The two faces of Avatar

Avatar just keeps demanding a bit more analysis.

To recap, I agree the story is an embarrassingly naive retread of the “white man goes native and saves the natives” plus gooey nature worship. But…

I also believe the world Pandora, as shown to us in the movie, can’t be confined within that story. It keeps escaping and cutting across or contradicting the premises of the narrative, as discussed in many nerd posts including mine.

So Avatar has two very different faces, and different personalities to go with them. And I think this goes back to the basic character of the social processes used to create Avatar. No, seriously, stay with me for a minute and I’ll explain.

For our purposes we can say there are three modes of production in films and a lot of other activities: craft, industrial, and networked. Of course any real film is produced through a mix of these.

A film made by a small team working on their own (with or without a presiding genius) is an example of craft production, just like similar teams producing ceramic tiles or houses.

A film made in a “factory” environment along with many others (like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca) is an example of industrial production.

And a film made by multiple loosely coordinated groups with different expertise is an example of network production.

Network production is now nearly universal in large films, but before Avatar I can’t think of any examples of network production driving the film content. Generally the network mostly fleshes out content dictated by a small team that is using craft production. (If you can think of good previous examples, please comment or email, I’d really like to know.)

In Avatar, Cameron wanted a lot of depth in his world, and had the money and skills to pull together a network to produce it. Pandora was created by a huge collaboration between ecologists, biologists, linguists, artists, rendering experts and so forth. The collaboration also necessarily included software and hardware experts who built the computer networks, and project managers who shaped the social network, and these people were no doubt also very engaged with the ideas about Pandora and contributed to its character in significant ways. Cameron was of course involved, but the depth and complexity of the world (and the network) meant that most of the decisions had to be internal to the network.

So Avatar inevitably has two faces. The plot arc, the characters and the dialog were crafted by Cameron. Much of the commercial success of the film no doubt is due to his judgements about what would work in that domain. But Pandora, and probably much of the human tech in the film was created by a social network that was focused on scientific (as well as artistic) verisimilitude, conceptual integrity across a wide range of disciplines and scales, and our best current skills for designing and managing big networks of people and machines. And a significant amount of the success of the film is due to the richness and coherence of the vision generated by the network.

In some sense Cameron was responsible for both faces. In one case he was directly shaping the content. In the other, he was shaping and directing the social network that produced the content. But the two forms of production generate very different kinds of results, and those generate the divergent critical reactions that tend to focus either on the story or on the world.

This analysis brings into focus a question on which I have no information, but which I think is important to our deeper understanding of Avatar and our thinking about the successors it will inevitably inspire. Who defined the parts of the world that bridge between the network and the story? For example, in Pandora, animals, Na’vi and trees can couple their nervous systems to each other. This coupling plays a role in the story, but it could have been avoided in some cases, and made less explicit and more “magical” in others. On the other hand this coupling mechanism is constitutive of key parts of Pandora such as the “world brain”, and it drastically affects our understanding of the nature of Pandora and its possible history.

Did the network come up with this coupling as a way to make mind transfer — a part of the story that would otherwise have been magic — into science? Or was it somehow integral to Cameron’s vision of Pandora? Or — more likely — some combination of those.

Untrustworthy by design? or incompetence? Just untrustworthy

James Kwak has an interesting post Design or Incompetence? in which he discusses the ways banks are delaying and obstructing customer efforts to get benefits the banks have offered. In addition the banks are misrepresenting their own actions and obligations. As the title suggests he wonders whether this behavior is due to design or incompetence, and ultimately concludes (after some discussion of the internal institutional issues) that it doesn’t matter because it is a systemic consequence of the banks’ incentives.

As in my previous post on “Lying or Stupid?”, I’d say this analysis is interesting and sometimes useful but that we should start by saying the institutions involved are untrustworthy which is true either way, and often we don’t need to look into the finer distinctions. Debating the details usually just gives these bad actors ways to muddy the water.

More generally, we need to develop social sanctions — applied by governments, broad condemnation, boycott, and/or whatever else will work — to “adjust the incentives” of these bad actors so they either become trustworthy or are replaced by organizations that are trustworthy. These social sanctions worked with apartheid and to some extent with third world sweatshops, we can at least imagine them working with respect to untrustworthiness.

Right now unfortunately there are many who argue that not only should corporations ignore this sort of issue, but even further that it would be immoral for them to take such considerations into account. Furthermore the general perception is that we can’t expect corporations to care about morality, as Roger Lowenstein discusses. I’ve been chewing on this issue in the comments to a couple of interesting posts by Timothy Lee and plan to summarize my resulting thoughts here soon. The good news from that discussion is that even some committed free market folks such as Timothy agree that we need to have corporations put moral obligations such as trustworthiness above profits. Now we need rough consensus on that…

Interpreting Avatar

Bloggers who I greatly respect feel Avatar is just another Dances with Wolves — a way of putting a romantic gloss on native authenticity and then appropriating it by having a “white man” out-native the natives. So I want to think a bit about where I agree and disagree with this position.

