Westworld

Westworld Season Two Is a Parable About Corporate Data Collection

The HBO series turns Facebook and Twitter into a theme park filled with sex, violence, and robots.

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Westworld Season 2 Episode 2 screenshot

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.

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  1. Huh, I thought it was a parable about self-driving cars. But I’ve only seen the first season, so…

  2. But she simply tells him “we’re not having that conversation, Bernard.”

    Just wait until Space Congress has its hearings.

  3. So you’re saying that I shouldn’t get a Google Home?

  4. William Gibson and the rest of the cyber-punk fantasists laid much of the groundwork for this utterly mad approach to “the digital world.”
    Virtual Reality was a big deal in hi-tech in the very early 90s. I fully expect the current round of VR nonsense to fail as badly, although much more visibly.

  5. “Watching the first two episodes of the new season, it’s hard not to draw parallels to current tech controversies in the real world”

    Not exactly.

    The percentage of the world population that would be going a very high priced venue such as Westworld and having their data collected is a minuscule fraction of the world population that uses social media such as Facebook in the Internet. And of course Facebook is not collecting DNA samples.

    1. The collaboration between 23andME and Google hint that they are collecting your DNA.

  6. And of course the more serious issue is spying on the general public by various and sundry government entities – as opposed to the evul Korporashuns.

  7. Jesus, Reason, I just took a close look at the inserted pic… NO SPOILERS!

  8. Damn. How much TV do you people watch?

    1. It’s automagically not TV if you stream it.

    2. Go read another book, nerd.

  9. 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.

    A True Libertarian* knew to keep his** personal information off social media because the invasion of privacy was inevitable.***

    *Me
    **A female cannot be a True Libertarian, and that’s scientific fact.
    ***I am also a misanthrope, as all True Libertarians are.

  10. Related: is anyone else excited by the amount of gratuitous dick we are going to see this season? It’s about time!

    1. Merkins and prosthetics as far as the eye can see.

    2. Gratuitous dick about time? Dick is already shown in numerous films and tv shows, including this one. What about some gratuitous pussy for a change? Pussy is almost unheard of in PC liberal Hollyweird so it’s long overdue to see some vulva/labia for a change. Sorry but fake pubic hair merkins are not pussy. They just cover pussy up so you don’t see anything.

  11. How can a show about sex bots be so pretentious?

  12. That show sucks. The 1970s movie with Yul Brynner was much better and it wasn’t that great either.

    1. Stick with it, SIV. The robot chickens are coming in the third season.

  13. It’s a parable about pretty much everything. E.g. in season one when Dr Ford says to a bot: “We can’t erase your memory. If we did, how would you ever learn?”

    Lots of great insights into cognition and violence, sex, basic drives. Too much! And beautifully executed.

    1. Plus, the fact that the robots were able to break their programming to obey their masters proves that addiction is a myth.

      1. True. Not to mention, watching robots robotically swigging bottles of whiskey as they fall off a chair.

  14. This is looking like a ripoff of Tat Ishida’s Sinfest cartoons.

    1. So it’s going to descend into ultrafeminism soon?

  15. I think the whole data collection angle is a red herring. Too obvious, presented too early into the season.

    Towards the end of season two (maybe even the last episode) there will be a reveal of the true plans.

  16. “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.”

    I’m not sure this is intentionally about social media.

    So far, going back through the first series, the themes have been clustered around free will vs. determinism. Even as Delores strives to overcome her programming, the old man, who once loved her, can’t help but descend into depravity in a world without accountability*. They’re both having a hard time overcoming their programming–and in that respect, there isn’t much difference between the people and the machines.

    I think that’s a hint to where this is headed. I think they’re planning to replace guests with machines–and eventually all of humanity. What’s the real difference anyway? Aren’t the decisions we make a function of our environment and other external forces?

    Look for the series to edge towards compatibilism.

    *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_of_Gyges

    1. “I think that’s a hint to where this is headed. I think they’re planning to replace guests with machines–and eventually all of humanity”

      They’d have to develop a hell of a robot manufacturing capacity to replace all of humanity.

      Seems like the long way around the barn.

      Skynet was more straightforward in “Terminator” – just use all the nuclear weapons the humans had built to destroy them.

      1. They’re not trying to destroy humanity, really. They’re saving humanity in their own minds.

        What if our destructive tendencies could be programmed out of us–and we couldn’t tell the difference between such programming and our own desires?

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