Tag Archives: human nature

What The “Mass Effect” Trilogy Revealed About Paragons, Morality, And Human Nature

I genuinely believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. I know that’s not a popular opinion, these days. I’ve even tried to remind people of it a few times. You need only look at the news, history books, or headlines from Florida to undermine your faith in human nature. I don’t deny that there’s plenty of bad, but there’s also a great deal of good. Sometimes, you find it in unexpected places.

In this case, the place is the epic space opera that is “Mass Effect.” It’s not just one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, which I often go out of my way to reference. It’s a game that dares to give players a choice in how moral or immoral they want to be. There are plenty of games out there that let you play virtuous heroes and deplorable anti-heroes. This game lets the player decide which path they want to follow.

In the original trilogy, it’s called the Paragon/Renegade system. Throughout all three games, you’re given choices on what to say or what to do in various situations. Some are inherently selfless and heroic, such as saving the Rachni from extinction. Others are just pure dick moves, like punching a reporter or shooting Mordin.

The path you choose doesn’t prevent you from completing the game, but it does affect the story. It also effects the endings of certain games and the plots of others. You can basically play the same three games and forge a very different story. You can be a pillar of virtue and nobility or you can be a total dick who still gets the job done. It’s entirely up to you.

I’ve played this game so many times that I’ve done both, but I prefer the path of the paragon. It just feels more rewarding at the end, even though it doing so does come at a price throughout the game. Recently, in an article by Forbes that featured one of BioWare’s developers, I found out that I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment. In fact, that sentiment is revealing in ways that go beyond the game.

Forbes: You’ll Be Surprised What Percent Of ‘Mass Effect’ Players Chose Paragon

The information comes from BioWare’s John Ebenger, who was retweeting a meme on Twitter about how devs give players choices to be evil villains in games, yet people always pick the nice options anyway. And it turns out that’s even more true than the meme suggests, as Ebenger laments that with all the work they put into the Renegade content in Mass Effect, that something close to a whopping 92% of players chose Paragon in any given moment.

Those bold parts are my doing. Regardless of your math skills, 92% is not a slim margin. That’s an overwhelming majority of players. Given the many stereotypes of gamers, it’s somewhat refreshing. When given the choice to be a hero or be a dick, they choose to be a hero.

That’s a profound notion because this is a video game. There are no real stakes outside beating the game. Players have no real incentive to be good or evil, but they still choose good. Even when making the renegade choices comes with legitimate advantages, players still go with the way of the paragon. I think that says more about people in general than it does about those who play games like Mass Effect.”

Say what you will about the genuinely evil people in this world. They exist. They make the news. They’re the kind of people we can’t overlook, but therein lies the critical context. We’re aware of such evil because it’s so rare. When most of the people are simply making paragon choices, it’s not noteworthy. It’s considered normal.

As someone who has faith in humanity and loves all things “Mass Effect,” I find that genuinely uplifting. It proves to me that most people are inclined to be good and decent. Even if you put them in a galaxy-spanning adventure against rampaging Reapers, they’ll still do the right things for the right reasons.

In a sense, Commander Shepard gave us insight into the nature of humanity and showed us that most of us have the heart of a true paragon. That’s something worth celebrating and cherishing.

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Filed under human nature, Mass Effect, psychology, video games

Sex Vs. Violence (And The Distressing Standards Behind Them)

What makes something obscene? I know the law has its own esoteric definition, but there’s no universal standard. What’s obscene to one person may be mundane to others. How else do you explain old cigarette commercials to millennials or the Super Bowl halftime show to baby boomers?

I ask this question because someone pointed out recently just how many of the biggest, most successful box office movies of the past 10 years rely on violence to sell tickets. I’m not knocking it. I was among those cheering during the final battle scene at the end of “Avengers Endgame.” I also freely admit I watched every season of “24” and was entertained by all the violence it included.

However, that same person who pointed out how much violence was part of these big-budget entertainment products, but was still PG-13. At the same time, if even one of those products included a single image of a female nipple or a depiction of a male penis, then it wouldn’t just be rated R. It would be deemed too obscene for children.

Think about that for a moment. A network TV show can freely depict a scene where Jack Baur tortures a prisoner and a PG-13 movie can depict Captain America beating the crap out of nameless thugs in an elevator, but the viewing public just can’t handle the sight of a female nipple. That’s just too much.

The only thing that could make it worse is the depiction of a penis. That wouldn’t just make a movie or TV show rated R. It would be classified as porn. Never mind the fact that half the population has a penis and even kids know what a penis looks like. Just a depiction of one in any form of media is enough to make it obscene. Meanwhile, you can buy a shirt that has Captain America punching the President.

Now, I know I’m bias because I write sexy stories and talk about sexy topics, but I feel it’s a relevant question to ask.

Why are we more comfortable consuming violent content than sexual content?

I get that sex makes people uncomfortable. I also get why parents don’t like talking to their kids about it. However, when it comes to violence, it’s okay to keep that in a proverbial blind spot.

I remember cartoons in the 80s and 90s. Those cartoons, in addition to being glorified toy commercials, used some form of violence to resolve a plot or tell a story. Some parents complained, but nobody thought it was obscene.

