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Opinion: The Avatar Decade

Watch as the world "avatars," as spheres of politics and big business make way for creativity, science and people power.

Viewers sport 3D glasses as they watch a preview for James Cameron's movie "Avatar" during the 40th annual Comic Con Convention in San Diego July 23, 2009. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

BOSTON — Power shifted this decade from the usual centers of politics and big business to the creative world, scientists and the masses.

The transformation is happening in Iran where a popular uprising — organized and multiplied through mobile technology — is working to to unseat a repressive regime. It is happening worldwide as scientists prevail in their warnings of global warming. It happened in the U.S. as the Obama campaign's use of technology enabled like-minded voters to connect with one another.

Nothing illustrates the shift more powerfully than "Avatar." James Cameron's movie depicts a corporate-mercenary complex trying to exploit the natural resources of a foreign land. The film’s dominant narrative echoes the most troubling event that opened this decade: the Bush administration's determined invasion of Iraq and the government’s persistent employment of Blackwater and Halliburton toward that end.

In the movie, Jake Sully, a Marine who has lost the use of two legs in a war, travels to the planet of Pandora to help scientists understand the part-human, part-animal Na’vis that roam the exotic landscape.

His computer-enabled avatar empowers him to run, although he is paralyzed, to speak a different language although he is a self-described jarhead, and to flourish in a remarkably different culture. The technology, like the advanced social networking and rich media that have developed in the past decade, erases physical limits and allows people to express and learn ideas without being judged for their disability, race, gender or nationality. It frees them to go beyond their bodies and enables them to form new centers of power that rival the bricks and mortar of the status quo.

In the movie, however, the corporate-mercenary complex turns the knowledge gained by the avatar into a weapon to be used against the Na’vis in an effort to plunder the coveted “unobtainium” that lies beneath their habitat. It is like the way phone companies corrupted a positive technology by enabling the U.S. government to eavesdrop on the conversations of cell-phone customers.

Or worse, the way the Iranian government has questioned the relatives of dissidents who have posted comments on Facebook or Twitter. In Iran, the fight for control of the technology is intensifying as ordinary teenagers and parents, teachers and shopkeepers use cell phones to organize and mobilize. The people of Iran have "avatarred": found strength to express their inner selves, against a repressive regime by connecting with one another as they dial for dissidence.