I recently watched Avatar. The movie is set in a future where humans have colonized other planets. The protagonist, Jake, is an ex-marine who has lost the use of his legs in war and is confined to a wheelchair. (Apparently, he has not been able to obtain treatment that would make him whole because his insurance wouldn’t pay for it. Of course, no matter how advanced a society we visualize, we can’t help imagining that it will face the same problems we do.) He’s taken a job with a company that intends to mine the planet Pandora for a rare mineral, but they are facing resistance from a sentient species Na’vi that have a deep and abiding connection with the planet’s flora and fauna. Jake is given the ask of infiltrating into the Na’vi ranks. This is achieved by taking a backup of his mind and installing it in the body of a Na’vi-human hybrid and sending him to live among the Na’vi. Jake ends up liking the Na’vi way of life so much that he switches sides, eventually leading the Na’vi in their violent resistance to the aggression of the humans. Jake prefers to abandon his human form, choosing to live the rest of his life as a Na’vi with his love.
What accounts for the attractions that the Na’vi lifestyle held for Jake? Supposedly, it is the fact that the Na’vi were much more in tune with “nature” than the humans. But that doesn’t explain why Jake felt so comfortable in a Na’vi skin. Wouldn’t abandoning your human body and taking on another one be a profoundly umm… alienating experience? To put it in another way, while being “in tune with nature” may explain the happiness the Na’vi experience, it doesn’t explain why Jake felt so comfortable switching. It also doesn’t explain why the viewer would be expected take the side of the Na’vi. Why would an artificially constructed nature be more attractive to us than our technologically enhanced lifestyle that should be more familiar and hence more “natural” to us?
The more likely explanation is that Jake was attracted to the Na’vi experience because it was a path to escape from the limitations his disabled body imposed on him. It was either taking on a Na’vi body, or a human lifestyle that was enhanced through machines. In the movie, humans have access to large robot-like war machines that are controlled by a human standing inside . And if you think of it, Jake’s disability is beside the point. Set against what the Na’vi were “naturally” capable of, all humans were handicapped.
Perhaps the point of Avatar was that the Na’vi lifestyle was better because they were more peaceful? Yeah right. Yes, they were more peaceful, but the last 20 minutes of the movie was taken up in a violent war where both sides used the best possible weapons available to them. The humans used their magnificent flying machines, while the Na’vi were mounted on their 100% natural, organic, tamed birds. If the denouement of the Avatar story had involved the Na’vi winning over the hearts and minds of humans by demonstrating the superiority of their peaceful, harmonious lifestyles, it would have been a different matter, but the fact that the makers felt it necessary to end the movie with a special-effects laden war tells us a lot about what we, the viewers, like.
I didn’t mean this post as critique or even a review of Avatar, though it might be 600 words too late to put in that disclaimer. Instead, my intention is to understand the appeal of Avatar for the viewer, and through it, to investigate what exactly we seek when we seek to go back to nature. The yearning for “nature” has always been a little fake. Peter Drucker noted over five decades back that even when Americans went camping, they took along an entire van full of modern amenities.
Perhaps what we are looking for in a more “natural” lifestyle is some combination of elegance, simplicity and a more human scale. We are looking for technology to enhance our capabilities, but in a way that is elegant, simple and seems within our control. When we achieve that, it seems more “natural”; our tools seem more like an extension of our bodies rather than an intrusion on them.
Put in another way, it was only fitting, and yes, “natural” that someone like Steve Jobs who set out find enlightenment in India, failed and found only chaos, then went back and found it while developing elegant, simple devices that extend human capabilities without overwhelming us.