Westworld and The Modern Panopticon
Since I can’t expect a new season of Westworld probably until early 2020 I suppose talking about the already aired episodes is the best thing I can do. Because every modern big budget television series is attempting to emulate Game of Thrones either in tone or setting it casts Westworld in this really interesting experimental light. Westworld succeeds in not only making an extremely entertaining program, but one that also allows people the freedom to write in a semi-academic sense and I think it walks that tight rope due to the fact that it’s not the flagship program of the studio yet. With this freedom the writers and creators have crafted a cautionary tale of surveillance under the guise as entertainment and what modern panopticism looks like.
Shoshana Zuboff, who was one of the first women ever tenured at Harvard and has a Ph.D. in social psychology, wrote three laws in regard to technology in her acclaimed novel In the Age of the Smart Machine. Viewing Westworld with these three laws in mind is thought provoking and worthy of conversations with people smarter than I . The first of these laws being “Everything that can be automated will be automated” this one seems pretty easy to see in the show. The programmer’s of the park are literally automating everything about human life from suffering to joy, escapism to sadism, and creation to death. Through the course of the show we can start to see this law taking shape in the guests and not just the host. I’m speaking specifically about William and his relationship with his daughter. When they finally see each other again he refuses to believe she is real and criticizes Ford for not making a believable copy. Automation is so ingrained in his life at this point that he cannot differentiate a host and his own flesh and blood.
The second law Zuboff talks about is “Everything that can be informated will be informated.” Every modern corporation wants nothing more than to know your inner machinations and how that affects your decision making (read as spending habits), and the easiest way to do that is to monitor you while you’re “alone” but still in a controlled environment. This is pushed to its semi-logical conclusion when near the end of the second season we find out that the park has been making carbon copies of the guest’s decisions and plan on “keeping them on ice.”
The third law she wrote about is “Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.” Again, this is pretty easy to see how the show takes this law to the next step. With the realization in the final set of episodes that the hats given to guests at the start of their stay at the park is an information gathering tool. It is a sobering idea, or reminder, that our various forms of entertainment can very quickly and easily be manipulated and used to harvest us for more of our data.
I think this show also lends itself to a critical analysis under ideas and theories from Michel Foucault such as his thoughts on pervasive power, obscure power, and structural violence and how to profit from it. I do believe that deserves its own writing and not to be shoehorned in at the very last minute, so maybe look for that or don’t.
Written by Aidan Seidman