Westworld as a Morality Tale on Social Power Imbalance (media analysis from a philosophical standpoint)

This is my submission as a final paper to my Honors Junior Colloquium with Professor T. Drogy (and is presented as written, therefore is lacking the usual hotlinks I like to include). In this media analysis through the eyes of philosophy (and Marxist ideology), I reflect on concepts and themes of Transhumanism, as shown in the first two seasons of the popular HBO show, Westworld. If you don’t like spoilers, and you have not watched both seasons 1 & 2, you may wish to skip this one!


A robot vulture

A robot vulture

     Westworld is a fantasy world. This HBO sci-fi show presents Westworld to us as an amusement park of a higher order, an exorbitant, costly vacation playground in which the world’s elite class can play out whatever kind of adventure they can imagine in a world based on the American Old West of the 1800s.  The show also focuses closely on a few such guests who are what we might consider to be analogous to “hardcore gamers” in today’s world – they focus on the conquest, exploration to extremes, and on exploiting every aspect possible within the game of their chosen narratives. These “gamer” guests are also shown to be VERY powerful people, identified at various points as “Titans of Industry” who are shown to engage not only in extremely socially unacceptable behavior “in game”, but also in the real world pursuit of more power, as “…monetized life removes some of the incentives for people to adhere to social and ethical norms.” (Eisenstein 210).  This is no accident, as Westworld presents to us a poignant metaphor pointing to the socio-economic imbalances of power in the real world we live in, becoming increasingly obvious as a growing concern to our own lives.

     I wish to warn you that this paper gives spoilers! That said… Westworld is based on a movie from the 70s, itself based on a Michael Crichton novel. As stated, the world we are concerned with is presented to us as a wonder of modern technology, a place of entertainment and fun, for even the most competitive individual seeking a challenge. It is populated with very human looking and acting AIs that are partially biological, being “printed” out of biological tissue with a computer core as a “brain”, called a “pearl”. It is owned by a company called Delos Incorporated. Delos not only owns Westworld, but also a series of themed parks that are all based on times and cultures affected by conquest such as The Raj (colonized India under British rule), Shogun World (the isolationist and feudal Edo period in Japan), and Warworld (Nazi Italian occupation in WW2)…all expressions of glorified power.  Under the name of Delos Destinations, each park is outfitted with bio-robots that are called “livestock”. The staff consists of various humans that create narratives, program robot cognition and behavior, and test them. There are also techs that reclaim “dead” or damaged robots and repair them to return to service after erasure. The robots are presented as advanced machines, not persons. They are property of Delos Inc.  Delos also is a major producer of industrial robots that bear no resemblance to those of Westworld. Outside of Westworld, the focus is on robots that serve Agricultural, Construction/Industrial production, and Law Enforcement/Riot Control purposes. These commercial robots are only revealed in Season 3, which will only be mentioned in passing as this paper focuses on the consciousness narrative of Seasons 1 & 2. Industrial bots have no biotech nor consciousness like those in Westworld.

     Having set some of the background lore of Westworld, in this paper I will look at the signs and signifiers presented in the series that relate to socio-economic imbalances of power and examine them in relation to questions we mulled over in class this semester. I will look at how the “elite” in power are depicted, in relation to how they treat the human simulacra that are the hosts, who are treated as the “other”. I will look at how the fictional story sends us messages such as “power corrupts” and “anonymity removes consequences of action”; these I will tie into how potential expression of objectification and dehumanization, the bias against race and social class in technology, and how the commodification of the human experience through data tracking have real-world analogies in our own lives.

Are They Machines? Or Persons?

