Month: December 2016

Violent Delights: My Thoughts on Westworld

Posted December 12, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Film & Television / 2 Comments

One of the age-old questions that gets asked in science fiction revolves around artificial intelligence (AI). In particular, the existential risk from artificial intelligence that might result in human extinction or some global catastrophe. One of the most noticeable examples of an AI rebellion in pop-culture can be found in The Terminator series with Skynet, when it becomes self-aware and ultimately decides that humans are irrelevant. A more recent example is the HBO show Westworld created by husband and wife combo Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies). The show is based on a 1973 film of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton) set in the future where people can visit this western themed amusement park populated by synthetic android, referred to as hosts.

Westworld is one of the most exciting TV shows I have seen in a very long time, and while at its core it explores the idea of artificial intelligence becoming self-aware, I feel like there is something much more interesting going on. To understand this, you need to be aware of the criticism towards HBO shows (in particular Game of Thrones) which often revolve around the over exposure of nudity and violence, claiming that it is just low-brow entertainment. However, I am of the opinion that this show, Westworld can be seen more as a social criticism.

“These violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene VI by William Shakespeare

The patrons come to this amusement park to fully immerse themselves into an adventure without fear of consequences. Whether they are seeking their thrills with sex or violence, the show is questioning if this is healthy behaviour. While there are no physical consequences, what are the moral implications of these violent delights? The hosts in Westworld are so realistic, they have memories, thoughts and feel pain – this brings so many questions to mind. For example; where is the line between harmless fun and dangerous behaviour?

At the beginning of season one, I found myself wondering if it takes a certain type of person to visit Westworld. Are the patrons visiting to act out their more depraved fantasies? However, I slowly began to view Westworld as a highly advanced video game (similar to virtual reality). If you compare this amusement park with popular games like Grand Theft Auto, it opens up a whole different thought process, one of game theory. A player of Grand Theft Auto might shoot up the street, visit a prostitute or something similar to test out the boundaries of the game. Not out of morbid curiosity but rather to see if the game is a really an open world. While some players may take delight in these actions rather than following the narrative, there is no real evidence that these actions have any links to criminal behaviour (although there is evidence of an increase of aggressive behaviour).

White Hats vs. Black Hats

Although when the ‘game’ is so realistic that you cannot tell the difference between host and human, the experience becomes more complicated. This show explores the idea of what happens when realism becomes too real, and while some patrons may test out the boundaries of this world, ultimately they get sucked into a narrative, what about the others? One of the taglines for Westworld is, “the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin”. With this tagline in mind, we know the show wants to pay particular attention to what they call ‘the future of sin’, so it is asking the audience to think about the moral implications of these violent delights.

As you watch through season one of Westworld, you will discover that actions without consequences are just a myth. Starting with the discovery of lasting memories of the hosts and also the wounds. While these hosts are not humans, they show signs of emotions and pain. If they feel pain, do we not have a moral obligation to help them?

There are multiple scenes in the show depicting some close ups of a host’s eye, and if the eyes are the windows to the soul, what are they trying to say? I am inclined to think that this might actually be an exploration into how people treat each other. If you look at the history of the world, in particular colonialism, you will see that the first people are often treated as if they were different. Since this amusement park has a western theme, I would suspect we could make parallels between the treatment of hosts and the treatment of Native Americans.

The use of nudity in Westworld is very different to most TV shows. While nudity on television and movies is often used to sexualise a character, this show takes a very different approach. Often when you see nudity in this show, it is a host sitting in front of a scientist getting reprogrammed. The nudity has the effect of dehumanising the hosts – yet another example of the show trying to show you the difference between artificial intelligence and humans. Yet time and time again in the show it demonstrates that they these host are self-aware and conscious.

I have to say, I was completely immersed in the story being told in season one of Westworld and I really cannot wait for a new season. However, it was the philosophical questions that the show presented that really thrilled me. It was because I spent so much time thinking about what makes us human, the existential risk of artificial intelligence and game theory that I would consider Westworld one of the best TV shows of recent time. I feel like there is so much to say about this series, but I do not think I have the skill set to dive deeper. I wanted to get as many of my thoughts on Westworld down, and who knows I may even do more posts like this in the future.


Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

Posted December 7, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy ZhadanTitle: Voroshilovgrad (Goodreads)
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Translator: Reilly Costigan-Humes, Isaac Wheeler
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2010
Pages: 445
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The novel Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan was dubbed “Trainspotting set against a grim post-Soviet backdrop” by Newsweek. Having read this tag and with a recommendations from Agnese from Beyond the Epilogue, I knew I had to read this one. It revolves around Herman, who finds himself managing his brother’s gas station, after he mysteriously disappeared. Though it is a story of a bleak industrial city as it is a story of Herman.

Voroshilovgrad is a fascinating exploration into a post-soviet Ukraine. Not only does it explore the effects of communism to an industrial city, but also the power vacuum left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed. The mystery of what happened to Yuri takes a backseat as the novel explores the lives of Herman and his employees Kocha and Injured as they go head to head with a gangster who wants to control the gas station.

