Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Last weekend I went to see the new James Cameron film Avatar and was disappointed to see how little of the humor and sociality of virtual worlds was actually represented on the big screen. Because of a central conceit in the plot that the the main character was coincidentally the identical twin brother of a scientist who had already mind-melded with the avatar in a naturalized bio-futuristic way, the writers could claim to have a staff of scientific consultants and yet ignore the fact that our brains are largely wired by experience and that biological twinship would be more helpful in organ donation than being able to drive a robotic arm.

And don't even let me get started on the science of networks that is presented in the film with its magical Internet of communicating and communing vegetation around one of two giant trees that somehow only has all the good features of networks (sustainability, redundancy, adaptability) and none of the bad features (cascading failures, lack of hierarchies, routing through vulnerable large hubs).

I also don't want to start in on these magical eco-friendly natives who somehow don't have technology or culture distinct from nature in a narrative that is more Lion King meets The Little Mermaid than a serious discussion of augmentation and prosthetic experiences.

Unlike this video about Second Life, Avatar gives us no sense that virtual worlds are cultural entities that require interpretation, workarounds, and trial and error efforts. To dramatize the organic ease of adapting to a virtual world, at one point the protagonist is running at high speed seconds after inhabiting his remote body.

The one thing that Avatar seems to appropriate accurately, quite regrettably, from onlne environments like World of Warcraft or Second Life is the voyeuristic rhetoric around a scantily clad and exaggerated hyperfeminine form.

Of course, the other potentially interesting aspect of the Avatar story is the idea that playing a role of one's combatant on the other side of a conflict can change attitudes about political opponents. As I finish an essay for Error: Information, Control, and the Culture of Noise for Continuum about the SonicJihad debacle in Congress, this issue about being able to play a simulation from more than one side seems a valuable thing to bring to the theatre. Unfortunately, the hero merely switches sides completely and abandons his human allegiances, so the potential loss of multiple perspectives is lost.

Update: For more on academia's reflections on Avatar, see Nancy Lutkehaus on being a Hollywood advisor and the thread about the film on Savage Minds.

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Blogger Susan said...

As much as Colby and I felt obligated to see this particular movie given its so-called technological superiority we just couldn't bring ourselves to go because of many of the points you mention in your very entertaining blog post. Thanks for enlighteining us about Avatarded and for saving us a three hour loss of valuable time.

6:56 PM  
Blogger jennycool said...

Thank you Virtualpolitik. I've read dozens of academic responses to Avatar in the last couple days (over at and yours here is the most incisive and sophisticated discourse I've yet seen. Brava for another great year! Health and wealth for 2010.

1:10 PM  

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