In season two of HBO's Westworld, the devil's in the data collection. That's made this show more relevant than ever.
Two episodes in, there's been no shortage of the robot revenge fantasy promised in season one's finale, as humans have to reckon with both the technological evolution of artificially intelligent androids and the moral culpability they bear for their behavior toward the robots back when Westworld was just a game. But along with more details about the mysterious Delos Corporation backing the park, a new sort of parable about humans and technology is also emerging, one that dovetails ominously with our current stage of information-era concerns.
We first got a hint of this in last week's season premiere, when Bernard (Jeffrey Wright)—who has taken shelter from the robot rampage with Delos board member Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) in a bunker lab—discovers one of the company's drone robots extracting what looks like blood from one of the park's characters. "Are we logging records of guests' experiences and their DNA?" he asks Charlotte. But she simply tells him "we're not having that conversation, Bernard."
The second episode offered up more information about what Delos is really doing in the park. Having now unseated his brother-in-law as heir apparent to the company, William (Jimmi Simpson) must convince his father-in-law Jim Delos (Peter Mullan) to continue the company's investment in the park. Jim sees his son's enthusiasm for AI as foolish, and he tells William he's not interested in schemes with decades-out payoffs.
This is when William reveals that he has more in mind for the Westworld robots, or "hosts," than simply serving as playthings for park guests with Old West fantasies. What they are really nurturing, he says, is a world where people feel like they can do whatever they want while remaining free of judgment, and where they will reveal things about themselves that they would never actually tell to researchers. But while guests think no one is watching, Delos will be taking it all in.
It turns out that while Westworld guests—and Westworld viewers—were cautious about the robots and the potentially mad geniuses behind them, a much more mundane villain was quietly laying the groundwork for mayhem.
Watching the first two episodes of the new season, it's hard not to draw parallels to current tech controversies in the real world. When Gmail, Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, and other future tech giants were starting and growing in the 00s, almost everyone realized, at least on some level, that they were handing over an unprecedented amount of personal information to private companies and/or the world at large. But bolstered with promises of privacy customizations and walled content gardens, of user control over just who sees their content and for how long, and a cultural zeitgeist that suddenly encouraged oversharing—not to mention, of course, some significant levels of technological carelessness and ignorance—most people seemed to exist in a sort of state doublethink about their digital data and footprint.
We allowed ourselves to be convinced that imaginary lines between the "real world" and the digital realm were more meaningful and secure than they really were, and convinced ourselves that those guarding our web worlds would always be guided more by their revolutionary roots than the kind of corporatism that steers establishment entities. And as Facebook and other big social networks exploded, the new connectivity, diversions, drama, illusion of anonymity, possibilities to play different roles, promise of (micro) fame, and easy satisfaction of psychological drives that they provided kept us distracted, or deluded, out of applying caution and thinking more criticially.
Recently, this spell has started to break as awareness about how Facebook and other companies have been careless with user data has grown. Yet masses of people are still handing over their DNA to all sorts of ancestry and gene testing companies and inviting "smart" snoops like Amazon's Alexa into their bedrooms.
So while the central threat in season one of the Westworld was still somewhat far removed from our reality—the state of android technology and artificial intelligence in the real world is still way less advanced than many people think it is—this season's new menace lurks a lot closer to home.