I remember watching “R-Rated” movies as a kid too. I put that in quotes because, by today’s standards, these movies would barley qualify as PG-13. The first “Terminator” movie was rated R. I saw it as a kid. My parents didn’t make a big deal about the sex scene in it, but that was often cited as the scene that made that movie R-rated.

If those same kids watched a simple depiction of two naked people making love, minus the violence, then that content would still be considered mature. If that scene didn’t hide genitals, then it would be considered porn. It doesn’t matter if the scene is romantic, tasteful, and completely consensual. It’s still as pornographic as the most depraved parts of the internet.

Why is that the case?

Why is this a fair standard?

Why do depictions of violence get a pass while depictions of sex are subject to rigid standards?

I understand sex makes people uncomfortable. I also understand that people can be immature about it. They can be just as immature about violence too, but people are willing to confront and tolerate it. With sex, however, it’s always obscene. It’s always taboo. There’s no room for nuance or context.

Going back to the standards of obscenity I mentioned earlier, I think there’s room for improvement. Violence, by definition, harms people. Sex, when done right, does the exact opposite. If we’re going to have standards for obscenity, then let’s at least keep things in perspective.

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Filed under censorship, human nature, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, video games

Nature Vs. Nurture: A Case Study In “The Big Bang Theory”

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What makes someone an uptight, narcissistic control freak who refuses to admit when they’re wrong and will never let anyone else sit in their spot on the couch?

What makes someone a needy, whiny, emotionally stunted man-child who is chronically insecure and in constant need of approval?

What makes someone an outgoing, overly social free spirit who is also habitually irresponsible, exercises poor judgement, and intellectually dense?

These are all personal questions that have a multitude of answers, none of which are definitive. There are entire fields of study devoted to answering such questions, none of which are perfect. It often comes down to a question of whether someone was born with certain traits or are simply a product of their environment.

It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate and, in almost every case, it’s neither one nor the other. Some people are born with certain traits or personality quirks that physically manifests in their brains. Others are heavily influenced by the people and environment they grow up around. In between all of this is a multitude of other factors that are difficult to quantify.

Figuring people out what makes them tick and how they got that way is challenging, even if you consider yourself a very insightful person. People, in general, tend to be complicated. Human beings might have basic drives to survive, reproduce, and find a tribe, but there are countless variations beyond those drives.

Many of those exaggerations are also pushed to hilarious extremes with fictional characters. Between the Hulk’s anger issues and Lex Luthor’s narcissism, fictional worlds can provide useful insights into the whole nature/nurture dynamic. Whereas someone like Lex Luthor was born with little empathy and way too much ego, the anger issues of the Hulk were a more complicated, as well as disturbing.

These characters, like real people, often have a combination of nature and nurture that helps influence who they, how they got that way, and what they eventually become. It’s often subtle and building a story around it is difficult. However, there’s one group of fictional characters that I believe embody the nature versus nurture dynamic better than most.

Those characters are the cast of “The Big Bang Theory,” a show that recently ended it’s remarkable 12-year run as one of the highest-rated sitcoms of all time. While the show has garnered plenty of criticism and outright hate, there’s no denying that the show struck a chord. No show involving the same group of characters lasts for 12 years without resonating with audiences on some personal level.

While there are certainly parts of the show that I don’t care for, I still consider myself a fan of it. I even admit that I got emotional when I saw the series finale. I thought it was incredibly well done and it marked a fitting end for the journey that Leonard, Howard, Raj, Sheldon, and Penny began 12 years ago. Many other fans of the show agreed with that sentiment.

Love it or hate it, and plenty did hate it, the show had a great deal of appeal outside its cheesy jokes and comical portrayal of geek culture. After seeing the finale and watching a few reruns, I think one of the most endearing appeals was how much the characters grew over the years. Given that it was a sitcom and character growth in sitcoms are notoriously slow, I think it’s one of the show’s biggest accomplishments.

From the beginning, the personalities of each character are established with distinct traits that were heavily exaggerated for comedic effect.

Leonard was needy, insecure, and weak-willed. He was basically the ultimate beta-male nerd from every 80s teen comedy.

Howard was obsessive, selfish, and immature. He also had some stalker-like creepiness baked into his approach towards getting women.

Raj was passive, effeminate, and quirky, but largely defined by his inability to talk to women.

Sheldon was self-centered, stubborn, and egotistical. He might have also been autistic.

Penny was a bubbly, upbeat, lovable free spirit. However, she was also irresponsible and exercised poor judgement, especially when it came to her personal life.

Like every sitcom, every major plot and iconic gag was built off these traits. From Leonard trying desperately to win Penny’s affection to Howard’s efforts to pick up women to Sheldon’s inability to keep a secret, “The Big Bang Theory” had plenty to work with in terms of eccentric personality quirks. I believe a large part of the show’s success is a direct result of how well it made use of those quirks.

As the show progressed and we learned more about these character, we also learn more about where they came from and what influences them. We find out that Leonard’s insecurities might stem from the relationship he had with his mother. He also learn how much living with his loud-mouthed mother has effected Howard. We learn where Penny came from and how that informed her personality.

We learn plenty about Sheldon too, but it would take a long time to go over his many issues. He was, by far, the most eccentric character on the show and one of the most controversial.

For each character, we get a strong sense of their nature. More than most sitcoms, “The Big Bang Theory” belabors and reinforces the core personality of each character. If you watch just a few episodes, you can get a fairly decent feel for their behavior and how they would react in most situations.

