Tag Archives: society

Westworld Season 3: how not to portray a global crisis

So I binge watched Westworld Season 3 this weekend, as the riots in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd across the US unfurled and with the global coronavirus pandemic in the background. And it felt weirdly out of time, a weird mash up of media from the past which hasn’t dated well.

Spoiler warning in case you don’t know and do care, but this season of the TV show centres around the idea that an AI has been built which can predict everything everyone will ever do (with a few exceptions, the “outliers”) and has been used to secretly control the world. Delores, the android “host” who is the main protagonist of the first two seasons of the show, is now wandering around the real world and attempting to disrupt the plans of this AI and its controller-slash-puppet Serac. Maybe she wants to end humanity. Maybe she wants to free it. Who knows? You get the drill.

The season seems to enjoy cribbing from every sci-fi film you’ve ever watched. There’s a lot of Blade Runner, or more precisely Blade Runner 2049 (particularly in the soundtrack, which I have to say I was not a big fan of). We get plenty of Robocop. Incongruously, the AI Rehoboam’s graphical interface looks like the language the aliens use in Arrival. But the core concept, that a computer can perfectly model everything about you by reading your search history and social media posts – itself an expansion on the idea in season two that you can understand everything there is to know about someone by how many people they rape and murder at a novelty theme park – is one plucked straight out of failed Battlestar Galactica spin off show Caprica.

I thought it was a dumb idea on Caprica and I think it’s a dumb idea here. But I guess you could say that about a lot of sci-fi ideas – what matters is the story you tell with it. The problem with Westworld (and Caprica as far as I can remember) is that all of the social implications such technology like that would have in the real world is left in the backdrop in order to focus on the idea of a bunch of protagonists having a metaphorical and literal punchup.

I’m reminded of a Scientific American article from last year which talked about how Game of Thrones went from telling sociological stories to psychological ones – at a huge cost. To be clear, Westworld has always been more interested in psychological storytelling, but as it moves out of its themepark origins and into the wider world, it seems quite striking that its focus hasn’t also widened.

But it isn’t just that the huge sociological implications of a macguffin that can, um, control social progress, is kept in the background – it’s the way it is done. Because at the midpoint when Delores and conspirators manage to release the data so that everyone has access to their personal data telling them when they’ll die, how their marriage will fail, etc., the response of the general public is to riot.

At this point, the comparisons shift from Caprica to another Jonathan Nolan scripted piece of media, The Dark Knight Rises. If you recall, that film rests on the premise that if you cut a city off from the mainland and lock the police underground then it will immediately descend into chaos, and this is analogous to what happens in Westworld as far as we can tell (as I said, it’s left in the background and thus not really explored). At the time, people including myself lambasted The Dark Knight Rises for being a rightwing edgelord wank fantasy in which the public are essentially one meal away from descending into barbarism and that it is up to Great Men to maintain control. This is essentially the same idea in Westworld. It ends on a hopeful note with the character Caleb entrusted with the control of Rehoboam and the possibility that it won’t immediately lead to the end of civilisation, but the odds given are not that great and even then its all down to Caleb as one of the few individuals capable of True Free Will (which the story illustrates by the fact that he is capable of shooting people in the face a lot but resists the temptation to rape Delores in a flashback when he receiving military training in the theme park).

Westworld isn’t the first example of modern media to espound this thesis; indeed its part of a trend and some examples aren’t even written by Jonathan Nolan. But the last few months highlight how flawed this thesis is and how hollow this drama subsequently rings.

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and although it is far too early to write the history books on it just yet, a few things appear to be emerging. Firstly, the response of the public hasn’t been to riot but to help. Secondly, governments which put the most stock into the Great Man Theory have, to put it mildly, been struggling. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Dominic Cummings have built their careers on the idea that the public is a rabble to be controlled, but when an actual crisis has come along they have been shown to not be up to the job.

And as for the riots? Well, there’s no doubt that people do riot. But much of the rioting in the US right now, as opposed to the protests, seem to have been deliberately provoked by the police – and that’s even if you leave to one side the fact that the protests were kicked off by flagrant police brutality in the first place and the numerous attacks on journalists. You know where there aren’t riots right now? In the cities where the police have joined the protests.

Watching these fictional riots while cities across the US are facing very real crises was uncomfortable, mainly because they appeared to just exist in the background while white people debate the future of humanity. In fact it is striking at how this season hasn’t dealt with race at all. You can arguably justify it in the first two seasons as they were set on a theme park, but with the focus switched to the wider world it wasn’t a topic that seemed to come up at all, which for a show purporting to bombard us with truth bombs about human nature seems more than a little cowardly. It does touch on class, even if it is much more interested in the wealthy than the poor, but I just can’t see how you can decouple race from class these days. Even the strong black characters of the past seasons, Maeve, Charlie and Bernard, were relegated to relatively background roles this season. Maeve spends most of the season out Surac’s dirty work for fairly unconvincing reasons, Charlie has been replaced by a duplicate of Dolores before she goes rogue herself (again, for not entirely clear reasons – her story just sort of runs out). Meanwhile Bernard just… wanders around.

Maybe this is making a smarter point than it first appeared, and they’ll show up next season to fix the mess everyone else has now left – but I’m sceptical. Fundamentally, I’ve had enough of media feeding me this pessimistic vision of humanity: it isn’t rooted in the world I see around me and it feels increasingly like an agenda to shape how people perceive it. If all that Westworld has to say to is that humanity is doomed without strong leaders to tell us what to do, then I for one have had enough. The first season was a fun enough little story which played around with time and neatly subverted the plot of the original film, but it has struggled to have anything to say ever since.

David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

Many people will have blogged already about David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture by now, but as I saw it being delivered live, I thought I ought to add my two-penneth.

My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.

If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.

I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.

Income Inequality

Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Shares of total household income by quintile group
Shares of total household income by quintile group
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.

The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.

I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.

The Big State

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.

The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.

Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.

The Big Society

In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.

This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.

In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.

Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.

His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?

What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?

The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.

The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.

It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?

Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?

Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.

It is a pretty hollow analysis.