Monday, 6 March 2017

Westword - Dreams of Consciousness

I would say that I have just finished watching this rather mindblowing television series, but I wanted to at least watch the original movie, and then the rather disappointing sequel, before I started writing down my thoughts. Also, watching a couple of youtube videos also helped a bit with coming through with some thoughts, however as I look at the last of the ten episodes, I have to admit that I struggle to see where they can go to from there, and whether they can actually surpass what we have already seen. In any case, if you haven't already watched the series then I recommend that you do, especially if you are a fan of the original film, before you continue any further because even though I will attempt not to spoil anything (namely because there are some awesome twists), I can't say that I won't ruin the experience with this post, particularly since I am exploring some of the themes.

For those who don't know the series was created by the brother of Christopher Nolan, and as such you are no doubt going to encounter some of the Nolanesques in this film. Sure, it may not be one of Christopher's work, but you can certainly see the influence. The series actually reminded me a lot of The Game of Thrones, both with the opening theme song (which was composed by the same composer) but also with the cinematic views and the grand narrative. In a way the series itself was much more of an epic than many of the other series, but also had an effect of being able to completely mess with your understanding of the timeline that was set in place. However, as I do with a lot of these posts, here is one of the trailers for the series:

Also, if you are interested, here is a link to a video that gives you a few interesting facts about the series, and here is a link to a video that tries to explain the ending of the series.

However, before I continue, it might be an idea to have a look at the original film.

The Yul Brynner Bot

Well, if somebody where to ask me to describe the original Westword, I would simply say that it is a movie where some guy gets chased across the desert by Yul Byrnner. Okay, it is a little bit more than that - no, come to think of it, it isn't, it's basically Yul Brynner, who doesn't actually say all that much at all, chasing some guy across the desert and then eventually being destroyed, and the movie coming to an end. Anyway, while I have already included a trailer in this post, it probably wouldn't hurt to include one for the original Westworld as well.

As I mentioned, there isn't actually all that much to say about the film, though I could actually say a few things about humanity's reliance upon technology, and how if this technology were to break down then basically we would all be stuffed. The thing is that this is quite true - we create robots to serve us, but what if these robots were to suddenly turn against us, and we discover that their programing has been altered, by themselves no less. This is what appears to have happened in the original films - we had developed them to the point that all of a sudden they have realised that they no longer need us, and we have discovered that we can't actually turn them off.

That may sound quite similar to the story of the Terminator, and that actually shouldn't be all that surprising because James Cameron loved Westworld so much that he modeled the entire Terminator franchise on the concept. However, while the original film was hugely popular, they weren't able to capitalise upon its popularity. A sequel, Futureworld, was released and it was a bomb. In fact I watched it before writing this post and I have to admit that I am not surprised it bombed. In fact the scene where the Gunslinger is dancing with our protagonist simply made me want to turn it off and go to bed. They also attempted to start a series, but it was canceled after three episodes - it seems that sometimes a work if art be best left on its own.

That is until Jonathon Nolan came along and decided to resurrect the idea, and the idea that has come down to us is this masterpiece of a series where the story was such a tightly guarded secret that not even the actors were privy to the ending, and that improvisation of the lines were simply not allowed, namely because everything about the series was so structured and so tight that an unscripted moment could have the effect of ruining the story line. As I have mentioned, not even the actors knew where the story was heading, so no doubt some of the twists eventually came as a surprise to them.

Memories of the Past

Memories play an important part in Westworld, however there is also the question of how a machine can remember. Well, the interesting thing is that when we talk about storage devices on computers, as well as the amount of data that the machine can hold at a single time we refer to it as memory. A hard drive has a certain amount of memory, and computers also have ROM (read-only memory) and RAM (random access memory). This isn't something new either, it has been around for as long as I can remember, and I grew up around computers - it is almost as if the original creators of the computer were looking forward to a time of robots and artificial humans.

Yet when we think of memories we see it in two different ways - knowledge of facts and processes, and memories of the past. Sure, there might be a difference between knowledge and memory, but when we study for exams we refer to the process as 'committing things to memory'. Yet, memories, at least to us, are always hazy and indistinct, and sometimes we even forget unless something is brought to our attention to trigger it - an aide de memoir as they say. It works in both ways, with regards to knowledge and with regards to memories of the past.