At the same time, however, the show also demonstrates how new influences change these characters over time. In fact, the foundation for this change is established in the pilot episode when Penny first moves in to the apartment across from Sheldon and Leonard. She is a very different kind of influence on these two and vice versa. You could even argue that it’s the most important catalyst for the entire show.

It’s only after we learn about the nature of each characters that we appreciate what a critical moment that was in the context of each character’s journey. Before Penny’s arrival, Sheldon and Leonard didn’t have many disrupting influences. They were surrounded in familiar territory. They had nothing prompting them to change or grow in new directions.

The same goes for Penny. Before she arrived, she was just a simple girl from the mid-west who had never lived around hardcore geeks and accomplished scientists. She never even showed much interest in science, geek culture, or anything of the sort. While it didn’t seem to affect her at first, there were signs of their influence as the show progressed.

Both Howard and Raj went through similar transformations. In the early seasons, there were many sub-plots built around both of them trying to get the attention of women, despite Raj not being able to talk to them without being drunk. Most of them fail spectacularly. Some were downright pathetic at times and not in a funny way.

 

Then, new influences came into their lives. Howard met Bernadette, who underwent her own transformation as she became a bigger part of the group. While their relationship had its upheavals, it did more than anything to humanize Howard. It still didn’t fundamentally change him. He was still immature and obnoxious at times, but he also showed that he could be a respectable family man.

Raj’s growth wasn’t quite as dramatic, but he did eventually learn to talk to women without the aid of alcohol. He also went from just wanting to get the attention of women to seeking love, marriage, and family. He even gains more self-confidence and assertiveness as the show went on, some of which was a result of interacting with Penny and the rest of the group.

Then, there’s the growth of Sheldon Cooper. More than any other character, Sheldon demonstrated the value of having quality influences.

His nature is, by far, the most eccentric and extreme. It’s the nurturing forces, however, that I think had the greatest impact on both his character development and the overall progression of the of the show.

There’s no getting around it. In the first few seasons, Sheldon was a stubborn, selfish egotist. For a time, it was even a popular refrain to note that Sheldon was just one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain. Given that most supervillains tend to be petty, eccentric, and self-centered, I think that’s an accurate statement disguised as a joke.

Thankfully, that accident never happened. Instead, Sheldon was frequently nudged and, in a few cases, shoved into being less insufferable. Penny was usually the one to get him out of his comfort zone in the early seasons. Then, Amy Farrah Fowler came along and gave him a nurturing force that seemed almost impossible in the earlier seasons.

Amy brought issues of her own to the table, but like Bernadette did with Howard, she proved to be a stabilizing presence for Sheldon. She didn’t fundamentally change him, nor did she even demand it. She simply provided new influences. Granted, he stubbornly fought them, at first. He fought harder than anyone else in the group. In the end, though, he still embraced these changes and was better because of it.

It was that change that made his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the end of the show so perfect. In that moment, he achieved something he’d been hoping to achieve since the earliest season. It was the ultimate affirmation of his genius and his abilities, which he’d bragged and boasted about to no end. It could’ve been the ultimate ego trip for him.

Instead, he thanked his friends. He demonstrated humility on a stage in front of a huge crowed of people. For someone who started the show seeming incapable of empathy and nuance, it was a powerful moment. It showed that this weird, colorful character that we loved and hated at times had really grown. He even acknowledged the source of that growth in a genuine, heartfelt gesture.

When you look at that moment in the context of the entire show, you can see just how powerful those influences can be. These chaLracters, all of which were set in their ways to some extent, showed just how much those influences can change. Even for characters with idiosyncrasies like Sheldon Cooper, people can change in positive ways.

Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, and Penny wouldn’t have undergone those changes without nurturing one another to some stent. At times, that nurturing took the form of annoyance and frustration. That only makes the change more fitting because most people resist that change. Even in the real world, our default reaction is to keep doing what we’re doing and make every excuse along the way.

While many sitcoms have their characters undergo plenty of upheavals, “The Big Bang Theory” goes the extra mile in showing how people can be changed by the people and influences around them. They’ll still stay true to their nature.

Sheldon will always have that distinct Sheldon-like persona, as will Penny, Leonard, Raj, and Howard. However, with the right kind of nurture, they can become endearing characters in their own right. Say what you will about the quality of the show, but its place in TV history has been secured.

Bazinga!

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How (And Why) Boredom Undermines Gender Equality

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Imagine, for a moment, you’re in relationship of perfect equality. You and your partner are the personification of gender equality. You share equal roles and responsibilities. In terms of who does what, gender doesn’t factor into the equation. You do your part and your partner does theirs. From dishes to child care to paying the bills, it’s as equal as any relationship can be.

In essence, your relationship is the ideal that feminism, egalitarians, and even most Men’s Rights Activists champion when they describe the fair and just society they’re fighting for. In a perfect world, your relationship would be the standard. Even if you can’t imagine your current relationship being that perfect, you can still appreciate the ideal.

As with most ideals, though, there’s a major flaw and it has to do with boredom.

The scenario I just described above isn’t another one of my thought experiments. It was inspired by a story in Pluralist about a woman who is frustratingly bored with her perfect feminist husband. To get an idea of how frustrated she is, here’s a direct quote from the article.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love him and this year we celebrated 17 years together – 13 of them married – but I wish he’d lie, cheat, defame or slander just once, so that I could feel better about my own less-than-perfect character. Simply put, I’m bored of being married to a paragon of virtue.”

