Just watched Avatar this weekend; the highest grossing movie of all time, and I’m finally getting around to seeing it on Blu-Ray. It’s a visually stunning film (large sections of the movie could be watched with the dialogue track turned off and it would still be engaging), and as a sci-fi fan I appreciate that the setting is pretty original. The plot is recycled and predictable: spy infiltrates native community but decides he likes the natives better than his own people; betrayals, revelations, and the making of amends all ensue in due course. Thematically it was sort of a mixed bag: a strong pro-environmentalist message (which is good) and an inadvertent but strong “noble savage” stereotype (which is bad, even if the stereotyped savages are 12 feet tall aliens and not Native Americans).
What really struck me, however, was that the movie inadvertently blunders into an important truth about the nature of technological progress.
See, we tend to think of progress as linear and progressive. Each new technological innovation builds upon the previous technological innovation, thereby advancing the collective knowledge of society and making future technological innovations possible. This means that technological advancement is always making progress. Moreover, all technologies, and all knowledge, are interlocked therefore technological advancement of a society moves together through some basic natural progressions. Hence our conceptions of the “stone age,” the “bronze age,” and the “iron age”; we used stone tools and weapons until we discovered basic metallurgy thereby revolutionizing our concept of the world, and then over time that metallurgy became more advanced creating further technological revolutions.
It all sounds good. And it’s horribly false.
Take a look at the Stone Age civilizations that the Spanish conquered them in the 16th century. The Incans hadn’t even yet invented the writing or even the wheel; clearly a backwards people! And yet their knowledge of civil engineering, geology, and masonry was among the best in the world. They used stone weapons, and yet they could do things with gold and silver alloys that were far beyond the skills of any other metal workers in the world. The Mayans had the most accurate calenders and knowledge of the stars and planets of anyone in the world, despite their lack of telescopes. They also developed corn, a feet of agricultural engineering that we still haven’t unraveled.
The truth is that necessity isn’t just the mother of invention. Necessity does sometimes drive invention. But our inventions, in turn, become important to us, and drive further inventions along those same lines. The Europeans became enamored with guns and ships. The Mayans were enamored with the stars. The Incans were enamored with stone and gold. In each case an invention became useful, sparking more people to think up more innovations along those same lines.
Avatar for it’s many faults, did get that. The colonists valued and understood guns and metal. The natives valued and understood hunting and the forest. A human in the forest was just as out of place as a native in a helicopter–and in just as much danger. Both sides thought that the other was ignorant, and they were both right; both sides were ignorant of the things that were most important to the other side. The Spanish thought that the Mayans were primitive because the Mayans used spears and not guns; the Mayans likely thought that the Spanish were primitive as soon as they got a look at the Spanish calender.
But there is no single dimension of “primitive” or “advanced”. The truth is that all cultures are advanced in some ways, and primitive in others. The tragedy comes when knowledge is lost because we forget that, and assume that victory on a battlefield or a boardroom means that we are superior in every way.