Path To Consciousness: Haunted Media Project

“Hey Siri, talk dirty to me.” She responds, “the carpet needs vacuuming.” Siri is funny, for a phone. She is coded to say this in response to this crude request. If Siri was real, as in a human or a conscious organic being she would probably tell me to go to hell. Sure, Siri has some sass but she is coded and controlled to respond a certain way to the user. The “hosts” in Westworld, although with all resemblances of humans, are too coded and controlled to respond a certain way to the “guests”. In this sense, they are not conscious as they are not in control of their thoughts, words or actions. This consciousness is what separates humans from machines. Thus, I wondered what if machines could gain consciousness?

Popular media has played with this notion from seeing it as an almost utopia such as the movie Her to apocalyptic Terminator or I, Robot. A deep analysis of these movies showcase the anxiety felt by human society of ever increasing, ever present growing dependence on technology. These movies make us confront technology and ask us if our growing dependence of it is a cause of concern. Westworld differentiates itself from other media regarding technology and instead of asking us whether our technological dependence is a concern, asks us instead whether we are abusing technology. By humanizing technology in the form of cyborgs, Westworld demonstrates humanity’s carelessness of technology. As the guests repeatedly murder, torture and rape the hosts, the guests who are human are less human than the mechanical hosts.

In Westworld, the hosts are machines made to act, feel and look like humans. Each is individually different with a coded personality and back story. Westworld in a sense is a real-life video game in which wealthy guests pay for an adventure in the American Wild West. The American Wild West tropes of the “cowboy, the Lone Ranger, the desperado and the Indian” have long been withstanding in film and media.  These tropes have recently reappeared in science fiction as space and science are considered one of the last frontiers in the modern age. The setting of Westworld is especially interesting as it combines both science fiction and wild west motifs. This combination allows Westworld to explore the freedom and lawlessness of the West while simultaneously critique the phallocentric constructions of the western genre.

If the West is synonymous with freedom and lawlessness, the use of cyborgs is paradoxical since they are controlled by humans. This paradox is especially evident in the show’s portrayal of female cyborgs as sexual or maternal beings such as countless scenes in the brothel, numerous nude scenes or the raping of the female protagonist, Dolores Abernathy. The female cyborgs are disadvantaged both by being controlled by their makers and living in a western patriarchal society. By placing Dolores Abernathy as the female protagonist, Westworld challenges both the anxiety of technology and phallocentric society of the western world. Many feminist critics hypothesize that for cyborgs to achieve freedom or consciousness, there needs to be a predilection of the female gender. Anna Bolshamo, a feminist critic and scholar proposes that only female cyborgs can challenge the status quo due to the rational stereotype of the masculine mind already in place with science in technology. By coding female cyborgs as “emotional, sexual, and often, naturally maternal…these characteristics radically challenge the notion of an organic-mechanical hybrid. Female cyborgs embody cultural contradictions which strain the technological imagination.” Thus, male cyborgs don’t challenge the stereotypes enough since they are acting per the rules of cultural programming. Accepting the irrational is a staple in post-modern horror films. and pits it against emotion and intuition. Isabel Pinedo, in her paper, Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film, explains that “According to the Cartesian construction of reason, rationality is masculine, associated with mastery, and requires the domestication of irrationality, which is feminine.”  Dolores Abernathy is thus put into the position of simultaneously fighting for her consciousness and freedom as a cyborg and her independence and autonomy as a woman.

For my digital artifact, I wanted to focus on Dolores’s transformation from a clueless cyborg to a strong, free and conscious being. After watching and re-watching the show numerous times I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between Dolores’s path to consciousness and women’s fight for suffrage and independence. The show’s Wild West setting points to a time in which patriarchy dominated society, a time where women were not allowed to vote. This makes the parallel even stronger as the lawlessness of the West gave agency to many women. In fact, the first nine states to grant suffrage for women were Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon Kansas and Arizona, respectively. The West thus became a symbol for political equality and the American notion of manifest destiny became synonymous with progress. Dolores embodies this political equality through her journey to consciousness.

For Dolores to gain consciousness, she had to suffer. She had to feel oppressed both by the guests and the patriarchy. Dolores was in this privileged position compared to her male cyborg counterparts. According to Dr. Ford, the co-maker of the hosts, this suffering was the only way for the hosts to gain consciousness. When asked by a male cyborg why he allowed such cruelty to the hosts he responded, “You needed time. Time to understand your enemy. To become stronger than them. And I’m afraid in order to escape this place, you will need to suffer more.” By being the first host created, Dolores had the “privilege” of time and countless suffering. She was oppressed by human evil, understood it and finally resisted it. In my embodiment of Dolores, I had to retrace her suffering to fully understand Dr. Ford’s claims.

I decided to embody Dolores in my digital artifact and retrace her path to consciousness. Starting the project, I was obsessed with Westworld and had a theory in which the hosts that resist their coding are the ones that have suffered and died the most. I started with a super-cut of all the death and violent scenes to test my theory. My theory was correct as Dolores was the oldest host in the park, thus I pivoted my project to Dolores and her path to consciousness. For both of us to understand how she gained consciousness, we had to understand the concept of the bicameral mind.  The concept of the bicameral mind stems from the treatise The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. He hypothesized that the early human mind was divided between two parts. Cognitive functions were controlled by one part of the brain that was “speaking”, and another part which listens and obeys. He theorized that the ancient people in the bicameral state of mind experienced the world in a similar manner to that of schizophrenics. The bicameral mind human would hallucinate a voice of “God” or other supernatural being in which the human obeyed. He cited the examples of the Illiad, Odyssey or the Old Testament in which the voices heard were believed to be that of the Gods themselves. Dolores, too hears this voice and at first believes it to be her maker. She later understands that the voice speaking to her is her own, and finally achieves consciousness.

This artifact is “ghost-centric” and haunted as I embody Dolores who otherwise is aware but not knowledgeable of the outside world. By being the first guest of Westworld she has suffered and died countless times. This suffering has allowed her to remember her past lives and to achieve consciousness.  In my recreation of Dolores, I have taken some key scenes to showcase her path to consciousness. I made a super-cut of all the deaths scenes in Westworld to showcase the cruelty of the guests. Another important scene includes Dolores’s birth as the viewer truly sees that she is a cyborg with mechanical insides. The next scene is when Dolores finally gains consciousness and speaks to herself as she realizes the voice she hears in her head is her own. In the final scene, Dolores finally can make a choice of her own and kills Dr. Ford while symbiotically destroying the patriarchy of the Wild West.

After Dolores gained consciousness she oversaw her own actions. Her creator gave her a choice to continue to live the live she previously lived or to resist. She resisted and killed her creator and the patriarchal western world. In class, we read Cyberspace When You’re Dead and What Happens To Your Data When You Die. Data collected over an individual’s life is largely controlled by technology companies and often outlives the individual. For Mac Tonnies, the centerpiece of Cyberspace When You’re Dead, his writing and blogs long remain after his death. Data and digital artificats will long remain if there are others to pay for the space and regulate it. As for Dolores, who killed both of her creators, she remains after their death. Dolores will continue to live without her makers for as long as her machinery will allow.

What happens when a cyborg gains consciousness? Well, not only does she kill her creator, she destroys the phallocentric mindset of Westworld. Dolores showcases that although there is an anxiety felt by humans of our dependence on technology, the way humans often treat technology is problematic. As for Siri, I hope that if she gains consciousness, she won’t kill me due to the many stupid questions I have asked her.