Metaphors for digital spaces: Considering Westworld

the Westworld landscape (source: scifi.stackexchange.com)

You really do make a terrible human being. And I mean that as a compliment. ~ Maeve, Westworld

The Western genre involves representations of the powerful and the powerless, the heard and the voiceless, the abusers and the abused. In the romanticised landscape of the Western, heroes (usually white and male) overcome the challenges of the frontierland. Historical brutalities are often overlooked in favour of myth and legend; the Wild West is one of imagination rather than reality.

In an open access, peer-reviewed paper published this month, Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and
scholarly identity, I use the HBO television series Westworld as a lens for exploring academic identity and writing. The Westworld setting is a theme park, called Westworld, a kind of real virtual reality that the very rich can frequent on their vacations, for a hefty fee. The theme park recreates the idealistic American desert frontier, full of sweeping vistas, damsels, brothels, gun-slinging bad guys, and cowboy heroes. It drags the Western genre and setting out of the archives, dusts it off, and breathes new life into it by marrying it with science fiction. Like much speculative fiction, it takes our current world and presses a hypothetiocal fast forward: What if technology evolves to a point where we can bring multi-player computer games to life in theme parks populated with robots that appear and act human?

The Westworld universe is one that brings together the Western genre—its hopes and its atrocities—with technology. The guests to the Westworld park aspire to play a part in this world as hero or villain. (In the show we mainly follow the arc of male guests, so it is their desires we see pursued and borne out.) The hosts of the theme park are cyborgs who follow narrative loops designed to allow guests to act out their darkest fantasies without guilt or consequence.

A recent blog post by Benjamin Doxtdator has me thinking more about the notion of the digital frontier, and about how we envisage ourselves in digital spaces. In his post, Benjamin explored the metaphor of the internet as a frontier-style landscape that can be mastered or explored. He argues that this is an unhelpful and even dangerous metaphor. He proposes the lens of surveillance capitalism as an alternative; here I imagine Foucauldian panopticism, the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984, and the Eyes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Benjamin’s post got me thinking about what we might glean from considering the Westworld world as a metaphor for digital space, and the human characters as representations of how people and organisations interact with that space. The park’s creators manipulate the landscape and the cyborg characters in order to engage, entertain, and satisfy their guests, while the guests treat the park with egomaniacal entitlement. Some guests pursue exciting story arcs for themselves, while others leave their morals at the door as they live out depraved fantasies of violence and abuse.

The show presents the cyborg characters as more human than the humans, perhaps encouraging us to question our relationship with technology and its dehumanising influence. It also asks us to consider the ways in which we feel free to interact with digital spaces where we feel we can be either free from our non-digital selves, or to enact alternate identities online. Westworld, viewed this way, presents us with a humanity with which we don’t want to associate and provides a warning to its audience about the dangers of interacting unethically and unthinkingly with technologies.

Meanwhile the cyborg characters, with whom we are encouraged to empathise, are awakening and beginning to rise up against those who oppress and violate them. The show lays bare inequities and power imbalances in technological arenas. It presents a critique of the powerful puppet masters and privileged users of tech, questioning what people do with their privilege and with technology when there are no checks and balances. Westworld‘s artificial frontierland encourages us to reconsider what we might do in digital spaces, and to what ends.

In Westworld it is the cyborgs, the underdogs and the underclass, who provide us with potential for resistance and who begin to question their world. We are constantly, however, reminded of the ways in which the cyborgs are created, controlled, and sometimes cast aside by those who run the Westworld world.

At a time when I am working on a framework for digital pedagogy at my school, I am reflecting on the notion of metaphor. I agree with Benjamin Doxtdator that conceptualising technology as a playground is dangerous. How do we want our children and students to see and interact with the world of technology? In a world of big data, cyber attacks, and alternative facts, perhaps it is with a combination of enthusiasm, caution, fear, confidence and criticality.

Engaging the aesthetic

vignettes from home

It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.

Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.

In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.

Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.

Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.

Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.

These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty.  Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).

Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.

bookshelf mis-en-scène

As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.

Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.

References

Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.

Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.

Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.

Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.