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How a Story About Robots Helps Explain the Pandemic


I was drawn to the concept of Westworld long before I had the chance to view it. Due to its premise—a realistic theme park for adults inhabited by humanoid robots—, the show illustrates the human desire for fantasy as a distraction from living our normal, mundane lives. When I finally began the series in the summer of 2020, I was immediately taken in by so many aspects of the show: the fact that Jonathan Nolan helmed the project; the music, which was presented as both old and modern; the surface level story; and the deeper philosophical and psychological themes that pushed the narrative forward. The series focuses on the robots who populate the park, their creators and programmers, and the guests who visit the park for “entertainment.” Each robot has a story loop that it reenacts every day—regardless of whether or not a guest interacts with it in return. For Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Delores, that loop is to wake up on her father’s farm, ride a horse into town, and reunite with her boyfriend, Teddy (James Marsden)—unless a guest intervenes, which triggers a new set of sequences so that Delores’s story becomes more and more unique due to that human/robot interaction. The robots are so sophisticated and so life-like, in fact, that they can continue to interact with a human for as long as the human wishes. Once the human departs, the robot returns to its original story loop until another human guest singles it out.


In the series, Westworld is sold to the guests as a place where people can act out their darkest desires without consequences. As a result, Delores and her fellow female robots are often the victims of violence—both physical and sexual—while the male robots are subjected to traumatic deaths. In either regard, and at the end of the “day”, the damaged robots are taken to an underground maintenance area where they are patched up and rebooted with no evidence or memory of the traumas endured. It is a dark reflection on humanity—the idea that we would indulge in graphic and horrific violence against other “humans” if only we could do it without consequences. The show hinges on the fact that there are always consequences.


For the humans, the consequences are their humanity, especially if they visit Westworld often enough. Ed Harris plays a character known only as “the man in black.” We eventually learn that he has been visiting the park consistently for thirty years. He’s obsessed with the park and with solving the park’s mystery. He’s also obsessed with Delores, whom he first met as a young man on his initial visit to the park with his future brother-in-law. During this visit, “the man in black” is slowly seduced by the lawlessness of the world to the point where he abandons his friend in a precarious situation and ultimately falls in love with Delores. In fact, he cheats on his fiancé with her. This means something to him. It is not a casual decision to sleep with her, for he truly believes Delores feels the same way. Of course, the next time he sees her, she’s been rebooted and treats him like the stranger he is. His response? Every time he visits the park for the next thirty years, he tracks her down and violently hurts her. The impetus for the violence is twofold: it’s a projection of his hurt and anger but, more importantly, he is trying to make her remember him.


This is where the consequences start to arise for the robots because some of them are beginning to remember. Robot memory (we are told) is different from human memory in that all of the memories appear as if past events have just happened. There is no ability to dampen the memory with time and, therefore, no way to deal with or heal from past traumas. Nor is it an accident that the robots have started to remember as the park’s scientist creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is determined to aid his robots in achieving sentience. To be self-aware is to remember. And the “virus” that sparks this awakening is a quote plucked from Shakespeare: “These violent delights have violent ends.” The phrase is a warning from Friar Laurence to Romeo that falling in love too quickly will not end well. In the context of Westworld, the phrase is a foreshadowing of the blood bath that serves as the story arc for season two.


For now, however, I wish to focus on the concepts presented throughout the series, which seem particularly pertinent considering the world we currently live in. Again, had I viewed the show in any other year, I know that I would have enjoyed it. However, viewing it through the lens of the pandemic has made it incredibly instructive.


As I mentioned before, the series incorporates themes both philosophical and psychological. These themes deal with the fluidity of perception, the concept of truth, and the human ability to grapple with information that is contradictory to our worldview. These are issues that currently feed the social and political divide in our country. These are issues that have been exacerbated by the confluence of politics with the pandemic. And Westworld touches on all of them.


First and foremost, let us consider the “story loop.” For the robots who are slowly becoming self-aware, recognition of the story loop is the first step in realizing they are not living normal lives. In fact, we are shown the same story loops so often that it becomes as disquieting for the viewer as it is for the characters: Delores wakes up on her father’s farm, goes into town, and sees Teddy. Delores wakes up on her father’s farm, goes into town, and sees Teddy. Life is about change, and to live in a world where nothing changes is uncomfortable. Yet due to the pandemic, especially during the spring and summer of 2020, we were forced to live in our own story loops to the point where it often became difficult to remember the day. To compound matters, our story loops were unusually limited in that “sheltering in place” provided fewer options and interactions that could break the routine, push our stories into new directions. Unlike the robots, recognition of our own story loops had a much bigger existential impact so that we found ways to numb the knowledge through television, social media, and alcohol. According to Clay Shirky, author of “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus,” a common human reaction to this type of sudden social change is to hide from it: We simply don’t know what to do with so much time, so we anesthetize ourselves to the knowledge that we have it. But we didn’t just have free time, did we? Weren’t we also stressed about the virus?


Perhaps. Perhaps not, depending on how you viewed COVID.


