Tag Archives: Humanity

How Superhero Movies Are Preparing Us For The Future Of Human Enhancement

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As a kid growing up on a healthy diet of superhero comics, video games, and superhero-themed cartoons that were very much ahead of their time on social issues, I often daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have the same powers as my favorite heroes. As an adult, I still daydream every now and then, often when I’m tired, frustrated, or stuck in traffic.

A major component in the overall appeal of the superhero genre is the wish fulfillment fantasy it embodies. Captain America represents the peak of physical conditioning. Iron Man represents the peak of technological know-how. Superman represents the peak of pretty much every possible feat we can imagine, a few of which are even impossible.

It’s a common fantasy of anyone who ever struggled in gym class or couldn’t open a can of pickles. It is, after all, those moments of struggle that remind us of just how limited we are, as humans. Our bodies are remarkable in so many ways, but they’re still frustratingly frail.

That status, however, may very well change. Unlike every other point in the approximately 200,000 year history of the human species, we’re actively working to transcend the limits of evolution through advances in biotechnology, advances in the treatment of disease, and even the integration of cybernetics into our brains and even our genitals.

Some of these advances are closer than others. Chances are that most people alive today won’t live to see the day when they can shape-shift at will like Mystique or fly around like Iron Man in mech suits designed by Elon Musk’s descendants. However, there may be young children alive today who will live long enough to see such wonders.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are people out there much smarter than me who believes that the first functionally immortal person is already alive today. They still might be in diapers, but there is a real chance that by the time they’re as old as I am, they’ll live in a world where things like aging, disease, and not being able to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America is a thing of the past.

A lot has already changed in the time I’ve been alive. I still remember a time when the idea of computers that could fit into your pocket was seen as too futuristic for some people. It was seen as just a fancy gadget from Star Trek. Given that kind of change, it’s hard to imagine what the next several decades holds for the future of humanity.

That’s where superhero media is helping in unexpected ways, though. To some extent, the modern superhero media of today is doing the same thing “Star Trek” did for previous generations. It doesn’t present a fanciful world where big green men can smash monsters or where a sickly young army recruit can be instantly transformed into the ultimate soldier. It offers a tantalizing vision of what the future could be.

It’s a vision that I believe got muddied between the end of the early “Star Trek” era and rise of modern superhero movies that began with “X-men,” “Iron Man,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Within that gap, events like Watergate, the the Vietnam War, and the rise of less optimistic, much more cynical generations made it very difficult to look forward to a better future.

Modern superhero movies have not eliminated that cynicism, but I believe it has helped tempered it. Optimism, as a whole, is actually on the rise. As bad as some recent headlines have been, some being downright disturbing, there is an increasing sense that the future is not all doom and gloom. We still dare to daydream about a better tomorrow.

More recent superhero movies, especially those that began with “Iron Man” and the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aren’t nearly as fanciful as the old Richard Donner “Superman” movies. They’re not as gritty as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies either. In a sense, this health balance has presented audiences with a world that still feels fanciful, but is also full of possibilities.

The idea that we can use science and biotechnology to turn someone who was once weak and sickly into the pinnacle of strength is not just a product of Jack Kirby’s legendary imagination. There are people working on that as I write this. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day enhance ourselves to the same level as Captain America.

Chances are we won’t even stop there. As I noted earlier, the human body has a lot of flaws. Also, thanks to the painfully slow progress of evolution, it hasn’t been upgraded in over 100,000 years. From our biology’s perspective, we’re still cavemen roaming the African Savannah with spears and rocks. Our bodies need upgrades, especially if we’re to become a space-faring species like the ones in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Some of those upgrades will come sooner than others. The end result, though, will be something far greater than even Captain America’s abilities. Some of those abilities seem impossible now. Remember, though, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of computers in our pockets seemed just as impossible.

This is where, I believe, modern superhero movies are doing a much greater service than just entertaining the masses and making billions of dollars for Disney. Through heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even “Ant Man,” these movies make the case that such enhancements can do more than just fight invading aliens.

These movies can also help make the case that humanity can use these advancements to become better, as a whole. Characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Scott Lang, and Peter Parker all have the opportunities to be both destructive and productive with their enhanced abilities. At times, they even lapse into destructive tendencies, as we saw with Tony in “Iron Man 3.”

In the end, though, these characters use those enhanced abilities to do good for the world. They’re still human and they still have human flaws, which they don’t even try to hide. However, even with these flaws, they still feel inclined to do good, heroic things with their abilities.

