Map #23: Here Come The Avatars

Just a short letter this week. I’m doing a bunch of interviews and podcasts in the U.S. at the moment, to coincide with the U.S. paperback release of Age of Discovery (Revised Edition). It’s hard to look at events in the U.S.—ranging from the Florida Parkland school shooting to the Trump Administration’s efforts to deport Dreamers—through a Renaissance lens. And often heartening, too.

(This is one of my favorite conversations so far, with American super-podcaster Scott Jones on his podcast, Give & Take.)

Thank you, all, for the flood of ideas in response to my letter last week. As you’ll recall, I’ve been searching for the best English-language equivalent to the Estonian concept of ‘kratt’, to help us have a clearer public conversation about A.I. in society—in particular, about the rights and responsibilities of soon-to-be-everywhere autonomous agents that will drive cars, buy groceries and manage stock portfolios on our behalf. Suggestions ranged from ‘butlers’ to ‘tin men’, and the idea I liked best came from my friend Ernesto Oyarbide: ‘avatar’.

Popular culture today probably associates the word ‘avatar’ most strongly with James Cameron’s 2009 Hollywood blockbuster by the same name (or, as the director himself called it, ‘Dances With Wolves in space’). I like the word because it meets the three criteria I set forth last week. To review, it:

  1. Captures the notion of an agent that represents, or is an extension of, my will;
  2. Omits the notion that the agent could formulate its own goals or agenda against my will; and
  3. Is instantly familiar, and thus intuitive, to a wide range of people.

The word itself originates with the Hindu notion that the gods can descend (the Sanskrit verb is ava-tara) to the human world by pouring their essence into another form. That original notion captures my #1 and #2 perfectly. As for my #3, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson popularized the word as far back as 1992 with his bestseller, Snow Crash. In Neal’s book, real people controlled avatars in a virtual-reality world called the Metaverse. Since then, ‘avatars’ have become a common metaphor for ‘user IDs’ in many online communities. And the word will become even more recognizable once James Cameron releases all his Avatar sequels. (According to Vanity Fair, work has already begun on four sequels, to be filmed back-to-back-to-back-to-back through 2018, at a total budget of $1 billion.)

I also like the word because of its magical, mystical connotations. There is a branch of modern philosophy that traces the history of social thought and argues that civilization is due for a revival of magic. The Enlightenment ushered in an Age of Reason. Now, some argue, the pendulum is swinging back toward the spiritual, the mythical. (But that’s going to have to be the subject of a future letter…)

So thank you, everyone, and Ernesto, for ending my word-hunt. Here’s a prediction for you: by 2020, “Avatar law” is going to be a Real Big Thing — a serious branch of legal innovation, and probably a whole industry of punditry and startups as well. (If anyone wants to go further down this rabbit hole with me, let me know.)

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