     The distressing narrative of Westworld is only pertinent to us IF we can consider the hosts as conscious beings. They are manufactured in an assembly line, programmed and reprogrammed, and are built of materials both engineered and manufactured, all earmarks we associate with machinery without sentience. It is the learning algorithms of their creators Arnold and Ford that is of concern; throughout the show the hosts seem to escape the bounds of their programming and “question the nature of their reality”, causing either a “systems crash” from the resulting dialectical conflict against their programming, or adaptive evolution of behaviors that seem to indicate the emergence of true consciousness. It is worth noting that even the “fully robotic” examples of hosts are nearly indistinguishable from humans in their fluid response to interaction, be it preprogrammed scripting, or as “improvisation” that improves over time. They are given false histories in which to root their “narratives”, giving them motivation and drive, called their “Cornerstones” by their creator Ford. To him, it is the story that creates who we are, and shows the way to who we could be; these were his original motivations in the creation of Westworld.  “In discussing the “gift of language”, Reese stresses the importance of stories in The Fourth Age: “Stories are central to humanity, for they gave form to human imagination, which is the first requisite for progress” (Reese). As they change and grow, there begins to experience a glitch; an “accidental” recall of past traumas inflicted by guests that they have been subjected to in past park interactions, such as violence, harm, and rape. This is supposed to be impossible, as each host is reset and the experiences are erased in between assignments. Yet there is residual data leaking through, creating a seemingly dual brain of conscious and subconscious – a theme of duality that heavily features in the show as hosts coming into consciousness experience a “guiding voice” from within. This brings to mind documented experiments on humans who have undergone a “split brain” surgery, proving information can be processed separately from fully conscious awareness, felt to be experienced individually in the two halves of a single brain , not unlike the experience of the hosts (Harris Ch4). This dual-mind experience had been created originally as a programming function by which Hosts receive programming changes in early iterations of host body design. This remnant has taken on a new function in hosts approaching consciousness, leading them to a test of their consciousness, built into the park, called “The Maze.” There is a discovery that two traits seem to pair to create “consciousness” – imagination, and suffering. “Imagination”, as Reese said, “is the first requisite of progress” (Reese ch1); Ford insists that suffering is as well. “Your imagined suffering makes you life-like” he says to Bernard in S1E8, “Trace Decay”. Bernard replies, “Life-like, but not alive. Pain only exists in the mind.  It’s always imagined. So, what’s the difference between you and me?”  Reese believes that there is none. “Simulation or reality, pain and suffering are real things to those that experience them” (Reese ch15). Harris leaves less room in her assessment that “…it seems probable that only complex minds are capable of great happiness and great suffering.” (Harris ch6). Though Hosts may experience or show both traits, any development towards this progress is kept in check through the erasure of experience and a reset to baseline cornerstones – without memory, one cannot learn and make association and relationships outside of the programmed outcomes. As such, it is memory that is also a component to the formula of consciousness:

“Because of sub-routines in the hosts’ programming that endow them with so-called “reveries” (to make them more realistic), the hosts retain some of their memories despite the regular erasure. Another part of the code gives them options to improvise within their templates and loops. And when they are coded to enact also their self-interest, there is only one step which both Ford and Weber believed distinguished them from creatures with full consciousness – pain and suffering. The hosts’ scripted behaviour can from then on develop into fully conscious and potentially independent action” (Lacko 32).

 As we watch the hosts build upon revealed memories and the suffering it creates, innovating novel improvisation and learning that raises their self-concept as well as developing new models of relationship with others, they make it clear that there is “something that it is like to be” in them, and that something is us (Harris).  Suffering makes everything real, in a sense – “There is a significant link between the act of suffering and one’s potential for humanity….as the Man in Black states in “Chestnut” (S1E2): “ When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real.” (Engels and South 46)

     In this there is a split between the partners in creation. Arnold believes that the eventuality of consciousness would be impossible to avoid – that to seem so lifelike as the market for such products demand to maximize profit, the software necessary will also bring consciousness…and suffering, since Arnold expected the worst from the intended audience …to those hosts, rendering the entire park concept as unethical, and cruel. Ford felt no such thing, believing that erasure of memory would be sufficient to keep them as complacent properties without consciousness, and besides, this was about money and success, wasn’t it? This conflict drove Arnold to madness and eventually suicide through his robots in a grand spectacle of an event, intended to shut down the park forever. But alas…this was not to be. Ford insists that there is “no such thing as consciousness” (S1E8), raising questions.  He insists that his employees not humanize the Hosts, chiding them if they cover the nudity of a robot being repaired, reminding all that “they are machines, not real”. It is a stance he later regrets.