Now, I know it’s tempting to roll your eyes at a woman making this kind of complaint about her love life. The idea that a spouse is too perfect is like a billionaire complaining that the seats in their new Lamborghini are too soft. I’ve seen more than a few comments on social media criticizing this woman for being so petty. Some have used her story as proof that women can’t handle nice guys and men just can’t win with women.

I don’t think that criticism is fair. I also don’t think that her story proves or disproves a particular aspect of gender politics. However, I believe it does highlight how boredom can complicate the push for gender equality. It’s a factor that rarely comes up in discussions surrounding feminism, men’s issues, LGBT issues, and the societal factors that exist in between. It still has immense influence.

After reading the Pluralist story, I felt sympathy for the woman. I know it’s hard to feel much for someone in such a perfect relationship, especially for those of us who are single, but I can understand how boredom can undermine a seemingly ideal situation. To some extent, this woman’s story shows how boredom can complicate the otherwise noble efforts to pursue gender equality.

In making sense of the woman’s feelings, I found myself thinking back to the high school. If that sounds like an odd connection, I promise there is a logic to it. Now, I’ve made clear in the past how much I hated high school. To say my experience was not ideal would be a gross understatement. That said, the idea behind high school has some useful parallels to gender politics.

The ideals of high school are simple. You take a large group of teenagers, put them into a structured environment, educate them to a particular standard, and send them out into the world with all the knowledge and skills they need to become functional adults. Again, that’s the ideal. While that effort works fine for some, there are many more for whom it fails.

For this particular woman, she represents the lucky few who ace every test, pass every class, and follow every rule. As a result, she should be perfectly equipped to enter adulthood. By all accounts, she does. There are no surprises or setbacks. Everything goes according to the plan and the ideals behind it.

It’s here where the boredom takes hold. That lack of major upheavals means there’s little in terms of challenge or growth. The path is already set. The obstacles have already been cleared. You just have to walk it and you’ll get to where you’re going. There’s no strain, but there’s no sense of achievement, either. In the grand scheme of things, you didn’t overcome anything.

In the context of gender equality, it’s akin to a clear, unobstructed path that doesn’t test or excite anyone. That directly conflicts with the basic psychology of boredom that craves novelty and seeks more intense sensations. Perfect equality, be it in a relationship or a high school, doesn’t leave much room for any of this.

This isn’t just about people being inherently flawed or needing something to complain about. In practice, true equality means the outcome of every challenge is determined. The woman herself stated that she knew how a situation would play out in her marriage. There’s never any negotiation or exchange. With such clear-cut equality, everything is pre-determined.

“If I told him on Friday I was spending Saturday chilling at a spa, he’d probably drop me there so I didn’t have to drive, then take the kids to their clubs before making sure the house was tidy.”

When everything is that predictable, then boredom is practically unavoidable. When there’s nothing to gain or lose, then it’s only a matter of time before malaise sets in. It’s not the woman’s fault and it’s not her husband’s fault, either. That’s just how boredom works.

The article went onto cite a number of studies that indicate couples in equitable relationships have less sex, but they primarily focus on the symptoms of boredom and not the underlying cause. For the woman in the story, I think her frustration has little to do with her husband sharing in the work and everything to do with how predictable everything is.

If I could talk to this woman, I would caution her against wanting her husband to lie, cheat, or develop a bad attitude with her. That might shake things up for her in the short-term, but would do a great deal of damage to the both of them in the long run. I would advise that she and her husband seek new challenges outside gender roles. Both she and her husband may benefit from shaking things up for a while.

What that may entail depends on the nature of their relationship. The article didn’t get into too many personal details and understandably so. Without getting to know this woman or her husband, I can’t be certain what else might be fostering such boredom. There could be other issues beyond their relationship that are causing these feelings.

Whatever the case, the corrosive power of boredom is difficult to work around. Equality is generally a good thing, but when equality fosters predictability, boredom is an unfortunate byproduct. This woman, whatever her politics, knows this better than anyone.

I still support efforts to improve gender equality, especially within relationships. I think it’s beneficial to everyone when roles and responsibilities are shared in an equitable manner. However, I also believe that human beings need challenges and obstacles. Without that, pursuing a greater good takes a back seat to escaping crippling boredom.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, philosophy, psychology, romance, sex in society, sexuality, War on Boredom

Selling (And Exploiting) Human Enhancement: An Ominous Lesson From “Superior Iron Man”

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How much would you be willing to pay for perfect health, perfect beauty, and a greater capacity to enjoy life as you see fit? This is not a rhetorical question. I would even argue that it’s an increasingly relevant question. In the coming years, answering it might even become more urgent.

I’ve talked about the prospects of human enhancement through emerging technology before. From its impact on our concept of beauty to how our society will function, there are many impacts to consider. Some of those impacts are already manifesting before our eyes. Just last year, the first genetically modified babies were born in China. Like it or not, this is happening.

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits, risks, and upheavals that human enhancement will have on our species and our world. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen as this technology matures or how societies, economies, and governments will react to it. Even so, it’s worth contemplating. It’s even worth imagining elaborate scenarios in fictional worlds.

