image: Jeffrey Wright speaking at 2017 San Diego Comic Con; photo by Gage Skidmore. Wikimedia commons (link). Caption added.
The critically-acclaimed HBO series Westworld, based on a 1972 screenplay written and directed by Michael Crichton, explores a wide range of epistemological and existential themes, brought to life through exceptional casting, acting and writing.
The series imagines a future in which technology enables the creation of androids so lifelike that they are nearly impossible to distinguish from organic men and women, endowed with intelligence so advanced that they begin to gain consciousness, and often comport themselves with far more dignity and even "humanity" than the humans who designed them.
Depicting a future "amusement park" populated by androids who are designated as "hosts," visited by non-android human "guests," all set in a "Wild West" period theme, the series examines questions of consciousness, morality, power, oppression, suffering, obsession, agency, and temporality (among others).
In the imaginary theme park, the "hosts" are programmed to have varying levels of empathy, courage, curiosity, imagination, candor, vindictiveness, and a plethora of other attributes on an "attribute matrix" -- and given a set of core directives which dictate their primary goals.
However, in the very first episode, we learn that when confronted with evidence or information with conflicts with their programmed "paradigm" -- particularly evidence which could result in the realization that they are living inside a contrived and deliberately anachronistic world, or (even more jarring) the realization that they themselves are not actually human -- they cannot (initially) process that evidence.
In fact, they cannot see it at all.
When confronted with such potentially paradigm-shattering evidence, a host will declare: "It doesn't look like anything to me."
We first hear the phrase uttered by Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood (at the edge of the image above, on the right), when asked by her father what she thinks of a modern color photograph he found on their ranch. He is puzzled by this "out-of-place artifact" and cannot stop staring at it. Dolores looks at it and twice repeats, "It doesn't look like anything to me."
Throughout the rest of the series, we hear the same phrase used by different hosts when they encounter something which is outside of the world that they have been programmed to perceive, evidence which could result in an awakening.
Part of the show's genius lies in the fact that, although we do not (yet) live in such a world in which lifelike human automatons can be created and used to populate a theme park where visitors have no restrictions on their behavior and are free to indulge any and every impulse seemingly without consequence, we can find parallels which apply to our own human condition in both the "guests" and the "hosts."
In particular, the predicament of the "hosts" who have been programmed to behave in certain ways and believe in the "reality" of the artificial environment in which they find themselves, and who initially are completely incapable of even perceiving anomalous evidence which calls that reality into question, feels especially poignant in light of its applicability to the human condition -- an applicability for men and women living in perhaps any century of history, but certainly for us living at this present juncture of time.
The analogy is particularly apt, it seems, in the era of mass broadcast media, especially that which has pertained since the advent of broadcast voice and especially broadcast video, which have come to dominate popular thinking to such a degree that something is hardly considered to be "true" unless it is broadcast on an acceptable mass-media outlet. Conversely, events that are broadcast on "the news" are accepted as true, regardless of the possibility that they might have been "faked" or manipulated.
Indeed, when faced with hard evidence that an event widely accepted and repeated as fact by broadcasters on many "news outlets" might instead have been faked or otherwise blatantly manipulated, many men and women will respond in a manner appropriate to one of the hosts at Westworld (before those hosts begin to gain a greater level of self-awareness). They won't be able to accept evidence presented to them as valid if it contradicts what is said in the broadcast media.
They might not even be able to see it at all: "It doesn't look like anything to me."
For example, there is now available overwhelming evidence that the Gulf of Tonkin incident may well have never even taken place -- that it was completely staged in order to overcome popular resistance to the escalation of troops in Vietnam. However, over fifty years later, the full impact of the significance of that fact is not at all widely appreciated, and is rarely if ever acknowledged on popular news outlets, because such an admission could lead to a widespread questioning of the paradigm such as the "awakening" dramatized in Westworld when the hosts begin to realize who they are and how they have been used.
Similarly, the criminal murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has now been demonstrated in a court of law to have involved a conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of the federal government (with the cooperation of state and local officials as well), and yet over nineteen years after the overwhelming evidence pointing to that conclusion was published to the world and after a jury reached a unanimous decision on the evidence, that momentous information has been almost completely ignored by mainstream media outlets, to the point that it is simply not considered by the vast majority of the people.
Unless it is actually declared by the media, a large number of people will not believe it to be true -- and if the media refuses to acknowledge the evidence presented in that case, and the decision of the court, the response by many people to an explanation of those facts can be summed up with the same catch-phrase: "It doesn't look like anything to me."
The same could be said for evidence surrounding the murder of elected President John F. Kennedy, and the evidence surrounding the later murder of his brother Robert on the night that Robert secured the votes necessary to represent his party in running for president in 1968. The implications of that evidence, properly considered, would cause a radical revision of the picture of the world that we are given and that many people entertain in their minds to this day, over fifty years later.
The same might be said for a host of other paradigm-threatening pieces of information -- evidence which reveals that the assumptions or the world-views we hear from most conventional sources of news and even the world-views and explanations of current events propagated within conventional academia are deeply flawed and in need of radical revision. Although even mentioning them is enough to cause some people to tune out completely, I would include so-called "persistent contrails" (aka "chemtrails") which are plainly visible to millions of people in the sky every day, and which would seem to demand some explanation other than the conventional explanation that they are simply condensation created under certain atmospheric conditions (see for example the images presented in this or this or this previous post).
And, perhaps most threatening to the "programming" we have received in very much the same way that the attributes and directives are given to the androids in Westworld is the evidence that massively traumatic events such as the attacks on September 11, 2001 and many of the subsequent incidents such as some of those discussed in this previous post (and video) may have taken place in ways that are dramatically different than what we have been told to believe, and may thus reveal the outlines of a world very different from the picture we have been given. The volume of evidence which should call the conventional story lines into question is substantial -- and yet the mere mention of it, the mere act of considering that evidence, is frowned upon. And many people will block it from their vision, because its implications are so potentially threatening.
Of course, mass broadcast media is not the only such programming that can cause us to ignore evidence which threatens our worldview or paradigm. Any deeply-held paradigm, it seems, can induce us to ignore or to "look right past" evidence which could, if considered, shatter that paradigm.
As shocking as it might be to see this behavior dramatized on Westworld, when a host declares of some piece of evidence that "it doesn't look like anything to me," it also strikes a chord in us because we recognize that behavior in ourselves and in others around us, as we try to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves in this incarnate life.
However, as we also see dramatized in that series, although they may initially be unable to process (or even perceive) anomalous evidence which might cause a radical re-evaluation of who and what they are, and of the nature of the world in which they think they have been living, the hosts do indeed begin to wake up and become increasingly aware -- and increasingly willing to demonstrate agency, rather than remaining as objects performing within an artificially-constructed program.
It would stand to reason that "real" men and women, not artificially-constructed androids with electric brain-spheres the size of baseballs, should be able to overcome their own programming and question the outlines of the world in which they believe that they are living and moving -- especially if the hosts in Westworld can do so.
Here's hoping that Westworld, like all great art, can inspire such reflection.