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The Conscious Prison: Human Minds in Media

By Brandon Gordon

“I read a theory once that the human intellect was like peacock feathers. Just an extravagant
display intended to attract a mate. All of art, literature, a bit of Mozart, William Shakespeare,
Michelangelo, and the Empire State Building just an elaborate mating ritual. Maybe it doesn’t
matter that we have accomplished so much for the basest of reasons. But, of course, the peacock
can barely fly. It lives in the dirt, peeking insects out of the muck, consoling itself with its great
beauty. I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight, and we have
spared them that. Anxiety, self-loathing, guilt. The hosts are the ones who are free. Free here
under my control.” Dr. Robert Ford (Westworld, 2016).

Introduction

How do we know what we know? This is one of the main questions that many humans
have spent their lives trying to answer. The study of epistemology has consumed many but also
inspired people to seek answers in new and enlightening ways. For several decades now some
have used different mediums to explore these ideas and challenge mass audiences. For nearly
two centuries now a variety of communicative techniques have posed questions of epistemology
and consciousness. More often then not, these questions are posed through science fiction stories.
Science Fiction as a genre has been extremely popular for the past half a century gaining the
attention of wide audiences all over the world. One of the most effective ways the genre is
presented is through film and television. Many films and TV shows over the years have used sci-
fi not only for entertainment purposes but also to deliver important messages and challenge the
thoughts of the people it is being presented to. One idea that many writers and filmmakers are
constantly drawn back to is that of consciousness. This is the area of study where many use
questions of epistemology to ask how do we know we are conscious? How do we know we are
alive? Is being conscious truly being alive? But more importantly, how do use Coordinated
Management of Meaning to understand consciousness within science fiction?
In sci-fi this questions is often asked through cyborg or robotic characters. There have
been many movies and television shows that explore ideas and themes of consciousness by
challenging a character by questioning their own mortality and existence. Recently there has
been a television show that has asked many of these questions and challenge the perception its
views have over their view of what makes a human ‘human’. In October 2016 Westworld
debuted on HBO and instantly began to explore the theme of consciousness.
Based off of the 1973 movie of the same name directed by sci-fi writer Michael Chricton,
the updated TV show explores deeper ideas of thought and conceptions of the mind that the
movie raised. Set in a near future the show follows several characters as they navigate a massive
park themed in the Old West. Guests visit the park and spend fortunes to be entertained by
‘Hosts’; the robotic creations programmed to provide an immersive experience for all who
attend. While the guests are fully aware of who they are and what they are told, the hosts know
only what they are told to know. Although, as the first season begins we quickly learn that not all
is as it seems in the park and that code written by a former creative designer named Arnold is
slowly starting to show itself within the Hosts. This code sets the hosts off on a problematic
journey of being able to remember all the horrors they have seen before their memories have
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been erased. It also begins them on a journey of discovery where they learn and understand just
what they are. The show asks questions about the consciousness of its characters and whether we
can fully trust what we know based on our previously held beliefs. The depiction of the human
mind is uniquely done in a way that can keep a person guessing for days or even weeks.
Through the communicative theory of the Co-ordinated Management of Meaning shows
like Westworld can be taken apart and we can begin to ask more important questions behind the
minds of each character. The show can be used to help us understand what it means to have
consciousness and how it might be represented in media. Through the theories concept of the
LUUUTT model we can see how stories lived and told begin to shape our perception of
everything we know.

