The True and the Untrue: Reflections on WestWorld

Halloween 2016 has just arrived, to be followed in a week with a very scary election day. The impression that we may be choosing between life and imminent death and destruction is nurtured by the TV advertising from both sides. That this impression is not without justification has made this election season especially horrifying, and thus today’s celebration of Halloween seems scarier than usual, an omen of the horrifying day of reckoning looming a week further down the road. As we worry about their future, our own young children will be ringing our door bells this evening, exclaiming “trick or treat!” But to me, this is no longer just innocent good fun.

Over the last few weeks, my own sense of foreboding has been heightened by the remarkable new HBO series “WestWorld.” This ingenious series, which has now advanced to its fifth episode, forcefully thrusts into our consciousness darkly profound imponderables about good and evil, truth and falsehood, and “real” versus “unreal” at every turn. Indeed, what makes this series especially frightening is that its premises are concerned with the nature of consciousness itself.

WestWorld is a futuristic theme park located in the canyonlands of the U.S. West, a place where wealthy “guests” can pay huge sums (one guest mentions a $40,000/day charge) for a vacation interacting with android “hosts” who engage them in story lines written and monitored by “the Park’s” staff of employees. There are numerous story lines among which guests may choose to get involved. Each robotic host is programmed with a rich, complex set of behaviors, and a “back story” identifying his or her personal history in the old post-Civil War West. Story lines overlap, and unfold simultaneously in real time. Key hosts can be assigned more than one story line, and are moved around the Park almost instantly to fulfill their various roles. When a host is killed, WestWorld cleanup staff quickly retrieves the body, removes it to underground labs for repair and analysis, and the host is then returned to its world.

The memory of each android host is purged following each episode, permitting a fresh start to each story line every day or so, as if it is happening for the first time. In this fanciful environment, staff and hosts are virtually teleported from place to place, shielding the Park itself from visible evidence of maintenance activity. Park staff can also simply take an elevator to the surface and mingle, and can stop the action by putting hosts in “sleep mode” as they do their work. We are challenged with each episode to figure out how the whole thing works. The series begins as WestWorld operations start to unravel when memories of key hosts begin to survive the memory purges, and they begin to question who and what they are.

There is, of course, a corporation behind all of this, and as the early episodes unfold, just as the android hosts are beginning to develop new intentions and self-realization, we learn of conflicting agendas among the Park’s managers and directors, and potential conflicts with the interests of the corporate board of directors. We also learn of even more mysterious objectives for the Park pursued over 35 years by one of the Park’s creators and developers, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) along with his deceased partner, Arnold. A photograph of the mysterious Arnold is actually a picture of a much younger Anthony Hopkins, suggesting that Robert Ford may have been Arnold himself. Regardless, Ford has achieved god-like powers and control over his creation, and he confidently exercises that power.

Like “Game of Thrones,” this series has a talented, world-class cast. Among the main characters are the Man in Black (Ed Harris), Ford’s chief assistant Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), a rancher’s daughter Dolores, a crucial protagonist among the hosts (Evan Rachel Wood), her erstwhile boyfriend, the gunslinger and bounty hunter Teddy Flood (James Marsden), a saloon madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her top prostitute Clementine (Angela Sarafyan). Among the high-level directors and operators is a corporate representative Theresa (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), and the principal Park guests are William and Logan (Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes).

The story lines and character roles are presented with some ambiguity, preserving suspense and intrigue. From the outset, it is obvious that this series presents a very advanced level artificial intelligence (A.I.), scarcely indistinguishable from the “real” thing. But it also raises the bar on A.I. fiction, posing an intriguing question that will pervade the narrative throughout the series. At the beginning of Episode two, when William and Logan arrive at the Park, a female host preparing William for his journey into the Park remarks, as he looks her over: “I know you want to ask, so ask.” William immediately responds: “Are you real?” The host instantly replies, “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” This exchange ominously raises deeper, universal questions we face in our lives: What is the nature of reality, and what is the importance of distinguishing between reality and fantasy?

WestWorld vacations offer guests the opportunity to really escape the humdrum constraints and evils of the “real” world outside the Park. But this theme is darkly foreboding, as “real” world evil, naturally enough, infects the Park. WestWorld vacations were always attractive to many who wanted a chance to kill other people, and in the Park, they could kill with little or no risk or consequence, because the hosts’ guns would not kill humans – only other hosts. In Episode 4, in a meeting between Robert Ford and Theresa to discuss his massive (and disruptive) Park expansion plans, when she admits to not liking the Park very much, Ford remarks that he and Arnold originally had a more balanced approach in mind for WestWorld story lines, evidently to offer more romantic or at least benign vacations.

