For the science-fiction epic Avatar, writer-director James Cameron invented the ecosystem of ‘Pandora’, a planet different from Earth, yet familiar enough to remain recognizable and sympathetic – equal parts Jurassic Park and Microcosmos. Every living thing glows a phosphorescent blue in the darkness of night (a conceit that looks stunning on screen), and all of the more complex animals come equipped with tendrils that provide a direct connection into the creature’s nervous system. The film’s hero, a human incarnated into an ‘avatar’ body, learns to ‘link’ with various animals – the Pandoran equivalents of horses and pterodactyls – in order to tame them. In the film’s central scene, the hero links with his romantic interest – a Pandoran princess – as the screen fades to black.
Cameron wrote the screenplay for Avatar in the mid-2000s, just when the mobile had become a fixed feature of life in the developed world. Science fiction frequently serves as a mirror into the present (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually about the Britain of 1948) and Cameron gave our new-found hyperconnectivity a physical basis in Pandoran physiology, making those implicit connections tangible and visible.
The climax of Avatar involves the defense of the ‘Tree of Souls’, portrayed as a vegetal nexus, bridging the gap between the ‘Na’vi’ (Pandora’s indigenous humanoids) and ‘Eywa’, the Pandoran world-soul. The Tree of Souls connects the Na’vi to their ancestors, to the Pandoran biosphere, and the divine. The resource-hungry human antagonists realize that the destruction of the Tree of Souls will reduce the Na’vi to a broken people, refugees on their own world, cut off from the greater life of Pandora, from their history, and from one another. Cameron highlighted the dread we feel when disconnected from the network, cleverly crafting a situation every hyperconnected individual could sympathize with.
Our connections are emotional. In our hearts, we feel their presence and absence. The emotional quality of our first connection – with our mothers – colours all others. That bond becomes the bridge to love, flowing unconditionally from child to mother. Every other connection carries within it the expectation of that unconditional love, and even if we never again achieve the surrender and innocence of our earliest moments, it remains our deepest wish. Adults frame these wishes against their experience of connection – complicated, fraught, often clumsy – while adolescents, closer to their origins, believe every connection will reproduce the love they learned from mother. Time teaches them to lower their expectations.
The mobile has become the visible manifestation of the emotions evoked by our connections. Although, unlike the tendrils of the Pandorans, they have not burrowed their way beneath into our biology, we carry our mobiles everywhere. We use them to link with one another, consult the spirits of the ancestors (through their writings), and, as we watch feeds and updates scroll by, tune into the whispers of the global mind. We may imagine ourselves separate, but we yearn to link with all, dissolving in a sea of love.
Tribal humanity, constantly connected across a lifetime, knew this connectivity intimately. Take a tribal human out the tribe and, stripped of the emotional presence they have always known, they lose their resilience, like toddler abandoned. The urban revolution brought the focus to smaller units of extended families, then the industrial revolution shattered that extended family into a spare, tiny nucleus. Just as this process reached its uttermost extent – with absolute individuation – the mobile created a new quality of connection. We now recover our original tribal connectivity, but at global scale.
The bond between mother and child has been touched by this hyperconnectivity. Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Anthropologist-in-Residence, recorded an unexpected instance of this transformation in a South Korean classroom. Interviewing students whose parents had given them mobiles with GPS-tracking features – so parents could know precisely where those children are, every moment of the day – Dr. Bell asked these children if they felt comfortable under the steady gaze of constant parental surveillance. One child pointed toward another child in the room, saying, “She doesn’t have one of these phones. Her parents don’t love her enough to care where she is.” The child instinctively located the emotional relationship within the device.
Dr. Sherry Turkle, who has studied the relation of children and computing for a generation, has noted that children no longer differentiate from their parents as quickly or completely as before, and points to the mobile as the cause. When a child heads off to university, they now call the parent every day (sometimes several times a day) seeking information, advice, or just a sympathetic ear. The hard boundaries which previously marked entry into adulthood have grown fuzzy, because mobile omnipresence places the parent everywhere the child has a need.
Although Turkle believes this most recent phenomenon might represent a retardation of the processes of adulthood and individuation, it actually marks a return to the prelapsarian state before the utter individuation of late urbanization. Until quite recently – perhaps a hundred years ago – parents rarely separated from their children. Everyone remained within the same village – often within the same household – throughout an entire lifetime. This relation has been suddenly recovered, a reversal of a century of cultural patterns which created the knife-edge of instant adulthood. Children and parents now reside in a connection mediated by the mobile, omnipresent and continuous.
Because it is now possible, continuous emotional engagement has become an option in all our relations. We are seeking to recover the undifferentiated acceptance of our relation to our mothers, looking to every contact as a path back to this unity. Inevitably, we will be frustrated. From that frustration we are learning how to modulate our emotional boundaries on a global scale.