Westworld, HBO’s $100 million version of a cereal-box maze, is as much a piece of violent, sex-driven entertainment as it is a melting pot for all our worst nightmares about advanced civilization. Every passing reference to Alice in Wonderland or Hieronymus Bosch builds on the classic human fear of slipping into an unregulated Xanadu that detaches us from reality and caters to our basest senses. As we await the forthcoming season, it’s worth revisiting society’s long history of technodread on the matter. Below, the movies, literature, television, video games, and reportage that contextualize this terrifying robot amusement park.
Like many kitschy futuristic flicks in the ’70s, the original Westworld film was made with a laughably low budget of $1.25 million. (Which explains why the film’s medieval emperors look like they’ve been dressed at Ricky’s.) But despite its rickety appearance, Michael Crichton’s feature-film directorial debut paved important thematic and technical ground for the genre. The storyline centers around Delos, a corporate-run playground for the wealthy where people can fight, seduce, and dine with a handful of different robot inhabitants in Medieval World, Roman World, and Westworld. (The cost: $1,000 a day.) Slight irregularities in the robots’ code spread like a virus from computer to computer, evolving into indiscriminate robot-on-human violence. Eventually, it all comes down to a relentless manhunt between a stoic robot named The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) and a tourist (Richard Benjamin).
Conceptually, the movie functions as a critique of the all-powerful, seemingly benevolent corporation—a narrative that was only just emerging in pop culture at the time. It also managed to mark a technical cinematic milestone. Footage that displayed The Gunslinger’s heat-seeking point of view were purposefully pixelated, making Westworld the very first film to make use of digital effects. Three years later, the movie’s sequel, Futureworld, would display a 3-D computer-animated hand crafted by a graduate student named Ed Catmull. He would later cofound Pixar. In his quest for technorealism, Crichton unknowingly pioneered a new era of filmmaking.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976)
The “bicameral mind” is referenced early and often in Westworld’s first season as a way to describe the approach of Robert Ford’s deceased cofounder, Arnold, to artificial intelligence. Before Ford’s longtime collaborator committed suicide by host, he theorized that robotic consciousness was organized as a pyramid. The base began with memory. Then came improvisation and self-interest. But the very top of that structure relates to Arnold’s obsession with a bong rip of a psychological theory; in 1976 Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes published a book hypothesizing that early mankind’s motivations were inspired by two separate parts of the mind: one that speaks as a kind of godlike instructor, and another that obeys. Jaynes posited, among many things, that humans only developed awareness of their self-awareness about 3,000 years ago, once they acquired the narrative tools needed to adapt to complex civilizations.
Connect that back to Arnold, and it’s easy to see the theory’s appeal. If he designed the AI off of this theory, that would mean that, one day, they would no longer need him whispering in their ear for instruction. Instead, they’d finally be able to rely on their own self-aware inner monologue to navigate (and maybe conquer??) the world. Anyway, all that to say The Bicameral Mind is mostly useless in the modern day practice of psychology, but incredibly relevant to those who engage in Reddit thread debates related to the series.
“Itchy and Scratchy Land,” The Simpsons (1994)
“Elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn against their masters and run amok in an orgy of blood and the kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving,” warns Professor Frink midway through “Itchy and Scratchy Land,” an homage to Crichton. Seconds later, robotic life-size cats and mice rise from their operating tables, grab their axes, and begin chopping away at their human caretakers. The Simpsons is known for its sage foresight of an uncomfortably powerful tech industry (see: Hank Scorpio). That it ran a Westworld mash-up just a year before the massive dot-com boom shows its writers were keenly aware of the dangers that unregulated corporations pose to modern society.
Grand Theft Auto (1997)
Between the many spaghetti Westerns and Philip K. Dick novels that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy burned through while conceptualizing Westworld, there was also plenty of game time. The couple credits the seminal, ultradestructive Grand Theft Auto for helping them better imagine the characters of the Westworld universe. “I literally just cruise around the city and obey the laws. . . . It’s hard for me to run over a lady, because I’m, like, Does she limp home to her family when you turn it off? Do they have health insurance?” Joy told the New Yorker in 2016, in reference to GTA. It was her empathy toward these “nonplayer characters” that helped her and her husband nail down Westworld’s intricate, intersecting character “loops.” The end result? Hosts are modeled after what Nolan calls “the video-game equivalent of extras.”
Joss Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi series may be a specific cultural touch point, but it’s a helpful reference in considering the morally fraught relationship between Westworld’s hosts and guests. In Dollhouse, a powerful corporation runs an underground black market of programmable men and women (known as Actives, or Dolls). Wealthy members of society are free to rent them out for their own devices, whether that be for sexual encounters, assassinations, or heists. Much like the abusive loops of Westworld characters like Dolores and Maeve, each Doll’s assignment highlights the exploitative nature of human-robot interactions. As the season continues, the parent corporation’s unscrupulous interests in these missions also come into view. If anything, it’s a relevant palate cleanser from Nolan and Joy’s mind-bendy universe that still engages with the same fascinating issues. (Plus, it’s on Hulu!)
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (1600s)
Westworld loves a highbrow literary reference, sometimes to a fault. And over the course of Season 1, it feeds the words of Lewis Carroll, Gertrude Stein, Mary Shelley, and Dante into the mouths of both the hosts and Dr. Ford. But the show’s writers lift most often from Shakespeare—specifically King Lear, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet—as a way of conveying moments of profound self-realization that a robot might not otherwise have the lingual toolbox to express. Appropriately, it’s from this canon that we were gifted the show’s foreboding tagline: “These violent delights have violent ends.” Dr. Ford may no longer be around to brag about how well read he is, but chances are his ultracapable artificial descendants will enthusiastically embrace that role in Season 2. As my man Shakespeare once said: “There’s magic in the web of it.”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.