Thursday, 25 March 2010

In defence of Avatar

While I superficially agree with all of Kurzweil's criticisms of Cameron's Avatar (via Singularity Hub), I feel more strongly that making them in the first place is falling into a trivial trap, one that may as well have been set just to catch earnest Futurists, hanging them out to dry like pedantic comic book nerds.

Of course the movie only shows a handful of technological advancements over the present day, which makes its supposed setting, 140 years from now, pretty unrealistic. But there's the anthropic principle of popular movies to consider: the masses must be able to identify with (and mostly understand) what's going on, in order for a feature to be popular. There's a reason high concept 'hard' sci-fi novels (feasible imaginings of our future) are such a niche market, making a Hollywood budget film that emulates this literary genre would be financial suicide.

However, unlike most movies shoehorned into the sci-fi genre, Avatar appears to have been *very* carefully crafted to make the necessary 'anthropic compromise' plausible (for those who care to think about such technicalities; myself and you). Of course, if one understands the consequences of accelerating returns, you still just have to ignore the lunacy of the time frame; it's there to help suspend the disbelief of the ignorant majority.

Cameron has deliberately found context that justify the compromised details, working around some explicitly in dialogue and leaving hints about others lingering in the background details:

[1] The whole story takes place on, and around, a planet almost untouched by human kind. Hence it's impossible to say that Cameron has ruled out the possibility of other humans (e.g. back on Earth) who have merged with technology, added extra limbs, wings, or whatever else.

By limiting our experience to relatively small group of persons, all in a very unusual situation, it would be like aliens trying to assess the peak technological capability of contemporary humanity by sampling a single household. What if the sample lives in a mud-hut, or just an elderly couple (in the post industrial world) who never did get on with those newfangled televisual thingies.

This is why Ian M Bank's Culture novels have endured a couple of decades so well: because he makes it clear that the Culture is a massively complex, chaotic, heterogeneous society where the lifestyles of the citizens are mostly determined by their whims, there is no status-quo, or must have state of the art set of appliances that all the characters use.

[2] Pandora (the alien planet) emanates an unexplained field (a magnetic monopole or something) that screws with computer systems. Even navigation computers (safety critical) on aircraft go on the fritz in some areas of the planet, and they're no more complex looking than current ones. This makes it likely that the expedition has been unable to use the best that humanity has ever built. Just as our current space craft had/have to use older, coarser, CPUs because the feature scale of cutting edge components made/makes them too vulnerable to damage or corruption by extraterrestrial radiation, cosmic rays, etc.

This plot mechanism may well, I think, have been inspired by Vinge's fantasy of galactic 'Zones' (in “Fire on the Deep”): advanced technology fails/disintegrates in the deeper regions. Somewhat of a blunt instrument, it nonetheless allows one to avoid having to describe post-singularity technologies. Perhaps unseen, on Earth (in Cameron's imagined universe), there are anti-gravity hover-tanks that can descend from orbit, deck out with smart munitions, containing nano-scale/quantum circuitry, all of which are as useful as a brick on Pandora.

Thus a helicopter variant, manually operated by a human pilot, could well be the best available means of transport in atmosphere. It might be that hover cars never break into widespread use in real life anyway; at the dawn of the nuclear era there were predictions of everything being powered by fissile materials, from aeroplanes to vacuum cleaners, but various practical constraints prevent this. Then if brain interfaces and better than life virtual reality do take off, how many people would bother buying a hover-car anyway?; Obsolete before reaching fruition.

[3] Jake Sully is in a wheel chair, but he states he *could* have had his injured spine fixed back home if he had the money. The disparity in health care, even within the UK right now, is huge, despite the NHS: from the Queen down to a homeless bum. Life expectancies vary by postcode. More advanced medical treatments tend to cost more, making the best unjustifiably expensive for widespread public deployment. Move this forwards a few decades in an hypothetical, pre-Obama US health system, and a wheelchair bound ex-marine is not so implausible.

[4] The sensor rig-out in the coffins implies that brain signals are read by some kind of NMRi scanner and haptic/electrical feedback gives bodily sensations. This would be a paradox given the previous troubles with technology mentioned above: that such a high level of information processing and transmission would be achievable in a place where they're having to fly by eye.

Because the details here are never explained, I'd expect that there aren't brute force processes going on here at all: the equipment merely tunes/amplifies the individual's brain activity so that it syncs with that of the avatar. Some kind of quantum mechanical, spooky, action at a distance type of phenomena. Hence the need for a cloned brain (Jake's avatar was grown for his monozygotic twin).

This stinks like Roger Penrose's objectionable ideas on why strong AI might be impossible; ugly attempts to keep humans at the centre of creation. This just happens to pander towards a (Hollywood) Christian view of souls and religion (i.e. no coincidence I'm sure). Despite this, I am prepared to swallow it as a founding axiom for the fictional universe, to allow for the possibility of continued human strife, free from the care of God-like AI (As Star Wars hints is the case in the newer instalments). If anything, this caveat creates a hypothetical world that is shown to be undesirable. A Blade Runner esq. sprawl of cyber-punk slums, no doubt. Stuck pre-AI by some unspecified limiting factor.

[5] The human military are defeated in the end, but it is not a totally unrealistic fairy-tale of Disney forest animals trouncing an imperial army:

The military forces are a private security detail for a commercial mining operation. The soldiers are military wash outs or retired. Even the chief executive officer there is clearly an annoying idiot the board of directors wanted rid of, but couldn't fire. And one can bet funding for equipment and manpower wasn't nearly as much as Colonel Miles Quaritch would have liked.

