This month’s cover: A contextual reframing and some meandering thoughts on Avatar and the Internet

by Geoff Olson


The defunct humour magazine National Lampoon once ran a regular feature called “Professor Kennelworth Explains the Joke.” The professor dissected groaners about farmers’ daughters and animals walking into bars. He parsed their structure and determined why they were funny. Of course, if you have to “explain” any joke, you’re in trouble.

I feel a bit like Professor Kennelworth. On the way to production, this month’s cartoon morphed into a cover. We gave a few people a preview of the image and it generated a lot of comment. Some loved it, some were indifferent and a few thought there was too much noise in the signal. But funny? More like attention getting.

The original cartoon makes the intent a bit more plain – BC’s conservative premier has transformed into his erstwhile enemy: the “tax and spend liberal,” who tosses money at megaprojects and leaves the taxpayer holding the bag. Campbell’s introduction of the HST was the classic pig in lipstick – a tax said to be “revenue neutral” while impacting the wealthy less than the middle class, including small provincial businesses avowedly championed by the BC government. With one decision, Campbell has managed to alienate both the left and the right.

And how can someone pitch their image as a carbon-taxing champion of the environment while simultaneously endorsing salmon farms and run-of river projects? That must be every bit as confusing as being a disabled marine, waking up in the body of a 10-foot tall, blue humanoid with a tail. In terms of pop-culture memes, Avatar’s imagery is uppermost in peoples’ minds these days – another reason it was made into a cover. Director James Cameron has created more than a lush, sci-fi allegory in 3D. It is a game-changer. This pricey production represents a tectonic shift in the arts and the culture as a whole.

How so? Let’s look at the plot, without too many spoilers. Far from the strip-mined Earth, a mining corporation seeks out a new source of wealth and finds it on a Moon-world called Pandora. Unfortunately, the inhabitants insist on staying put, on top of an underground motherlode of “Unobtanium.” In seeking a solution, the mining corporation, a kind of interstellar Halliburton, turns to its private security arm, a kind of interstellar Blackwater. A disabled ex-marine infiltrates the humanoids’ society by taking on their form, in a genetically engineered Na’vi body used as a remotely controlled device. But when he attains a deeper understanding of the Na’vi’s fierce but united community, naturally embedded in their Pandoran environment, his sympathies change.

Cameron’s film has caused a great deal of controversy for its themes on religion, race, the environment and foreign policy. Critics have included the Vatican, US marines, non-smokers and the politically correct. The film endorses a nature-based spirituality, a kind of pantheism inflected by complexity theory. It hints that our interconnections with other living things are the central foundation for our existence. It suggests that gnosis can take many different forms and that we are alike more than we differ. It defends the notion that peace is more desirable than war. It argues against the exploitation of others for profit and because it’s technically feasible. And, as a film, it’s one hell of a ride.

Such themes are rarely examined in mainstream media, in any significant depth, and when they are, they are often qualified, diminished or summarily rejected. Yet these are the same themes that are heavily endorsed in the alternative media, and especially on the Internet. Mainstream media, and their increasingly antiquated point of view, are in retreat. Avatar is following the belief-systems of a new generation that is getting the vast amount of its news, information and entertainment on the web. Hollywood is tracking its future audience and James Cameron has thrown its weight with the young, to the tune of a half-billion dollars. It’s a gamble that’s already paid off at the box office.

The authoritarians in the military and organized religion can scream all they want, but it’s too late to close the barn doors. The Internet – a mixed bag of blogs, videos, online gaming, porn, rabble-rousing, B2B and B2C services – is getting too big and profitable to control in its entirety, along with belief systems that depart in radical ways from both secular and religious norms. Even if the powers that be want to put a saddle on this distributed intelligence, there are 12-year-olds out there who can launch bots, find proxies and penetrate firewalls with a few keystrokes. For good or bad, the young will always be faster and better than the old in this milieu.

The balding guardians of the status quo are losing control. It’s happened before, most notably during the Gutenberg Revolution when the first printed bibles became available to the Christian flock. The church no longer had an exclusive hold over scripture, which could be freely interpreted by anyone capable of reading.

There is good and bad in all of this. The traditional print media – at least in terms of newspapers – is on the way out. Bookstores are failing and the broadsheets are flailing. Steve Jobs’ announcement of Apple’s iPad has brought speculation that this will save the old-school news and book business. But when significant numbers of publications pull up stakes in the ink-and-paper world and decamp to cyberspace, they are on the same playing field as and, where the old models for mass persuasion and marketing no longer hold. There’s an entire generation that’s been raised on getting their information for free. That’s the world traditional media is going to have to navigate, one where you can’t sell to people who aren’t interested in buying. (Especially if it’s more political platitudes about war on the planet and its people.)

The print world won’t be entirely demolished by this Permian-style event – but there will be much extinction among the dinosaurs. Avatar is all about the tree shrews. So are we.

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