Friday, December 25, 2009


Avatar - seeing an alien civilization

Spoiler warning.

Three "rants" about Avatar: Sentient Developments: Avatar, the good, the bad and ugly, Clusterfuck Nation: Blue Christmas, A Most Stupendous & Audacious Undertaking: The REAL story of Avatar is in the ecology.

I too saw and loved the movie Avatar, with it's gorgeous 3D graphics and lush alien life. Like Kunstler, I see the theme/plot of the movie as being an attack on Western Civilization, as presently structured. Like Dvorsky, I see that the critique is not very strong - by creating a ridiculous straw-man of western civilization, and portraying it against lushest possible Noble Savage (Matt really hits this one on the head with Intelligent Design of Gaia post-singularity theory - genius!), he didn't give western civilization a chance.

But, I want to draw attention here to two issues that all three overlooked: the role of the corporation and the role of the scientists.

Corporation: despite the fact that the CEO character didn't get all that much screen time, it was his bad decisions (to say yes to the military because of his need to deliver on the bottom line) that moved the plot along. I personally think that if you step back from the movie and think about this, you'll see that Cameron doesn't so much criticize western civilization and technology so much as the logic of the corporation and its resulting actions on Pandora. There is also a strong criticism of the military (or at least mercenary armies), of course. There were surely ways to get the "unobtainium" without strip-mining it, but as long as the corporation doesn't have to pay the externalities of strip-mining then all of its logic points in that direction. A more mature system of managing the world (or our interactions with another world) wouldn't be so narrowly focussed.

The role of the scientists is very analogous to the world today - you see in the movie that they get all kinds of funding, but have very little influence. The scientist leader makes lots of desperate attempts to prevent the violence by reporting on her progress, communicating with the aliens, etc, yet is ultimately gunned down as a traitor. Having just watched Climate Gate (an entirely fabricated attack on climate scientists) and the failure of Copenhagen (due to pretty much everyone but especially weak offerings from the US and copious blocking by China), the portrait of scientists as too focussed on little things and too ineffective at not only their own work, but at properly communicating it, rings all too true. I think it's especially worth noting that the scientists failed to realize that a warrior might be a good envoy to the warrior culture of the natives - to the point that even when one was forced upon them they were upset and failed to see the possibilities. Unfortunately our scientists don't have an active Gaia to come to their rescue and beat back the capitalists...

Anyway, I think talking about Avatar is a particularly good example of the meta-civ principle: seeing how it's done elsewhere can place how you do it in sharp contrast, which is useful...

Update: three more interesting links on Avatar: Hot Air: The Suicide Fantasy, The Story's Story: Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar and Neal Stephenson’s “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out, and some slashdot comments: Slashdot: Anti-Technology Themes in James Cameron's Avatar.

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