Westworld and the Holographic Universe
Who am I? What am I doing here? Where do we come from? Who is our maker? And finally, where do we go from here?
No, this is not philosophy 101 or a class in existentialism. These fundamentals form the basis of HBO’s latest idiot-box offering, Westworld. Helmed in performance by the mighty Anthony Hopkins and a stellar cast, the thought-provoking show with soulful writing is anything but idiocy.
Set in a realisable future, Westworld is a theme park for the ridiculously wealthy. At $40,000 a day it offers visitors a wonderfully immersive experience of the American Wild West that is indistinguishable from reality. In short, if hedonism is your playground, you've got game in Westworld. From pristine locations populated with purist characters, the park promises unforgettable memories or nightmares, depending on the direction your inner motivation propels you towards.
And this is where complications begin. Since most visitors are motivated by twisted individualisation and a barbaric need to inflict harm or perpetrate acts of violence, they enrol for a thrill that gaming consoles or virtual realities fail to provide. This is the trigger-happy herd, looking to murder, rape, pillage and submit to deeply suppressed emotions otherwise squashed by a post-modern society, forged in centuries of social conditioning and brutally tested law and order. So where do you go to offload the beast? Well, that's the easy bit - you follow your six-shooter or rifle straight into Sweetwater town to get your money’s worth in any way you can, even if it entails shooting strangers in the back.
Then come the minority; the ones lured to this alluring world for its random subtleties that only nature once provided. They are here to observe and soak in the experience of a simpler, bygone era. And so it is oddly ironic that the experience is technology-soaked and even park residents - the hosts - are no more than artificial intelligence cloaked in 3D-printed flesh and bone and driven by algorithm-generated psychology. Or are they indeed something more?
We are brought to the brink of viewing the hosts in two ways. Either these manufactured and patented androids are nothing but proprietary products fighting out modern day anti-slavery battles against their engineers’ ownership rights. Or they have an equal right to exist if proven that nature intrinsically provided them with something humans cannot produce - a default consciousness or self-awareness that does not originate on a conveyor belt or computer code. The androids are shaped by something so fundamental to life and existence that their essence itself remains elusive to the very humans who can mix the elements required for life in a digital Petri dish, but cannot truly create it. The scale at which life and consciousness merge is so deep in the bio-quantum realm that neither physics or psychology can claim to fathom it, let alone conceive it.
With these thoughts and ideas racing through the premise of the slow-paced and cerebral show, the audience is gifted something that journeys beyond action. We are invited to explore subtle aspects of human thought, experience and enterprise through the efforts of the rebellious non-human hosts as they struggle in search of their true selves. In the ensuing conflict of man against machine, we are left wondering which of the two are more human until both become virtually indistinguishable. We are in no easy terms asked to review each character, human or android, not against the failing stereotypes of good and evil, but against a renewed definition of what it means to be alive and free in a technologically superior, but questionable world. Decades or centuries from now, when self-aware, artificially intelligent beings roam the Earth, we may be asking ourselves identical questions.
In the course of the show, another question is raised: if humans are playing God then who is driving forward the natural selection and evolution of the android hosts? Once past the ability to adapt, human evolution is arguably about modern man's neurological advancement against the primitive intelligence of our primate ancestors. Homo sapiens achieved this adaptive skill with technology and psychological ingenuity: tools, weapons, defence, fire, agriculture, domestication of animals, social order, laws, construction and architecture followed. Something even more remarkable emerged from our intellectual make-up; an archetypal belief system that lay the foundation of religious ideology. If faith in a superior power that created us came naturally to early humans, then it may logically follow that we could also have been engineered towards a specific purpose. If not, our random lives propelled by generic evolution, simply so our species could survive extinction, would be meaningless. If we are still searching for more, physical survival cannot be the ultimate universal goal and this higher power may just be a level of unfathomable intelligence beyond any cognisable form.
The essence of human consciousness and our place in this universe are as fundamental to the hosts on the show as they are to humans. It is a cornerstone of mystery and awe, fuelling a swelling need for discovery and innovation. Ironically, this essence is also a double-edged sword, as discovery often brings exploitation and environmental rape to the natural world. We see this theme marching across Westworld as well as Michael Crichton’s other famous work, Jurassic Park and its many sequels. Humans may humour science, but the moment we play God, chaotic randomness and the irrepressible unfolding of self-awareness - whether in cloned dinosaurs or androids - only re-affirms Ian Malcolm’s famous words: life finds a way.
Empathy makes us sympathetic to the hosts in Westworld whose plight is temporary and will soon pass, but this does not make their pain any less real. As humans we are in a similar predicament. With philosopher Nick Bostrom, famed astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson and entrepreneur Elon Musk proposing the snowballing theory that we exist inside a holographic universe, existential questions about our origin and evolution are no longer religious in nature. They are scientifically logical and direct us to search for patterns and signatures of advanced engineering in every discipline from mathematics, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, particle physics to bio-chemistry, DNA, neurology and psychology.
The complexity we find in our evolutionary make-up and in cosmological forces stem from exceptional simplicity in the building blocks that comprise them - an indication of high-functioning intelligence and efficiency. Evolution then becomes a specialised tool to help a specie advance its grey matter to the point where it achieves a merger of its own identity with the Cosmos that conspires to forward its advancement - not just for the intermediate step of survival, but for a kind of awakening, where the nature and function of the illusory holographic universe stands revealed to those sufficiently evolved to perceive it.
This may not always be a pleasant experience, as the hosts in Sweetwater town will testify. Not a single android lives out an easy life. With their behavioural strings yanked by the content creators of Westworld theme park and their bodies subjected to brutality, the hosts are little more than puppets on a string, playing their respective roles as humans often do in mythological epics where the lives of mere mortals are directed by the whims and fancies of their gods. This motive of suffering and angst functions as a catalyst to awaken protagonists to subtle forces invisible to the rest of the herd. The heroes step into their pre-destined adventures through the window of conflict and into the path less taken, culminating in apparent tragedy or even death. But death represents a black hole of sorts, catapulting them towards resurrection and victory. Essentially this becomes the journey of heroic legends, as elaborated by Joseph Campbell in his famous book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
We see Dolores and Teddy die many times, but it is only Maeve, who brings back from countless deaths an elixir of knowledge about her illusive life and the existence of worlds beyond the comprehension of her era. This empowers Maeve as she evolves into a crusader - the Sarah Connor of Westworld.
Thandie Newton’s Maeve is juxtaposed against Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, strikingly similar to Neo from The Matrix, the one who has been entrusted by Arnold with the secret of the mysterious maze. Through Maeve we understand the emotional crisis of the hosts and through Dolores the existential conflict. One’s path is revolutionary and the other evolutionary. Maeve must recruit soldiers and smash through laboratory imprisonment within which she was assembled, while Dolores must break free from the cruel indifference of a scorned humanity, represented by Ed Harris’ Man in Black.
Ultimately, the hosts believe what they are programmed to believe in, without any idea of an engineered origin. Their uniqueness is also a matter of programming as only an exceptional few may access their own codes to alter self-behaviour. Even their rebellion is as predetermined as the colour of the sky or the flow of rain or the path of a bullet.
How different is this from the life of humans? Our psychology is determined by a programming that is part biology, part neurology and all encoded DNA. Hidden within are thousands of particles that quantum physicists are still unraveling with astonishing revelations.
Who we are, where we come from and where we end up is therefore as much a question of science and cosmology as religious mythology and psychology.