HomeTelevisionThe Box Contains Everything: Devs, Westworld & Unsettling Determinism in Sci-Fi TV

The Box Contains Everything: Devs, Westworld & Unsettling Determinism in Sci-Fi TV

Photo Credit: HBO

Residents of the couch may have experienced a nagging sensation of déjà vu in their favorite science-fiction series recently. Two of this season’s most-talked-about stories have unknowingly echoed each other’s deterministic morbidity in the stories they tell and concepts they explore. Even more notable than their overlap, however, is the trends and logic by which they were inspired. 

Season Three of Westworld has taken the concepts of its preceding season to their logical conclusion as it enjoys the opportunity to gradually develop its ideas and expand upon its world-building. It’s revealed that Delos was monitoring and selling the data of all the guests in the park as scarily-accurate personality profiles. Outside the park, we discover that the rest of the world is no safer. At the core of the tech company Incite, we learn of the existence of a quantum computer system called Rehoboam. This supercomputer not only compiles and compounds the data of everyone on Earth, but it algorithmically determines their futures. Deloros (Evan Rachel Wood, The Ides of March) learns of this and enlists Caleb’s (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) help to burn it down and set the world free, albeit to possible genocidally anarchistic ends. 

In the pilot of Alex Garland’s Devs, Forest (Nick Offerman, Parks and Rec) declares to Sergei “we live in a deterministic universe” moments before a bag is placed over Sergei’s head and he is suffocated for betraying Forest. This event sets the series’ plot into motion as Lily (Sonoya Mizuno, Ex Machina) unravels the mystery of her boyfriend’s death in accordance with the very cerebral tone that Garland fans have come to expect given his reputation. Forest’s comment hangs over every scene for the rest of the show and alters our perception of both the characters and their choices; if they can even be called such. 

As the story unfolded and we learned more about the Devs system and Forest’s goal – to use the system’s unnatural, many-worlds, cause-and-effect prediction power to reunite with his late daughter. But the two plotlines converged at their climax at the unseeable moment in which Lily, at the Devs nexus having finally seen behind the curtain, defied Devs (or as we learned, “Deus”)’s predictions to save her and Forest’s life, albeit not for long, before being resurrected in an eternal afterlife on a paradisiacal parallel world within the system. 

The two stories are inherently deterministic by design. The concept, in its most undiluted form, is that each event is caused by the events and actions preceding it. That every action happens because it was predetermined to happen by billions of years of cause and effect on micro and macroscopic levels. As Forest explains in the Devs finale, “determinism may be strange, but it’s also beautiful. A small piece of information provides all information. The state of every particle is related to the state of the particles around it. Understand the state of one, understand the state of the other. Keep going, know the state of everything.”

Sci-fi has explored determinism in past films like the Matrix sequels, A Clockwork Orange and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindeach with its distinctive outlook and predictions about such a world. And while this has been an ideal cave for storytellers to mine and an excuse to wax philosophical, it hits closer to home in these particular two examinations of the concept. 

It is not a coincidence that both of these deterministic dystopias are borne out of quantum computers developed by monopolistic tech corporations. Naturally, the frightening rise of real-world, data-gathering overreach within companies like Facebook has seeped its way into our popular culture as an abstract horror and with good reason. When we (and especially our characters) discover that the sum of our past and future experiences have been compiled, quantified, and reduced to ones and zeroes in yottabytes of data used to create personality profiles, words like “choice” and “free will” evaporate into irrelevance. Our latest sci-fi fixation on determinism is a reflection of the real anxieties we have towards our current society carried to their logical conclusion. 

Where the two series diverge is in how their determinism is both developed and regarded. For Dolores, Rehoboam is an ironic turning of the tables. The humans who had her entire life mapped out down to her drives and interpersonal connections were experiencing the same narrative loops from which the hosts of Westworld had awoken themselves. And after her game-changing exposure of that powerlessness in “Genre,” the humans, in turn, began experiencing the despair and fury that she had found at the center of her maze. The series injects a man-made determinism into an otherwise chaotic world and then tears it down in flames.

