Slouching Toward Westworld

There are very few better than Michael Crichton when it comes to warning about the numerous ways that humans might unthinkingly bring about the destruction of their own existence. From dinosaur DNA to nano-machines, when people play God, bad things always happen.

In the beginning of Crichton’s (non-TV-movie) directing debut, Westworld (1973; streaming on the Criterion Channel; for rent on Amazon Video), as guests arrive at a unique vacation resort, the voice over the loudspeaker says, “Welcome to Delos. Please go to your color-coded tram which will take you to the World of your choice. We are sure you will enjoy your stay in Western World. While you are there, please do whatever you want. There are no rules. And you should feel free to indulge your every whim. Do not be afraid of hurting anything or of hurting yourself. Nothing can go wrong.” Nothing can go wrong!

But the movie isn’t only about the fact that the machines we make might end up turning on us, although that idea drives the action on the surface. Of course, Artificial Intelligence becoming self-aware and killing its makers has a long pedigree. I haven’t read it, but the 1921 play R.U.R. by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek apparently envisions android-like robots (the first use of the word?) overtaking their human makers.

In Westworld, though, that becomes a sub-plot. In this case, for those who are attracted to and able to pay for such a vacation, and for us nearly half a century later, it serves as a warning about entertaining ourselves to death. For $1000 a day, people can visit any of three recreated worlds (ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the Old West), and live like people would have in those times. And not only can they live like people in those times, but they can do whatever they want with the very human-like robots in those places, imagining and realizing their own fantasies—Rome’s debauchery or Western brothels no doubt being the popular ones. (I haven’t seen HBO’s recent re-creation, but I’m guessing that everything implicit in Crichton’s movie—rated PG!—is made explicit and more.)

But what makes Delos (the company that runs the vacation destination) particularly attractive is that there are no consequences for one’s actions. If you shoot people in Western World, they are simply robots who appear to die, so it’s only an elaborate game of pretend. If you have an affair with the queen in Medieval World, she’s just a robot, so when she warns about the wrath of the king, the danger is only apparent. In fact, delos “signifies ‘appearance’ or ‘apparent’ in ancient Greek.” I don’t know how much Crichton intended connections to the Greek island of Delos, but that island is very small, and although it had been inhabited and an important trading post at various moments in history, it is barren and lacking water—which is a pretty good metaphor for Westworld’s moral barrenness. Likewise, Westworld‘s Delos seems to be in the middle of an uninhabited desert.

Westworld feels very ’70s, and it is not nearly as layered as Crichton’s novels. Also, in 1973 I’d take The Exorcist, The Sting, and maybe Serpico over Westworld. There are large plot holes filled by lines such as “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment. Almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they have been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.” Even so, I think those are all minor annoyances rather than major problems.

Crichton, interestingly, didn’t see it as a warning against technology, but against corporate greed (because those who run Delos refuse to shut it down, even though people are dying). Obviously, that part of the plot plays prominently in Jurassic Park (kind of a Westworld with dinosaurs rather than robots), so it’s a recurring theme in Crichton’s work. And yet the dialogue that indicates their greed is minor and if I hadn’t read it, I would hardly have noticed it in the chaos of the engineers trying to right what has gone wrong with the robots.

Delos actually strikes me as much closer to David Foster Wallace’s paralyzing entertainment video disc in Infinite Jest, or, more recently, Father John Misty’s wry line about virtual reality’s probable uses: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift/After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes.” He said, “Human civilizations have been entertaining themselves in disgusting ways all through human history. We have to consider that maybe there are ways in which we entertain ourselves now that are equally as disturbing.” And “if you don’t think that this virtual reality thing isn’t going to turn into sex with celebrities, then you’re kidding yourself.”

In Westworld, it’s not celebrities in virtual reality, but robots in actual reality (although the word “reality” itself starts to become unstable as a meaningful identifier). After Peter and John escape from the one-room jail, Peter says, “You know what? I almost believe all this.” And John responds, “Well, why shouldn’t you believe it? It’s as real as anything else.” That’s exactly it, I think. Entertainment equals reality, and reality equals entertainment. Once entertainment is everything and there are no clear lines between it and reality, everything has to be entertainment.

Following Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, it’s easy to multiply examples: we speak of everyone from pastors to celebrities to politicians as having an “image” that they need to maintain or build or repair. We want people to look good, and if they don’t, their value goes down. We speak of good actors “in spite” of their appearance. The fact that no one has yet created the sort of specific adult theme park that Westworld imagines might not even be very important. We have already absorbed and integrated the idea so completely that we don’t even notice it any more.

Entertainment is not new. Humans have always reveled in the bread and circuses that are on offer in lighter or darker corners of our world. But there does seem to be an increasing and greater danger (because less overt) in the development of technological means of entertainment. And the closer entertainment edges to replacing actual life, the easier people will find it to outlet their inborn depravity in ways that bleed between reality and fantasy, and the less serious everyone will take it. But if we haven’t listened to any of the warnings in the last century, why should we start now?