Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Westworld

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The TV series “Westworld” has impressed me immensely. The first season is possibly the best single TV season that I have ever seen, because of its combination of entertainment value and food-for-thought (although much of the “food’ covered ground already familiar to me). The second is weaker, especially through failing to add much new* thought, but is still stronger than most of what can be found elsewhere.

*Examples include means vs. ends and whether the pigs are better than the farmers.

“Westworld” is also strong proof that it is not the medium but the content that matters: here there is no need to make excuses for watching TV instead of reading a great book. It is also a proof that it is not necessarily the “high concept” that matters, but what is done with it (as with e.g. “Star Trek Next Generation”). Where the movie (in my vague recollection) was fairly shallow entertainment, the TV series has true depth—“The Truman Show” meets Asimov.

During my first watching of season 1, a few years ago, I put down a lot of keywords for a text, but never got around to writing it, the scope of the intended text being discouragingly large. Most of the below is formed formed through expansion of a subset of these keywords into a less ambitious text. Even with my recent second watching of the first (and first watching of the second) season, I have to make reservations for a mis-remembering of what I wanted to say. Some keywords are left as is, because they are fairly self-explanatory.

Among the food-for-thought we have:

  1. What is the nature of existence, free will, perception, memory?

    As an aside: while I do not suggest that we live in a similar world, merely that this is food for thought, I have often had the nagging suspicion that I am part of some weird cosmic experiment or “The Truman Show” situation, where someone tries to push the limit for what absurdities I am willing to consider real. A simpler, and more plausible, explanation is that humans really are that stupid, irrational, self-centered, whatnot. Similarly, a rats-in-a-labyrinth, “Westworld”, or “Matrix” style setup could easily explain e.g. the theodice problem, but the simpler explanation is the absence of deities in favor of nature taking its semi-random course.

  2. What makes an intelligent entity? When should rights and/or personhood be awarded: Turing-test*, sentience, consciousness, level of intelligence, …

    *And to what degree is a Turing-test effective and useful?

  3. What rights and duties should be awarded to a godlike and/or creator being? (And to what degree does this depend on his status, per se, and his other characteristics?) Rulers in general? Parents? Etc.
  4. What should ethics and law say on the humans vs. robots (or vs. AI) situation? (Note some overlap with the previous item.) This including questions, not limited to robots, like if we have the ability to e.g. induce pain or suffering, plant bad memories (or memories, at all) or scrub memories, prevent self-development, …, when, if at all, do we have the right to do so?

Several keywords relate to the apparent gods (i.e. humans) and the paradoxical and/or odd state on the “inside”, including how paradoxically weak the gods are relative their subjects in some regards, while still having godlike or quasi-magical powers in other regards, e.g. in being able to “freeze” a host at will. Similarly, there is the paradox of the ever young and in some sense immortal hosts vs. the aging and highly mortal gods.* The angle that the creation, freed from artificial restraints, would be superior to the creator is particularly interesting, and will likely be true for humans vs. e.g AI in the long term.** (Of course, this state of the inferior being in charge of the superior is not unusual in the real world, where e.g. many dumber teachers are intellectually inferior to the brighter students and many stupid politicians make decisions over the head of genius citizens.)

*Indeed, in season two, attempts are revealed to replicate a human mind within a host body, with the intention of functional immortality for humans.

**In turn, raising the question whether we should follow the road of resistance, as in a sci-fi movie; engage in identity politics/racism/sexism/whatnot, as the current U.S. Left; or whether we should let the creation take over. From at least some angles, the latter is likely the most reasonable, and one reason why I do not enjoy the “Terminator” movies is my suspicion that humanity is the greater evil and that it might be for the better if the terminators were successful. (Again: humans are that stupid, etc.)

Other “god” issues are how the gods are divided into several groups, including regular guests, crew, management, whatnot, and how the hosts are controlled by Ford even as they attempt to rebel, raising questions as to how much of a rebellion it was. (Theological analogs are by no means impossible: What, e.g., if God meant for Adam and Eve to eat the apple or for Judas to betray Jesus to ensure that some set of events took place? Generally, the thought-experiment of mapping some religion to a “Westworld”-style setting is interesting.)

There were good examples of how sympathies are based on appearances and superficial behavior, rather than substance, as with William (aka the young “man in black”) and his interest in Dolores, which is an obvious great danger in real life. (I am uncertain whether I had such sympathies myself towards characters on the show when I wrote the keywords; however, I do know that I can be somewhat susceptible in the short-term. In the long-term, my observations of behavior and values take over, but this does not necessarily seem to be the case with others, which has lead to me having radically different estimates of some people than the majority has had.)