To the denizens of Incite’s synthetic dystopia, Rehoboam is an Orwellian prison lorded over by Zuckerberg-ian private technocrats for whom they are both consumer and product. The algorithmic decisions made are restrictions on their basic freedom, the secrets collected are life-altering realizations and the future prognostications are embarrassing and heartbreaking revelations of which they are too ashamed to accept. Violence erupts almost instantly, and the shackles Rehoboam held on the world are broken as the people unanimously reject its deterministic safety. The irony is that Dolores is more like the humans she seeks to dethrone than she believed because being a slave to people and powers beyond one’s understanding is one of the foundations of humanity. 

On the other hand, Devs was more structured around the application of a deterministic universe than the implications. Forest’s founding principle is that the universe is factually deterministic, and the system is possible because of it. In the series penultimate episode, we finally got to see the true potential of the perfected Devs system. Though the projections on the screen are solely simulation, its predictions are absolute. In the series’ most mind-bending scene, the staff of Amaya witnesses their future exactly one second ahead of them fulfilling it, perfectly, down to each terrified expression on their faces. “It contains us,” explains Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lady Bird). “The box contains everything.” The true brain-breaking, Alex Garlandi-an quality of Devs and its determinism is in unraveling the causality of its events. The staffers would not have gotten up and screamed had they not seen the prediction that frightened them. Lily would not have gone to Devs if she had not been told she would by Katie (Alison Pill), who would not have told her if she had not seen herself do it. 

It becomes clear in the series’ second half that Forest and Katie have watched their future simulated many times to understand Lily’s role at the center of it. They either did not attempt to change what they had seen or ensured its accuracy in their resistance to it. Either way, knowing the future solidifies its occurrence, except for the split-second Lily throws the gun out of the elevator – an event Deus could not predict and a choice she altered because she had seen the prediction. It shatters both the system’s predictive capability and Forest’s determinist understanding in one go. 

Forest and Lily stand as paragons of competing views of determinism. To Lily, seeing her universe’s determinism laid bare constituted the same imprisonment and nihilism as the people quantified by Rehoboam. For Forest, it was exactly the opposite. Determinism was absolution from responsibility for the accident that killed his wife and daughter. It was complete freedom from guilt or fear, and likely explains his unshakeable zen portrayed so effectively by Offerman. The crucial catch was that to Forest’s chagrin, Deus only worked properly under a many-worlds interpretation rather than a deterministic one. In other words, all events are predetermined because all possible outcomes exist simultaneously. 

The difference between the neutral passivity of Deus and the pessimistic malice of Rehoboam lies in the intentions of their application. For Westworld, Engerrand Serac sought to impose order on a chaotic world by predicting and manipulating individuals’ futures. It is the Facebook nightmare amplified and expanded as determinism made public mandate. But for Devs, Forest’s ideal outcome was a life he could spend with his daughter, economic or military or intelligence applications be damned. Determinism is reality (or so he believed), his computer only harnesses and reads the data. 

The rabbit hole of cause and effect inherent in determinist thinking is infinite, as it is in the worlds of Westworld and Devs. As demonstrated by Stewart’s poetic soliloquizing at the lab’s entrance, diving too far into its depths in an attempt to comprehend its reach can fundamentally shift and unravel one’s perception of the complexity of the world. It is no wonder then that its fictional harbinger, in regards to our capacity to visualize it, is often impossibly expansive computers capable of processing more data in a day than we could in a lifetime. No stranger is it that Rehoboam and Deus are inherently theological names, knowing references to the early and unlimited beings ascribed to understand the universe, now artificially recreated. 

The deterministic factors in our society inherently increase as more privacy is surrendered and dependency is normalized. Though extreme and dramatized, neither Rehoboam nor Deus feels like an impossible future. And as we barrel closer toward it, or at least something similar, we can expect our science-fiction to continue exploring the parallels and implications. 

Westworld is currently airing on HBO, Devs is available on FX on Hulu.


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