That doesn’t just make for a good superhero narrative. It sends the message that we, as a species, can aspire to do so much good with the advances the future brings. There are still plenty of dangers, both with existing technology and with emerging technologies. The essence of the superhero narrative, though, tells us that we can confront those dangers and come out of it better than before.

That’s an important mentality to have as we move into an era where human enhancement is both possible and common. By believing we can use it to pursue the same heroics as the superheroes in movies like “The Avengers,” we give our species the push it needs to advance in a way that brings out the best in us.

There will still be villains along the way, as plenty of superhero movies show. The fact we still root for the heroes, though, helps reveal where our aspirations reside. With these movies effecting an entire generation of young people, I believe modern superhero movies are doing plenty to prepare them for the future of human enhancement.

With the staggering success of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a movie that has raised the bar for superhero movies of all kinds, the impact of superhero media has never been greater. That impact may very well be the key to preparing the next generation for unprecedented advancements in technology, society, and progress. That, to some extent, might end up being the most heroic thing this genre can do.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, futurism, human nature, Sexy Future

Why Superman Is An Icon And Why He Still Matters After 80 Years

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Take a moment and think about how many artifacts of popular culture have endured for 80 years. Even if you’ve got an extensive knowledge of culture or just spend a lot of time browsing Wikipedia, it shouldn’t take long to realize how short that list is. That makes the icons on that list all the more endearing.

Near the top of that list is Superman. Even if you’re not a comic book nerd and can’t stand to watch more than five minutes of a superhero movie, it’s impossible to deny the special place Superman has in our culture. He’s not just a comic book character. He’s not just a superhero either. He’s in a league of his own that transcends any one genre.

That became abundantly clear this past week when Superman celebrated his historic 80th anniversary with the release of Action Comics #1000. As an admitted comic book fan who goes out of his way to explore the deeper messages and implications of comics, this was a pretty big deal for me.

Now, I don’t consider myself as big a Superman fan as I am an X-men fan. I like to think I’ve made my love of X-men quite apparent on this site. However, I still enjoy my share of Superman content. Beyond the comics, I grew to love Superman through his animated series and the Justice League cartoon that was produced by Bruce Timm. To date, those and the Richard Donner “Superman” movie are the definitive Superman for me.

As much as I love those incarnations, though, I understand that Superman’s history is much broader than that. A character doesn’t endure for 80 years without having a rich history and Superman certainly has plenty of that. In that history, he’s evolved a lot in terms of style and portrayal. From battling Nazis in the early 1940s to ditching his iconic red trunks for a while, Superman has had his share of reinvention over the years.

Through all these changes, though, Superman has always embodied a specific set of ideals that helps cement his status as an icon. From his earliest days to his most recent movie version, Superman at his core is an inspiration. He’s epitomizes just how good a hero can be and how profoundly he can influence others.

Some call him the ultimate Boy Scout. Some call him the perfect goody-two-shoes. Some even go so far as to claim that his nauseatingly good nature that Christopher Reeves captured so perfectly in the movies makes him a boring character. Given the sheer breadth of his power, which include some truly insane feats, I can understand that to some degree.

At the same time, though, I would also argue that same annoyingly wholesome nature is part of what makes Superman something much greater than an overpowered superhero. I would even go so far as to say that’s part of what has helped him endure for 80 years and made him an icon that transcends comic books, movies, and heroics in general.

There’s a long, if not bloated, list of superheroes of varying degrees of power. Some are even more powerful than Superman. However, just having power isn’t enough, as any Batman fan will tell you. It’s how a hero uses that power and why they do what they do that helps define them.

By that standard, Superman is the gold standard. His heroism is very much the standard by which all others are measured. He has the power to do things that aren’t just incredible. They’re outright impossible. He still does them, though, because he’s Superman. However, it’s why he does them that’s more important.

Compared to why other heroes do what they do, Superman’s reasons for using all that power for good is as simple as it is profound. It’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t need someone to kill his parents. He doesn’t need to be bound by duty or driven by guilt. He just does the right thing because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.

It’s so simple that it’s almost inane, but it’s profound in its implications. I even explored some of those implications when I explored the nihilistic implications of Superman’s morality, drawing comparisons to Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty” of all characters. Regardless of how strong those comparisons are, it doesn’t undercut the impact of that idea.

It’s a big part of what helps Superman inspire others. It’s very much a part of why he still matters today, especially in an era where every heroic character needs some sort of catalyst to become a hero, whether it’s a princess getting kidnapped or someone shooting their dog. Superman doesn’t need any of that. He just does the right thing with his powers because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.