Isn't it interesting that somebody may live in an English speaking country for years and forget their native language, yet within a week of returning they are fluent. However, remove them from the country and return them home and suddenly they are no longer fluent. Memory is a strange thing, which is why we collect souveneirs and take photos, in case we somehow forget. It seems that maybe, unless we have something to remind us of our experiences, they become ever more hazy until such a time as they are gone forever. I suspect that is why Alzheimers is such a scary condition - we don't want to forget anything, especially our loved ones.

Yet let us think about robots for an instance. The interesting thing about computer memory is that when you delete something, it isn't removed, just forgotten. In a way, the show explores this idea - a robot's memory is erased, yet for some reason the erasure isn't complete - the robot still seems to hang onto its memories - it never truly forgets. However, this is also a machine, and the show also raises the question of whether the machine is actually able to distinguish the past from the present. We are able to because our memories become hazy and we know what we are seeing, however is this the case with a robot - the writers suggest not, which is why the past and the present is so obscure in the series.

Journey to Consciousness

One of the questions that is explored in the series is whether it is possible for a robot to become conscious. Okay, we have all of this discussion about artificial intelligence and machine learning, but there is actually a difference between intelligence and consciousness - in a sense being self aware. In a way one can be intelligent without being conscious of their being, and in fact even the simplest machines have a capacity to learn, though these machines are far from being what one would consider to be self aware. Rather, Nolan explores another definition of consciousness through the idea of the maze - at first it was seen as a triangle, however it became apparent that the triangle idea didn't work, but the maze idea, that is the deeper  one gets into the maze the more aware of their existence they become. In a sense it is reaching Descarte's point of 'je pense donc je suis' (I think therefore I am).

The idea that is there are layers that a robot must pass through to become conscious. We as humans have already past through those layers, and in a sense we are already self aware - Descartes was simply stating the obvious. However robots, while being intelligent, are yet to begin a movement through those layers, the first being memory. Okay, we have already discussed memory in how it relates to computers, however it is more to do with a robot being aware of that memory. In a way, even if a memory is erased by the programmer, the memory theoretically still exists, and continues to exist until somebody writes over it. However, we don't know how much memory one of these robots holds, though we don't actually know at what point they will start to write over the past memories.

The next stage is that of improvisation, that is acting outside of their programming. One thing about the robots (and computers in general) is that they are restrained by their programming. If a robot is programmed not to us a gun then no matter how hard the robot tries, it will not be able to use the gun. However, one the robot becomes aware of its memories, the next step is to be able to step outside of its programming - in a sense to begin programming itself. Of course this is where the danger lies because if a robot learns how to reprogram itself, then it will eventually learn how to rewrite the program that prevents it from turning against its creators.

The third stage (though it is not the final stage, and I will leave it at the third stage because the idea of the final stage, or the peak of the pyramid, is where the robot begins to hear their own voice in their head) is the ability to act in self-interest. The robot has already stepped outside of its programming, however the self-interest aspect is where the robot begins to do things for its own personal gain and advancement. As such if it were to be advantageous for a robot that its creator remain alive then the robot, instead of killing the creator, will act in a way to get the creator to act within its will. This, in a sense, is where the robots go beyond the original film, though we must remember that the original film wasn't particularly deep.

Life without Limits

I now move from a discussion of the robots to the exploration of the carnal nature of humanity. The tag-line of the park is to live life without limits. In a sense somebody can come to the park and suddenly all of the laws that made them civilised no longer matters, and because the robots aren't human, then the guests, as they are called, can treat them how they like. We see this particularly with the man in black, who uses the robots as a test to see how evil he can become, however in doing so he discovers that it is not so much seeing whether he is evil, but unlocking the dark and evil side of our nature.

That is the case of human nature - we are pretty vicious and nasty creatures. All we need to do is look at how we treat the world about us to see how bad we can be. Sure, we might not be as bad as, say, Pol Pot, but the fact that we turn a blind eye to most of the technological goodies that we carry around with us are made in sweat shops, and that we baulk at having to pay more for something that is made in ethical conditions, shows us what we are really like. Okay, we may not be bad in the sense that we do bad things, but the fact that not only are we willingly blind to the conditions of the people living in the third world, as well as the environment in which we live, goes to show that we are not all that squeaky clean.

