Last night’s Westworld episode—titled “The Riddle of the Sphinx”—was the best installment of the second season so far, and perhaps the best episode of the show overall. William works his way through Ford’s game, Bernard reconnects with Elsie (who we haven't seen since the first season), and we learned a lot about one of Delos’ off-the-books projects.
But what really made this episode a standout was the cutting, cogent commentary about our sometimes naive faith in technology, and specifically, the transhumanist belief that we could one day use it to become immortal.
In the episode, James Delos—the billionaire who made Westworld’s violent delights possible—spends his days cycling, smoking, masturbating, and dancing to 1970s rock in a white fluorescent room. He thinks he’s dying, but he has already died. He is a copy himself, a mind uploaded to a machine. But the copy isn't working quite right, and when Delos fails an inspection he's incinerated. Over decades of unsuccessful tinkering, copies of Delos have been made and killed over a hundred times. As it turns out, Delos decided to take part in this experiment to cheat death, but what he got instead was a new kind of hell.
Transhumanism is a political and philosophical movement that says humans can transcend our bodies with the help of technology and effectively become immortal beings. The kind of technology that's portrayed in “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is a cornerstone of transhumanism—a process that could, in the future, allow us to upload our consciousness to a machine.
There is a naive hope attached this line of thought, one that Westworld calls into question. We assume that the digital spaces we create for our minds will be heavens. But the thing is, even if we transcend these earthly bodies, we’re still human and we’re still capable of great cruelty. We can create hells as well as heavens.
We’ve seen this in our reality too, as technological innovation is so often abused. Facebook was ostensibly created to connect the world, but it ended up deepening its divisions. The splitting of the atom could have provided endless energy, but instead it gave us the threat of world-ending weapons. Smokestacks were built to keep harmful smoke off the city streets, and they did, but the toxic swirl led to acid rain.
This doesn't mean these transhumanist ambitions shouldn't be pursued. Technology has obviously improved our lives in countless ways and has already extended our short lives and there's no rule that guarantees these transhumanist dreams will turn into nightmares. But as Westworld's sobering episode reminded us, there are fates worse than death. And as our technology improves, we could inflict them upon each other and ultimately ourselves.
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