A lot of ink got spilled over the past weekend about the new Avatar movie, including on my own blog, and I have been sitting around reading all of these articles and essays, and pondering why this movie seems to have touched such a nerve among the cultural commentators.
It feels as if Avatar in some way defines the moment we are living in, beyond merely the racial issues noted last week by David Brooks, and beyond depicting the kinds of avatar existences already enjoyed by many real life humans through the medium of video gaming systems.
An answer formed in my mind after I saw, in the very same newspapers and blogs that were chattering about Avatar, discussions of the flood of new data produced by the current generation of American military drones now being deployed in Afghanistan.
We are, these days, very close to a moment when our soldiers will be able to fight wars remotely, like Jake Sully in Avatar, using aircraft and armored bodies that we occupy only electronically, but which feed back to us a constant stream of real-time video and data. This must be a military commander’s dream—to be able to send our Marines out to fight in such a way that there is no prospect of getting them killed.
Such a vision differs from the one you usually see in Arnold Schwarzenegger films, where humans enlist machines to do the fighting for us, with the possibility that the machines will someday turn on us. In the Avatar vision, we ourselves are transported into these remote bodies and live through them so that we can go out and harm others without any risk of damage to ourselves. It is—looked at this way—a nightmarish vision of what future warfare might look like. And it has been laid bare by a Disneyfied 3-D flick. You can just feel the cultural zeitgeist feeling its way forward with its octopus tentacles, trying to determine what the implications are.
As early as the 1983 movie WarGames, and even earlier, science fiction films have anticipated the moment when machines would take over most of the fighting for us. The fear implicit in such films has always been that wars fought remotely would be more like video games for the people who fight them. What was perhaps not anticipated was the degree to which we would project ourselves inside of those machines and even become altered by the experience.
However, Avatar raises that very possibility—that the remote soldiers who receive back a steady stream of information might be influenced by what they see. In Avatar, marine Jake Sully actually switches sides after living remotely for a time with the Na'vi, the indigenous people his troops have come to conquer for their mineral wealth.
This fantasy story has parallels in the news over the past summer and early fall that our own remote control warriors are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder due to the high resolution pictures they get back from the battlefield. P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, has called our drone operators "cubicle warriors," soldiers who fly drone missions over Iraq and Afghanistan from Nevada, and then commute home to their families, leaving them no way to decompress. These soldiers suffer stress levels as high or higher than warriors who have actually been on the ground in battle.
While the ramifications of remote warfare are only just beginning to come into focus, what is clear is that there is a profound psychological cost to those who fight it.