Our Avatars

Other — By on February 8, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I have not seen Avatar. I don’t plan on seeing it, either. Before the film fanatics stone me, know that I watch very few movies at all — much less movies that cost over 10 dollars to see. I don’t have much of a soft spot for SciFi, and — I have heard — though the visual affects are heavenly, the story line holds about as much water as a swiss cheese. I’m more interested in stories than effects, and, though I may be predetermining things, am fairly confident Avatar would prove a disappointment to me.

So why blog about something I haven’t seen? In the edition of our “33 Things” a couple of weeks back, we featured an insightful blogpost of Caleb Crane’s on the much-touted movie. He emphasizes the ruinous aim of the film to seduce us to stay in the Matrix, to use his analogy to the older (and, he argues, less problematic) film about alternate reality. Crane argues that the movie espouses “the church of Facebook,” redemption from the difficult, damaged world through living as a tall, blue Avatar in a virtual Eden.

His article is compelling, though I cannot speak as to its accuracy. It gave way to a more general observation for me that Cameron’s film is only symptomatic of a general cultural trend to embrace artificiality. In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether Crane is right about Cameron — he is right about Cameron’s ethos.

Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist, is famous for his espousing the concept of our existing in a “simulacrum.” Baudrillard asserted that, especially in a technologically advanced (enmeshed) society, we live in a “hyperreality” where we are unable to distinguish between reality and representation. Our representations have ceased even to refer to reality, but trap us in a self-contained unreality. Albeit a bit extreme (he identified Disneyland as a fake world we visited to make our own hyperreality seem authentic by contrast), Baudrillard has a point.

It was once true that play prepared for work. A play kitchen or a baby doll are ways for children to imitate their parents’ roles. But I doubt anyone (adults, mostly) addictively playing Farmville hope it will one day prepare them to own a farm of their own. I have never heard of anyone playing Second Life in order to live their first life better — and, at least from a time management standpoint, the more you play at the second, the likelier it is that your will grow worse at the first. Though this disconnect between real and virtual life means we do not in general need to fear harm from the people who play violent games like Grand Theft Auto or Halo, it is somewhat disconcerting that the amount of time we are “signed on” is spent in efforts that bear little fruit in our daily lives.

This is all old news, and we don’t just play games to send us back to reality, but to take a break from it, for leisure, sport, enjoyment. We have long known to temper the amount of time spent in other worlds, however.  We often forget that the novel was a disreputable thing until it was supplanted by greater evils. It was considered a fatuous waste of time on unreality. (Watt’s The Rise of the Novel chronicles its development into an art form from vulgar tell-alls.)

Now, we are desperate that people waste their time on things that require a modicum more imagination than television. This has resulting in the strange phenomenon of romance novels and fan fiction receiving cultural commendation. Of course, novels can be great masterpieces, as can films and video games. Interacting with other people online has its drawbacks over face-to-face engagement, but offers a wealth of opportunity for connections unavailable otherwise. Just because leisure is a break from the daily grind, however, does not mean it should be a break from our being self-critical, and self-controlled.

Baudrillard’s extreme warning continues to loom over the 13 hours a week the average person spends on the internet. Very little of what we do to entertain ourselves online or on our computers sends us back to reality better or more informed people. The sway of our having an avatar of our own, a persona with which we can navigate another and a simpler world — where our work is backed up and untouched until we want to go back to it — holds strong. And, if Baudrillard is to be believed, it holds thus to the detriment of our sense of reality. ‘



  • Jennifer D Gaertner

    Amy,

    I love your article. Whenever I really stop to think about the amount of time I spend on the internet versus “living” (that is, away from a screen), I am always alarmed by how unnatural it feels. I was not born staring at a screen…I was not made to only talk to people through the little speaker of my cell phone.

    That isn’t to say that I don’t think that cellphones or the internet is not incredibly useful. There are numerous benefits–including the breadth of information we have access too. But for all that information and easy-access, real education and growth begins (and ends) away from the computer.

    Have you read anything by Czelaw Milosz? Whenever this type of conversation comes up I’m reminded of what Milosz says about the function of the automobile (which I think has a very similar application):

    “The automobile [is] a special instrument establishing a relationship between myself and the continent, between myself and the world….It was only once, driving from Florence to Rome through the Campagna Romana wastes, that I felt in Europe something like an allusion to that unified trinity–I, motor, Earth. ….The trip takes place inside the car, the only ultimate contact is with the car, and the trip is measured by the speedometer’s needle and the numbers crawling past on the odometer; everything outside flashes by, appears and disappears, silvery, unreal, a screen.” (Visions of San Francisco Bay)

    Maybe the absence of physical contact with nature, the world and other people, is enough to make us wonder whether all our internet connected-ness is good for us.

  • Jennifer D Gaertner

    (Sorry for the super long quotation and comment! =p)

  • Robin Dembroff

    I agree. I’m not much of one for the ‘killer tech’ paranoia… I find my in-person community enriched and actually increased because of how I spend my ‘online’ time.

  • Amy K

    I love Czeslaw Milosz. Thank you both for your thoughts. None of this is meant to foster some sort of Luddite tendencies — merely to question (mostly in my own behavior) the sorts of activities which are more and more likely to make up my day. Robin, how do you find your time online contributes to your “unplugged” interactions?

  • Kirby J

    Very little of what we do to entertain ourselves online or on our computers sends us back to reality better or more informed people.

    Except when we read your blog and grow thereby. Which is an admission that sometimes I read blogs for entertainment i/o education.