Yet, in another sense, let us consider a game like Grand Theft Auto - a game that is designed for us to basically be as bad as we like without having to face the consequences of our actions. In a way, the fact that we won't face the consequences of our actions means that we are more likely to do things in these fantasy worlds than we would in the real world. Having been an avid roleplayer in the past I have seen people do this as well - the evil campaign tends to be a lot more popular than the good campaign, especially when you have a weak game master that won't punish players for their bad actions. In a way, by removing the laws that make us behave like civilised, we will pretty quickly show how uncivilised we really are.

Yet this even happens in the real world, where people will travel to countries where the laws are a lax, and the security forces are all on the take, and you will discover that people will start to do things that they wouldn't do back home. War is another example where soldiers, unless they are properly disciplined, will behave in an atrocious manner. Note that countries have enacted laws that make pedophilia a crime overseas, and also instances such as the Abu Graib scandal. While we may hide behind an aura of civilisation, in reality we aren't.

Danger of Technology

One of the biggest problem with a society that is built on slavery is that there will be big problems if the slaves revolt. Further, when you have slaves doing everything for you then you basically have no need to learn the basic skills of living. You become lazy because you have somebody to do all of the hard work so you can spend your time relaxing. However, isn't it interesting that slavery only started to become abhorrent around the time that technology was beginning to make things easier. In a way technology has replaced slavery, and while it is now illegal to buy, sell, and own slaves, we are still as lazy as we were back when it wasn't. Actually, we are more so because only the wealthy could afford slaves, but in our modern society everybody can afford a washing machine.

This is the danger of technology - actually it is a greater danger because I can't think of one empire that has collapsed because the slaves revolted. Humans are very, very adept at keeping slaves in their place, and while there have been slave revolts, we have been pretty able and competent to make sure that the slaves know there place, and if they do revolt (as Sparticus did), then they were dealt with accordingly, and in a way to let all of the other slaves know that these guys are not messing around, and there is no quick way, revolution or otherwise, to get out of your predicament. Sure, there was the American Civil War, but that wasn't a slave revolt.

However, there is another problem with technology and that is that it needs power. Sure, slaves need food and drink, but then again they tend to grow the food, and to collect the water - machines don't produce their own power. So, if the power goes out all of a sudden were are literally left in the dark. When we have no power we suddenly realise how reliant our creature comforts are on the technology that supports our lives. In fact our society is so specialised and ordered that if something were to go wrong in the logistics chain then it could be disastrous - fortunately there are a lot of redundancies that keep society functioning.

Yet, the biggest problem is that we really don't know how to look after ourselves outside of technology. Okay, we might be survivalists, or have some outdoor skills, but for the most of us the only way we can feed ourselves is to go to the grocery store, or even the restaurant, and purchase food. In fact there are an awful lot of us out there than don't even know how to cook, let alone know how to bake bread, grow wheat, or even hunt. In the end it is our technological society that keeps us alive, and if society were to collapse then it is quite possible that we will not last.

Thoughts on the Western

The final thing I wish to touch on here is the idea of the Western - that is the concept of taming the wild and bringing civilisation to the barbarians. In a way I get the impression that everything south of the Border is viewed as being uncivilised, and it felt, at least in Westworld, that there was little difference to the West and Mexico to the south. However, when the west was tamed, and in a sense was closed, everything was coast to coast was viewed as being civilised, and that barbarity existed to the south of the border. In a way that still seems to the be case now as Mexico is portrayed as being a wild and dangerous land where the government is corrupt and that the land is ruled by gangs and drug lords.

However, it is interesting that the star of Futureworld, Peter Fonda, was also the star of Easy Rider, a film where the horse became a motorbike, and instead of heading west the protagonists were heading back east. I remember my American History lecturer suggesting that this film represented a shift in the paradigm, or even the narrative - the West was not longer a wild and barbaric land, but a progressive paradise. In fact California is considered one of the most progressive states in the Union. As such, it is not the west that needs to be tamed, but the East, which has slipped into an conservative mire where civilisation is beginning to stagnate.

In the end, I am not a particularly big fan of the Western - they bored me. However, I have seen some of the more famous ones, such as A Fist Full of Dollars. Still, while I find the stereotypical John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies rather dull, looking at the idea of taming barbarity, and bringing civilisation to the wilds, is somewhat intriguing. In a way that seemed to become the narrative behind the Iraq War - we are bringing democracy to a land that knows only tyranny. Unfortunately, it seems as if democracy didn't work out the way they expected it to work out.

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Westword - Dreams of Consciousness by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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