“Ms. Cranz, would you prefer a tequila or vodka shot? Don’t worry. We know the difference.” With one question a Westworld “robot” had roasted me to a cinder and brought into relief everything cool and terrifying about HBO’s Westworld “activation” at CES.
What was the significance of that question? Two months earlier I had mistakenly done shots of vodka thinking it was tequila. (It was Taipei! I was confused! Don’t judge me!) The people behind the Westworld dinner I was attending had mined my social media just to roast me in front of my friends, colleagues, and a number of very attractive people I was pretty sure were actors paid to pretend to be robots.
Ostensibly it was for fun, but as a high-pitched, nervous whine began to occupy most of my brain space, I found myself experiencing HBO’s new world a little too realistically.
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas can feel like one long series of ads. Every restaurant and shop has a sign bedazzled in twinkly lights, every company has some tech adjacent reason, seemingly, to be at CES. You get used to ignoring it. Except for when it’s HBO and a new Westworld activation, this time put on in conjunction with events company Giant Spoon. These “activations” from HBO are becoming increasingly common at big shows like CES and SXSW (they’ve been the norm at SDCC for a while), and they pretty much just exist to get you talking about the show.
They’re also a source of free food, and on the off chance something crucial to the next season was present at the activation I gamely attended along with colleagues Matthew Reyes, Andrew Liszewski, Victoria Song, and her partner.
A host at the event.
“Oh you know it’s just gonna be dinner with people pretending to be robots,” Gizmodo Editor in Chief Kelly Bourdet said days before the event. No... none of us had realised that. We’d heard the activations were cool, and we figured that the dinner would be nice, but we had not considered having to interact with people who were pretending to be robots.
As someone can’t even bring herself to play Dungeons & Dragons, a full-on robo-LARP at the end of a 16-hour day sounded very unappealing!
Andrew Liszewski was also not ready. The high-pitched nervous whine in the back of my head was mirrored by a similar noise coming, unbidden, from Andrew’s mouth. We were in line for the event and in front of a married couple “in business” who looked around with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a couple of extras for a high budget HBO show about people attending a theme park full of robots. It seemed we were in for a LARP experience none of us were emotionally equipped for.
Andrew likened his feelings to that one clip of Bob’s Burger’s Tina Belcher learning to drive.
The woman in front of us was clearly a plant, we assumed. She was dressed in a lovely turquoise dress and looked vaguely like someone famous. She smiled and asked if we were excited, and because we immediately clocked her as a “fake” (either a robot or an actor) we only nodded and barely spoke to her.
She seemed shaken by our brusqueness and turned away.
I was, on the one hand, a little upset with how little we’d tried to interact with her. If she was just a random woman who overdressed we’d made it worse, and if she was an actor we were instantly dehumanising her, marking her as Other and abruptly altering our behaviour towards her.
Shitty either way.
And yet I did not feel compelled to apologise.
Victoria and her partner, who had been standing in line with us, were taken away and asked about their pets. The names of the pets were cited. The person doing the asking seemed to be one of the activation’s overseers – not an actor.
Victoria and her partner seemed shaken. Andrew’s whine of discomfort increased in volume.
Eventually, they ushered everyone into the Nomad Restuarant, a smallish dining room dominated by floor to ceiling bookshelves and cosy-looking seating. Almost unnaturally beautiful people in nice clothes moved through the space robotically and identified themselves as our hosts. Normal-looking people carried trays of food, offering them to guests with a polite smile.
I had no idea who was meant to be an actor and who was just trying to serve up some little fried cheese balls with minimal drama before they could go home, smoke a bowl, and watch highlights from the Vegas Golden Knights game.
I ate one of the cheese ball things. It exploded in my mouth.
Andrew looked around warily and asked which table we’d been assigned to. When he realised he was alone and his plus one was late, he briefly seemed to disappear from reality. Had he not been Canadian, and thus genetically obligated to be polite in awkward social settings, I am sure he would have fled the dinner right then.