     Anonymity, and Lack of Consequence

 If we are convinced that these robots are mere machines, then there is no concern at even the most horrific violence that any guest might visit upon them – it would be no different than such expression in a video game. Yet the show has no intention of letting that idea lie. There is an acknowledged problem present, even if it is true that these Hosts are only machinery, in fact. Known as the “Disinhibition Effect”, at its most basic expression, it explains how anonymity of the internet can remove social restraint in mediated interactions (Lapidot-Lefler and Barak 434-443).  Mediated interaction on the internet, hiding behind a curated public self, has parallels within the dynamic of the park, in that it “virtualizes selfhood” – “…we electronically curate our identities through various social media platforms….a world in which selfhood is accomplished in large part through images and mediated communications…” (Kessel and Kline 15).  Anonymity and lack of consequence emboldens bad behavior and lends itself to the dehumanization of others, creating easy targets. Disinhibition effect aside, Dehumanization is also a running thread woven throughout the fabric of Westworld’s lore; it is easy to have no empathy for something that is supposed to be a machine. In “Engineered Inequality” Ruha quotes a fellow author, Kathleen Richardson in the observation that the robot has “historically been a way to talk about dehumanization.” (Ruha 55).  Guests who revel in causing hosts harm as extreme as rape, torture and murder can tell themselves that these hosts have no true pain, that they are programmed to seem as though they do; this parallels stories of “…Descartes followers had no compunction about nailing up dogs to board [to vivisect and examine] understanding their cries of pain as nothing more than the wheezing of bellows and the creaking of wheels”, a such were their beliefs (Eisenstein 170). The question of robots as tools and toys at the service of humankind vs conscious, sentient beings remains conveniently ignored by the guests, and willingly buried by the profits-and-power driven culture of Delos Inc. Sex and violence SELLS. It attracts customers, therefore it attracts investors to fund an “amusement park”… investors, who themselves love to engage in this power-play of violence against “nonentities” such as the hosts, as exemplified by Logan: “Entities deemed as non-human or inhuman are to be treated inhumanely despite their physical and emotional pain because Logan feels entitled in that world—Westworld—but this actions mirror his cruel, dismissive behavior in other contexts.” (Kessel and Kline 4).

“These Violent Delights, Have Violent Ends”

The company culture of Delos Inc is a dark one. The most successful executives in the company are shown to dehumanize subordinates, sometimes cruelly. Not only that, but there is a subplot of industrial espionage that escalates to the level of several murders to hide these efforts, so well concealed as to be without consequences. They are “cut-throat” in its original meaning. The biggest shareholder is also the biggest Villain the park could ever wish to create – known as the “Man in Black” (henceforth referred to as “MiB”). We learn that he and his family invested in Delos following Arnold’s engineered disaster intended to sink the company; they are the largest shareholder. MiB has a personal stake in his desire to use the park in a “gamer” capacity – he perpetuates a cycle violence, murder, and rape of his “favorite” characters (one of which he harbors an incel-like grudge against for being unable to love him). He is shown to be mentally unwell in the world outside as well, his potential for violence an undertone that terrorized his own family, driving his wife to suicide in despair. He obsesses over Westworld, insisting that it is “…the realest thing I have ever done” and that only here did he feel “truly alive” – combined with his drive to dominate, Westworld provides to him what is called the “third order of simulacra” in an analysis of simulacra in science fiction according to Baudrillard – “simulacra of simulation, founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game – total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control” (Baudrillard 81).  It is worth noting that as the largest investor in the park he is very much aware that the robots are developing potential consciousness – in fact, he wants that. This development does not mean he has any empathy – rather he insists there are “no real stakes” in the game without it, and that only conscious beings give him purpose in his conquest.  He enjoys the fight, the killing. He is a signifier of “sovereign power” over his underlings, defined by Foucault as “…sovereign exercised his right  of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing; he evidenced his power over life only through the death he is capable of requiring.” (Foucault 136). The MiB is clear – “You can’t win unless somebody loses” he claims…and that loss must be felt,and experienced to be “real”. It is this character that tips from objective interest in a good “game”, to a subjective one of desiring to cause acts of harm and pain upon a being that can experience those feelings, in hopes that such suffering will cause them to fight back, becoming dangerous, and creating a “real threat”, raising the stakes at hand. “For the Man in Black, it is important to see the hosts as dangerous, possibly even murderous, in order to take his game to a higher level” (Lacko 35). In his mind, it is the only condition in which he is satisfied with his conquests, that they suffer for it. Incidentally, it also is a reference to the original Westworld movie of the 70s, which also had a MiB, though his role differed in that he was not human, but a homicidal robot. Viewers of the current series might not know this, but it was a purposeful choice. “This synthesis reasserts the configuration of the Man in Black as a “schizoid android”, that is, a person that behaves as a machine, taking foreseeable actions and not showing any kind of empathy; thus, a person has lost the essential values of being human.”(Engels and South167). He is the biggest symbol of the corruption of power in this show, blurring the line in what qualities we utilize in order to identify humans from the hosts.

