Archaeology, Westworld, and Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that people form with other people (or animals, or things) who are unaware of the other’s existence. It was coined by psychologists Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe “intimacy at a distance”–the emotions and investment that members of an audience feel in mediated encounters with actors, particularly on TV. I began thinking about parasocial relationships with people in the past; could our interpretive media create such a strong response as to evoke this sense of intimacy? Would a truly engaged public look like fan culture?

Let’s play this out a little bit. Would a true marker of the impact (ugh, I’m beginning to hate that word) of our research be if someone wrote fanfiction about the site, artifact, human remains featured? Should we be applying for funding to host an Archaeo-con, where people cosplay as their favorite beaker person? Or are archaeologists themselves the actual fans, forming parasocial relationships with their particular time period, region, material focus? Are we the ones writing fanfiction about the past? And if so, isn’t that freeing?

Yet a parasocial relationship implies that there is a barrier between the fan and the object of adoration. In archaeology that barrier would be time depth, our focus fuzzy from our various interpretive lenses. But I wonder if parasocial relationships have changed with digital media–harassing your favorite actor is just a tweet away. I’ve previously argued that archaeological interpretation and mediation creates an interstitial space, being “telepresent“–not in the past, fully, but also not quite fully in the present. This can be with any media, but I find it can be particularly affective with digital interpretations. Arguably, the feeling of telepresence and accessibility to the past through an interstitial space might be ascribed to a changing media metaphor–instead of TV we have VR.

In 2018, HBO promoted the second season of Westworld with the Westworld Experience. Westworld plays with tropes of human/android/cyborg experience and so it was fitting that for the Westworld Experience, they hired actors to play androids programmed to think they were humans. And other humans came to interact with the actors and treated them as…less than human. But the experience the Westworld Experience actors had themselves as fully immersed within this world recalled the experience of living history practitioners as described by Handler and Saxton in their article on Dyssimulation. Perhaps the past feels more authentic because there is a more coherent narrative (in retrospect) than our mundane, disjointed lives exhibit. A story feels more true.

So, as archaeological/heritage interpreters, do we aim for a more coherent story that feels true, to fully immerse other people, to omit breaks of presence, or do we dive straight into the dissonance and make interpretations that highlight the disjunctures in interpretation, but may be ultimately self-serving? Are the parasocial relationships we form with those cunningly inaccessible people in the past more compelling because they don’t have the temerity to talk back? …yet?

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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