This post contains spoilers for Westworld.
The first season of Westworld, HBO’s ruminative series about a theme park inhabited by robotic “hosts,” focuses on the physical damage that the human “guests” inflict on their artificial counterparts. Now, in the second season, the worm has turned and the hosts have placed the guests in the crosshairs.
But the return of the puppet master Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in Sunday night’s episode “Les Écorchés" reveals that hosts and guests are both at the mercy of the park’s fundamental purpose, which is to gather behavioral data about the guests. "The park is an experiment, a testing chamber," Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) surmises, prompted by Ford, who is now some kind of digital ghost (things are starting to get pretty weird). "The guests are the variables. And the hosts are the controls.”
William (Jimmi Simpson) hinted at this experiment in the episode “Reunion,” when he convinced his billionaire father-in-law James Delos to fund the park under the guise of entertainment, with the hidden agenda of data collection on the guests. The business model is similar to Facebook, Twitter, and other sites that have generated controversy over monetizing personal data—only in Westworld, data-harvesting happens in a physical environment instead of an online space.
While there’s no question that Westworld’s leadership has made a host of mistakes, this inherently flawed experiment is among the most fascinating, and relatively untapped, oversights to be introduced on the show. William’s theory is that the false reality of the park exposes the true dark nature of humanity, which can be captured and bottled in a digital form.
But there’s a key shortcoming: the guest sample population. The guests, the manipulated variable in more ways than one, are all extremely wealthy people who can afford the (implied) astronomical ticket price to Westworld. Just as it would be fruitless to make broad assumptions about humans by focusing on people from one region or one time period, so too does Westworld’s wealth bottleneck distort the results of its mysterious experiment.
In fact, rich people are among the most misleading sample groups to spotlight for general insights about human behavior. There’s evidence suggesting that wealth is negatively correlated with the capacity for empathy and compassion, and that rich people are more likely to lie, cheat, and steal in laboratory experiments.
Of course, this is not to suggest that wealthy folks are inherently shady, but rather to highlight that enormous wealth and power can impact a person’s identity and behavior in an empirically verifiable way (see: “affluenza.”)
Scientists have already recognized that disproportionate representation of wealthy subjects in experiments can dramatically skew the findings, which impedes broader conclusions about human behavior.
“These results shine a much-needed spotlight on an issue that does not receive enough attention in neuroimaging research—the lack of diversity among study participants,” Duke Han, a neuropsychologist at the University of Southern California, told The Atlantic. “Unless these issues are adequately addressed, it would be wise to show temperance in discussing the implications of a study.”
The same goes for Westworld. Perhaps the fact that the data collection project reveals such a sick and twisted vision of humanity says more about excess money in the hands of a few than it does about a scarcity of morality in the masses.
The Man in Black (Ed Harris), William’s older self, is himself an incarnation of this sampling error, and often behaves as a caricature of an arrogant tycoon. The data he has harvested from his fellow guests seems to have convinced him that his personal failings are justified, because he has seen them manifest in the other guests. But it may be that the Man in Black’s central flaw is not his obsession with the sealed consequence-free dreamworld he has helped build, but his lack of awareness that he was already in such a cloistered habitat before he ever stepped foot in Westworld.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.