Human Beings and Androids

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Amanda Knox

Within the past week I’ve watched two shows about how to manufacture narratives. Both dealt with power structures that determine the fates of unknowing participants in stories of violence and retribution. Both featured antagonists manipulating the outcome of pre-determined narratives in real-time, and both featured players in these narratives who choose to rebel against the story arcs that have been imposed upon them.

I’m speaking of course of Amanda Knox and Westworld. You’d think that tales of robot cowboys in a simulated Wild West and a documentary about a young Seattle woman  falsely accused of murder in an Italian town wouldn’t have much in common, but underneath the surface differences, both are concerned with fabrication. Both pose a question that feels right for our cultural and technological moment–what happens when the lies you choose to believe overtake reality?

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Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld

I was peripherally aware of the Amanda Knox case as it unfolded. I didn’t read anything about it, but it was one of those pervasive media obsessions that became impossible to ignore. Most of what I know about the case I have gleaned from the eponymous Netflix documentary, the Atlantic Monthly, and from Amanda herself, who I have met once. (Full disclosure, I’m friends with her boyfriend.)

Having a relatively uninformed impression of the whole case, I watched the documentary unburdened by any ideas planted in my head by tabloid reporting. By the end, based on the information I had received, I could only conclude that Amanda is the victim of an insidious human need to invest in falsehoods and reverse-engineer rationality to fit emotion-driven fantasy. This is the battle between reason and imagination.

The story of orgiastic murder invented by the prosecution is a contemporary example of the persistence of a particularly Italian virgin/whore meta-narrative. Amanda Knox was like an actress who happened to step on stage at the very moment this particular city was casting a melodrama about murderous American sluts and virginal British college students. She was perfect for the part. The British tabloid media colluded with an Italian justice system so fantastical that they could have given Calvino a run for his lira. And this resulted in an innocent American woman and an innocent Italian man spending four years in jail.

In the terrifically entertaining Westworld, human “guests” in a simulated Wild West get to fuck and kill as many android “hosts” as they wish, all in the name of a good fun. This lucrative business model relies on the proposition that these incredibly lifelike androids are machines, with memories that can be conveniently purged of trauma. Westworld is simply an extrapolation of the violent entertainment we all enjoy without thinking twice about it. (Case in point, last night I had a hell of a good time blowing away ghouls with a shotgun in Fallout 4.)

What the first episode of this HBO series seems to set up is the conflict that happens when the androids become sentient and start to question why they’re being used as target practice. That’s when fun and games stop being fun or a game.

The media can turn people into android versions of themselves, which allows us to interact with them as if they don’t possess the same pain and pleasure centers that we do. That’s what happened to Amanda. The media entertainment complex didn’t just portray her in a false light. It created an android version of her, which is still out there, engaged in a dialogue with a sad population of trolling truthers who are invested in keeping that android alive.

Amanda Knox isn’t an android. She’s a flesh and blood human being who endured a grave injustice, and Italy’s highest court agrees. She’s a Seattleite and a talented blogger who has made advocacy for the wrongfully accused her cause, turning her trauma into a positive force for others. She’s trying to live a real life while her android doppelganger exists in a false one, feeding the trolls in the precincts of comments boxes. I, for one, am going to stand up for the real Amanda Knox. I’m on her side.