Over the years, however, the dark side prevailed: As guests became increasingly dissatisfied with relatively benign interactions, the story lines became dominated by guns and killing, inviting guests to act out their darker fantasies. The Man in Black appears to be a good example of this dark tendency: He first visited the Park 35 years ago, but he has not returned for some time. Although he reminds us that he still enjoys killing, his mission now is to find the deeper truth or reality he believes underlies the Park.

The theme and plot line of this series marks a significant advance in the approach to A.I. and its philosophical underpinnings. A Sci-Fi junkie in youth, I was always spooked by the sinister implications of stories involving A.I., which I found at least as frightful as the typical Halloween ghost or witch story. One of the basic themes that emerged in 20th Century science fiction involved machinery possessing externally driven prescience and malevolent intent. One especially scary story was “Killdozer,” a science fiction/horror novella by Theodore Sturgeon originally published in Astounding magazine in 1944, and revised (just in time for my 15th birthday) for the 1959 collection Aliens 4. This is the chilling story of an eight-man construction crew building an airstrip on a small Pacific island during WW II. They uncover and open an ancient stone “temple,” releasing an ancient entity composed of pure energy, left over from a war involving sentient machines. The entity possesses the crew’s bulldozer, which proceeds to kill the workers. Three survivors ultimately manage to destroy the bulldozer, and presumably the entity. This horrific story was brought to the screen in a 1974 movie.

Killdozer may have influenced horror-master Steven King, who published a short story called “The Lawnmower Man” in the May 1975 issue of Cavalier and in his 1978 collection Night Shift. In this macabre story, a man (Harold) seeks to hire a lawn mowing service for the summer and responds to an ad for “Pastoral Greenery.” The man driving the company van, a hairy, pot-bellied fellow, is hired and shown to the back yard. When the mowing begins, Harold goes to his back porch where he sees the lawnmower running by itself, and the naked lawnmower man following on all fours eating the grass. The lawnmower chases and kills a mole. The lawnmower man then explains to the terrified Harold that this approach to lawn care offers substantial benefits, but that his boss makes sacrificial victims of unappreciative customers. When Harold tries to call the police, the lawnmower man interrupts, revealing that his boss’s name is “Pan.” The lawnmower chases Harold through his living room before brutally slaughtering him, leaving a strong scent of freshly cut grass in the air.

In those early fantasy/horror stories, ordinary machines are magically and terrifyingly bestowed with prescience, but they do the bidding of external masters. Artificial intelligence, however, implies a prescience inherent to the machine itself. Of course, the idea of A.I. is not entirely new to fantasy literature. In Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), an Italian woodcarver named Geppetto carved a wooden marionette named Pinocchio. Magically, the wood became animated, and Pinocchio “lived.”

The blockbuster movie “A.I.” (2001) takes this theme to a disquieting new level. In a future world where robots and androids are gradually developed to embody increasingly sophisticated programming, they begin to display what resembles real human intelligence. There is a social backlash to this trend, however, and a resistance movement led by Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) searches for rejected androids in a hot-air balloon that resembles the moon. Captured robots are taken to fairs where they are destroyed in front of jeering, irate crowds. One special android, however, meticulously designed by Prof. Hobby (William Hurt) in the image of his own departed son, is virtually indistinguishable from a real little boy. This android, David (Haley Joel Osment) also possess advance A.I., and comes to believe he is a “real” little boy. When his adoptive mother realizes she cannot keep him, she tells him the truth, and abandons him in the woods, where he encounters other robots fleeing Lord Johnson-Johnson. He hooks up with an advanced and convincing male prostitute android Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), the two are captured, but they escape destruction at the hands of the carnival mob when the mob is not convinced that David is not a real boy. The two set out on a hair-raising search for Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, which David is convinced is real and can change him into a real boy, so that he can return to his beloved mother.

The WestWorld series is the next, and perhaps ultimate step in the developing A.I. theme. This series emphasizes the disquieting tension we increasingly face in distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “unreal” (or non-real) in our lives. Intriguingly, in WestWorld we see both real humans and androids grappling with the same issues, further blurring that distinction. And morality is posed not just as a human question, but as a universal abstraction. Worse still, the nature of consciousness itself as a human attribute is challenged: A headnote at the WestWorld cast site states that this “futuristic park – which is looked after by robotic ‘hosts’ – allows its visitors to live out their fantasies through artificial consciousness. No matter how illicit the fantasy may be, there are no consequences for the park’s guests, allowing for any wish to be indulged.”

