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Friday, November 18, 2016

A Meditation on Superheroes

Everyone knows the superheroes: The Hulk, the Flash, the Green Arrow, Captain America, Ironman. They are physically imposing, doing impossible leaps, stunts and lifts in order to save the world. But their supporting sidekicks are often-times just as much super-hero characters, even though their feats are never considered as such.

Consider someone like Felicity Smoak in Green Arrow, Cisco/Ramon in the first season of The Flash, or Q from the James Bond series. All are portrayed as computer hackers and tech geeks who provide the cute weapons that assist superheroes in achieving their goals, but none are considered superheroes in their own right. While the audience greedily devours Captain America's every turn, twist and somersault, Q's magic is accepted as just a notch above common-place.

It reflects a couple of strains in human philosophy and current culture.

Familiarity breeds respect

We are each familiar with the difficulty of performing physical feats of strength and dexterity. All of us have, at some time, wished we were a little stronger, a little more dexterous. We know that if were had been, we would have been able to move that refrigerator, lift that box, we would have avoided dropping that bottle.

We can imagine what would have happened if we had simply had those physical skills. We can tell ourselves that we could have those skills if only we went to the gym a little more often, did a little more physical training.But, we have jobs to do, kids to take care of, chores to finish. Those have to get done. We could have been better, we could have been superheroes, but we had lives to live, so we aren't quite there. The physical feats may be out of our reach, but they seem somehow vaguely attainable.

Intellectual feats are not in the same league. When faced with a difficult intellectual problem, we do not generally assume we could solve it if only we had studied a little more. The math problem is not unsolvable because we didn't study. It is unsolvable because I could never solve that problem, no matter how much I studied. Maybe George could solve it, but George is fundamentally different than me. George was born with an intellect I can never envision myself having, even theoretically. I literally cannot imagine what it would be like to be that smart, because I can't see where George's limitations are. His limits are not visible, the possibilities he embodies cannot be envisioned.

So, when Felicity breaks AES encryption, writes a new AI program and infects it with a virus she just wrote from scratch during the commercial break, we don't have any way of comprehending what she has done. Because we have no experience with the problem, we don't appreciate the superhero quality of the solution. Instead, we assume that if someone can type at a keyboard, they can do anything: instantly recognize the interface, instantly plumb the depths of the database or the computer network and quickly find the answers they need.

We understand which physical skills take a lifetime to master, but we have only a hazy idea of what intellectual skill sets take a lifetime to master, we do not know what skills are impossible for anyone to master. Our movie hero geeks solve in minutes, intellectual problems that normally take years to work through, problems that often don't have any known resolution at all. While audiences visually devour the intricacies of a complex fight scene, we see only the most superficial depiction of the intellectual turns, twists and somersaults required to resolve an intricate intellectual problem. Even if the writers could figure out and tell us what that impossible logic was, they wouldn't bother to explain it. They would have to assume the audience would not be able to follow the reasoning.

Because we understand physics on a visceral level, we respect those who can perform physical feats that we cannot perform ourselves. But, because, by definition, we do not understand intellectual problems we have not solved ourselves, we do not really understand when an intellectual feat has been performed in front of us. We may appreciate THAT it is difficult to make a trans-dimensional waffen-guffer, but we really cannot understand HOW difficult it is to make such a marvelous device.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

And why would we? The Red Queen may have believed up to six impossible things before breakfast, but technology seems to routinely accomplish seven impossible things before lunch. The "experts", those magicians in their white lab coats in some coastal research lab, put supercomputers in our pockets, travel machines in our garages, elixirs of life in our pill bottles.

During the course of our day, we don't expect anyone to lift a car and crumple it like tissue paper. But we do expect our cars to get one hundred miles per gallon and our white coats to cure our cancer. And if the experts don't give us what we expect, then we begin to suspect. We suspect they actually know how, but they are just hiding the solution in order to line their own pockets. They've done six impossible things before, why can't they do the seventh? They are experts, after all. As the video below points out, an expert should be able to create a design with seven perpendicular lines.

Felicity Smoak and her colleagues are superheroes whose accomplishments will never be fully appreciated because their accomplishments are both far too common and far too difficult to understand. Arthur C. Clarke once famously remarked that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. As technology wraps around us like a blanket, as it becomes increasingly impossible to understand out own tech without years of study, we increasingly inhabit a magical world.

Uneducated savages believe in magic. Paradoxically, because of our vastly increased knowledge, we have increasingly become savages. The average modern person understands the technology he inhabits at about the same level the average primitive understands the forest he inhabits.  We know where to go for water, food, we know how to travel between geographic areas, but if anything goes wrong, we are at just as much a loss on how to fix it. We are Grodd the Ape in an Ironman suit.

This imbalance between physical and intellectual feats can never be resolved. By definition, we do not appreciate the difficulty of problems we don't understand. We never really will. So, Felicity Smoak will never really be seen as a superhero because we will never really have the capacity to see her as one. Superheroes are self-evident. With Felicity, Cisco, Q and their colleagues, we have to think about it.

Even the intellectual superheroes recognize the problem. Superheroes have secret lairs, but their feats are visible and obvious to everyone. Intellectual feats never are. So, Felicity yearned to do the feats of physical bravery that everyone around her did. She was happy to finally be shot and thus have a war wound to boast about. Green Arrow never yearned to learn how to code.

A Ray of Hope

But, perhaps the picture painted here is too bleak. We all know our physical response to the universe matters, but we also know our intellectual and spiritual responses matter more. The superhero may be brought low by green kryptonite, but he remains a superhero because he is indomitably bound to do what is right. The supervillain may crush the same cars, but he does it in service of the wrong.

And even the good guys have a hierarchy. We all know some superheroes are better than others. Why? Well, precisely because some hold more firmly to the good. Thus, while Captain America, Ironman and the Hulk are all superheroes, we know Cap' will hold us to standards the others don't.

Even the superheroes know it. That's why they went to war with each other. Half of them knew they weren't good enough to make the choices that had to be made, they didn't trust that they grasped the good well enough. Superheroes all, but some of them didn't think they could live up to Cap's standards. They wanted someone else to make the call, someone else to take the burden from them, because they feared, strong as they were, that they would drop it.

Even the superheroes know, ultimately, it isn't their physical strength or their intellectual abilities that makes any of them even a hero, much less a superhero. It is their degree of dedication to do the good, their iron will to be good, THAT is what makes them great. That is why we recognize them as great.

That is something we all understand.
And that, at least, is a comfort.

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