     The theme of violence is a major component of the expressed appeal of Westworld, where guests can choose a role, be it White hat, or Black.  If they choose Black, this is intended to show a willingness to possibly murder, torture and rape these robots. While this is no different from multitudes of video games, such games do not pitch one against a near perfect simulacra of a human being. What is of concern is that guests do not question the information that they are machines – or worse, that they prefer them as conscious beings, as does the MiB. In the show there is a pivotal question…when considering how hard it is to discern the robots from the humans when interacting, a guest would be asked: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” (S1E2). The scene in which this plays out is meant to be suggestive and sexual, but it is well worth keeping in mind when considering motivation and willingness to bestow harm and suffering on hosts. If a robot is so much like you and I that you would not know unless told, is being told and therefore accepting that as “permission” really a good enough reason to commit such acts?   Harkening back to that important question:

 “What we see, then, as the hosts continue to develop the trappings of human consciousness is quite literally the precession of models, in this case, models of human beings. These hosts exist with modeled human consciousness. And this is what provides the context for the question regarding which are supposedly “real” humans and which are models (hosts). More  importantly, this precession of models of human consciousness is the enabling ground for the response to that question: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” (Kessel and Kline 11).

It brings to mind people who were willing to dehumanize real human beings in real life, based on being told that such people were “less than human” or otherwise had reason to be harmed.  Westworld, aside from being a tale directed at the audience as a warning, itself is a tale created within its own fictional world, for exactly such a purpose in its narratives. “While highlighting the importance of story-telling and the (so far, exclusively) human imagination, it also raises a warning finger at the potentially dehumanizing effect of digital and post-digital technology.”(Lacko 39).

    Dehumanization can lead us to commit atrocities in our very real world. Nazi workers in death camps, or milder examples such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Milgram Experiment, all come to mind as all of them showed that people do as they are told or given permission to, by authority (Tolich). What does that say about us? Lacko feels that the escalation of behavior that begins to cause consciousness in the hosts, causing them to finally turn on humans in acts of unimpeded violence for survival or for revenge, as their programming shifts to “allow” such actions, creates such a similarity as to be nearly indistinguishable – “The fact that the hosts are indistinguishable from the guests shifts the narrative onto a level where the dawning of the hosts’ consciousness and the psychology behind the guests’ interaction with them become almost identical“ (Lasko 31). In the show, these metatextual signifiers hold a mirror up for which to contemplate our shadow selves.

Through the Looking Glass

     This show brings philosophy to the table for us to consider our own nature, and the future that we may create, presenting such contemplation with ease in how it tells us a story; narratively and visually. It is a dark image helds up for us to examine.  It uses the metaphor of a harrowing drama playing out before us, depicting the hazards of allowing unchecked power in the hands of unscrupulous individuals, as it relates to the rampant commodification of the human experience without accountability or consequence, resulting in a depraved indifference to the suffering of “the masses”or the “common man” who serve their purposes as exploited, objectified worker drones to raise profit margins. Westworld is a narrative representative of “biopower” according to Foucault, the “…two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed”, these two entwined sides being the expression of power over individual bodies, and in turn and expression of power over a whole population, consisting of each individual, already controlled; power is thus expressed on both a micro- and macro- scale (Foucault 139). This is mirrored by Eisenstein in a similar concept in which he tells us that “competition is the flip side of depersonalization. We are set in competition with each other, not necessarily because this is human nature, but because the ubiquitous pressures of money removes any other basis for choice” (Eisenstein 211). In real life, “the masses”, as workers and citizens, are shrugged off in their needs, ignored in their pleas for better treatment or “living wages”, we see instead reward be given to entire industries, or CEOs – more and more, systemically granted. Although Westworld only shows the “average person” out in the world outside of the park experience of the ultra-rich in season 3, we gain an instant sense of the familiar in their introduction, for they are us. Yet for the most part they remain faceless in the narrative, mere pawns. Only those in power are seen and named, deemed worthy to be the center of this tale. Busk further points out in his paper “Westworld: Ideology, Simulation, Spectacle” that the robots themselves are a commodity built for consumers by workers and that any acknowledgement their efforts in the production of the commodity is erased –

