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HBO’s Westworld-themed Incite dinner made me question everything

This story is part of our continuing coverage of CES 2020, including tech and gadgets from the showroom floor.

HBO’s Westworld-themed Incite dinner at CES 2020 has me questioning the nature of my reality. No, seriously. In fact, I’m still trying to piece together what just happened. I know this: My mind was just seriously messed with. The worst part is, I knew it was coming — and it happened anyway.

It all started out innocently. We were greeted at the door of the posh Nomad restaurant inside the Park MGM by hosts dressed in gray who immediately made it clear that they knew a whole lot about us. My boss, Jeremy, and I were both impressed with the bits of knowledge the hostesses imparted on our arrival, though my experience was slightly tarnished when one of the attractive attendants asked me about my “cats.” I only have one.

Still, while they’d gotten a bit of my information wrong, the invasion of privacy was expected. The RSVP for the event began with invasive questions, such as whether we felt guilty about eating meat, or whether we were fearful about the future (who isn’t these days?), then asked for consent to delve deep into all our social media accounts and other online personal info.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Down the rabbit hole

From there, however, things began to take a strange and rapidly evolving turn toward the bizarre. As we entered the sumptuous dining room decked out like a luxe library and bar, we were waited on by blank-eyed hosts who knew our names and offered us champagne. But it wasn’t long until the invasive experiment began to take its course.

A handsome, blank-eyed attendant named “Anthony” offered Jeremy a unique drink I’d never heard of called a “Bloody Manhattan.” Turns out it was one he’d created himself on a whim one night, realizing his taste for spicy drinks and pickle juice could be combined with his love for whiskey. They also knew I was a beer man, and brought me an IPA.

Threw an ounce of McClure's bloody mary mix in my manhattan. I call it a Bloody Manhattan. @slaughterwrites you got nothin' on me

— Jeremy Kaplan (@SmashDawg) November 24, 2019

“OK,” we thought, “these guys are good.” Sure, we knew this was coming, but we were equal parts uneasy and intrigued.

Soon we were introduced to Jane, who had somewhat oddly been separated from her husband. Jane was sweet. She looked like a regular fiftysomething wife tagging along with her husband on a CES trip. She was in HR, she told us, and had been looking for work in Chicago, where her husband had pursued a major career opportunity. She was easy to talk to, but never seemed to be leading the conversation.

But Jane wasn’t Jane. Jane was a plant.

At least I think she was.

The confusion sets in

Jeremy and I had joked about the fact that Jane might not be who she appeared to be early on. After all, we knew to expect the unexpected, and Jane was brought to us on a silver platter by our personal attendant, Anthony. But Jane and her “husband,” Ron, were good. Really good. Ron came by several times, but kept being whisked away by the “robotic” hosts. He was a meat-and-potatoes guy and, like Jane, never gave a hint of leading a conversation.

When he was separated from his wife, it all seemed part of the fun. We felt obligated to take care of her, separated from her spouse like that. And meanwhile, the main event kept us distracted.

We were eventually seated at a table with several other guests, all of whom seemed to have interesting lives. Katherine was a technologist. Jen was a formal model. Joyce was a crypto expert — and Jane was, of course, an HR specialist.

Anthony knew a lot about all of us. Again, this wasn’t unexpected, but you’d be surprised how easily your reality can be obscured by a few personal bits of knowledge from a total stranger. In his brilliantly personal yet subtly robotic way, Anthony constantly revealed his impressive knowledge of our lives. He went around the table, introducing us all to one another. And to be honest, I still don’t completely know who was “real” and who wasn’t.

HBO Westworld Incite backscreen
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Meanwhile, the Incite event continued to unfurl. Looking for clues about Westworld season 3? Here’s where you’ll want to pay attention: The fictional company “Incite” was described as a data-mining company that cares about us. Incite cares about the decisions we’re forced to make every day. It cares how hard we work and how stressed we are. Incite knows who we are, thanks to advanced algorithms. And it knows which paths we should take, so we don’t have to worry about those paths any longer. You can expect this to feature heavily in the upcoming season of HBO’s provocative series.

As for us, we continued to enjoy the experience with one another, simultaneously amazed and appalled by how much we’d given away on social media.

At one point, Jane asked where I was from. I told her I was a Montana boy; she said she’d been to Glacier National Park and loved it. I was excited to share my sacred place with her. I told her personal things. I explained that Glacier was where I felt most spiritual. She agreed it was a magical place. I told her I’d proposed to my wife there, and she went on and on about a trip she’d taken there with Ron. They’d gotten to the park before all the snow had melted on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, but had been lucky enough to catch the road’s cascading ascent amid real glaciers and steepled mountains.

There was no doubt Jane had been to Glacier. Or had she?

She said Ron wasn’t much of a hiker, so she didn’t get to do any there, but while she spoke enthusiastically about how beautiful it was, she gave no details about the trip other than generalities. And all of my experiences there, all of my personal memories with my wife, were preserved on social media. Has Jane ever been to Glacier? I honestly don’t know.

The misdirect

The Incite event continued, and Jeremy and I were mostly convinced that the parties at our table were real. Leanne had chipped her tooth and had to leave the show early. Katherine was increasingly uncomfortable as our robot Anthony revealed more and more information about us, and about how Incite was determined to make our lives better by making our choices for us.

The zenith of the event came when they “picked someone” out of the crowd named Elizabeth, and delved far too deep into her personal life to be real. They knew her hopes, her dreams. They knew not only where she’d gone to college, but what she could have done instead. Thanks to stolen emails, they knew both her current job, and where she could have worked instead. The drama ended with “Elizabeth” getting up and running from the event, visibly shaken from what had been revealed. It was all too obvious that Elizabeth was an actor.

Meanwhile, Jane continued to gain my trust. And in fact, as the brilliantly robotic hostess took to the stage to tell us a little more about the Incite company, Jane remained my main confidante. Yet, something wasn’t right.

The final reveal

Then came the big hammer drop.

Our friend and co-worker Maude, a talented actress and TV host from LA, was also at the event. It turns out, she knew some of the actors working the dinner. She assured us that Jane was, in fact, an actor. Jane wasn’t real. The Incite event was all a sleight of hand. And it was Jane who was our real entertainment all along.

Looking back, I’m still not sure how to feel about it all. Is this a lesson in oversharing online? A vivid reminder of the fragility of our own psyche and the value of our private moments? A brilliant bit of dinner theater? Or was it all just an elaborate preview for a popular and enigmatic TV show?

I think the Incite dinner was probably a bit of all those things. But one thing’s for sure, my mind is still turned inside out. And yes, I do still question my reality. Always.

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Ryan Waniata
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Waniata is a multi-year veteran of the digital media industry, a lover of all things tech, audio, and TV, and a…
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