Avatar and what we know

I received an award this week for being the last person on Earth to see Avatar. Not true. But it's hard to write a blog post about an event that really occurred one spectacular Olympics and a New Year's ago.

Sure, I was shocked by the immersive power of the Avatar technology, and by the sheer beauty dreamed up by the people that made the "set" -- though a better phrase may be "virtual world." I was emotionally hit after walking out -- Zoe Saldana is an extraordinary actress and her character was one of the real charms of the film. And I suppose the love story was heightened by the FX. Absolutely, filmaking has changed forever, and this technology in the hands of a brilliant storyteller would be more potent.

It's not that the story was terrible; it was just basic. But if the acting was heightened by the conveyed beauty of the imaginary land, so too was the film's message -- a pro-nature agenda drawing on aboriginal customs (which begs the racist question, why are aboriginals "nature"?).

I was reflective at times during the 160-minute film on the implication of its meaning, and this draws me back to capitalism and economics. In a sense, the attack on nature depicted on the film in an extension of Adam Smith's pin factory, in which human activity is broken down into severe specialization to realize efficiency in making pins; i.e., to make lots of pins more cheaply. What is the psychic effect of specialization? Though I don't like the word "holistic," I kind of have to use it here -- what is the human difference between having holistic understanding of a trade or profession and simply being given a routine task? Shoe-makers perhaps use a broad array of intellect to hand-make shoes -- and to innovate during the process. To apply human creativity. Shoe-factory workers do not do this; they perform mindless tasks that, if anything, reduce their intellectual potency through neglect.

My grandfather was very Irish -- born in 1916 on St, Patrick's Day in Dublin and named Paddy. He was an electrician employed by the state, but I recall that he, a blue collar worker, had an enormous range of capabilities. Like a good Irishman, he could tell a story -- he was really good at it. He could tell stories that took an hour to tell, and he would tell them from heart. He also memorized ballads and would chant or recite them from heart, in many cases entertaining us for half an hour at a time. Ireland was poor until the 1990s, and perhaps he grew up with an almost 19th century level of technology; with no TV (even in my childhood, Ireland had three stations, and two were British!) or similar electronic entertainment available. Despite not being a professional class, or intellectual class man, he had an intellect. He used many parts of his brain.

I wonder if we don't use these parts now. Certainly, I don't have any peers who can tell a one-hour story, or who have memorized 30-minute ballads (not true; I know one person, but he is a freak of a genius.) My point is this: has the arc of industrial and information-technology progress increased specialization and focus on abstract knowledge to such a degree that true intellectual activity is -- at the least -- absent from those who are not knowledge workers; and perhaps quite limited among even the "creative class?" My grandfather could tell great stories; but perhaps going backward there was knowledge about nature that is since lost -- even as someone who loves the outdoors, I really know little or nothing about what food or what medicine grows naturally where I hike or canoe.

Economics provides another example -- another angle to this issue. It is the problem of making a ball-point pen from raw materials. I have since lost the link to the article, but I assure you one existed describing the effort of a person to make a ball-point pen entirely from things he could gather at a primitive level. I.e., wearing almost a loincloth and venturing into Algonquin Park, or something like this. Of course, it is impossible to achieve -- or at the least it would take months or years to find and refine all of the materials (ink, steel bearings, steel receptacles, etc.) required. The lesson is this: humans have access to tremendous technology, but to a large degree we have simply inherited it, or borrowed it from our peers -- if we cannot make a pen from scratch, we certainly cannot make a car or an airplane. We go faster and higher and further than our ancestors, but there is not necessarily any correlation between this and our intelligence. Perhaps the challenge required to survive in a tribal environment off of nature does test the mind more than being cradled in a car, a house, and with packaged food cooked on a stove, etc. Perhaps we're getting dumber as we get more stuff -- increasingly specialized but lacking true knowledge.

For me, this is the ironic message of Avatar -- that each increase in technology removes the requirement of a degree of intuition or other aspect of intelligence. Social genius, and reactivity to the chaos and complexity of nature are far more testing than traffic patterns, cook books and, perhaps, even work.