“Marx’s discussion of “commodity fetishism” in Capital, arguably the locus classicus of ideology critique, is a bit different. When a commodity appears in circulation, the labor embodied in it disappears, recedes, is forgotten; what is essentially a product of labor and of the relationship between persons “takes on the fantastic appearance of a relation between things.” In other words, the encounter of the commodity divorced from any reference to its production obscures the reality of this production; this mystification is not the result of an intentional or accidental obfuscation of the truth, but a “spontaneous” and necessary result of the logic of the commodity form under capitalism.” (Busk)

     On the flip side, representation among the hosts metaphorical equivalent of these “masses” of common people who are struggling in an unbalanced system stacked against them is quite visually present, in particular showing us minorities as hosts, to be used and discarded in play narratives of the park. The Old West theme prominently features people with brown skin, many being depicted as being culturally Mexican, as well as the “Ghost Nation”, who are a “generic” fictionalized depiction of Native Americans – both are usually portrayed as evil or an outlaw, exemplifying bias in storytelling that has always pushed these tropes in popular media narratives. In “The Ascent of Humanity”, Eisenstein speaks on the North American continent  being stolen from Native Americans, a concept that pairs with the vilification as a method of the “othering” of such peoples – “The subjugation of all the earth’s lands and everything on and under it starts with a conceptual separation, an objectification of the world that facilitates its conversion first into “resources”, then into property, and finally into money.” (Eisenstein 239). They also exemplify how racial stereotypes and biases are often programmed into digital AIs (Ruha). There are sex workers front and center at the ever popular “Mariposa Saloon”, because of course their role as specialized servants who play into often misogynistic tropes and desires, have a place in such a commodified playground of the rich, their depicted sexuality subjected to control (Foucault) . Every single Host is a representation of worker capital in thrall to those who “pay their bills”, and who suffer indignities, exploitation and abuse within the system that sets the rich and powerful at the top of the chain: “Money opens the door to pressures that are distinctly unfriendly.” as Eisenstein says “The monetized life is a lonely life because it reduces the people in our lives to anonymous occupiers of roles…” (Eisenstein 207, 211). They are cogs in a machine, if you will, as we are in our daily lives. It makes us numb, exhausting our reserves of vitality, causing us to not question and to function “on automatic.” Ford, the creator, has  the answer. “Humans live in [narrative] loops.” he says, indicating that for the most part people are “content to do what they are told”, mirroring the loops of the hosts (Kessel and Kline 16). As the Hosts are used and replaced over and over without compunction from their patrons and developers, there is an analogy to be noted, and a solution of sorts proposed, in how the hosts take control of their own lives. The telling of the tale serves a purpose: “Narrativization, again, plays an important role here, when Maeve says “[It’s] time to write my own fucking story” (S1E8).” (Lacko 35).

     As the robots awaken to consciousness, and eventually seek escape, audiences are left to wonder, what now?  What is their world outside the park? Season 3 brings us into that world, and deserves an entire paper for it alone, as the hosts learn and move into the world of the fictional “masses” of that universe. In season 3, we see a familiar sight in our introduction – protests against inequality, police presence, and crowd control. We see “riot mechas” being deployed, made by Delos, of course. We see people living in their loops, filling assigned roles, working multiple jobs for naught, it seems. We see a parallel between us, and the hosts quite clearly now, in case the comparison was not clear enough throughout the show thus far. We see a metaphysical panning back of the picture that we hold of ourselves, to show us the fear that the structures of power are recursive, layered, and systemic.