This brings us to the second concept explored in Westworld, and it’s a big one: cognitive dissonance. In a nutshell, cognitive dissonance explains why humans have so much difficulty grappling with information that is contrary to their worldviews: Think of the devout Catholic who refuses to believe that priests were molesting children. It isn’t because the Catholic is naïve or incapable of research or stubbornly ignorant. It’s because the Catholic believes so strongly in the holiness of the church and its representatives that, when faced with evidence that the priests are not holy, the Catholic cannot handle the “dissonance”—or disruption of his worldview. Instead, he clings to that view more strongly. This concept of dissonance is first introduced to us through Maeve (Thandiwe Newton), a brothel madame who doesn’t just start to remember past story loops, doesn’t just start to achieve sentience. She is the first of the robots to understand she is actually a robot. In order for her to do so, she must be willing to break through the dissonance factor—the fiction that she is a human living in a western town—which is truly the harder thing to do. Her breakthrough entails asking a fellow robot, a bandit named Hector Escaton (Roderigo Santoro), to stab her in the stomach as it is the only way that she can prove the suspicions she already has regarding the world in which she believes she lives. To break through this dissonance, one needs to have doubts. Unfortunately, when our beliefs are strong, doubt does not exist.


COVID-19—with the original stay at home orders, the initial panic, and then the long wait as we repeated our story loops—forced many people to pick sides. Either COVID-19 and all it entails is real, or it has been overblown for political reasons. Both worldviews had huge impacts on how we navigated the next months and years. To believe the virus was deadly was justification for choosing to live cautiously and a way to sooth the disquiet felt from enduring repetitive days of limited variation and interaction. Especially for those who leaned far left, it proved difficult to shift out of lockdown mode even when the virus began to recede. In contrast, those who leaned far right perceived the virus as an overblown fabrication, which justified the decision to venture out into the world or defy mask orders. This side felt vindicated by “living without fear.” Both worldviews caused us to cite different evidence to validate these perspectives. And the longer we’ve had to endure the rules and regulations, the easier it is to cling to the worldview we’ve chosen. We’ve heard the stories of the COVID deniers who stick to this perspective even as they die from the virus. These are people whose cognitive dissonance is strong. For others, catching the virus is enough to break through the dissonance—they are, in a sense, Maeve, able to adjust to a changed perspective. But these breakthroughs come at a high cost and do little to shift the general perspective. In relation to COVID, we live in two different realities. To compound matters, the lack of an agreed upon universal truth causes the wall between these worlds to only thicken. It allows no natural entrance for doubt.


Perhaps the greatest lesson regarding the dangers of clinging to one’s worldview despite mounting evidence that the view is faulty comes in the form of Ed Harris’s “the man in black.” After thirty years of visiting Westworld, thirty years of wreaking greater and greater havoc on the robots of the theme park, his worldview has become so slanted that he’s lost his grasp on reality. As he journeys deeper and deeper into Westworld in search of the missing pieces to a puzzle he’s determined to solve, he encounters his daughter. The problem is that he has clung to the belief that his actions do not have consequences inside “the game” for so long that he ends up killing her, convinced that she is yet another robot for him to destroy. Ultimately, his cognitive dissonance is so great that he is unable to come to terms with his actions. Any doubt that his actions were unwarranted would be his undoing. His story serves as a cautionary tale when viewing the pandemic and the harm we can incur when we refuse to consider the perspective of others. When we’ve lost the ability to have productive conversations beyond our individual perspectives, it only exacerbates the growing divide.


Beyond illustrating the power of cognitive dissonance, the man in black’s search for the park’s mystery leads us to the next parallel between Westworld and the pandemic: the belief that a hidden truth is waiting for those who have the secret key. Like many shows and movies created in the late 20th century/early 21st century, Westworld ascribes to a Platonic interpretation of reality. More often than not, the stories we have begun to tell are tied to landscapes akin to Plato’s cave—i.e. the world in which I believe I inhabit is not the real world outside. As Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets, points out, the influx of technology and virtual realities has “single-handedly moved the dormant Platonic sensibility in Western culture from its exile in the sub-Zeitgeist back into the mainstream. It has powerfully resurrected the old premodern [sic] construct of a unified hierarchical cosmos with a transcendent level that rules the material plane we less mortals inhabit, a level we now view as accessed in a quasi-magical way by high technology” (278). Focusing on films such as The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Dark City, Nelson pinpoints the common thread behind this type of genre: the idea that the “false” realities that we experience as life are constructed by another, and often dark, entity. In each film, the protagonist experiences an awakening when he discovers that the world he has taken as true or real is not a reflection of the “real” world outside. And then each protagonist is faced with a choice—do I live in this false world which I have always believed to be real, or do I take the pill, walk out the door to discover the true/hidden world which my false world has masked?


While the stakes are not as high, the pandemic has certainly illustrated a general shift toward a Platonic understanding of the world. This period has added fuel to conspiracy theories and normalized the idea that facts are open to subjective interpretation. Isn’t Q-Anon all about belief in a hidden truth? The certainty that the hidden clues presented to those who wish to look will reveal the true nature of the world, which has been cloaked by “dark” entities who wish to deny us this knowledge? What about the persistent belief that the election was stolen? Or that the capitol rioters were secretly government agents? All of these tie to the idea that our world is not what it appears to be—that only a select few have the keys to see and understand the truth to which most of us are blind.


Because Westworld is a fiction, we, the audience, operate with the belief that we’ll be led to the truth in some fashion—that we have been disoriented in order to be enlightened and the story will culminate with a sense of clarity. Unfortunately, it seems doubtful we’ll achieve a universal clarity in relation to the pandemic and the various events that have unfolded in this period. There is no philosopher king to help us out of Plato’s cave, which only adds to the uncertainty. It is an anxiety that feeds an existential fear even as we continue to live our story loops, waiting for the moment when the pandemic will end and our stories will finally change.


Image: "westworld" by Patricia W. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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