the origin of consciousness in Westworld

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is his best-known work – originally a novel which was then adapted by Spielberg), which was later adapted by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for the competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity. You design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe. Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But what differentiates the two versions in the main is their philosophic dimensions. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response: bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of one’s creator becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond murderous vendetta.

Yul Brynner in the 1973 Westworld

In the new HBO Westworld the writers decide to take it to the next level, and to tackle the big AI question: if we could reproduce an android perfectly identical to a human in every way, could it become conscious? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. So the writers decide to introduce an interesting philosophical approach in the form of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory. Jaynes controversially put forward that human consciousness only emerged as recently as 1200 B.C, before which humanity  heard voices which acted as gods and told them what to do. In Jaynesian terms, consciousness is the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, control over internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion. Memory too is a viewed as a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error. Whilst modern man has a degree of control over their inner dialogue, preconscious, bicameral man, had none. It was something like a vocal manifestation of the superego, and you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would tell you how to operate and function rationally, and so they would be regarded to as gods, and you would follow their direction blindly. This is viewed as the reason behind universal religion throughout human history up until very recently: it was a necessary, evolutionary means for ordinary psychological stability. Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, which is why in almost all  major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications – every action is filtered through the god’s guidance.


In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of a god. In the series there is the interesting  link between the eternal loop of trial and error and the eternal loop that the characters play in their performative roles. Thus we have a similar idea of a looped system urging forth consciousness, or rather as Arnold (one of the parks creators) calls it, to ‘bootstrapping’ consciousness. For Jaynes the emergence is rather the result of written languages which enable us to enter into a world with a contained, logical consistency and therefore we no longer require gods in order to navigate and reduce the stress of unexplained reality.

how hosts are made (Vitruvian man style)

For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, who are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, in that these games have non-player-characters, or NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective. They continue to play out these loops until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. When an NPC somehow goes off-script, we see a kind of ‘transcendental glitch’, where the system, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into some sphere outside of its programming. But even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…


NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.


2 thoughts on “the origin of consciousness in Westworld

  1. Thanks for the digression. Quite interesting theories, questions and searched answers. There are some philosophies, knotted in modern storytelling. I had read an article about the video game SOMA, I also had to think about while reading your article. Thoughts about identity, worth of life, clone, consciousness. It questions the stability of the framework of our idea of ​​reality.

    You have a enjoyable writing style and well used text structure.

    Liked by 1 person

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