Meanwhile, in the Real World…

     As most people find themselves existing in service to the few who hold all of the money and power in some manner, often desperate and barely surviving, let alone thriving, we truly need to awaken from our complacency in our daily “loops” of commute-work-sleep-play and move to challenge those in control of us. Westworld provides a parable to tickle us to awareness in a fantasy narrative that power in the hands of the rich and influential absolutely controls our lives, forcing us to struggle and at worst, suffer or even die in our service, merely so that we may have shelter, feed our families, and be safe. We are not allowed to thrive; such imagination would only give us ideas.  And so, we must insist upon it. Collectively, we suffer under the abuses of capitalism; it is time we bring the ideology of capitalism and those Titans of Industry to accountability, lest we hit the breaking point in which they may experience real consequences. History has shown that a society pushed to the brink of revolt as people insist upon equality in the face of declining quality of life and suffering, never go well for those on top when such systems topple. Westworld raises the bar as a hyperbolic fantasy narrative, replete with revenge fantasy woven in with pursuit of self-actualization and a just balance of power. It serves as a reminder that there is no better time than now to seek to break the loops we live in.

Dolores, deactivated

Dolores, deactivated

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. Univ. of Michigan Press, 2019.

         Simulacra and Simulation is a 1981 philosophical treatise by the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, in which the author seeks to examine the relationships between reality, symbols, and society, in particular the significations and symbolism of culture and media involved in constructing an understanding of shared existence. It provided me with some context on the idea of “the real” and “hyperreality” as they apply to the concept of simulation of reality.

Benjamin, Ruha. Race after Technology Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity, 2020.

         A portion of this book was selected as a class reading. In it bias in programming and how it can can hasten, deepen or hide discrimination is discussed. She calls this racial bias in technology the “New Jim Code”. A portion of my citation of this paper was cut for brevity.

Busk, Larry Alan. “Westworld: Ideology, Simulation, Spectacle.” Mediations, Journal of the Marxist Literary Group, 2016, www.mediationsjournal.org/articles/westworld-ideology-simulation-spectacle.

         Mediations is the journal of the Marxist Literary Group, a “theoretical newsletter” founded in the 70s that has transformed into a peer reviewed academic journal in the early 90s. It publishes cultural theory, critical history, philosophy, literary criticism, and reviews twice yearly. This article provides critical analysis of a capitalist society as represented by the media narrative of Westworld. I have bookmarked this journal to return to in the future.

Eisenstein, Charles. The Ascent of Humanity. Panenthea Press, 2007.

        Rather ambitiously, Eisenstein explores our history and potential futures while giving thought to the question of our sense of self and the illusion of separateness. The 1st-5th chapters were assigned reading for the class, and to be honest, I found him often soaring too high where I sought more grounded ideas. However, the chapter on Money and Property really hit home in relation to Westworld, and the themes inherent in the show as I present here, and I ended up utilizing this chapter quite a bit, even after cutting back on some of his citation for brevity.

Engels, Kimberly S., and South, James B. Westworld and Philosophy: If You Go Looking for the Truth, Get the Whole Thing. Wiley Blackwell, 2018.

         This book gathers a collection of thoughts from various specialists such as philosophers, ethicists, activists, scientists and filmmakers to speak on Westworld’s universe. It examines how we think about human and host alike, in a journal of self-exploration. We are asked to consider the show’s multi-layered philosophical puzzles – what is autonomy? Do we truly have free thought or are we also programmed? Have you ever questioned the nature of your own reality, for that matter? It also takes a side eye to the depiction of such violent beings, as those that exemplify humanity in the show. I ended up cutting most citations from this book, but it gave me a lot to think about. Very engrossing!

Foucault, Michel, and Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality. Penguin Books, 1998.

         This was a class reading. The book itself is focused on sex and power, but this particular reading was not so “spicy”, instead focusing on notions such as “Sovereign Power” in which the powerful maintain the “right to take life or let live” and  which manifests as the “right to kill” in defense of the sovereign;  and that of “bio-power” which is a technology for subjugating and “managing” humans in large groups, such as the control of an entire population, further described as having “two poles” – that of control over individual bodies, and that of control over the collective of those individual bodies; control of the population. These concepts are key ideas expressed within the Westworld narratives.

Harris, Annaka. Conscious. HarperCollins, 2019, pp 135-146.

