The Oscars – in recognition of popular art

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards are nearly upon us. On Sunday March 7 millions of viewers will be tuning in to see which movies, actors, directors and supporting crew will be recognised for their contribution to the popular art of film. A full list of the movies that are up for best picture can be found on the Guardian website. While many people go to the movies to watch such movies as Avatar or District 9 these instances of mass popular art, which are easily accessible to a wide audience both in terms of physical access through mass distribution technology and also in terms of it being easy to understand and engage with the movie, are Continue reading “The Oscars – in recognition of popular art”

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Personal identity and race in Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar is a cousin of some famous thought experiments from the philosophy of personal identity. For example, here’s a product of Daniel Dennett’s imagination circa 1978:

Several years ago I was approached by Pentagon officials who asked me to volunteer for a highly dangerous and secret mission. [They] had succeeded in lodging a warhead about a mile deep under Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they wanted me to retrieve it for them. … The difficulty that brought the Pentagon to my door was that the device I’d been asked to recover was fiercely radioactive, in a new way. According to monitoring instruments, something about the nature of the device and its complex interactions with pockets of material deep in the earth had produced radiation that could cause severe abnormalities in certain tissues of the brain. No way had been found to shield the brain from these deadly rays, which were apparently harmless to other tissues and organs of the body. So it had been decided that the person sent to recover the device should leave his brain behind. It would be kept in a safe place as there it could execute its normal control functions by elaborate radio links. Would I submit to a surgical procedure that would completely remove my brain, which would then be placed in a life-support system at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston? Each input and output pathway, as it was severed, would be restored by a pair of microminiaturized radio transceivers, one attached precisely to the brain, the other to the nerve stumps in the empty cranium. No information would be lost, all the connectivity would be preserved.

Sounds pretty Avatar-like to me! Even the plot devices are similar: In Avatar, one reason why the hero needs to remotely control an alien body is that the alien planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans but not aliens; in Dennett’s thought experiment, the hero needs to remotely control his own body in order to avoid exposure to toxic radiation. (Of course, there are some differences. Dennett’s essay has a cooler ending whereas Avatar has more dragons.)

Anyway, it looks like Avatar’s implications about race have gotten a little more attention than anything it might have to say about personal identity. I was especially interested by this widely-linked io9 piece by Annalee Newitz accusing Cameron of being motivated by “white guilt,” as if that’s a bad thing. I’ll put a few spoiler-ridden thoughts on this below the fold.

Continue reading “Personal identity and race in Avatar”

Virtual Worlds: A Social Experiment of Real Value

Ludlow's dual life
Ludlow's dual life

Yesterday, Peter Ludlow opened the second week of the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference with a riveting presentation on virtual communities, cultures and governance. This year’s conference is titled ‘Breaking Down Barriers.’ Accordingly, Ludlow takes us into the virtual world of Second Life and provides a glimpse of how individuals, from a standpoint of anonymity, nonetheless construct communities, cultures, and even forms of governance that resolve inevitable conflicts.

Second Life is the height of embedded social networking. It is a platform where people can assume any identity they wish by constructing a highly customizable avatar. The content of the virtual world is also completely user designed. Players construct objects, buildings, business establishments, and much more. Each player travels through the virtual world as his avatar, and can engage with, modify, and construct, various objects, and most importantly can interact with the avatars of other players.

These interactions create various communities. Ludlow defines a virtual community as a group of individuals spatially separated but engaged in a broad range of shared social activities through non-face-to-face forms of communication. A community might form around a virtual night-club; regularly meeting at the same spot and intensively interacting. Or, a community might form around a business venture, for example, constructing a new virtual night-club. The opportunities for interaction within Second Life are plenty. And, as in the real world, these interactions provide the basis for enduring relationships, friendships, alliances, but also enmities.

Continue reading “Virtual Worlds: A Social Experiment of Real Value”