By postulating a very dangerous concept of “artificial consciousness,” this explanation goes beyond earlier literary explorations of A.I., addressing not just the nature of intelligence, but of consciousness as well. The intriguing suggestion here is that Park guests are transformed into an alternative state of consciousness for their entire WestWorld experience: Is this supposed to be some sort of shared dream or hallucination? I don’t think so. However, this reference to “artificial” consciousness clearly grows out of Ford’s reference in a conversation with Bernard (Episode 3) to Arnold’s intriguing hope to create “real” consciousness in robots, relating to a theory that consciousness relates to the “bicameral mind.”

Commenters have been quick to note the obvious origin of this idea – the 1976 book by Princeton Professor Julian Jaynes entitled “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” This point is discussed by Nick Romano of Collider, who has also endorsed the more sensible “game theory” interpretations of the Park’s interactions, suggesting that the Man in Black is not really a sinister gangster type, despite his rough demeanor, but is actually an expert gamer. Park guest Logan also advances the common-sense perspective that the whole WestWorld theme park is just an elaborate game, especially in his argument with William when he threatens to shoot Delores in Episode 4. The hosts are all just robots, he reminds his partner, that cannot really be killed. And, as the human characters are frequently reminded, it is a mistake to think of the hosts as “real.” Still, the idea is floated that Arnold tried, and failed, to make hosts’ consciousness really real, i.e., something more than robotic. Of the Jaynes theory, Romano writes:

“It essentially postulates that early man believed consciousness to be the voice of the gods, which we eventually realized to be their own instincts kicking in.”

But this conceptualization partially misperceives the Jaynes thesis. I have had the popular Jaynes book in my library since the early 1980s, and spent some time with it years ago. His intriguing theory is that in antiquity, well over 2000 years ago, there was a time when bicameral minds produced, inside the head, what appeared to be actual voices. A vestige of that phenomenon exists today in schizophrenia, for example, with the sensation of hearing people speaking who are not actually there, i.e., hallucinating. Jaynes’s thesis is that the bicameral mind once produced these “internal voices” for everyone, and that “consciousness” came with the breakdown of the bicameral mind.  This is not a straightforward idea, and it has been largely imperceptible to me. For most of my life, I have been inclined to equate consciousness with “awareness,” but that is not at all, according to Jaynes, what consciousness is:

“Subjective conscious mind is an analogue of what is called the real world. It is built up with what is called real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. … And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.” (p.55)

Thus, “consciousness” requires both biological (human) life and language. Our consciousness consists of established lexical analogues (maps) we have learned of the real world. What, then, is meant by the “bicameral mind”? Jaynes writes:

“We are conscious human beings. We are trying to understand human nature. The preposterous hypothesis we have come to … is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious. This is almost incomprehensible to us. And since we are conscious, and wish to understand, we wish to reduce this to something familiar in our experience…” (p. 84)

Perhaps a metaphor of something close to that state might be helpful. In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back-seat driver directing myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little consciousness. In fact my consciousness will usually be involved in something else. . . My hand, foot, and head behavior, however, are almost in a different world. *** Now simply subtract the consciousness and you have what a bicameral man would be like.” (pp.84-85)

In discussing the evolution of consciousness, Jaynes hypothesizes that “natural selection may have played a role in the beginning of consciousness.” But, he cautions:

“I wish to be very clear that consciousness is chiefly a cultural introduction, learned on the basis of language and taught to others, rather than any biological necessity. * * * It is impossible to calculate what percentage of the civilized world died in those terrible centuries toward the end of the second millennium B.C. I suspect it was enormous. * * * It is thus possible that individuals most obdurately bicameral, most obedient to their familiar divinities, leaving the genes of the less impetuous, the less bicameral, to endow the ensuing generations.” (p. 220)

At this point, let me dispel any intention of appearing like Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) who, standing in the ticket line at a theater, and incensed by a conversation in the line behind him, suddenly blurts out: “I’ve got Marshall McLuhan right here…” and then retrieves McLuhan himself from behind a poster to explain to the flabbergasted man that his ideas are all wet. Consciousness is a tough concept, and I am sure there is more extensive knowledge on the Jaynes hypothesis among the series producers than I can claim to have. I suspect that the concept of consciousness and still more unfathomable notion of a bicameral mind that Jaynes advanced have gained more support today than the details of his theory about the origin of consciousness.

