I have been watching HBO’s latest show Westworld. “Watching” because after some cajoling of my fiance convinced me to start it and “have been” because of that same mix of momentum and completionism that causes you to clean the whole kitchen after started to wipe down the counter.
I do think it presents a moment in time to intersect pop-culture and philosophy — but to its own demise.
If you haven’t seen the show, but are the curious type of person to be interested in reading an article about it AND don’t want the plot ruined – your curiosities betray your stated interests – go no further.
If only the show were as thoughtful as it’s introduction
How fitting that the introductory sequence be such a wonderful overview of the many themes and philosophical concepts explored by the show: the definition of humanity, our human-centric view of the world, humanity’s relationship with technology and so on. The introduction sequence is a good guide to walk us through some of the ways the show explores the answers to the above questions without giving away too much of the show’s storyline (Why are you still here if you care about that? Do you have the kitchen-complete fever I have described?)
How did we begin? The intro sequence begins with an out-of-focus celestial body rising over a barren, dark landscape. Perhaps an homage to the southwestern desert wilds on which Westworld the theme park is located. First seeming to be the sun, then perhaps a moon. Very briefly we see that the glowing dot is not a celestial body rising over rolling hills, but instead a surgical lamp illuminating the undulations of a human skeleton. From plateau and desert plain to buttocks to ribcage. Jump cut to a robotic arm 3D-printing of a piano string inside a piano. Parallels between the life-bringing universe (the planets are named after the Roman gods after all) and the light-giving surgical lamp are clear. In this robot-making-piano scene we are seeing the act creation and the classical piano music backtrack suggests a peaceful beauty to it all. The machine making a machine. A sentience of sorts and certainly a statement about the source of life.
A string. A tendon. A horse. The robitic arm 3D printing the piano string is then visually paralleled over to the stringing of a new Achilles tendon. Next we see the mechanical arm creating an entire horse in full gallop and muscular beauty. We see a narrative about how a life creating technology might develop. Toys to treatments to animals. The Dolly phase of the technology in question has arrived. In this we should take inventory of our beliefs about creation/cloning. Is it ethical to clone a human? To create one from scratch? What about animals? If different, specifically what about them you believe makes them NOT “human” such that they should be allowed to be experimental. Concepts of the capacity for intelligence, emotion, communication, the ability to reason and plan, the ability to suppress emotional thought, and purpose all come to mind. At this point I would ask you think – is this tendon human? A quick thought experiment (something for your back pocket if you find yourself at a bad dinner party and want to make sure you are never invited to return) — if it were you under the knife (more accurately under the printing pen), would that new 3D printed tendon of yours be “human” once you had finished your reconstructive surgery?
A tendon. An eye. Onward we move to the printing an eye, a beautifully intricate eye that invokes a somewhat romantic feel of humanity. Something more than a tendon, the human eye is the “window to the soul” and a powerful reminder of the complexity of human biology and human existence — evocative of the less tangible aspects of humanity
Orchestration and interaction The we see a freshly printed skeletal hand playing a piano as the robotic arm slides out of scene. While still quite mechanical, you must inquire about possibility and questions around the interactions between elements manufactured by the 3D pen. About the creativity of music – something one might describe as uniquely human – that this freshly printed hand seems to have attained? The coordination of both the printed piano and printed hand with one another seems much greater than the creation of either alone and foreshadows the machinations to come.
Sex. Two industrial, manufactured, eyeless and mostly faceless mannequins (lets call them that) are positioned in a sort of this-might-be-intercourse arrangement. Anthony Hopkins’s name floats by, and in equal force to the white hollow faces of the mannequins does well to remove any kind of sexuality to the arrangement of these bodies. If the 3D-printed beings could engage in sexual behavior would that make them any more human? If that sex were to be for pleasure only and not for reproduction would that grant them some person-hood, more than say a beast driven to breed by genes and chemical subconsciousness?
Brain stem and a shift in mood. Next we see the 3D pen seemingly creating a brain stem. A nod to the central nervous system, but also to the higher reasoning abilities of a human. Of all the creations from the pen so far this is surely the most associative with what we might call a human being.
We move on to the freshly printed cylinder for a revolver. A reminder that technology and creation is not inherently kind or good. A reminder of technology as a tool to be used to impart force for both sides of the scales of justice. Here the music shifts from solo piano to incorporate strings and raise the fullness and anxiety of the progression. The revolver fires. We see the partially completed face of a woman. On one half, gentle femine beauty, on the other a ghastly skeletal reminder of death. A janus-faced or two-faced reminder of both human nature and technologies good and evil capabilities. Pistol in outstretched arm, she rides in two-point position standing in saddle atop the horse as it gallops forward.
The hands release from the piano as its keys continue to move up and down revealing it to be a player piano. The piano no longer requires outside “input” to function and produce music. The technology is autonomous, but still in a seemingly harmless way. The piano roll for the player piano showing the “code” for the music and reminding us that the piano is not sentient — it is obedient and programmatic. (Of note is that piano rolls are continuous loops that can be repeated another common theme in the show)
We see another “sunrise” effect over the player piano, but this time it is an array of spotlights more fitting for illuminating a stage. We see a landscape in the reflection of the eye. A reminder that we see through the world through our own lens, through our own interpretations. A human skeleton print is lowered into a milky pool – seemingly the same substance from which the skeleton is printed. Slowly it fades out of sight as it is fully submerged. The opening credits finish and the episode begins.