While plenty of noteworthy stories have imagined such scenarios, some more dystopian than others, there’s one in particular I’d like to single out. It’s not entirely dystopian, but it does offer some distressing lessons about the larger economics of human enhancement. It also helps that those lessons come through a forgotten, but criminally underrated Iron Man comic.

Given the rapid rise of Iron Man’s star power over the past decade, his character is uniquely qualified to explore these difficult questions surrounding technology and how we use it. He is, at his core, a visionary who uses technology to solve problems, save lives, and occasionally fight invading aliens. In the series, “Superior Iron Man,” he takes that vision several steps further and cross many lines along the way.

While there are some convoluted circumstances surrounding this series, the ideas it explores are profound, even by the standards of superhero comics. You don’t need to know the specifics of those circumstances. They involve forces like magic and inversion spells, which are far too complicated to explain to those who haven’t followed Marvel comics for more than two decades.

The only detail anyone needs to know about “Superior Iron Man” is that the Tony Stark in this story is not the same lovable character that helped make Robert Downy Jr. one of the most lovable stars in Hollywood. This version of Tony is less bound by concepts of heroism, selflessness, and sobriety. That’s not to say he’s evil, but he’s definitely no hero.

Within this ethically bankrupt state, Tony embarks on a new initiative that’s as selfish as it is lucrative. It revolves around Extremis, an exotic cocktail of nanotechnology and biotechnology that effectively rewrites the blueprint of the entire human body into something better, stronger, and more robust. In essence, it is the ultimate tool for human enhancement.

While the initial version of Extremis was lethal to most people who used it, Tony creates a more commercialized version in “Superior Iron Man” that gives everyone a chance to enjoy its benefits. He calls it Extremis 3.0 and people can access it through a simple smartphone app. With it, people can achieve what Tony describes as physical perfection.

Everyone can be perfectly healthy.

Everyone can be young and beautiful.

Everyone can be functionally immortal.

It sounds like a miracle drug and by every measure, it is. This isn’t some Dr. Oz wannabe pitching vitamins that do nothing other than give you false hope. This technology actually works. With it, Tony gives the entire city of San Francisco a chance to experience the fruits of human enhancement.

Understandably, once people get a taste of what Extremis 3.0 has to offer, they love it. They also take full advantage of it. At one point in the story, Pepper Potts says it’s turning the streets of San Francisco into a non-stop parade of debauchery and self-indulgence. Tony does not see this as a bad thing. If anything, it perfectly complements his plans and his renewed appetite for self-indulgence.

This is where “Superior Iron Man” attempts to answer that question about putting a price on physical perfection. Writer Tom Taylor, alongside artist Yildiray Çinar, doesn’t hide from the disturbing parts of that answer. By the end of the first issue, Tony puts a literal price on that perfection. Needless to say, it causes plenty of conflict and it escalates quickly.

When he initially released Extremis 3.0 onto San Francisco, he gives ordinary people a taste of what it’s like to be as fit as Captain America, as beautiful as Emma Frost, and as physically endowed as Thor. It’s not a drug that just attempts to match that feeling. It physically changes their bodies and their capacity for using them. That taste, however, was just a free sample. To keep enjoying it, they must pay $99 a day.

It’s crude trick right out of the playbook of subscription apps. People get a free trial period that’s just long enough to get them hooked. Then, before they even realize they have to pay anything, they get hit with a paywall. It’s a cruel bait-and-switch, but this isn’t just another streaming video service. This is physical perfection and unlimited self-indulgence. Is $99 a day really that unreasonable?

It certainly rubs plenty of people the wrong way, including many of Tony’s long-time friends and allies. Both Daredevil and Pepper Potts turn against him for such devious tactic. It also has some noticeable effects on the people who use it. By the end of the first issue, a stark class divide emerges between those who can afford Extremis 3.0 and those who can’t.

Naturally, it causes crime and conflict among the residents of San Francisco. Tony, now both feared and beloved by these people, takes it upon himself to manage it. He gains power, wealth, status, and an endless supply of eager party guests for whenever he seeks to indulge. It’s a perfect cocktail of recklessness and irresponsibility.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, which ended too soon, I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture that “Superior Iron Man” presented. If you take away the iconic characters and the superhero themes, you get a story about a selfish business tycoon who has sole possession of the ultimate biotech product.

The goal isn’t to heal the sick, ease suffering, or evolve the human species. The goal is simply to make a lot of money, feed an inflated ego, and indulge in every conceivable vice without consequences. It’s a worst-case scenario for liberals and conservatives, alike. At the same time, it makes a compelling case that our current system can’t handle the impacts of large-scale human enhancement.

That doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in our current system. The size of the current biotech industry is already measured in the hundreds of billions. Overpriced drugs are nothing new, either. Just this past year, the FDA approved a drug called Zolgensma, which costs $425,000 a year for five years to treat a rare genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.

By comparison, Extremis 3.0 is a bargain with far greater value. Even at $99 a day, the yearly cost of enjoying that physical perfection amounts to around $36,500 a year. That still takes up a good chunk of the average income for most Americans, but considering all the benefits of having a perfect body, is it still a bargain?

