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Out of the Loop, Lost in the Maze

The Stealth Determinism of Westworld

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Ford. As in Dr. Robert Ford, the god-like creator of a vastWild- West adventure park in some distant future. His singular vision is an adult playground for wealthy sensation seekers who flock to the park to experience a full immersion fantasy in which they are free to do as they like with the realistic android “hosts” that populate the place. Mostly what they like to do would have Thomas Hobbes high-fiving Charles Darwin: kill and copulate. The hosts respond to this in turn by laughing, climaxing, weeping, and begging for their lives just like humans. But guests feel no need to sympathize. When the day’s mayhem and carnage end, the hosts and their various dismemberments are carted off to maintenance, where they are reassembled under pools of surgical lights that seem to struggle to fend off an outer darkness. Hard drives are wiped, the day’s suffering erased, basic behavior loops reinstalled.Wash, rinse, repeat.

Now that the first season of HBO’s darkly dazzling Westworld is over, now that we all know for certain that we all knew for certain that the Man In Black really is…but before we dive into the spoilers let me get this disclaimer out of the way. As entertaining as it may be to focus on questions about what time frame we’re in, or about who is a host and who is a human, I would argue that this may be the least rewarding way to watch this story unfold. The plot is as bursting with misdirection as the maze that Arnold sets up as a test for the hosts’ self actualization. It is thick with dead ends—and just like the maze, what you get out of it may say more about you than the show, a Rorschach test in prime time.

Not that it’s simple to know what to make of a show that normalizes guy-ongynoid sexploitation—yet is cerebral enough to give its episodes titles like Trompe L’Oeil and The Bicameral Mind. At times Westworld feels as campy as Logan’s Run, or say, any third act of a Roger Moore Bond film. Its postmodern affectations and ironic nods to sci-fi schlock are a distraction. It’s a given that the show’s biggest conceits are completely unrealistic legally, financially, logistically. Disneyland straps its guests in like crash test dummies even for the kiddie rides, so it’s boggling to think of the mountain of waivers Westworld’s guests would be required to sign to ride Maeve. As for the technology that would be needed, recent setbacks in the Blue Brain Project’s attempts to simulate a rat neocortical column demonstrate that when it comes to how the brain works, we don’t even know what we don’t know, much less how to replicate it in Artificial Intelligence at a human level. Finally, and this could expose me to accusations of quibbling, why are those guys in maintenance dressed like oversized oompah-loompahs?

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About Skeptic

SPECIAL SECTION Skeptic’s Science Dialogues: Bill Nye in Conversation with Michael Shermer on Climate Change, Travel to Mars, Artificial Intelligence, Nuclear Power, GMOs and more… ARTICLES Miracle Water: Why Zamzam Water is Not a Valid Medical Treatment; Lone Wolf Terrorism: The Convergence of Mental Illness, Marginality, and Cyber Radicalism; Torturing Data; Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism; What Would it Take to Change Your Mind?; ET v. Earth Pathogens; Trouble in the Multiverse; Science v. Subjectivity: Football Playoff Teams Selecting College Football Playoff Teams as a Case Study COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Functional Medicine; The Gadfly: The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice REVIEWS The Stealth Determinism of Westworld—a Review of the television series Westworld; Back to the Future and Forward to the Past—a Review of Time Travel: A History; Cosmic Consciousness and the Ptolemaic Principle—a review of You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why it Matters; Science International—a review of Courting Science: Securing the Foundation for a Second American Century; Conjuring Magic—two books on the history of magic: Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World and Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World JUNIOR SKEPTIC An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection