Westworld, The Circle, and Modern Cyberpunk

This weekend, I got caught up on Westworld. I was pretty nonplussed by the season two finale and wasn’t sure if I’d continue watching the show. But the shelter-in-place order has given me more time and I found myself watching the four recent episodes in season three.

The Cyberpunk We Deserve

After watching The Circle a few years ago, I started writing a bunch of thoughts about how cyberpunk as a genre was failing us. I called this collection of notes “The World Deserves Better From Cyberpunk.”

Cyberpunk is a genre of stories set in the near future where technology has consumed almost all of life. The typical stories include Blade Runner in the west and Ghost In The Shell in the east. They are characterized by dark cityscapes lit with neon lights, giant building sized advertisements, technology that controls everything, and gross inequality. This aesthetic came from Reagan-era deregulation where the growing fear was how much an unregulated industry would consume our lives. As a genre, it’s concerned with questions of identity and free will in worlds where you’re under constant control and/or manipulation.

I have been a long time fan of cyberpunk. But, the problems that we see in the world of Neuromancer or Blade Runner are extensions of the problems we saw in the world of their authors. Cyberpunk showed us a possible future where the worst consequences of deregulation were taken to their extreme. The problem is that cyberpunk hasn’t evolved from those themes. It’s still stuck in eighties America, with eighties America problems.

The Circle was the first cyberpunk movie I saw where it looked like the author was going to say something about today’s world. The main villain is a tech industry giant with the status of Apple, the data of Facebook, and the distribution of YouTube.

The protagonist, played by Emma Watson, streams her entire life to millions of people. By being “transparent,” she’s perpetuating the social structure that keeps The Circle in power. There’s a strong parallel to influencers and vloggers. The Circle makes cameras that let people watch the world around them. They create a platform for people to connect and share. Unlike the worlds of Blade Runner where companies are the chief cause of inequality, The Circle is concerned with how consumers buy into that inequality. How we choose to participate in it.

Much like today, the company faces members of congress that want to investigate and regulate them. They use their lawyers and lobbyists to fend off regulation. They bribe representatives and senators. When those measures aren’t enough, they find a new solution: Can they control the vote.

At one point, with regulation coming for them, the board of directors ponders a law that would automatically register every Circle user to vote. The ease with which Emma Watson can justify the good of a private company controlling elections feels so close to how tech companies talk. It’s the kind of thing that you could imagine Mark Zuckerberg saying about Facebook. Or, think of Jack Dorsey talking about how Twitter has helped democratic movements across the globe, but failing to talk about how dictators use it to track down and imprison dissidents.

The movie seemed like it could be trying to say something.

But it’s all around bad. It never pulls its strands into any cohesive message. It’s boring, has pacing problems, and fails to adequately present its metaphor. There are more dramatized Apple keynotes in The Circle than character scenes. When I first saw this movie and wanted to write about it, I tried to watch the movie a few times. The biggest character moment–the one that feels like it might be a turning point, like it might show the personal cost of this world–is so boring that I feel asleep twice during that scene and had to rewind.

It made me sad, because I wanted so badly for The Circle to be good. I wanted it to be in command of its argument, to say something about the world we live in, and to take its subject seriously and critically. But instead, despite all the star power behind this film, it comes away with a muddled message that challenges nothing about our relationship to technology or our identity. The climax sees Watson’s character take control of the Circle, expose the secrets of the founder, and embrace the technology that caused so many problems. The true crime, the film says, isn’t that privacy is dead, but that it still exists for those in power. It’s not that The Circle had all that power, but that it had the wrong CEO.

Technology As Identity, Identity As Technology

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR WESTWORLD SEASON THREE

With all the faults of The Circle, I had given up on cyberpunk evolving to discuss modern problems. But thankfully, Westworld has decided to defy those expectations.

This season of Westworld surprised me. It’s sort of a cliche that the second season of television shows are worse than the first. There’s so much anticipation and because show runners aren’t sure they’ll be picked up for a second, the first seasons usually have pretty clean endings. That was how I felt about Westworld. The first season was a pretty typical cyberpunk story asking “what does it mean to be human or to be alive?”

Season two started a shift. The main plot of the season was about Delos collecting the brain patterns and thoughts of every single guest. It was on the verge of saying something profound. “If we know everything about you, we can recreate you.” The park is a data collection farm. The season is focused on finding The Forge, the location of all the guest data.

Season three sees Delores escape and come to understand a sad fact about the outside world, everything is controlled by Incite, an artificial intelligence that eats up every piece of data it can get on every person on the planet and then predicts and creates the future. Now it wants the data from The Forge to improve its predictions.

This might be a good spot for a quick aside. One pet peeve of mine is when people talk about Facebook listening to them through their phone. This bothers me because that would be less sinister than what is actually happening.

Facebook follows you around the web. They know what groups you belong to, what products you purchase, where you purchase them, who you socialize with, what your political views are, and what movies you like. And they know all of those things about all the people you are connected with, as well. They don’t need to listen in on your conversations. They can predict what you want to buy. What does that say about your free will?

Westworld is that situation taken to a logical extreme. What if a company knew everything about you? What if they could predict what you might do? What if they didn’t need to predict it? What if they could control it?

Incite doesn’t just control advertisements, it controls what people can become. It holds Caleb down from ever escaping his construction job, forcing him to take on a life of crime to pay for his mother’s ongoing schizophrenia care. It has predicted that he will kill himself in ten years time and so, as Delores puts it, “No need to invest in you if you’re going to kill yourself. But by not investing, they ensure the outcome.”

Season three shows that the humans of Westworld are just as trapped as the hosts. They are stuck in loops. The loops for the humans aren’t programmed narratives written into their heads, but algorithms that control what opportunities they will have, and how much agency they can exert. This season is saying that the data we allow others to collect about us turns us into robots. We are just as enslaved as Westworld’s hosts.

If season one was exploring a maze inside the park, season three is exploring a maze in the real world. And the stakes are just as high: freedom and agency.

A Future For Cyberpunk

Westworld is in command of its argument. It points that argument right at Facebook and Google, asking us to consider the consequence of having so much data and so much control with no oversight. It’s asking us to consider what our identity is if everything we are is predictable and manipulated to serve another’s end.

It sheds the trappings of the eighties cyberpunk and imagines a cleaner, brighter world. One we could imagine Apple designing. And then it lays that world bare for us to see. It asks us to really consider the cost–the human cost–of the technology we love, and the control we give up to algorithms.

With so many works dominated by the trappings of the genre, it’s refreshing to see at least one text dominated its spirit.