For anyone who has overpaid for inflated medical expenses, I suspect they would gladly pay that high price for Extremis 3.0. Tony Stark banked on that in “Superior Iron Man” and he was right. People did pay and it was very lucrative for him. The population of the San Francisco Bay Area in which he unleashed Extremis 3.0 is around 4.6 million. At $99 a day, that’s a potential annual revenue of $167 billion.

In terms of business ranking, that would put Tony’s venture in the top 20 in terms of largest companies by revenue. If he were to unleash Extremis on the entire United States, the potential annual revenue would be near $11.8 trillion. That’s a little more than half of the entire US economy.

Imagine one company, let alone one person, having that much money and influence over a population. Tony was already a billionaire before “Superior Iron Man,” but Extremis 3.0 rewarded him with more than just money. Tony, being the sole provider, held a great deal of power and influence over San Francisco. As is often the case in superhero stories, that power goes to his head.

That story plays out in the real world just as often. In some cases, it brings out the worst in people. For a product like Extremis 3.0, which provides human enhancement into a simple commercial package that anyone can access through an app, the potential for abuse is much worse.

Beyond the greed it would inspire and the recklessness it fosters, it would also widen and solidify a gap in society that might be impossible to close. The wealth gap is in the non-superhero world is already egregious. Adding something like Extremis 3.0 to the mix would only make it immeasurably worse.

More than a few people has expressed concern about the prospects of such an enormous societal divide. “Superior Iron Man” showed just how bad it could get and how quickly it could escalate. While the series only managed to explore this conflict to a point before it got canceled, Tom Taylor did enough to get a powerful point across.

In a world where human enhancement is real and commercially available, how do we go about distributing it among a population? Should we put a price on it? How high should that price be? Who should be in control of it?

Worst case scenario.

Superior Iron Man” never got a chance to explore the answers, but these are questions that will become increasingly relevant as advances in biotechnology accelerate. We may not be close to having a product like Extremis 3.0 and it’s uncertain whether we’ll even develop something like it in the next few decades.

Even if we do, “Superior Iron Man” made one thing clear. We, as a species and a society, are not ready for it.

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Purpose, Value, And The Suicide Gender Gap

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There are few subjects more depressing and tragic than suicide. It’s not a topic people like to talk about. When people take their own lives, either out of sorrow or desperation, it’s terrible. It leaves deep, painful scars on friends and loved ones.

However, it’s because suicide is such a difficult subject that people should talk about it. Before I go any further, I want to urge anyone who might be feeling deeply depressed or suicidal to seek help. The suicide hotline is always available. Please, if you’re feeling that hopeless, call 1-800-273-8255. As someone who has had depressing stretches in life, I urge others in a crisis to seek connection.

Unfortunately, it’s not a connection that people are making these days. According to the American Psychological Association, there was a 30 percent increase in death by suicides from 2000 to 2016. It was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2016. By the numbers, we haven’t seen rates like this since the Great Depression.

There are a great many depressing and tragic factors behind this rise. The ongoing opioid crisis is certainly a factor. A few researchers have cited the influence of social media as contributing to self-destructive behavior. Like mass shootings, everyone has their theories, criticisms, and solutions to the crisis. I’m of the opinion that human beings are too complex to boil it down to something simple.

I agree that in certain cases, opioid addiction can factor into someone committing suicide.

I agree that in certain cases, the use and influence of social media can factor into someone committing suicide.

That’s not to say they’re the cause of it. They’re just small trees in a much larger forest that’s difficult to see, given the heavy emotions involved in this topic. However, I do believe it’s possible to see that bigger picture. To do so, it’s necessary to highlight one particular trend in suicide that also happens to be tied with gender politics.

While suicide is tragic, regardless of gender, there exists an unusual paradox within the data. Women have been shown to attempt and contemplate suicide more than men, but men are still the ones dying at greater rates. It’s not a trivial gap, either. Men are more than three times as likely to commit suicide compared to women.

This indicates there are factors beyond depression, stress, and mental illness. There are other forces at work here and they’re affecting men more than women. What that is and how it works is difficult to surmise. However, speaking as a man who has seen other men endure depressing situations, I believe there are certain factors that gender politics compounds.

At the core of these factors are an individual’s sense of purpose and value. There are many terrible things running through the mind of someone who is suicidal, but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that people who feel suicidal often feel their lives lack purpose and value. There’s nothing left for them to contribute. There’s no value for them to provide. Without that, what’s the point?

It sounds like the kind of sentiment that should affect men and women equally. Depression and despair, after all, know no gender. However, there are a few confounding factors for men. For one, there’s still a significant taboo for men who admit to even having such feelings. It stems from the same taboo about men showing emotions, in general. It’s seen as a form of weakness and men aren’t allowed to be weak.

To understand the implications of that taboo, consider the following scenario.

A man is sitting by himself. He’s crying uncontrollably. He’s sad, depressed, and lonely. He feels like he has nothing to live for. Someone walks by and shows concern. They listen to him lament about his sorrow. They offer sympathy, but tell him he needs to toughen up and get his act together. He just needs to grit his teeth and push forward with his life.

For most people, this scenario isn’t that unrealistic. Most decent human beings will show sympathy when they see someone suffering, male or female. However, the gender of the person suffering does have an impact. I’ve explained before how and why society places a greater emphasis on protecting women’s bodies over those of men.

