To the hosts of Westworld, little is made of the redundancy of their everyday lives, let alone any question of what might lay beyond that realm. As Delores asks Teddy why, at one point, they can’t simply leave Westworld right now, he continues to offer promises that they will, “someday”.
The idea that our waking reality could be more than what most of us perceive has been a popular reoccurring theme not just in films and television series like Westworld. Philosophers have asked similar questions for centuries, coming to only indefinite logical conclusions that might culminate in the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am.” But are you really?
Physicists and mathematicians were next to weigh in on this, positing that not only could our reality coexist alongside several different dimensions parallel to our own, but that the possibility remains—however indistinct it might seem at the present time—that we are all merely players set in some great game, controlled by an intelligence superior to our own outside the holographic “matrix” which we call reality.
To the hosts of Westworld, it is not so much an inability to conceptualize where they are, and the limitations of that environment. It is, of course, the acceptance (i.e. programming) that causes them to perceive their interactions with their handlers outside their lives within the theme park which are perceived as merely being dreams. Some level of reality which, though often experienced, still just can’t seem to fit into the narrative of reality that really could be.
As humans today are busily going about the study and, eventually, the creation of advanced artificial intelligence, we see the fictional realms of places like Westworld coming more clearly into view. And yet, as those reflections of a future (not so far off, perhaps) continues to emerge, perhaps we can learn as much if we turn that mirror on ourselves, and consider what, precisely, it means to be “artificial” or manufactured, anyway?
By Micah Hanks