Instead, he was just the most uncomfortable I’ve ever seen a human being. And it only got worse when one of the beautiful robot people called him by name and escorted him to the other side of the dining room.
They gave him a mug of virgin egg nog, as they said they knew he liked Christmas (because his Instagram during the Christmas season... features a lot of Christmas decorations) and didn’t particularly care for alcohol.
You can HEAR his discomfort.
It was here we realised they’d definitely been mining our social media to have things to say to us and things to offer. When my table’s host eventually came over and offered me a shot it was clear they’d mined not just our social media, but those of our friends and family too. The goal, it seemed, was to unnerve us and remind us of just how much of ourselves we pump out into the internet without a thought. It allowed them to embarrass Andrew and me while delighting Victoria, who was dragged into a conversation with another tech reporter based on their chosen Harry Potter houses.
Andrew’s plus-one arrived and was dressed as smartly as the guests we’d all written off as plants.
Some small part of me worried that maybe the guy here “on business” with his wife, and the mysterious consultant who joined me at our table were, in fact, not plants. What if they were real people out to experience this “activation” just like the rest of us? Me, in my ruffled flannel shirt and jeans, would be ruining their experience. There was no guess if I was an actor.
We were all seated at our tables and served meals ostensibly customised to our preferences. As someone who regularly tweets about beef and oysters I was not surprised to find both on my menu. My colleague Matthew, who rarely tweets what he eats, was served what seemed to be the de facto meal, chicken. Uncomfortable bon mots related to our social media continued through the meal. I ignored the businessman who had a very expensive watch and no bracelet confirming he was an attendee. He had to be a plant, I told myself. No way he was real.
Can you guess which one of these fellas I assumed was a robot? He might not be! Maybe you know him!
I ignored the consultant on the other side of me too. He had the required bracelet, but while the hostess would happily ask to see pictures of my dog by name or ask Matthew about his 10-year-old hip-hop dance troupe, she had nothing significant to chat about with the man.
At another table, Andrew continued to be the physical embodiment of social discomfort. Arms crossed, he seemed to grow more and more compact as if willing a vacuum to form at the centre of himself and remove him from this plane of existence. His hostess asked why he’d deleted thousands of tweets just before Christmas.
Andrew declined to answer.
Eventually, the social media mining came to the forefront of the activation. A hostess took to the stage in the corner to talk about the (very fake) company that had “hosted” the activation. She noted how its ability to mine social media allowed the company to create a tailored experience for each of us. Then, just in case somehow all the invasive asides hadn’t turned us on to the dystopian nature of social media mining, the hostess proceeded to outline an entire “guest’s” life up until that moment, leaving the woman shattered.
It was that first woman, the one we’d all been brusque with when we came in. And it was the length of her public shattering that had me worried.
I started to psyche myself out. Started to worry that maybe she was real and was having a bad night. Maybe the two men at my table were real. Maybe all the dinner guests were. Or maybe she was just the fake, and the men I’d ignored all night were confused about their shitty dinner companion.
Perhaps it was secondary to the lecture on social media, but the way we treated the strangers around us – how we immediately sorted them into “other”, felt just as crucial. We watch Westworld and note how video game-like it is, but still say we’d never treat something that looked so human so inhumanely. But it had been natural to brush off the woman in line. It was natural to ignore her tears, and maybe even chuckle – her emotions a scene for us to be amused by. I made no effort to get to know most of my dinner companions because I just didn’t believe they were real – and thus not worthy of the effort.
It was just so damn easy to slip into Westworld’s dystopia.
After the woman fled, we gathered at the bar. We’d each been given a piece of paper outlining how long we’d live and what we should consider doing in the new year. Andrew’s erroneously said he was single and had the wrong birthday. My birthdate was correct. I was also going to live longer than anyone else from Gizmodo US.
As for my advice, it read: “Irony and self-deprecation are valuable currency online. Be wary of how you choose to spend them.”
Westworld mined my social media to give me a curious experience and then told me to never tweet again.