downloading your mind the natural way
Avatar is an accidental tale of Singularitarian transhumanism with an environmentalist twist.
So it finally happened. I found the time to make it to the theater and catch a screening of Avatar. Shockingly, or perhaps not, I’m going to agree with the current reviews of the movie. The new generation of visual effects and their 3D implementation were just amazing in both detail and execution, but the story was incredibly simplistic kitsch lacking any hint of subtlety or anything that even remotely qualifies as a twist, though, when you’re being actively distracted by a beautiful alien world, your mind finds a way to deal with this juxtaposition of masterfully crafted visuals and stilted acting to a painfully derivative plot. But this is not a film review as you could probably guess by the title. Instead, I wanted to talk about a few very intriguing scenes towards the end of the movie…
The entire idea of custom built life forms remotely controlled by the thoughts of their drivers and becoming an extension of the human nervous system mines deeply into transhumanist territory and that’s understandable. Much of today’s popular sci-fi tends to explore some blurring between humans and machines, and advanced medical procedures which have the potential to redefine our common understanding of what it means to be a human being.
We’re starting to see this in the real world already with new generations of cyborg technology and research into genetic engineering and manipulation, and since most science fiction is really an attempt to look into the future and explore where today’s big ideas could go, this is why the trend is so prevalent. Avatar’s main focus is its environmentalist message ripped from current events headlines, so we don’t get much of an exploration into the notion of inhabiting two bodies at once. But this return-to-nature theme does create a very strange concept in the film which plunges headfirst into one of the fondest dreams of some transhumanists and perhaps unwittingly, adds something novel to their ideas.
Now, considering how much the film already raked in, I’m pretty sure most of you already saw it. However, for those of you who haven’t and still want to catch it, you should probably stop reading this post now because for our discussion, we’ll have to look at the final scene of the movie along with an important plot point. Consider this pause your official spoiler alert and proceed at your own risk…
According to the film’s premise, the biosphere of Pandora is actually connected by something very much like a network of neurons and the sensory tendrils of certain alien species interact, creating a symbiotic relationship between the creatures. That’s why the Na’vi feel so close to nature. Their minds actually allow them to interact with their surroundings on a very emotional and physiological level, actively exchanging information with other living things around them. Think of today’s New Age concepts of how all life is connected by some mystical energy but allow a slightly more scientifically plausible justification for it.
Obviously, Cameron gave this some serious thought and came up with a kind of sensory natural internet. And this natural internet gives the Na’vi a very unusual ability. To save Dr. Grace Augustine from her lethal wound, they try to transfer her consciousness into her avatar by creating a temporary network of neurons between her body, the avatar, and the Tree of Souls which would act as the bridge for her mind to make its way into the alien/human body. And to give Jake Sully a working pair of legs and the chance to live as one of the People, they successfully transfer his consciousness to his second body in much the same way we would transfer files between computers.
Now substitute an avatar with a machine and you have a popular transhumanist version of mind uploading. In many of my posts on the subject, I pointed out again and again how the differences between computer chips and human minds make the idea pretty much impossible unless you find something like a soul to transfer to your robotic body of choice. But the Na’vi’s transfer between two organic entities via something like neurons is actually a more plausible proposition.
Of course, in reality there would be immense incompatibilities between the chemistry and genetic structure of alien neurons and that of our own, plus how exactly conscious thought would swap bodies and remain in tact would require some very complex rewiring during the process. And still the idea seems to be more workable than the notion of literally downloading your mind into a machine since we’re dealing with a purely organic process rather than trying to digitize the mind. You could even say that it’s a kind of green, naturally facilitated version of transhumanism since the core idea is exactly the same…