Tuesday, December 29, 2009

3D and Transhumanism in James Cameron's Avatar

Some impressions of Avatar:

I have seen a low quality version downloaded by a reprehensible acquaintance of mine. It was good enough to appreciate the story, but this film must be seen with very high quality and 3D effects. Gizmodo says: Put simply, Avatar is the most visually fantastic film I've ever seen. It will be hailed as the groundbreaking 3D release of its time while setting a new standard by which all blockbusters are measured. Yes, it's that good. I will watch the movie again in 3D IMAX as soon as I get the chance, and this is, I think, the best response the film industry can give to piracy: ensuring that the original quality is much superior to that of illegal downloads. If this is the case, they may download a copy but then they will also pay to see the movie with very high quality and 3D effects. Not only in 3D IMAX theaters, but also at home once 3D technology moves to the living room.

Avatar is an important step in the fusion of film and 3D game technologies. 3D technologies were used in both Avatar the film and Avatar the Game. I think stereo and even interactive VR 3D will be more and more used in films and, at some point, films and interactive games may merge. Perhaps in 2019 we will see films delivered as 3D virtual worlds where the user can move in fully realistic scenery and watch the avatars of the actors animated with fully realistic motion capture technologies.

From the Second Tense blog: Avatar is a movie about transhumanism. Start to finish, this movie was chock full of hints both subtle and obvious that Cameron's true interest in the movie is transcendence of humanity of the human body. The storyline was about humanity's future evolution, the themes were transhumanist, there were very specific items that referred to transhumanist belief, and even the medium which the movie was delivered was transhumanist.

What is transhumanism? In short, enhancing human bodies to the point where we become more than human. It includes ideas about:
- memory and physical enhancements
- completely modifying one's body (water-breathing, fire-resistance, etc)
- uploading memories and consciousness into a computer to live as a digital life form,
- connecting into a neural network and living in connection with other individuals
And each and every one of these ideas were represented in Avatar.

See also George Dvorsky's review on the IEET blog, a technoprogressive portal where many transhumanists hang out.

There is an interesting review on the New York Times: “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world... Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.” The NYT review is also available here.

Transhumanists also feel Einstein's religious awe at the beauty and sublimity of the universe. But we thing we, and all our past and future technology development, are also part of nature. We are about to merge with our technology and enter a phase of directed evolution, which some call post-darwinian evolution but others, and I quite agree, view as a continuation of our darwinian evolution. Our efforts to master the universe and take more and more control of our environment are part of the unfolding story of our natural universe. If we don't like something, for example our own vulnerability to disease, and mortality, we can and should try to change it (after understanding it better etc., but without any trace of reverence fro nature or, even worse, humility). This is what our species _does_, and in this sense I think transhumanism affirms human nature much more than other worldviews.


  1. Thanks for the link from the NYT. That's a sharp insight. I remember the human characters experiencing the Na'vi deity and specifically saying how it "was real", in an immediate and sensing state. I think it's arguable that Cameron deliberately is forwarding this as a potential alternative believing that athiesm and spirituality are at odds. It's certainly even easier to argue that Cameron is at the least putting forward that science and religion aren't at odds. This was one of the really poignant things about Avatar - imagining a religion where people don't have to treat science as an enemy, and vice versa.

  2. @hiro Indeed. If anything there will be a unique merger of science and religion that will challenge the conventions of more antiquated interpretations of texts. Just look at the leap of Mormon Transhumanists. The accessibility of various augmentations may be determined by religious forces willing to negotiate their belief systems with scientific institutions.

  3. @Hiro: Yes, envisaging a "scientific religion" is one of the many good things in Avatar, and it is one of the tpoice I am _really_ interested in.

    @Daniel: Though I am not a member of the LDS (that is, a Mormon), I am a proud member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (http://transfigurism.org/). The MTA is one of the best transhumanist communities I am aware of, and it is a good example of how religion and science may co-exist, and even mutually reinforce, within the framework of an established religion.

  4. See also:

    The already mentioned http://transfigurism.org/



    http://cosmeng.org/ - a cosmeng working group is designing a synthetic religion which should be able to play the role of "a unique merger of science and religion". It will not be announced for a while, but some points of the draft will be discussed on the cosmic-engineers mailing list http://groups.google.com/group/cosmic-engineers