HBO's Westworld dinners were the least dystopian thing at CES

HBO brought Westworld to life at CES by cyberstalking me, and it was still less dystopian than the reality we're living everyday.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read
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These people died in Westworld. But not really. Except maybe.


HBO's sci-fi series Westworld took a crack at predetermining my future at CES . In Westworld's vision, I live to be 103 and eat three desserts at dinner. It's the cuddliest glimpse of dystopia I've seen all week at CES.  

As the global tech industry swarms Las Vegas for one of its biggest conventions of the year, Westworld has also arrived to stage elaborate, immersive dinners here, sprinkling breadcrumbs for the upcoming third season of the series. These dinners -- at the sophisticated Nomad Restaurant set in a vaulting library not unlike the one in last season's finale -- is purportedly hosted by Incite, a mysterious data company joining the Westworld plot. 

Incite, apparently, is here to mine every ounce of your data so you never have to make a vexing decision on your own again. Even the RSVP process for this event was heady. In addition to typical requests for my name and email address, HBO's Incite dinners posed questions like "Do you dread making everyday choices?" and "Have you ever experienced guilt after eating an animal product?"

Watch this: Westworld season 3: Incite vs. Delos

So at my dinner Tuesday, an Incite employee named Antony enthusiastically greeted me by name, before dropping deep-cut references to things posted to my social-media feeds years back. Antony knew about the bogus bike ticket I got more than five years ago; he knew about how somebody at our table considered joining the military when he was young. 

But compared to Neon's artificial humans at CES this year, the little we know about Incite feels cuddly and nostalgic by comparison. Privacy has been a top issue at CES this year, and Westworld mirrored the theme with its dinners.

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Not the Forge, just a normal restaurant. Very normal.

Angela Lang/CNET

But in our current reality, companies like  Facebook Google  and  Amazon  -- some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in history -- have already built massive machines hoovering up your data. You are constantly tracked online, whether it's tracking pixels to trace the websites you're visiting or geolocation data to know almost your every move. Google, for one, knows about 70 percent of all payment card purchases in the US.

I've sat in on internal Facebook meetings. Nothing Incite threw at me got as creepy as that.

Incite's "strategy engine" chose a personalized menu for each diner -- apparently I'm algorithmically predisposed to burrata caprese, gnocchi and apple toffee. I wheedled Antony into bringing me a chocolate tart too. If our dystopian future includes the cotton candy Westworld served each table, the downfall of humanity will be dreamily sweet. 

And because this is CES, Incite delivered a keynote. "Tech companies are profiting off of your data, and what are you given in return?" Incite's head of development (I think...) said in her presentation. (Another great thing about Westworld's dystopia: The highest-ranking Incite employee in the room was a woman of color. Sign me up.)


Netflix's Altered Carbon booth in 2018 included bagged, lab-grown "bodies. "

Josh Miller/CNET

"Give us your data, and we'll give you certainty," she continued. "You give us your information, and we will erase all doubt. Your path to this new future, this better world -- the only decision that you need to make is us." (OK, maybe don't sign me up.)

These kinds of so-called activations are usually the stuff of Comic-Con or South by Southwest , not CES. Conventions like those are places where fandoms can gravitate together to be titillated by clues and immersive experiences about their favorite shows, movies and franchises. CES is not that kind of place. 

Netflix attempted something similar two years ago at CES, with a booth on the show floor displaying creepy lab-grown "bodies." It was an elaborate stunt to build buzz about its cyberpunk series Altered Carbon, which -- like Westworld -- plays with concepts about the nature of consciousness in a world where tech is displacing humanity. 

But at these dinners, HBO steered clear of any of the R-rated calamity of Westworld as you see it on the screen. No hosts went rogue. In what may be a first for Westworld, I spent more than two hours with this universe and nobody got killed. 

Before we left, as the pianist on the baby grand piano subtly transitioned into to the Westworld theme, Incite gave each diner a parting gift. These personalized printouts listed our name, date of birth, life expectancy (I'm going to live to be 103 years, 9 months and 4 days old) and a "free piece of advice from our strategy algorithm," as Incite's leader called it. 

The advice for me, someone who rarely posts personal details about myself online? "Have your digital spaces received all the benefits of your training? Look for new ways to innovate." Which is basically a dig at me from the exhausted research team that had to dig up details on every guests' life. I made their job really hard. I rarely post any references to my family online. My personal Facebook account, which I haven't touched since May 2017, has always been blocked to the public and still is. 

The total script for these dinners, which included all the personal details that actors had to memorize, was 600 pages long. A typical movie screenplay is only 120. 

Talking to other people who went to this dinner, I found that many were blown away. But I wasn't, as fun as it was to live inside Westworld for an evening. My guess why? Even for people so immersed in tech they come over and over again to CES, it's hard to conceptualize how much of their lives they've voluntarily surrendered to Google or Facebook. It took elaborate dinner theater to crystalize how much of themselves they've given up. 

"It took us five years to volunteer [our] information to a college dropout who then gave it away to the fucking Russians," Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan said in 2018 at a premiere for the second season. 

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These Incite "employees" were the hosts of the evening. But were they the "hosts" of the evening?

Angela Lang/CNET

And that might be the creepiest takeaway from HBO's Westworld dinners at CES. The HBO team had to cyberstalk us the old-fashioned way. They don't actually have Incite's "strategy engine" algorithm. And, crucially, they don't get to look behind the curtain at the troves of data on you that Google, Facebook, Amazon and others have metastasizing on their servers. HBO was able to find all these "mind-blowing" details about guests' lives by simple Google searches and Facebook browsing. 

Tech giants, in our real lives, know much more more about all of us. 

Westworld on the screen projects a unnerving, violent technological future. But Westworld at CES wasn't able to truly bring the dystopia many of us are already living in our everyday lives. But hey, according to Incite, I'm going to live to the year 2085. What could possibly go wrong?

Originally published Jan. 8. 
Update, Jan. 9: With more details, context and photos. 

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