“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
This is the first line of West World, HBO’s lavishly futuristic science fiction epic and my new favorite Sunday night treat (Sorry, Walking Dead fans). It features robots, cowboys, villains, heroes, and everyone in between. In this future, West World is an amusement park that allows visitors to role play in the Wild West. Hyper-realistic robots populate this world, mostly to satisfy the baser, and often bloody, instincts of the guests. Some robots are fated to die during the storylines, only to be revived for the next day. HBO has spent a fortune to bring Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s vision to the screen and it shows. Long tracking shots revel in the majestic Arizona landscape and the glass laboratories of the future. But at the heart of all the technical achievement is a deeper question: How do we interact with narratives? How do we construct them in our own lives?
There has always been a visceral thrill in immersing yourself in a someone else’s story. We like to pretend; whether its dressing up as your favorite character at Comic Con or daydreaming in math class. It allows us the freedom to be anyone, anywhere. There are no restraints, not even moral ones. In 2016, it is more popular than ever in every medium to be someone who you are not. Sometimes, the stories allow us to discover more about ourselves. By viewing the world through different perspectives, we gain empathy for others, an appreciation for situations we could never experience directly. Yet, even this can be taken too far. Assuming that a movie or a television show is a correct representation of real life is a mistake as well. I can’t possibly claim to be an expert in African American culture after watching Empire after all. Unfortunately, it seems to be one that we are making more than ever. Pretending can make us feel morally superior without doing anything. Sympathy for transgender rights after watching Transparent is great, but ultimately the show only raises awareness. It is up to us to carry out the real work needed to create change. It is not enough to pretend to be the hero, we must take that role for ourselves.
All the world’s a stage as Shakespeare famously wrote. I have always loved to create storylines. Sometimes, I was the charging hero. Other times, the rouge with the heart of gold. But always I was the main character, the one who mattered. Watching West World has made me realize that this is not only untrue, but also unintentionally harmful. The guests feel free to treat the robots with malicious abandon because they see them only as tools to advance the plot. If we only see others as disposable, supporting characters to our own, we lose any sense of perspective for their stories. It is too easy to look at other people and see them as side quests that we can explore at random or books that we can close when it gets too uncomfortable. It is too easy to treat real life from the perspective of a faraway bystander and retreat to our imaginary worlds. But this is the only true reality that we share together. I want to treasure it.