Even if you discount the extent of that influence, the implications are still clear. We see a depressed man and tell him to fight through it. If he needs to be coddled or treated, then that’s a failure on his part. If he’s that weak, then he has little value to offer. Without value, he has little purpose as well. In essence, he has to prove he’s somehow useful to warrant not killing himself.

Now, consider this scenario.

A woman is sitting by herself. She’s crying uncontrollably. She’s sad, depressed, and lonely. She feels like she has nothing to live for. Someone walks by and shows concern. They listen to her about her sorrow. They offer sympathy and encourage her to find professional help. They even offer contacts and connections. She’s suffering and there are people willing to help her.

Take note of the different approach in this scenario. The person still show sympathy and compassion, as most human beings are wired to do. Where they diverge is in the assumptions surrounding the woman’s distress.

For her, it’s not something she can tough her way through. She’s not expected to just grit her teeth, pull herself out of this deep pit, and move beyond whatever is making her so upset. She’s suffering and the first instinct is to get her some meaningful help. Her life has inherent value. Her just being alive is sufficient to give her purpose.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that assumption. It’s an assumption that many men feel like they don’t get. Their suffering is seen as a personal failure. A woman’s suffering is seen as a systemic failure that needs fixing. It perfectly reflects one of Chris Rock’s most memorable quotes.

“Only women, children, and dogs get loved unconditionally. A man is only loved under the condition that he provides something.”

In the context of suicide, men who don’t provide anything have no value. Absent that value, they have no purpose for existing. The source of this disparity is difficult to pin down. Some of it is cultural. Most data shows that when people live in a society with high social cohesion and abundant career opportunities, suicide is low.

That makes intuitive sense. Those social bonds provide purpose. Those opportunities provide value. When people have both, they’re less likely to be depressed. Even if they are, they have a support system that’s there to help them, regardless of their gender or disposition. These bonds are harder to maintain for men because they have to provide something.

Even though women may contemplate or attempt suicide more frequently, the current makeup of society and gender norms provides them with any number of affirmations to remind them of their value. If nothing else, it gives women a moment of pause. Most men don’t get that moment. It’s truly tragic, but it’s a tragedy that gender politics does plenty to compound.

Again, if you are feeling suicidal, regardless of your gender, please take this as my personal plea to seek help. It’s okay to do so. Your life has value. Your life has purpose. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you need to talk. People will listen. People will give you a chance. Whatever the disparities may be, let’s not add to the tragedy.

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Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships, men's issues, psychology, sexuality, women's issues

Why We Are All Jerry Smiths In A World Of Jerry Smiths

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If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re not a famous scientist, celebrity, politician, intellectual, or cultural icon. If you are, I’m flattered and a little shocked that you’re reading a site built around sexy short stories, erotica romance novels, and multiple pieces on sex robots. Whatever your status, I hope you find this both informative and revealing. It’ll also help if you’re a fan of “Rick and Morty.”

I know I’ve used that show many times to make points about everything from love to nihilistic morality. It’s not my fault the show is so brilliant in how it presents complex issues in a way that’s entertaining, hilarious, and vulgar. Sometimes, we need certain concepts presented in such a way in order to make sense of them, especially if the implications are unpleasant.

While “Rick and Morty” explores many concepts through many colorful characters, some more memorable than others, there’s one particular character who embodies a particularly distressing concept. That character is Jerry Smith, Morty’s father and Rick’s son-in-law. You could argue Jerry represents a lot of things in this show, but I would argue that Jerry Smith, more than any other character, represents us.

Chances are you’ve done something like this today.

By us, I don’t mean the people who watch regularly “Rick and Morty.” I’m not even referring to those exceedingly passionate fans who went ballistic on McDonald’s employees for not having any Szechuan Sauce. When I say that Jerry Smith is us, I mean that this colorful character that we love to laugh at represents the hopes, dreams, flaws, and foils of the entire human race.

To understand this sentiment, it’s necessary to know who Jerry is and what role he plays in over-arching mythos of “Rick and Morty.” For the most part, he’s neither a protagonist nor an antagonist. He’s rarely a hindrance to the cosmic antics of Rick Sanchez and while he tries to be a capable father to Morty, his influence is limited, at best. For the most part, he’s an afterthought at best and an inconvenience at worst.

When the family has to ban together to fight off alien parasites, Jerry doesn’t do any fighting.

When the family first encounters the Council of Ricks, Jerry either cowers or is fodder for pranks.

Even when he does play a significant role in an episode, Jerry tends to make the problem worse with his actions or is the underlying catalyst for them.

Chances are you’ve been this frustrated recently.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s completely inept. By and large, he is a respectable person who tries to do his best with his current situation. Granted, nobody in his family makes that easy for him, but there’s no doubting his intentions. He wants to do what’s best for his family, but his capabilities are exceedingly limited.

That’s understandable, given who he deals with. Rick Sanchez is an alcoholic super-genius who can travel across universes, enter other peoples’ dreams, and build intelligent robots whose sole purpose is to pass butter. His wife is a skilled horse surgeon who can also hold her own against Rick-level threats. His two kids are young, but still capable of handling themselves in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Pretty much every character in “Rick and Morty” demonstrates that they can handle themselves in the crazy situations that Rick often puts them in. When aliens, parasites, or intelligent dogs enter the picture, they can confront the situation and even help resolve it. Jerry has never shown that ability. Every time he tries, he either fails or makes it worse.