We could adopt a bunch of interpretations of Avatar — or some combination of them:

  1. Cameron wanted to make a big movie that would advance his career. He picked 3D CGI, the rest was more or less inevitable as “engineering decisions” to optimize his objective function
  2. Cameron had some goals that included endorsing fairly naive political messages (respect for earth, etc.). He hired good people to invent a cool ecology without worrying about the backstory, and then just pasted his agenda on top of that
  3. Cameron had something like the posthuman interpretation in mind, but since he knows what sells, he drenched it in sugar syrup to make it palatable.
  4. The internal logic of the story pulls it into a posthuman shape, and Cameron, however he started, saw he couldn’t fight that and so went with it.

But we don’t have to just guess about which of these is correct. After Titanic, Cameron wrote a “114 page scriptment… known at the time as Project 880″ (apparently a “scriptment” is a preliminary version of a movie script, but in this case much more complete than the movie as shot). Based on an extended description the scriptment was a much more detailed version of Avatar, with pretty much the same focus and a lot more explicit back story. Most of the changes from Project 880 to Avatar as shot are trimming and making the action more obvious.

And Project 880 supports the “naive messages” interpretation, but also is fairly consistent with the “internal logic” interpretation.

There are a few touches in Project 880 that show Cameron had a sense of the the posthuman logic of the story. When the humans are being kicked out they are told that if they come back “Pandora will send them home with a horrible virus that will wipe out humanity” but apparently this is just a threat by the pro-Pandora humans. So Cameron knew this threat fit into the logic of his story but didn’t want to (or didn’t see how to) make it an integral part of the story.

Bottom line, the people who say Avatar is just Dances with Wolves with 3D CGI alien “natives” are right as far as they go. That was the movie Cameron planned to make. But I think we can make a legitimate case that the internal logic of Pandora, the Na’vi, etc. escapes from that formula and has its own very subversive implications. These implications subvert not only the characteristics of the Na’vi — they must be really high tech, only “at one with nature” because they designed it — but also our ideas of posthuman — it doesn’t need to involve metal tech and smart computers.

And regarding the origin of the quadrupedal Na’vi vs. the hexapodal animals (why not hexapeds or quadrupods?) I still like my extreme version. We know from the historical evidence that interpretation (3) — a story about a posthuman high-tech Na’vi + trees symbiosis — wasn’t Cameron’s intention. But we also know (3) is more consistent with what we see in the film than any other backstory. So why not go the whole way and make our backstory fully consistent? The fact that humans identify with and even fall in love with Na’vi is a big tactical advantage to the Pandoran system, so why not say Pandora arranged that? It doesn’t stretch credulity any more than humans being able to grow avatars in the first place — and in writing a back story, we could easily make the avatar tech a covert “gift” from Pandora as well, transferred by subverting early human scientists.

Let’s consider how that would play out in a “prequel”:

Humans first visit Pandora a few decades before Avatar. This is an exploration ship, staffed mainly by scientists, but with some military / naval types as well.

The scientists don’t encounter Na’vi, but they do study the hexapods and the trees, and they find the unobtainum. At some point a scientist dies on the planet and his / her mind is assimilated by the trees. Then the trees start to communicate covertly with some other scientists.

With the help of the trees, scientists figure out some of the biology of Pandora, and figure out how to grow avatars, but initially not human-like ones. Pandora in turn figures out how to grow human-like Na’vi — maybe it even transfers the mind of the initial scientist who dies into one of the first Na’vi. (You could make the scientist Maori for linguistic continuity, since that’s what Cameron’s folks used as a linguistic base. Facial tattoos would be cool.)

After a while, guided by the trees, the scientists “discover” Na’vi living in the jungle. Maybe before the ship leaves, some of the other scientists covertly “jump ship” by dying and getting reborn as Na’vi. Maybe they have to kill or subvert some of the military types to avoid discovery.

(Actually, of course, the smart thing for the trees to do would be to clone some of these minds into multiple bodies. There’s also no reason the original has to die. But we rarely see narratives where the same person is multiply instantiated, except as a joke.)

When the exploration ship gets back to earth, we see some of the floating tree sprites dispersing, putting down roots, and starting to grow as Earth-like trees. Maybe those trees even catch and reprogram some Earth fauna. So we know a “pod people” scenario (or as I prefer to think a “porkchop tree” scenario) is possible, but we don’t know how it will turn out.

Pandora doesn’t need to send a virus to Earth, its minions could just create one here.

One thing that’s missing in this picture: I’d expect the trees would find ways to create moles in the Earth human population as well. Offhand I don’t see how to factor that in.

As written this lacks drama but I that’s why I’m not a fiction writer. I expect Cameron or someone else with the right skills would find it easy to put real people, dramatic tension, etc. into this framework.

Lying? Stupid? just untrustworthy

We still find ourselves debating whether an obviously false statement is due to lying or stupidity. I hoped this question would become less relevant with the end of the Bush administration but I was over-optimistic, as the recent health care “debate” has shown.

But trying to make this distinction only helps those uttering the obvious falsehoods. They don’t care about informing us, have no real interest in what’s true or false. Their statements fit Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit.

So let’s just call these people “untrustworthy”. It doesn’t matter if they are lying or stupid. It doesn’t matter why they say these things. We can’t trust them to guide us or inform us. We should pay them as little attention as possible.

Untrustworthy — and unworthy of our regard.