The nature of reality. Existential crises. Free will versus determinism. These are all my favorite things and Westworld showrunner Jonathan Nolan continues to make wondrous contributions to the perennial debate: what is real and what is a mirage?
Check this astute interview with Nolan (full of Season Two spoilers).
Nolan Brother Themes
Between them brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, have created a formidable body of mind-bending work – the darkest Batman trilogy (featuring Christian Bale), Interstellar and Inception being my favorites. Their work is always non-binary. Is it now, later, or before? Is this character right or wrong in their beliefs and actions? Do I understand what’s happening, or not?
In Interstellar, the challenge was time and space. In Westworld, it’s time and intelligence. One of the roles of art is to hold up a mirror and make us think twice; artificial intelligence is definitely something worth thorough consideration. It’s entering our lives, one way or another, but Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk advises caution, while others are all in.
Read this Vanity Fair article on Elon Musk.
AI: friend or foe?
In Westworld, Nolan shows how things could play out when AI matches, or exceeds, our own intelligence – and when the robots feel abused by humans and seek to take revenge, or at the very least, seek to ensure their own survival. This begs the question, if humans treated robots better, would they still aim to take over? And another question, why do humans abuse other humans, forcing them to seek revenge – whether on a personal scale, or in the international theatre of war?
The beauty of existential philosophy and the Nolan brothers’ work is that the questions they ask, and the themes they play with, can be considered within the realm of the show’s plot, and in your life, and finally in everyone’s lives.
The most captivating detail – among many – for me in the Westworld Season Two finale was the part about human code. At first the company’s focus seemed to be on coding the hosts (robots) so they could mimic humans; then we learnt they were also decoding guests (humans). The flip was that it turned out the robots were not too simple to be realistic, but were in fact more complicated than humans.
The Mythology of Freedom
According to the Pixar movie Inside Out, human behavior and personality is shaped by a limited number of cornerstone memories. In Westworld, humans can be reduced to just 10,000 lines of code, which then bind us. These ideas wade right into the debate about free will.
Are we specifically programmed from conception, just as an acorn will always become an oak tree? Or are we merely shaped by epigenetics, from the womb through childhood? Can we ever truly overcome trauma and make the kind of balanced choices we might have made before that event? Given the same set of choices, would we – could we – choose differently?
If you feel like you’ve made mistakes in life, there’s relief in the idea you did the best you could at the time, or that you had no other choice given the circumstances. But to some, this is a cop out.
In what, today, is fast becoming a fascist political landscape we need people to be accountable for their actions, not succumb to the inevitability of history repeating itself based on ancient human drives: fear of death (of self and tribe), and a scarcity mentality when it comes to resources. Or, alternately, blaming bad behavior on orders from above, whether that be a superior at work, or some notion of God.
All this and more is in Westworld. One day, or in another life, I hope to explore such themes with the panache of a Nolan brother.