by William Skink
There is a lot one can learn from the fictional narratives we watch passively on screens if you know what you are looking at: sophisticated assemblages of images, language and ideas they call “programming” for a reason.
Warning: there be spoilers ahead.
When an idea pops up in more than one show, I know to pay attention. So when the reveal of West World, Season 3, episode 7, used the term “outlier” I immediately recalled the tv show Colony. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, let’s get a better idea of what these two shows are all about by consulting the Wikipedia. Here’s the introduction to the world of Westworld:
Westworld is an American science fiction Western and dystopian television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. Produced by HBO, it is based on the 1973 film of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton) and, to a lesser extent, the film’s 1976 sequel Futureworld.
The story begins in Westworld, a fictional, technologically advanced Wild-West-themed amusement park populated by android “hosts”. The park caters to high-paying “guests” who may indulge their wildest fantasies within the park without fear of retaliation from the hosts, who are prevented by their programming from harming humans.
Later on, in the third season, the series’ plot expands to the real world, in the mid-21st century, where people’s lives are driven and controlled by a powerful artificial intelligence named Rehoboam.
The “host” played by Rachel Evan Wood has escaped the amusement park in season 3 and is bringing her revolution to the human world. The viewer assumes she will be the one leading the charge against the humans, and it isn’t until the second to last episode that the role of her human sidekick, Caleb, is explained, and her plan to have this damaged, mind controlled soldier destroy humanity is revealed.
The quick explanation of this plot development is that this fictional future world is totally controlled by AI to the degree that all human agency has been replaced by AI control. The humans that most threaten to destabilize this artificial AI-imposed order are the “outliers”.
Caleb, once a soldier, is an outlier who was used to hunt down and kill other outliers. To obscure his role, Caleb is subjected to a sophisticated form of mind control. Delores exposes how Caleb was used and abused, knowing his rage will set in motion the fall of mankind.
And we watch this stuff for “entertainment”?
The idea of the “outlier” becomes central to Delores’ plan at the end of season 3. Similarly, in the show Colony, outliers emerge as a central focus of this fictional narrative’s plot development.
Here’s wikipedia’s summary of the show:
In a dystopian near-future Los Angeles, residents live under a regime of military occupation by an organization known as the Transitional Authority. The Authority serves an extraterrestrial group referred to as the “Hosts”, about whom little is known until later in the series (an alien robotic race finds themselves hunted, who came to Earth to use humans as allies and labor in their own battle).
The protagonist of this show, played by Josh Holloway, is an “outlier” and therefore can’t be killed by the Transitional Authority. Why? Because the occupying aliens NEED the outliers to fight THEIR enemies, so the outliers are preserved (after being identified with the help of Big Tech type guy who lives in Seattle).
The idea being explored here in both shows is how personality types impact social order. This is nothing new. In fact, you have probably been assessed at some point in your life by a personality test like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.
The anxiety these narratives express is one of technology evolving from a tool to help humans that we can control, into an existential threat no longer within the control of human agency.
While we sit and passively watch this narrative programming on our screens, the idea that we have already set into motion the very phenomenon these stories anxiously mull over is still a bit too much for many viewers.
But we have, and if we don’t want to wake up to the realization that we now inhabit a Black Mirror world one day, then we might want to start taking our “entertainment” more seriously.