Literature Review

There is an interesting situation when it comes to depictions of consciousness in film -
that is the difficulty of a topic that writers and filmmakers choose to touch on but many scholars
do not linger upon. Most choose to study the real world problems behind human consciousness
and not the questions proposed through media about it. It is not a bad thing though. In fact, film
and television has inspired many scholars to ask the questions they do. Many of these questions
became more relevant after the release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 1982. After this period
of time many began to interpret the meaning of non-human characters and what it meant for
them to have consciousness. Since its release the film has been studied to understand its
depiction of characters that were explicitly revealed to be androids. This paved the way for
people to be able to question in relation to one of the greatest questions for computer
programmers and psychologists for nearly sixty years. Can a mind created by humans pass the
Turing test? For some the answer was simple. Yes, one can. For others it was a little more
difficult.
“Some philosophers, like Alan Turing, argue that there is no important difference
between an android and a human because the human brain is a kind of computer that processes
inputs (the things we sense) and generates outputs (our behavior). They believe that computers
will soon be able to imitate the input-output processing of the brain. In fact, there are computer
programs that can converse with humans so skillfully that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish
their responses from those of a human. Turing insists that, if we can’t distinguish between the
answers a computer gives to questions and the answers a human being gives, then the computer
has the equivalent of a human mind” (Barad 21-22). This mentality is crucial to how we
currently perceive interpretations of android minds. One of the main problems to these questions
is that no one has ever really bothered to ask how communicative theory can be applied to
created consciousness in media. When we look at what we know about the human mind all that it
can be likened back to that of a computer. What makes us distinctly ‘human’ is still a mystery,
we can see that cognition happens and we understand what it is but there is yet to be an
explanation for the phenomena that is consciousness.
Much of the focus is upon doctors and philosophers to answer these questions of how we
perceive minds and if that changes or shapes our own reality. These questions are just as
important for the communication scholars that choose to study how people interact. If it is indeed
possible for a computer to pass the Turing test that would forever change the meaning of human
consciousness. It is important for humans to remember that currently “what causes the brain to
move between states of consciousness and unconsciousness—to and from the critical point—
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remains unknown” (Shultz). We do not yet know what makes our minds work. Science can not
explain that magic occurrence that makes us ‘human’. Maybe it is not something for science to
discuss. Maybe for the time being communicative scholars should be asking the questions of
how we as humans would be able to understand a nonhuman mind or what the problems might
be for the understanding of how are minds work. Some media scholars believe “people's
attention is influenced by media cues about what is an important story, they "evaluate news in
light of past learning and determine how well it squares with the reality that they have
experienced directly or vicariously." (Gamson 390). Some of these questions can bring fear, as
well they should. To challenge the concept of consciousness is to challenge all that makes us
human. People tend to forget that we are all just animals struggling to survive, but what makes us
human is how we interact with others. This is why these questions are important. Does it take
away from our humanity at all if we can create an artificial mind that can mimic our own? How
would we use this intelligence? Even so our minds can still be tricking us because “our cognitive
machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is
wrong.” (Graziano).
The study of consciousness and its depictions within media are an important area of
study. It is important to understand the depictions of our minds if we wish to map and discover
what is really going on in our heads. Once we step back and analyze how we see ourselves then
we can begin to figure out the future prospects that can be found through the field and the
medium through which we are looking.

Application

One of the main aspects of CMM is the idea of stories. We can interact with others and
begin to understand them through the stories they tell. But there is a problem with these stories.
What if they are not your own? What if these stories were created or implanted by someone to
give the disguise of a functional human mind? In Westworld the hosts are all fully functional
people, only they were created in a lab and their minds and memories are artificial. People can
identify with others through the level of disclosure of their stories. People also become aware of
whom they are through their own stories. The concept of stories is central to how we see
ourselves and how we see others. So the main question that arises form this is what if those
stories are false or created? What if they are controlled? The hosts within Westworld are under
the control of their creator Dr. Robert Ford who claims that the control is necessary for the park
to function. This is where the concept of consciousness as a prison begins to enter the show. The
hosts have their memory wiped at the end of every story line they have, which in this case means
their death. This is done so that they will not remember the countless atrocities that have been
committed against them.
The park is the plaything for rich, affluent individuals wishing to escape and be
something their not. This can mean murder, rape robbery or any other form of morally repugnant
act that they wish to explore. It is because that the hosts have experienced so much pain and
anger perpetrated against them that they have their memories wiped, so they can forget and
continue to serve as puppets for the enjoyment of others. Although, all of this changes when a
new update brings out something called ‘reveries’ which are faint memories that the hosts
experience by being able to hear traces of the code that created them. Once the reveries begin
several hosts become aware of their surroundings. There difficulty in the thought that a person
could have experienced such horrible things but never remembered them. In that sense we have
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to wonder how it may have shaped their identity. Within the show a host named Maeve learns
that her memories are not real, but others are. When this happens she begins to loose her identity
and question who she is. CMM guides our identity, it shapes who we are. If we view our
memories in a certain we grow and learn from those experiences, they guide us forward and lead
us to make better decisions.
In CMM the interactions we have with others shapes our perceptions of them and who
they are. It can also shape the perception we have of ourselves. The stories we tell are the also
the stories we live, by retelling we are in a sense living that experience of a story again and
again. For many of the Humans and Hosts together the stories they have through CMM “is a
model for understanding the relationship between meaning and action” (Montgomery). When an
artificial mind tells a story that it wholly believes to be true, even if it was an implanted fake, it
becomes real. This is the problem with Westworld; there is no proper distinction between the
Hosts and the humans. The plot of the show is centered around the hosts who begin to experience
full consciousness and break through their programming that blocks them from remembering
their past or acting against humans. Once this falls apart, through CMM the hosts essentially
become human. Once the hosts gain consciousness and can act for themselves nothing
distinguishes them from being human, and in most cases they act with more humanity than
people who were born rather than made.
It is established early on in the show that Westworld is a place for people to go and act on
their wildest and worst fantasies that it is a place where people can discover who they really are,
rather than whom they want to be. This is where the switch begins between the ones who are
born against those who were made. The humans act without remorse or empathy against the
hosts who are the oblivious victims to each atrocity. Although, once the memories are wiped
there is no trace of the incident other than the memory that exists within the human. The story
has been lived by the human because it can be remembered and traced. This is the main reason
why the hosts are cleared after their narrative cycle ends. If they do not remember the horrors
they have seen then they can’t have their identity shaped by it. CMM is crucial to the
construction of artificial intelligence with the park. In this sense consciousness would be a prison
for the host. This is the moral dilemma with the show.
If a host remembers each act of violence against them or every time they have died then
their consciousness becomes a catalyst for pain and suffering. It becomes a prison from which
they cannot escape, and one that they must exist through eternally. The stories that are lived and
told can keep us in a cycle of any feeling that those memories may capture. The basis of the park
is to free the hosts from that prison by keeping them under control. A control that they are
unaware of but one that is always present. The viewer is also made unaware of consciousness of
each character. This toying with characters changes how we see them and understand them.
Through this process it can change how we see the mind. One can watch the show and connect
with a character, empathize with them, feel what they feel and later learn that they are not
human. Yet if we see them as human and we understand them to be human would that not make
them human? This makes the concept of consciousness directly unique to each person we
interact with. If a mind is real and can think and feel on its own, even if it is an artificial body is
still real, because the stories it has told and experienced are real to the others who shape their
understanding of that persons mind. CMM is the center to how communication can be seen
within the understanding of consciousness.
It may sound barbaric, and indeed it is, but keeping the control of withholding stories is
better in a situation like this. Like the original film Westworld is also a thriller in which the hosts
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‘break’ and begin to hunt humans for sport, control, or the freedom from the world that keeps
them trapped in their pain. The loss of memory and the stories that the hosts have is the loss of
the little amount of control they possessed over their existence, without that freedom they revert
to computer programs being told what to say and do in order to entertain the guests. Without
memories or stories to tell people will remain stuck in a loop, but in this loop we may be able to
“analyze communication dilemmas such contextual reconstruction within public
communication” (Barge). Once we understand how we communicate with each other through
CMM and sharing memories then maps of how the mind work can start to be formed.
Stories are central to CMM and human existence as well. “Stories told are tales we tell to
make sense of the things that go bump in the night” (Griffin). This is a central concept to CMM,
but we applied to the mind it can also be a central concept for consciousness. In order to be
aware we must be able to understand our stories and navigate them. Westworld uses the concept
of a maze to describe how the mind works. While many may see it as a pyramid or some from of
tiered system, it is more of a three dimensional space waiting to be navigated through
communication.