With respect to WestWorld, it is important to note that the producers have gone to great lengths to show that the lead character Dolores displays all of the attributes of conscious mentality, and to contrast her thinking with that of her boyfriend Teddy. In an important conversation between them in Episode 3, she expresses a clear desire to get away from the confines of her world, and asks Teddy if he knows of a place they can go. He tells her that he has heard of a place down south, where the mountains reach the ocean. She asks why they don’t go there immediately. Teddy hesitates, conflicted by the goals he has been programmed to achieve. He promises to take her there “someday.” When Dolores reacts negatively, he asks, “Is something wrong?” And Dolores replies: “You said ‘someday.’ That sounds exactly like what people say when they actually mean ‘never.’” Teddy reacts, indicating he honestly intends to take her “someday… soon.” (This appears to be an oblique reference to the 1964 Ian Tyson Western genre song of that name.) He then rides off on his next assignment.

There are other signs of Dolores’s true consciousness, including Bernard’s recognition that she is “different” and his probing of her intellect. In one session with Bernard she says, “I think there must be something wrong with this world…. Either that or there is something wrong with me.” This kind of thinking requires consciousness, and could not be performed by the bicameral mind Jaynes describes. Other characters  (principally Maeve) are emerging into conscious thought as well, evidently prompted mainly by the jolts they are getting as their memory purges break down.

The important point here is that these characters are all robots, so for them consciousness, which requires and grows out of biological mentality — i.e. “real” thought — is impossible. Even with the most complex programming to enable computers somehow to both achieve self-awareness and continue to learn from experience on their own, the crucial emotional components to thought (and language interpretation) provided by biological life will always be missing. This is, nonetheless, an imaginative theme, and an excellent premise for a science fiction/horror story. One exciting  potential plot line introduced so far follows on Bernard’s suggestion that if Dolores can find the center of the mysterious Maze, the place the Man in Black is trying to find, she might be able to find her “freedom” –- presumably from her “unreal” consciousness as an android — becoming able to choose her own destiny. That possibility implies that Arnold must have come close to success, and that at the heart of the Maze lies the key, like Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, to obtaining “real” humanity.

What troubles me most about experiencing WestWorld at this point in time is its juxtaposition with the monumentally important election coming up next week. I’m not concerned that this fictional series postulates the physically improbable and likely impossible state of artificial consciousness. Nor am I suggesting that there is any sort of backsliding in this world toward the state of the bicameral mind, an equally impossible development. I am deeply troubled, however, by the extremely dysfunctional state of the results produced by actual human consciousness.

Consciousness is here to stay, but there is also a very real physical world underlying the “real” world of our conscious perceptions, and that world is being made more dysfunctional by our technology and our decisions. There are several problems here: Our attraction to artificial intelligence is leading us down a dangerous path, a  growing tendency to surrender control of conscious human activities to machines — e.g., vehicles that can drive themselves, and drones that can carry out preprogrammed combat missions. We seem even to be getting closer to computerized judgments on when and what to strike. Down that road, human warfare could ultimately be chosen and carried out by machines without the intervention of conscious judgment. Still, we persevere in that direction.

It is consciousness, clearly, that enables logic and advanced reasoning, yet I am among those deeply troubled by the extent to which the benefits of human intelligence are being squandered. Our society, inundated with fantasy themes and religious ideologies, seems largely to have lost interest in determining the underlying truths about our world. This has had a chilling effect on politics and democracy. Voters are attracted by the most superficial of reasons to candidates who advocate manifestly harmful policies. A great many people will be elected next week with the avowed goal of undermining government, or who deny scientific reality at a time when climate change is far too rapidly destroying the viability of life on the entire planet. Many will advocate policies that will result in a far less progressive tax system, inevitably reducing our economic growth and ensuring our drift toward the next depression. A Trump presidency promises the most severe decline in this regard, yet conscious awareness of reality is so deficient that, it seems, Donald Trump is incapable even of defeating himself, no matter how indifferent he may actually be about winning the election.

The inevitability of the further decline and demise of civilization, despite what should be the positive advantages of human consciousness, is very real. For me, this takes away nearly all the enjoyment I once experienced with fantasy and science fiction: It is terrifying, in fact, to consider what the WestWorld episodes suggest about the dark side of human nature, and that dark side is hard to counter when far too many of us cannot effectively distinguish between fact and fiction or, hooked by fanciful ideological or religious thinking, choose to remain in denial about what is “real” and what is “unreal” in this world.

Tonight, the neighborhood children will come trick-or-treating. For me, this will not be the welcome respite it has been in years past from the realities  of our world.

JMH – 10/31/2016

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