Or just looks foolish.

The reasons for his failure aren’t entirely his fault. Jerry’s biggest shortcoming is that he’s an ordinary person in a family of extraordinary people. In any other circumstance, he would be able to relate, understand, and cooperate with others. In an environment where alien creatures are kept in his garage, this just isn’t possible.

In essence, Jerry Smith is as powerless and inept as almost anyone else would be in that situation. That even extends to a real world full of Jerry Smiths and exceedingly few Rick Sanchezes. Unless your name is Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, or Barack Obama, you’ll have more in common with Jerry than you will with anyone else in “Rick and Morty.”

In many respects, that’s a little distressing. It reflects a hard truth that most people aren’t able to effect meaningful change that ripples across the multiverse. For the most part, they’re at the mercy of the powerful forces around them and people like Rick Sanchez who are able to guide them to some extent.

Drunk or sober, Rick will guide you.

Even when Rick Sanchez espouses his nihilistic rhetoric, it seems to hit Jerry and everyone else like him a lot harder. Even if nothing Rick does matters, he’s smart enough and skilled enough to pursue what he wants while minimizing the consequences. Jerry can’t do that. He can only ever react to the random meaningless chaos surrounding him.

Most everyone in the real world is in a similar position. When something crazy happens, be it a natural disaster or a controversial election, there’s little any of us can do about it. A select few, such as lawyers, judges, and other powerful politicians, may be in a position to effect some change. Everyone else is stuck watching, hoping, and living their meaningless lives along the way.

We can react to the meaningless chaos, but we rarely be proactive. If most people had that opportunity, they would likely mess it up in the same way Jerry messed up a simple Meeseeks Box. Even if your intelligence is above average, your credit score is good, and you have no criminal record, you’re still just one person. You can only do so much without a portal gun and a high-tech lab.

However, it gets even more depressing than that. Throughout three seasons of “Rick and Morty,” Jerry isn’t just shown to be inept whenever faced with a crazy situation. He’s also completely replaceable. This is best demonstrated in the episode, “Mortynight Run,” in which Rick takes Jerry to a special adult daycare center that’s specifically caters to keeping Jerrys from multiple universes safe.

It’s hilarious, but pragmatic for someone like Rick Sanchez because it gives him a place to keep Jerry from undermining his plans. It’s also disturbing how effective it is because as soon as Jerry arrives, he finds himself surrounded by other versions of himself. While upset and insulted, at first, he quickly finds himself enjoying the amenities that are tailor-made to pacify him.

By the end of the episode, it’s hard to tell what separates this Jerry Smith from all the other Jerry Smiths in the multiverse. In the end, even Rick and Morty don’t seem to care which one they take home. One Jerry is as good as any other. He’s basically an interchangeable part that fulfills as basic role and little else.

It’s a role in which many people in the real world find themselves. Modern society, especially after the industrial revolution, has reduced most ordinary people of Jerry Smith’s abilities to that of societal cogs. They’re not individuals as much as they are a mass of humanity that produces, consumes, and provides support for the select few who can achieve the kind of impact of a Rick Sanchez.

More than one episode of “Rick and Morty” has explored how society can dehumanize people and there are plenty of examples in the real world, as well. That dehumanization is just easier to inflict on someone like Jerry Smith. While Rick Sanchez may realize when he’s in a simulation, Jerry likely wouldn’t. In fact, he would be quite comfortable and content in such a simulation.

That’s the ultimate flaw in the character construct of Jerry Smith. By being so unremarkable, he is easy to outwit and even easier to placate. He’s basically a sheep that herders can keep docile just by making sure there’s fresh grass to eat. While Rick Sanchez isn’t always the herder, he and others like him knows how to guide the sheep whenever it benefits him.

Even the Devil is not immune.

Nobody will ever admit they’re just a sheep. People will tell themselves whatever they have to in order to believe that their lives have greater meaning than they actually do. Jerry does this more than once throughout the show. People in real life do so when they carry themselves as the heroic underdogs of their own movie. More often than not, it doesn’t amount to much, which even Morty points out at one point.

Like it or not, most people who aren’t rich, beautiful, or well-connected will always have more in common with Jerry Smith than with any other character in “Rick and Morty.” The number of Jerrys in the world will always vastly outnumber the Ricks. A huge chunk of society is structured around having a vast population of unremarkable, but easily placated Jerrys.

Whether we admit it or not, we are part of that system. We are the Jerrys who act as the cogs while the Ricks act as the operators. We don’t have the resources or genius of a Rick Sanchez so we can’t do much to subvert it. Even Rick can only do so much, even with his immense capabilities, which includes turning himself into a pickle.

It’s a bit depressing, but at the same time, there’s also a strange serenity that comes with the character of Jerry Smith. Even if he isn’t as capable as Rick or his family, he’s still someone who can find contentment and even peace in a chaotic world. Compared to Rick, whose famous catch-phrase masks his own inner pain, Jerry is probably happier overall, despite his meaningless lot in life.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, even if we’re oblivious to how ignorant we really are. In the long run, finding happiness will be easier for Jerry than it’ll ever be for Rick. For him, and the countless others who are just like him, the best recourse may be the same advice Rick often gives Morty.

Simply put, just don’t think about it.

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Filed under human nature, philosophy, psychology, Rick and Morty, television