[-empyre-] Podcasts and Culture Labs: Westworld

Betsy Huang bhuang at clarku.edu
Fri May 19 12:43:00 AEST 2017

Thanks to Margaret for prompting us to think about Westworld, and thanks to
Sarah for reminding us that pop culture is a crucial vehicle for
introducing the complex implications of artificial life to a general

Why Westworld? Because it asks so many of the questions we have about
what aspects of human life we feel should be replaced or filled by
artificial life because they are too difficult, too undignified, too
guilt-inducing, too sad for humans to perform. And here I am thinking of
the two classes of robots we’ve become accustomed to seeing in science
fiction, especially pop sf: as servants or laborers (the most familiar) or
as some form of entertainment (toy robots to be built, controlled, or
designed/played online). In Westworld, the service robot and the
entertainment robot converge in the robot hosts, which asks questions about
what kinds of labor are uncompensated and exploited in the leisure
industry. When I interviewed science fiction writer Ted Chiang about
robots, he said that ‘the original promise and appeal of robots [was] that
they would be slaves without the guilt. You can call them servants, but
they are essentially slaves because they have no options and no real
autonomy.  I think that is the unexamined assumption of science fiction
that depicts humanoid robots or human-like AI.  These works are suggesting
that it might be possible to have slavery without guilt” (Huang, “Interview
with Ted Chiang, Part II). To me, this question of guilt is an interesting
one to examine in Westworld. We could say that the robot hosts were created
for the human guests to partake in guiltless rape fantasies. And many of
the humans in the park – guests and employees alike – do rape seemingly
without guilt. But Ted Chiang’s observation suggests that human guilt is
connected to robot autonomy. That is, if the robot has no autonomy, then
humans won’t experience any guilt. So, what happens when the robot hosts in
Westworld begin to not only exhibit cognition, self-awareness, desires and
volitions, but to demand autonomy and self-determination? It has been
interesting to see how the show’s writers depict guilt, or lack thereof, in
the cast of human characters. Why are some wracked with it, while others
are not? For some humans who seem to feel no guilt whatsoever at their
abuses of the robot hosts, is it because they simply cannot see that the
robots are capable of or desire autonomy? Or is it that they don’t care if
the robot hosts are self-aware and exhibit volition and desires because
they are made of different “stuff,” not human born? Or that whether they
are human or robot, and whether they are self-aware and desire autonomy,
are all irrelevant because they are there to serve at the pleasure of the
human guests, and so nothing else matters?

Margaret also asks Lawrence and me to think about Charles Yu's role as
Westworld's story editor vis-a-vis the fan fiction piece he wrote for our
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's "CTRL+ALT" fan fiction exhibit.
Lawrence and I both felt that Yu’s fingerprints are all over Westworld’s
script, but perhaps especially prominent in the character of Felix. More on
this in the next post!

Those interested in my interview with Ted Chiang can find it here:

Part I: http://aalr.binghamton.edu/specfictioninterviewchiang/

Part II: http://aalr.binghamton.edu/specfictioninterviewchiang2/

I had also interviewed Charles Yu for the same interview series. The Yu
interview is here:




Betsy Huang
Associate Professor of English
Director, Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies (incoming)
Clark University
950 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01610
SABBATICAL June 2016 - August 2017

*Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction*
*Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Today's Topics:
>    1. Re: Podcasts and Culture Labs: Westworld (Sarah Mirk)
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> Message: 1
> Date: Thu, 18 May 2017 12:49:39 +0200
> From: Sarah Mirk <mirk.sarah at gmail.com>
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au>
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Podcasts and Culture Labs: Westworld
> Message-ID:
>         <CAF_d6LeN44-YP2=u43_FXCFqvQxOaov9eSpfObiqo6Yn9=nKc
> Q at mail.gmail.com>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="utf-8"
> Hi all!
> Why Westworld? Well, the reason I focus on pop culture on the podcast is
> because pop culture is made of the stories we tell about ourselves and our
> societies. Sometimes people are a dismissive of TV, but good shows and
> terrible shows alike tell us about our cultural values. I think Westworld
> in particular is interesting because it explores an extreme version of many
> of the technological feelings we grapple with daily. How different are
> humans from machines? What does consciousness entail? It also explores
> larger sociological questions around labor and society. If there were no
> laws, how would humans act? When we think of others as less real than
> us?when they're dehumanized?how do we treat them?
> I think Westworld also tells an interesting story about who makes our
> technology and how their personal interests guide what gets created.
> Westworld is a theme park made and run by men with money?and winds up being
> a place built for recreational rape and murder. The show asks us to examine
> who is in charge of both this microcosm of society and the larger world
> beyond the walls.
> Those are my initial thoughts!
> best,
> Sarah
> On Thu, May 18, 2017 at 12:49 AM, Margaret J Rhee <mrhee at uoregon.edu>
> wrote:
> > ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> > Hi All,
> >
> > To start us off, I'd love to discuss the larger points Betsy and Lawrence
> > brought up in terms of Westworld and authorship, more significantly
> Charles
> > Yu's contribution to the show, as a writer and story editor, and how that
> > may shape our conversation. It reminded me of how Sarah and I discussed
> > actor Leonardo Nam's role in the television show, while he is not a
> robot,
> > the show has much more racial diversity than other (fembot/replicant)
> > television or films, particularly with Black leading characters, and
> Asian
> > leading characters. Im also wondering how much Yu's presence is within
> the
> > storyline, and it is interesting that Betsy and Lawrence co-curated the
> > CLT+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures, that also included Charles
> Yu's
> > work: http://smithsonianapa.org/alt/
> >
> > Sarah, as an artist, journalist, and a curator of feminist space, also
> > facilitates discussions and creative visions through media activism, and
> > her own comics on Oregon history: https://shop.knowyourcity.org/
> > products/oregon-history-comics-box-set
> >
> > Her podcast with Bitch Magazine, Propaganda, is one exciting example,
> like
> > the Culture Lab.
> >
> > I guess I'm wondering if we can begin with Why Westworld? and how might
> it
> > connect to  the culture labs you've curated for the Smithsonian, and for
> > Sarah, the podcast conversations for Bitch magazine?
> >
> > Is there any connection between our interests in the show, and what I
> see,
> > and admire so much about your respective work, on how you also commit to
> > cthe curation of dialogue?
> >
> > Margaret
> >
> >
> > --
> > Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.
> >
> > Visiting Assistant Professor
> > Women's and Gender Studies
> > University of Oregon
> >
> > --
> > Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.
> >
> > Visiting Assistant Professor
> > Women's and Gender Studies
> > University of Oregon
> > _______________________________________________
> > empyre forum
> > empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> > http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
> >
> --
> writer ? editor ? good ideas
> mirkwork.com ? sexfromscratch.com ? @sarahmirk
> <https://twitter.com/#!/sarahmirk>
> 503-853-0098
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