After watching the very first episode of HBO’s Westworld it was hard for me to deny that the show’s appeal, aside from superior writing and cinematography, has a potential to spill over from the world of entertainment into our public and political discourse. Already now, after episode 3, it’s clear to me that its aim goes beyond a mere Sunday night pastime; the showrunners cleverly are setting us up to ask questions that we don’t ask ourselves but should. The show of this caliber is long overdue. I’m not writing a recap though, there are plenty of those already. This is just a brief glimpse of the show’s potential as a cultural and political imprint.
What is a real world? Is it the world where you live and work, or is it an adult Disneyland where, like in a videogame, you assume a character, and break out of your inhibitions? But then, the same case – that you’re playing a character – can be made about your everyday existence. The world where you live and make your living is, too, a world of pretense. That’s a marketing ploy behind Westworld – a fictional Wild West-themed park where you can break away and indulge in your fantasies. It does offers you a release, a manufactured freedom, but where you essentially trade one type of mask for another. Would there even be a demand for such a theme park if people found fulfillment in their real lives? Today, when our identities revolve around what we do for a living, we’re prevented from knowing who we really are. It is, perhaps, this search for identity, rather than pure entertainment, that provides a steady stream of customers shelling out $40K a day for the experience.
The park is a place that, as one frequent visitor points out, “answers a question you’ve been asking yourself: Who you really are.” Yet, it doesn’t take us long to spot the obvious extension of this premise: It is also a place to discover who you are not but want to become.
As sentient customers of Westworld how do they choose their game character? If you chose to become a nice guy in Westworld, is it because you’re prevented from being a nice guy in your real life, or is it the opposite: you’re an asshole who wants to be good but prevented from a moral conduct by the overwhelming forces of the real world? Is, then, a simulated reality a reflection of your genuine character or a channel for release of suppressed evil tendencies? And conversely, if you’re a nice guy in the real world who recoils from murder and rape and injustice, why would you want to engage in “violent delights” in your spare time? Can nice guys become bad if given a chance and shielded from judgment?
Dolores, a robot whose task is to be abused and/or ‘saved’ by the customers, muses: “I think when I discover what I am, I will be free.” She’s up to something here. While her consciousness is merely a code, it’s the code that brings her closer to singularity – that is becoming sentient. The allegories and the implications and allusions to our own humanity are immense here. It enters Kantian territory (I’m a little obsessed with Kant these days; took Kantian philosophy class this fall, so I’m like a teenager who’s just discovered Ayn Rand!) What if we, too, can’t be free until we figure out who we are?
If we are a thinking species, a sentient beings, this distinctive feature offers a liberation from a mere reliance on instincts. Dolores is not yet free because she’s a subject to her programming. We as humans are (free), in a sense that we possess a free will. But then other constraints come forward, the constraints of a moral code.
It blows my mind what these guys – writers, producers – are aiming for, if this is their plan, which I think it is. They want us to think of freedom – a grand concept – in a philosophical sense. In the course of the series, as robots gain consciousness, I suspect we will be faced with a question: who is more human and thus more free? Here, I would like to separate the notions of libertarian freedom from philosophical (Kantian) freedom. I wrote on the concept of freedom before as I was trying to give this overused and, frankly, too broad a term, a definition. I’m not satisfied with the notion of libertarian freedom where a person’s freedom is manifested merely in his actions – things that he does because there’s no physical preventive mechanism. Kantian freedom, on the other hand, is not a freedom to do what we like. Such freedom originates in the world of ideas, the a priori world as opposed to empirical world, thus it is guided by reason and not our desires or inclinations. Because it is guided by reason, it is also a subject to moral code, to rules that are universal and independent of our earthly circumstances. Thus freedom, in a philosophical sense, is the ability, no, a requirement to live by a moral code that is a) universal and b) binding because we’re sentient beings (as opposed to, say, animals who cannot be expected to abide by the notion of “ought”). It is, thus, unfortunate that the word and the concept of ‘freedom’ has been so watered-down, so emptied of meaning in current public discourse that it now means whatever you want it to mean. That is another big reason why I’m so excited with narrative possibilities of Westworld: it will force us to ponder on these concepts, it will force us to ask ourselves questions we were too busy to ask before.