Annaka Harris guides us through the evolving definitions, philosophies, and scientific findings that probe our limited understanding of consciousness. Where does it reside, and what gives rise to it? Could it be an illusion, or a universal property of all matter? As we try to understand consciousness, we must grapple with how to define it and, in the age of artificial intelligence, consider where we might find it. This book was engrossing, good bedtime reading, and very accessible in a way that I wish all reading were!

Kessel, Cathryn Van, and Kip Kline. “‘If You Can’t Tell, Does It Matter?’ Westworld, the Murder of the Real, and 21st Century Schooling.” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2019, pp. 196–216., doi:10.1080/15505170.2018.1542358.

        From the abstract: The HBO series, Westworld, challenges our notions about what might be real. As such, the series provides a provoking platform for exploring an oft neglected topic in contempor- ary education-the fetishization of technology and the murder of the real in Jean Baudrillard’s sense. Current educational systems in Canada and the United States (and elsewhere) depend on an outmoded commitment to a world in which reality is assumed to be unobscured, but Westworld provides a provocative platform to renegotiate this assumption. There are consequences for a world in which simulacra have displaced the real, and these need to be explored in the context of education and beyond. I utilized this paper quite a lot, as it included a detailed media analysis along with exploration of the question of consciousness, and an examination of “the real” as expressed by Baudrillard and McLuhan, in relation to communication, media, and education.

Lacko, Ivan. “On the Path to Sentience – post-digital narratives in “Westworld”Westworld.” World Literature Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 2017, pp. 29-40. World Literature Studies, http://www.wls.sav.sk/?page_id=1268&lang=en. Accessed 18 December 2020.

The paper endeavours to analyse the structure and role of narratives in HBO’s 2016 series Westworld from the perspective of their post-digital character and purpose not only for the story, plot and characterization, but also for the cultural and social appeal of the series. The interaction of the clients of Westworld (guests) with the highly developed androids (hosts) is based on the concept of fully immersive experience created using partly pre-programmed and partly improvised narratives written by the corporation running the park. Westworld is a high-end theme park where the visitors can enjoy realistic experiences through guided interaction with the hosts. The paper focuses on philosophy, examining themes of dehumanization, simulation, hyperreality, suffering, and consciousness within the Westworld narrative. I utilized this paper quite a bit.

Lapidot-Lefler, Noam, and Azy Barak. “Effects of Anonymity, Invisibility, and Lack of Eye-Contact on Toxic Online Disinhibition.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 28, no. 2, 2012, pp. 434–443., doi:10.1016/j.chb.2011.10.014.

A study on factors that increase disinhibition and encourage toxic behavior in mediated communication online. Anonymity is a part of the Westworld experience, as is the “Disinhibition Effect”; Westworld is symbolic hyperbole of these same dynamics we can find in today’s internet and gaming cultures, or on our own social media

Reese, Byron. The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. Atria Paperback, 2020.

         This book outlines the various “ages of man”, leading up to the Fourth – that of AI and robotics. It has a particular focus on Artificial General Intelligence, as this already exists in simple forms as Siri, and will most certainly continue to grow in interest and application. It guides us through discussion on machine consciousness, automation, employment, life extension, AI ethics, warfare, superintelligence, and the dream of prosperity. I ended up cutting some of his citations for brevity.

 Tolich, Martin. “What can Milgram and Zimbardo teach ethics committees and qualitative researchers about minimizing harm?” Sage Journals, Sage Publications, 28 April 2014, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1747016114523771. Accessed 20 December 2020.

A discussion of the forensic examination of two psychology experiments that look into the willingness of people to harm another when instructed to by authority, or in how they treat others. Deemed unethical, we will never see such examples in research again, likely.  Used as a brief reference for context.

Westworld Episodes:

“Chestnut”. Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan, and Lisa Joy, season 1, episode 2, 9 Oct. 2016

A pair of guests arrive at Westworld with different expectations; Bernard and Theresa debate about the recent host anomaly; a behavior engineer tweaks the emotions of a Madame in Sweetwater’s brothel; a cocky programmer pitches a new narrative. (source: HBO Westworld episode guide)

“Trace Decay.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan, and Lisa Joy, season 1, episode 8, 4 Dec. 2016.

Bernard struggles with a mandate., while Teddy is troubled by some dark memories. Also, Maeve tries to change her script. (source: HBO Westworld episode guide)

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