Avatar and the man-machine co-evolution (part 1)

With Avatar, James Cameron presents one of the essential matrices of the “Information Society” era, that of man-machine co-evolution.   The question remains to know is such a co-evolution does not run the risk of becoming a co-dependence, namely a kind of addiction that can either to be healthy and desirable or pathological and constraining. The film maintains the suspense for a while but takes a clear stance at the end …

An avatar is a “cognitive artefact”, that is an artificial tool conceived to treat information and exhibit it in order to accomplish a representational function. It  is a computer programme that takes on part of the cognitive tasks (memorization, calculation, representation, etc.). It does so by means of the screen as “relay-artefact” that achieves tasks of high complexity in order to amplify human cognitive capacities and to communicate them in a significant way to the other actors, human and non-human alike. In the movie, « avatar » is a scientific programme that allows humans to contact the indigenous people of the Pandora planet, the na’vi, by occupying the body of a na’vi while maintaining the mental and representational states of a human.

The avatar combines advances in nanotechnologies and neurosciences with information and communication technologies: the human being and the na’vi are physically alike and are psychically compatible; the global neural network of Pandora to which all living creatures are connected is very similar to the human nervous system. The avatar is thus a construction that is both digital and genetic: it lends to the machine the emotional and representational states characteristic of human beings.

One of the major taboos of humanity is lifted, the film pursuing the post-human logic to its logical resolution, as the hero, Jake Sully, chooses to become his na’vi avatar in the end, calling the human an “alien”! (an allusion to Alien?)… a striking reversal of values as it reveals the deep logic of co-evolution: the machine can get the upper hand, with its own capacity for autonomy, different from the action of man. The hero finally chooses the network, which connects him to the energy of the various entities, human and animal, that live on Pandora, rather than the Earth. He prefers representation to reality, simulation to situation—a situation hardly tenable in his case, as he is both infiltrated and handicapped.

When his eyes open at the end of the movie, for his second birth (an allusion to Matrix?), after a ritual of transduction in foetal position, it is difficult to see the dream that he is about to experience, except to see it as the dream of the garden in the machine, where the quest for paradise is bound to technology. Such a quest is less about pastoral ideals than about transforming the planet by means of controlling machines. The screen-as-relay refers to the metaphor of the tree of knowledge, a garden of Eden where the apple has been bitten… meeting no resistance, in spite of the replication of the original sin: the fake na’vi and the real one, Neytiri, unite under the Tree-House and he then metamorphoses under the Tree of Souls, —a place of regeneration by knowledge and collective energy. Media environment and natural environment meet and fuse together, as suggested by the final transmutation. Thinking without the body still remains impossible, but tenuously so as the technology takes on more and more autonomy from its creator.

The new technologies of visual communication disturb our gaze in perspective, and establish at once the relationship between reality and authenticity as based on a “temporary consensus”, reversible, far from the certainties of history and memory, abolishing physical distance just as much as psychic distance. Technology is used to appropriate new definitions, new protocols of action and new territories, distant though they may be. To see it is to know, and to represent a form of reality is a way of establishing its legitimacy.

Such an equation is a political project in the most direct meaning of the word, attached to the metaphor of the network, without centre and without hierarchy, mobile and ubiquitous.   The virtual territory of the exo-planet is not without suggesting the “zones of temporary autonomy” of Hakim Bey: the avatars have approximately 500 hours of autonomy but the human beings have 4 minutes of survival in Pandora’s atmosphere. It is a clean space, on which the bound metaphors of the pastoral and the technological converge, the values of the first one being transferred on to the second, as if to re-appropriate a lost space, an extra-terrestrial paradise, without the angst of climactic change.

However, this political project is ethically loaded in the fiction of Cameron, who questions the direction taken by visual representation and its effects on civilization. He confronts two opposite dimensions of representation: a civilization where controlling machines are extensive prostheses, violent in nature (the transformers), against a civilization where controlling machines are intrusive prostheses (the avatars), introspective in nature, giving access to increased knowledge and augmented reality (the avatars). He settles the accounts of modernity (several wars and massacres seem to be meshed together in the his-story, —Indians, Vietnam, Iraq). He casts the doubt on the future of the representation of the reality and its viability.

Avatar, jubilant in the technical euphoria of the stereoscopic shots and the vertiginous high angle dives in 3D, is strangely pessimistic in its relationship to technology, insisting on an “ethics” of representation: the scene where the video blog is used against the hero is presented as an assault on his intimacy: it is used against him (he is accused of treachery and imprisoned) and against his na’vi friends (it allows to attack them without further negotiation). The scientific human beings try to understand the natives via avatars whereas the military human beings want to destroy them to exploit their resources via transformers. In synthesis of these contradictions, the human-na’vi-avatar is the only one who meets love and experiences knowledge via trance …

The answer supplied by Cameron consists in putting everybody in front of their responsibilities, as far as desires and ethics are concerned: each viewer has to find his/her self-discipline in relation to the machine. This total freedom of choice is not without risk (Doctor Grace Augustin, the other human-na’vi-avatar and the creator of the “avatar” programme, does not survive). And one should not believe, without questioning them, all the promises of happiness on Pandora, as it does not function on democratic bases. But Cameron chooses his camp clearly at the end: the man-machine co-evolution is a healthy and desirable addiction, without possible return, for a few selected ones, —mutants surviving the disaster of a world where humanity surpasses itself thanks to the avatars it has generated.

Creative Commons License
Avatar and the man-machine co-evolution by Divina Frau-Meigs est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité-Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale-Pas de Modification 2.0 France.

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