They wouldn't have been allowed nukes, especially if the mother ship departed from anywhere near Earth (or other major colony). Non-proliferation (of space) treaty or not, company PR (back home) could have been the major issue; trying to stymie cries from bleeding heart liberals might be hard enough (hence the science mission) without packing WMDs too.

However, even this sorry division of Dad's army with myriad technological handicaps was more than a match for the biggest coalition the Na'vi could muster. Jake's air attacks are repelled and the ground forces are being massacred, until mother Pandora (Eywa) steps in with an unstoppable wave of beasts.

[6] The floating mountains look the part of a fantasy title, and I'm sure Cameron was happy to let them be digested as such, hocus-pocus selling as well as it currently does. But if anything, they're the most sci-fi part; another Vinge influence perhaps. In "A Deepness in the Sky" the planet the expeditionary force arrive at has many inexplicable features, including sedimental rock possessing a weak anti-gravitational effect. Processing this ore, to concentrate the unidentified fossil like structures within, produces strong effects. The assumption, there, is that they are remnants of highly advanced, alien technology. Similarly with the floating mountains rich in "unobtainium".

This has major implications for what Eywa really is. A world brain of interconnected flora & fauna, holding a sea of dead souls for perpetuity. A camera friendly version of Reynold's “Pattern Jugglers”: an alien, ocean based mind/soul repository composed of prehensile seaweed, with very limited global agency.

The whole Pandoran biosphere could have been designed; a post singularity artefact, created to calculate the ultimate question for the ultimate answer, or as an idealised monument to the seed civilisation's past, or just for the hell of it.

If Vinge is *really* being ripped off, then it could be a that Alpha Cenauri (A or B, whichever Pandora's gas giant is in orbit around) was a rogue stella system that was travelling into the deep of the galaxy (until recently it was gravitationally captured by it's partner star). A convenient 'spacecraft' for a transhuman intelligence designed to run on resilient biological substrate, thus requiring the best part of a planet. As such Eywa's distributed memory could be a greeting a from transcendent civilisation outside the 'zone' (that Earth is in), *their* avatar/explorer of the deep. At any rate Eywa could hold the memories of other (alien) visitors from the deep past. A Pandora's chest indeed.

If Eywa is an interfering semi-god (as the beast uprising implies) then that could help explain how the Na'vi manage to live such an idealised version of pre-industrial life: their God is constantly tweaking their environment (and them) to keep them comfy and well adjusted; a caretaker.

Or then again, maybe the whole biosphere is supposed to be perfectly natural, and unobtainium is just highly compacted Na'vi bones and tears, like Soulstorm Brew in Abe's Exoddus.

Regardless of how sci-fi friendly one thinks the film is, Cameron has has undoubtedly re-opened the door for mainstream space opera. Although Avatar was almost exclusively on planet, the promised sequels are bound to go further afield, as did the Matrix Sequels. Though hopefully this time there'll be a better conclusion and, conversely, a *decreasing* number of humanoid mecha-suits per film.

It couldn't have hoped to have served as a prophecy of a real future, but it has equipped society with some visual props and examples to help it start understanding some of the issue it's going to be facing there. Even if those are examples held up by scientists, technologists and futurists for being wrong.

It's just unfortunate that Avatar's version of environmentalism looks so much like a technological rejectionist's wet dream of living 'in harmony with nature'. WALL-E did slightly better (despite it's civilisational homogeneity) in it's ultimate message, that one has to *deal with it*, not just run away. There is a happy medium between industrial/commercialism and the natural environment, and beyond that (fingers crossed) an even happier outcome when technological reach totally outstrips nature's scale.

N.B. I've written this piece having only watched Avatar once (when it first came out). I've quite deliberately not looked into any supplementary media (books, interviews, computer games, scale models, etc) or even read the Wikipedia articles too deeply. So this is hopefully a review of purely the film experience.

1 comment :

  1. Anonymous17:09

    Very interesting review. I just kind of came across this randomly, but I really like thinking about the possibility of sci fi technology.

    Some of your stipulations can be cleared up if you watch the movie carefully, or if you have a little bit more knowledge of the world (most of what I know comes from the wikia). I mean, you did specify that you only saw it once, and didn't look at stuff, so you wouldn't know otherwise. But I think it's interesting stuff, so I thought I'd just add to your knowledge of the technology.

    Unobtanium is a natural superconductor, aka a superconductor at room temperatures. The name is actually a bit of a joke in science communities, meaning a material/metal that can't exist (which is why he used it, even though it sounds ridiculous). So according my understanding of physics (which is a highschool AP class, so not stellar) is that the huge number of electrical pulses that are on the surface of the planet generates a powerful magnetic field, and when unobtanium is in a strong enough magnetic field, a current is started in the metal, which gives it a charge and causes it to be repelled from the surface of the planet. The magnetic field is only strong enough in certain areas, hence why instruments are only effected when flying in the floating mountain area, and not effected back at the lab, for instance. Of course, I'm not so sure about the remote lab, but whatever. I think it's pretty clever regardless.
    Also there's lower gravity to begin with (Quartich comments on it briefly in the film), so it'd be easier for things to float. And if you notice, Parker's little nugget of unobtanium has a little base that generates a magnetic field, so that it can float above it. In other words, it doesn't just float wherever, it specifically needs the magnetic field to float.

    Now if you delve a little bit more into Avatar lore, you'll find out that unobtanium is used to power spaceships, which is why they're mining it from the planet in the first place. I honestly don't know how this is done, but my physicist friends seem to think it's legit, so I'll take their word for it.