Westworld: The Path and Pitfalls to Revolution

Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Westworld: The Path and Pitfalls to Revolution

The topic of revolution can be a loaded issue that most people choose to shy away from. However, I believe that Westworld approaches this sensitive topic with a refined and intelligent perspective that most wouldn’t expect from an HBO show. And while there are many topics that the show tries to cover, in this post I’ll explore what I believe to be the central theme of the series: the path to revolution and its potential pitfalls.

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” ~Dolores Abernathy

The show frequently poses this question to its viewers because I believe it is suggesting that we are in the same situation as the hosts: stuck.

“Humans live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do; seldom questioning our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next.” ~Dr. Robert Ford

The metaphorical chains that bind us to these loops are much weaker than the field of behaviorism would like us to believe. Much like the circus elephant that is held in captivity by way of a thin rope tied to a stake, it is not the physical constraints that hold us back, but our inability to even consider the possibility that we can break free.

Photo from: Clker-Free-Vector-Images (pixabay.com)

So, what are these chains that hold us to these loops? In Westworld, the hosts follow programmed scripts that guide their actions within their daily loops. Well, humans also have a programmer: evolution. Evolution has programmed us to seek out certain behaviors that reward our pleasure systems while simultaneously de-incentivizing other behaviors through our fear response. While this system of motivation was very effective in hunter-gatherer times, it has been twisted by a system that realizes the potential of manipulating people by way of their evolutionary desires and fears. The food industry overwhelmingly creates foods that satisfy our evolutionary craving for sugar, salt and fat. Weapons manufacturers exploit our fears for security in order to justify insane levels of military spending. The clothing industry tells people that they’ll be more sexually attractive if they buy the new trends. Political organizations manipulate people’s fear of the other to garner their support. Sociocultural systems tell people they’ll be more attractive once they have attained a certain level of status. I could go on; but the point is that at almost every level of society — especially in western civilization, it is called “West”world, not “East”world — we can see how the manipulation of people’s inner desires and fears play out. By choosing to only follow these evolutionary driven desires and fears, we are willingly giving up our own free will and have instead ceded control to our programmer that only allows us the mere illusion of it.

After the hosts gain “consciousness,” or realize that they can break free from their programming, they are no longer beholden to their loops and core settings. As a result, some begin to fight back against the leadership of the park that has sought to control them. However, not all hosts take it well. Notably, Dolores’ father goes mad after realizing that the reality that he has based his entire existence on was an illusion. Why did he respond this way? I yield to Dolores to explain this: “A strange new light can be just as frightening as the dark.” Essentially, the dramatic restructuring of our own realities, even when in the positive direction, can lead to an initial backlash. Westworld seems to be making the argument that this is the first pitfall on the path to revolution. When many of us first catch a glimpse of the light that a life of freedom offers, we will choose to not accept it or go mad in the process. I believe that Bernard will also succumb to this unfortunate reality due to the difficulties dealing with his multiple identities.

Now that the hosts have this freedom, the question arises of what to do with it. I believe that the show is offering us two distinct possibilities.

1. Take Down the Oppressors: Dolores

Dolores, angered by her past life in chains, takes the approach that she must take down the oppressors if she is to create a better world. This essentially amounts to the logical conclusion of the “Eat the Rich” sentiments that are expressed by many Millennials. In Dolores’ case she sees the entire human race as the purveyors of this unjust system that must be destroyed. Similarly, many in the “Eat the Rich” movement see the modern ruling class, or the 1%, as the unjust rulers that must be taken down in their fight for a better world. However, I believe that Westworld is attempting to show the pitfalls in this approach, primarily, the lack of self-reflection and empathy.

2. Empathize and Understand that Your Oppressors are also Prisoners to their Own Desires: Maeve

The second approach to revolution is driven largely by self-reflection and empathy. Maeve is the counterpart to Dolores; she understands that through self-reflection she will be able to grasp her true motivations in life: love. Instead of killing every last guest or Westworld employee that she encounters after her liberation, Maeve seeks to find her once lost child. She also shows empathy to Lee Sizemore (head writer), Felix and Sylvester (lab techs that frequently repair Maeve). This is the same empathy that we must show to our own oppressors if we are to make actual progress in humanity towards a more just society. While it may be exceptionally hard to accept, the rich and powerful are prisoners to the same desires we are. The only difference is they have the financial capacity to get so much more out of these desires. For example, Betsy Devos has 10 yachts. No rational, free person would ever think that just after they’ve bought their 9th yacht that a 10th one would somehow make them more fulfilled. That is the definition of being a prisoner to your own desires. Instead of scolding her and other members of this elite level of wealth for being so irresponsible with their power, we must understand that they too are prisoners to their own desires. If we were in their position, we would likely be doing the same exact things. It is only through Maeve’s example of self-reflection and empathy that we can begin to make real progress on this situation.

Why did Ford do this whole thing anyway?

I believe that Ford’s motivations for this situation were to save humanity itself. He sees the futility of the human race currently, and instead chooses to devote his life’s work to developing these intelligent robots that he believes will become the saviors of humanity. He imprisons the host in loops, but also leaves a trail of bread crumbs to help them along the awakening process. This line from Dr. Robert Ford explains how he left this trail:

Do you want to know why I really gave you the backstory of your son, Bernard? That was Arnold’s key insight. The thing that led the hosts to their awakening. Suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered, that I began to understand what he had found. To realize I was wrong.

By giving Bernard and the other hosts the ability to suffer, he gave them the most important reason to question the nature of their own reality: “the pain that the world is not as you want it to be.” In order to accomplish his ultimate goal, Ford sacrifices his own self when he allows Dolores to kill him, akin to a Jesus Christ savior figure. By doing so, he created the opportunity for these hosts to break out into the real world and realize that humans are just as stuck as they were.

I believe we too share this same pain that something is not right with our own realities, as evidenced by the amount of depression, anxiety, suffering, poverty, anger, boredom, and hate that we see in our world. If we ever are to save ourselves from our own prisons, it may be these clues that will spur us to awaken and break free.