Opinion: The Avatar Decade

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.

The advanced weaponry of the movie —  giant robots and grotesque bazookas — is far more menacing than most of what exists today. It’s depressing to watch the most malevolent characters of the movie, who speak with American accents, as they set out to destroy the beautiful and magical moonscape of Pandora and its natives. Seeing the violence of the “sky people,” as the Na’vis describe the air superiority of the mercenaries, you wonder if there is something in the American character that feels compelled to use the technology of the day, be it guns against the Navajos in the Indian Wars or cluster bombs against the Iraqis camped out in the Kuwait desert during the Gulf War, as an overwhelming force against civilizations that have far less firepower. This week, as the movie debuts in foreign cinemas, other nationalities will certainly feel the rage toward American militarism once again.

It is Cameron’s exploration of the American rebel that revives our hope. In the movie, a pilot commanding a helicopter gunship refuses to fire on the Na’vis. The scientists turn against the corporate mercenaries. Even Jake Sully, who was once a plunderer himself, changes course. Sully becomes an outsider and uses his new medium to prevail on behalf of the environment.

In this way, he’s like Al Gore, a political insider who became an outsider in order to warn against global warming. President Bush, a former oil-company executive, tried to satisfy America’s addiction to oil at any cost. But Gore, who lost easy access to colossal media once he lost the White House, changed venues. He transformed his argument from the sound bites presented on network and cable news, into a full-blown documentary shown in theaters throughout the country. Now, his vision that America must break its addiction to oil in order to save itself from the corrosive effects of carbon fuels has come to prevail in the new century.

The populist message of "Avatar,” that everyone can ultimately act on their conscience, makes it a movie not just for the 21st century, but for all time. The positive use of technology is helping to level the battlefield as people find new ways to connect on issues of global importance that transcend the self-interest of nation states.