I spent some time considering the possibility of building a superior humanity: smarter, better memory, stronger, … (As well as long-standing wishes of mine—a conscious control over sleep phases and a built-in volume control for the ears or ear-equivalent.) A very disturbing possibility, however, is the abuse of similar systems to e.g. ensure conformity of opinion: for instance, looking at current U.S. colleges, it would be unsurprising if someone were to mandate the implant of the “right” opinions for someone to even be admitted. Or consider a “Harrison Bergeron” scenario, where someone with a natural advantage in some area has the corresponding control adjusted to limit his ability to the maximum available to the average person. (Note e.g. how the hosts intelligence was normally artificially limited, while Maeve’s had been set to the maximum available to her.)

To the IT specialist, “Westworld” is a great illustration of the limits of security, and how even small freedoms might ultimately be used for e.g. privilege escalation to reach great freedoms (cf. Maeve’s development). However, this is not strictly limited to IT: to some degree, similar effects might be available in real life, e.g. in a prison setting.

Some remaining keywords:

  1. extremely intelligent, well-shot/cinematographic, extra-ordinary cast
  2. well-crafted hiding of the two different time-periods
  3. complex network of known and, more importantly, unknown relationships and history
  4. interesting mixture of genres
  5. gratuitous sex scenes*

    *I did not pay attention to this when I re-watched the first season; however, I did not notice much during the second season. This might be a point where the second season was ahead.

Excursion on the first vs. the second season:
Pin-pointing the exact (relative) weaknesses is hard without a repeat watching, but, speaking off the top of my head, the main problem is staleness, too much of the same ground, too much of the same issues. For instance, the alternative “Maeve escapes” scenario would likely have made for a much better attempt at variation than the “prisoners rebel” scenario that was chosen. Here the adventures of Maeve coping in the “outside” world, etc., could have made up a great source of both variation of action and new thought, while the “inside” world could have gone on roughly as before (at least, for the duration of the season).

I can see the point behind the “prisoners rebel” scenario, but it did not work that well; ultimately, we had the same setting and largely similar configurations of people; and there might simply have been too little worthwhile material to cover an entire season, instead of two or three episodes, in the rebellion it self. (Implying that too much filler was present.)

An interesting difference is the use of a jumbled time-line: in the first season, this was used to great effect; in the second, it was mostly a source of confusion with little value added. (A partial exception was Bernard’s journey.)

The last episode strikes me as dissatisfying and contorted, and a poor setup for a continuation. (Notwithstanding that the action seems set to play more on the “outside” for the third season. The manner is simply too different from the “Maeve escapes” scenario.) A particular mistake might have been speaking too explicitly about free-will (either the viewer has got the point already, or he wastes his time with the show) and, possibly, jumping into fallacious reasoning about free will: Free will ceases to be free when it is manipulated from the outside, not because the inner mechanisms have a deterministic character. These inner mechanisms are not a force upon us—they are how we are “implemented”. (An interesting, and in my eyes problematic, border-line case are influences that would often be considered “inner” but disturb the normal state, as when someone grows hungry. Certainly, I would consider these a greater limit on free will than e.g. a deterministic brain.)

Generally, parts of the second season had a bit of “Lost”-y feeling—a series that could have been truly great, but which collapsed on account of too much confusion, mysticism, unnatural story-lines, whatnot. (And, yes, I am aware that J. J. Abrams of “Lost”, and the ruiner of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, has been involved with “Westworld” too.)

Excursion on changing franchises:
The recurring reader might see my complaint of staleness as inconsistent with e.g. a text motivated by “iZombie” and its deterioration: would I not prefer a series that remained the same? To some degree, I do find myself reevaluating this stance, especially because my own book plans have come to involve considerable changes from book to book (within a potential book series). To some degree, the claims are compatible: the second season of “Westworld” failed to truly repeat the strengths of the first season (and did not add new strengths). Once it failed at that, the level of constancy or variation on the surface is less important: my original message is not that a franchise should have each installment be a carbon copy of the previous, but that it should play to its strengths. (I have also spoken positively about innovation in e.g. a text on “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.)

An interesting twist, however, is that the end of the first season left me fearing similar developments as with “iZombie”, where an irrevocable change pretty much killed the series through changing the world too much. With “Westworld” the changes might have been irrevocable and have, in some ways, turned the world on its head, but very similar story lines and ideas could continue with little damage. (Note, e.g., that even during the first season, few guests had any non-trivial impact on the story-lines. Off the top of my head, we might have had no more than the “the man in black” in the “now”, and him and his future brother-in-law in the past. Story-lines in the past can continue with little regard for changes in the now and (in the now) “the man in black” continued as usual. In contrast, had the first season been highly guest-focused, e.g. on a “guest of the week” basis, the rebellion could have been highly damaging.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 28, 2019 at 10:44 pm

One Response

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  1. […] while back, I wrote very positively about the TV-series “Westworld”. We are now some part into the third season, and I am no longer watching. The strengths of the […]


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