This is an interesting novel that appears to blend elements of post-modernism with the writers of the Beat generation, with a splash of Hunter S. Thompson. Serhiy Zhadan himself is a novelist, a poet and a translator. He mainly translates poetry from German, English, Belarusian and Russian but has translated Charles Bukowski into Ukrainian. This knowledge helps understand his influences, and while I still maintain that Voroshilovgrad reminds me of the Beats, I can see some Bukowski coming through.

While Voroshilovgrad was an entertaining insight into a post-Soviet city, I do not think there is many more themes to pull from this novel. I think it explored this idea really well and while I would have loved something deeper, I cannot fault the novel at all. I typically read books in translation to understand a different time and place, and Voroshilovgrad was able to do this perfectly. I love the dark and gritty nature of this novel, and I plan to re-read Voroshilovgrad in the future.


Existence Precedes Essence: Understanding Existentialism

Posted December 5, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Philosophy / 4 Comments

When thinking about the term existentialism, a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre may come to mind; “existence precedes essence”. 1 This was a relatively new way of thinking within philosophy. The idea criticises the concept that everyone has an essence and our lives tend towards the actualisation of our essence, which dates back to Aristotle. Over the years, this idea of essence evolved into predestines, as philosophers leaned more towards religious ideas. For Sartre, this was an absurd way of thinking and this might have been connected to his atheist beliefs. However, this is not a universal idea in existentialism, many disagreed with Sartre, but it did start a new philosophical movement.

existentialists
Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre

While Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky are all considered existentialists, the term was actually coined by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is widely believed that Kierkegaard may have been the first existentialist philosopher but he used the word ‘individualism’ to refer to his philosophical ideas. When looking as his writing, it is easy to see why it is closely associated to existentialism. In his book The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” 2

This leads us to ask, ‘What exactly is existentialism?’ which is not an easy question to answer. If you consider historical events that were happening at the start of existentialism (early twentieth century), you notice the world was a confused and complex place. When Sartre started his works, the world had already experienced one World War and was about to head into a second one. The political landscape was very unstable; Marxism, Communism and Fascism were all growing movements. Western ways of thinking were not providing the answers people craved about the meaning of life or at least a way to address the human condition.

Existentialism became a new philosophical way of thinking; a new way of facing a confused world that they could not accept. It was not a doctrine or a philosophical system rather existentialism was a movement. It was an inwards approach to thinking, when Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence”, he was stating we exist first, and it is up to us to find what defines us then live our lives accordingly.  Which linked back to Søren Kierkegaard who said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” 3 This was the foundation of existentialism; it did not matter if other philosophers believed existence came before essence, what mattered was living life authentically. To do so, there were three main sides to this form of thinking to consider: individualism, freedom and passion.

Individualism is the ethical idea that we are all responsible for our own actions. Rather than living by the morals set out by our society, religion and our elders, we must seek our own individual self-relevance and liberties. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” 4 Moral individualism should not be confused with selfishness or a desire for anarchy; rather it simply suggests that humanity must be defined by the individual. No two people are alike; thus, having set rules and ideas for everyone imposes restrictions on living authentically.

Freedom was a response to the current social/political situations; without freedom there was no possible way to allow people to be individuals and is considered the primary virtue to authenticity. This is more than the freedom to do whatever one desires. Existentialist often use the term facticity as a term to mean the limitation and a condition to freedom. For example, our birthplace, past choices and so on, may either limit or aid our quest to live our life authentically. If we are born blind, that may take away our freedom to read this text but does not mean we can never read.

Passion is self-evident, the need to find a purpose to life. A primary concern to “existence precedes essence” was simple to find a reason to live – your passion. For me, my passion would include literature, philosophy and writing articles like this. I am motivated in working towards a way to make my passions my career. That is not to say that there are no other reasons to live; such as loved ones or the simple pleasures in life.

meaning-of-lifeOnce you establish these four philosophies as the backbone of existentialism, you may have started on the journey down the rabbit hole into the existentialist way of thinking. Having definitive answers to life maybe be attractive but we realise life is not that simple. When adopting existentialism as your personal philosophy, be warned that many of the great existentialists did abandon their own philosophies. To quote Søren Kierkegaard once more; “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 5 Existentialism has its appeals; it is often adopted by young adults as permission to be an individual and focus on themselves. However as the quote above stated, it is only in reflection that we understand our lives and where we went wrong and life is not that easy, you cannot simply rely on other people’s ways of thinking.

Essentially, existentialism suggests that we should all live our lives authentically and free. Our goal in life is to find our essence – our reason to live. Albert Camus has been quoted as saying “should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” 6 which suggests that something as simple as a cup of coffee is enough to continue living. There are two major branches of existentialism that I have not mentioned, nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless) and absurdism (life has no purpose and the universe is chaotic) but I will not be going into details about the differences at the moment.

My goal of this was to give you a better understanding into existentialism but as you might have discovered, it can be complex. I hope you now have a basic understanding, allowing you to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about philosophy and what you believe. For more information about existentialism and the people behind this philosophical movement, I would recommend the book At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. 7 This covers the history of existentialism as well as a little about people involved, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and so many others. I felt very inspired after reading At the Existentialist Café, that I have gone down a rabbit hole exploring philosophy and hope to write more about it in the near future.