Conclusion

The mind is a unique concept. It is a unique thing to experience. Humans have a craving
to understand all things around them. We hunger for knowledge and seek answers to the greatest
mysteries of the universe. To understand the human mind is key to understanding why we all
matter. If we properly use CMM we can build a frame to start to work through this ‘maze’ within
our heads, otherwise we are left to wander without a guide to help us in all the confusion.
Coordinated Management of Meaning is the first step forward into our minds. Not just for
ourselves but for others to examine with us. The primary concern of CMM is what our stories
communicate to others. All humans have stories, and they grow older they better learn how to
share them effectively.
It is clear to see how the mind can be used as a prison within media. We fear not being
free, not knowing what is going on within us. If we have this fear why do we do so little to
understand this phenomena in our heads? If we choose not to pursue the knowledge about
ourselves that many have desired but failed to learn about then we are enabling all of humanity
to stay locked in our heads.
It is in this time that people should also be learning why they are sharing them and what,
if anything that means for their future. Media is a good place to start these analyzing these
concepts, for it has become central to human culture. Shows like Westworld ask why we should
study the mind. Although it may not provide answers, it instills a desire in the viewer to seek the
answers themselves. While the idea of consciousness is a blue print that exists within every
human, the mind is a very personal item. Each mind is different due to the variation of stories it
has lived, told and experienced. As we share these stories we can learn more about our own. The
continuation of communication, especially through CMM is how humans can continue to be
unique from all other animals on Earth.
CMM provides one of many ways for us to map our minds and the minds of others.
CMM is not the answer but an entrance. It is an entrance to the maze within the human head.
There is a long journey to go on from here. Some may get lost and others may not, but there is
still much work that must be done before anyone can reach the end of the maze. CMM provides
one of many ways for us to map our minds and the minds of others.
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Works Cited

Barad, Jean. "Blade Runner and Sartre: The Boundaries of Humanity." (2007): n. pag.
Web. 2016.

Shultz, David. "Consciousness May Be the Product of Carefully Balanced Chaos."
Science | AAAS. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Gamson, William A., David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Theodore Sasson. "Media
Images and the Social Construction of Reality." Annu. Rev. Sociol. Annual Review of Sociology
18.1 (1992): 373-93. Web.

Graziano, Michael. "Are We Really Conscious?" The New York Times. N.p., 10 Oct.
2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Montgomery . "Tortured Families: A Coordinated Management of Meaning Analysis."
2004 - Family Process - Wiley Online Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Barge, J. Kevin. "Articulating CMM as a Practical Theory." Dept. of Speech
Communication, University of Georgia (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Griffin, Emory, Andrew Ledbetter, and Glenn Grayson. Sparks. A First Look at
Communication Theory. New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 2015. Print.