Are we alone in the universe and is the human race doomed to destroy itself? The movie Avatar suggests that maybe we are.
There have been many attempts to explain away the apparent contradiction, known as the Fermi paradox, between mathematical models which posit that the galaxy is teeming with advanced civilisations and the simple fact that we have not observed any of them.
The geologist Peter Ward termed one explanation for our isolation as the Rare Earth hypothesis, where the Earth is unique and humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy. Another explanation, slightly ludicrous, is the Zoo hypothesis, where for reasons unknown, all other alien races are hiding themselves from us.
But the most ominous explanation of all is the Doomsday theory, which holds that each and every technologically advanced civilisation must inevitably destroy itself.
It is this latter theory, with its totalism and inevitability, that proposes a sort of "catch-22" for all civilisations. We will not know the invention that destroys us until we have invented it and then it will be too late.
The idea has been growing in the zeitgeist, from small black holes in Switzerland to the anonymous gray gloop of an Earth disassembled by rogue nanomachines. In 2009, academics even assembled in California to discuss the serious possibility of the occurrence of "the Singularity"; the moment when a computer becomes smart enough to design a smarter computer. From that point onwards, our technology would accelerate exponentially out of our control, freed from a dependency on its creators and with a world view completely alien to our own. There is no way to predict what would happen.
What then, to make of Avatar, the latest blockbuster from Titanic and Terminator director, James Cameron? Amongst the rightly-lauded technical wizardry and questionably conservative plotting, is a fact being overlooked by most commentators. Avatar is a harbinger of the world to come, and possibly of the extinction event we will not be able to avoid.
But whereas the humans in Avatar plug into their machines to experience life as another flesh and blood creature, the near future for humanity will see individuals plugging themselves into their computers to experience life in virtual worlds that exist only in bits and bytes — virtual worlds that feel as real and as visceral to the user as the planet Pandora feels to the employees of the Corporation.
Cameron’s great achievement is to create creatures and a world so real the human mind is at times fooled. I am almost embarrassed to admit stirrings of lust for the sleek blue bodies of the Na’vi and envy for the fantastical experiences they have running and flying through Pandora — and that was just on a boring old movie screen. Imagine that experience ratcheted up a million times in authenticity. It is easy to imagine that the majority of humanity, lascivious creatures that we are, would happily plug into a machine and never leave, especially when considering that "blue aliens on Pandora" is but one of an unlimited number of scenarios that will be available, guaranteeing a scenario for everyone, no matter what their taste or perversion.
So is this the precursor to the extinction event that the Doomsday theory predicts? If seven billion people find love, solace and contentment in virtual worlds, why would anyone devote the resources to real interplanetary travel? Indeed, with so many people otherwise occupied, could we even devote the tremendous resources required to mount such an endeavour? Why spend years travelling in a cramped spaceship, living off rations, only to arrive at an inhospitable and airless rock? Much better to stride the trees of a fantasy land, enjoying the rain and temperate climes, indulging in any fantasy you might like.
Perhaps it is not as dire as the theories would suggest. The Fermi paradox does not actually point necessarily towards the end of humanity but rather to the end of our inter-stellar ambitions. A cosy Earth with two, or 10, or 20 billion happy souls content to stay at home is just as likely an outcome as a world covered in the lifeless ruins of a race brought undone by its own curiosity.
Despite the attention of the media on the astonishing special effects in Avatar, James Cameron’s main purpose was to consciously evoke Pandora’s Box to explore the alluring nature of avatars and virtual life. The real lesson from Avatar is that the characters plug into their machines to experience the delights of Pandora but find it impossible, once they have started, to stop. Judging by the early box office results for Avatar, people in the real world are just as ready to turn on, plug in and drop out.
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