Monday, June 10, 2024

First Contact: Westworld

It's not so fun anymore when the NPCs start getting ideas of their own, is it?

Michael Crichton's Westworld feels like a first draft of his later Jurassic Park: a high-tech amusement park where precisely the thing that anyone can predict will go wrong ends up going wrong. I find it amusing that Westworld never bothers to explain why the robots start murdering people; it appears we've somehow always assumed that was the (natural?) order of things. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: Man creates robots, man destroys robots, man creates robots, man destroys robots… then robots destroy man. The main difference between these two stories of punishment for hubris is that, while Jurassic Park frames itself as a man-versus-nature conflict, Westworld is all human.

In the same way that man-versus-nature can be criticized on the basis that humanity is not a thing separate from nature, I find the man-versus-technology lens inadequate because it's a false dichotomy. Technology is human—it's the human trait par excellence. What lies underneath man-versus-technology stories is really a clash between human interests. The trope of robot liberation is just an extension of human liberation to include other beings with comparable sapience, which brings robot uprisings into the long tradition of slave uprisings.

The curious thing about Westworld is that we never hear the robots make their case. They just suddenly glitch one day and start killing people. Westworld doesn't join in the political discussion about the ethics of electronic slaves. It does something less common, but no less interesting: it explores the space that pretend play creates for people to let themselves be their worst selves. Westworld was released in theaters in 1973, just one year before the publication of the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. In a way, Westworld anticipated the questions that would eventually be raised by LARPing, but those questions had already been addressed by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1965 book Rabelais and His World.

Bakhtin was interested in the carnival as a mode of literature, but also as a mode of life in which the conventional rules of society are suspended and transgression is celebrated. This is the scenario where LARPing thrives. The park in Westworld is a carnival for the super-rich to gleefully skewer strangers and abuse sex workers. This sociopathic impulse hasn't disappeared from the roleplaying experience; most notably, N. K. Jemisin has written about the narrative function of orcs in fantasy, which is to provide a legitimate target for violence:

Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.

Robots provide the same function in the carnival of Westworld. And here we meet another literary concept from Bakhtin: the grotesque body, which refers to the use of physical assault as an aesthetic experience. The fun that people seek in Westworld is the fun of inflicting all forms of violence on human-looking bodies that aren't attached to human rights. It's a closed space where violence is freed from consequence.

Maybe this is the reason why Westworld doesn't make its robots monologue to argue for their side: the retaliation they bring upon humans is the same violence without consequence. The act itself is the argument. It forces us to ask ourselves who we become when we engage in pretend play for the express purpose of simulating atrocities. Why on Earth should it be enjoyable to kill massive numbers of dragons/zombies/aliens/orcs/robots? And if we manage to bypass our moral intuitions and bring ourselves to declare it enjoyable, Westworld presses on, why should we find it horrifying when those same dragons/zombies/aliens/orcs/robots do it to us?

Real life has caught up to the fiction: all the arcane buzzwords that try to describe techbros' obsession with female-coded AI come down to having woman-shaped objects they don't have to feel empathy for.

[Mohammad Talha] Saray said his AI avatar is cheaper, more flexible and doesn’t talk back.

It has become a common talking point that the dystopian genre doesn't invent fictional forms of oppression; it merely takes the oppression that already exists in the world's periphery and inflicts it on the privileged. Westworld employs a similar device when it turns the game of violence without consequence on its head and makes humans the target. It's not a movie about the danger of robots rebelling; it's a movie about the danger that humans pose when they invent a category of not-humans that it's always OK to mistreat.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.