That might not seem like a big deal, especially compared to the more elaborate journeys that other characters go on the path of heroism. Why would someone even want to follow a journey of someone who just does the right thing from the start and doesn’t need to team up with any talking raccoons along the way?

The answer to such a cynical question comes back to inspiration. It’s something that has only become more valuable as we get bombarded by countless bleak headlines. Superman is capable of so much, both in terms of his immense power and altruistic persona. He has such an immense impact when he saves the world, whether by outsmarting Lex Luthor or snapping General Zod’s neck.

However, it’s how those actions inspire others that elevates Superman’s heroics. He doesn’t wear a mask. He doesn’t hide in the shadows. He lets people see his face. He smiles and talks towards civilians, fellow heroes, and even other villains, as Action Comics #1000 so fittingly explored. It’s not just enough to do heroic things. Superman seeks to inspire the heroism in others.

That sentiment is beautifully echoed through the iconic voice of Marlon Brando in Richard Donner “Superman” movie. Even today, after 80 years, they still help define the spirit of Superman.

Live as one of them, KalEl. Discover where you strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, KalEl, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.

These are the words of Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. They don’t just lay the foundation for a hero. They reflect the spirit that eventually becomes Superman. They don’t just encourage Superman to use his immense power to help people. They encourage him to inspire.

That inspiration, the idea that a being of such immense power can do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, is why Superman endures. It’s also why he matters now more than ever. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing other iconic heroes and people in the real world get corrupted by power. Superman sets himself apart, showing that it is possible to have great power and still do the right thing.

In a world full of cynical people who may be getting more nihilistic with each frustrating headline, that’s an important concept to preserve. Having power doesn’t have to corrupt someone in the same way that doing the right thing doesn’t require some elaborate motivation, be they dead parents or some failed prophecy. It’s possible to just do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s not enough to just save the day. Superman gives others the hope, strength, and drive to make a better tomorrow. Say what you will about the ending of “Dawn of Justice,” but the breadth of the impact that Superman had on the world through his sacrifice was powerful. It shows why his greatest power is, and always has been, doing the right thing.

That spirit of incorruptible goodness was critical in 1938 and it’s just as critical now in 2018. I would argue it’ll still be critical in 2118, even if we’ve all evolved into cyborgs at that point. Doing the right thing for others in the spirit of pure, untainted altruism is a powerful message and one that Superman embodies to the utmost. That’s what makes him an icon now. That’s why he’ll be an icon for years to come.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature

How We’ll Save Ourselves From Artificial Intelligence (According To Mass Effect)

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Growing up, my family had a simple rule. If you’re going to talk abut about a problem, you also have to have a solution in mind. By my parents’ logic, talking about a problem and no solution was just whining and whining never fixes anything. My various life experiences have only proved my parents right.

When it comes to a problem that may be an existential threat to the human race, though, I think a little whining can be forgiven. However, that shouldn’t negate the importance of having a solution in mind before we lose ourselves to endless despair.

For the threat posed by artificial intelligence, though, solutions have been light on substance and heavy on dread. It’s becoming increasingly popular among science enthusiasts and Hollywood producers to highlight just how dangerous this technology could be if it goes wrong.

I don’t deny that danger. I’ve discussed it before, albeit in a narrow capacity. I would agree with those who claim that artificial intelligence could potentially be more destructive than nuclear weapons. However, I believe the promise this technology has for bettering the human race is worth the risk.

That said, how do we mitigate that risk when some of the smartest, most successful people in the world dread its potential? Well, I might not be as smart or as successful, but I do believe there is a way to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence while minimizing the risk. That critical solution, as it turns out, may have already been surmised in a video game that got average-to-good reviews last year.

Once again, I’m referring to one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.” I think it’s both fitting and appropriate since I referenced this game in a previous article about the exact moment when artificial intelligence became a threat. That moment may be a ways off, but there may also be away to avoid it altogether.

Artificial intelligence is a major part of the narrative within the “Mass Effect” universe. It doesn’t just manifest through the war between the Quarians and the Geth. The game paints it as the galactic equivalent of a hot-button issue akin to global warming, nuclear proliferation, and super plagues. Given what happened to the Quarians, that concern is well-founded.

That doesn’t stop some from attempting to succeed where the Quarians failed. In the narrative of “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” the sequel to the original trilogy, a potential solution to the problem of artificial intelligence comes from the father of the main characters, Alec Ryder. That solution even has a name, SAM.

That name is an acronym for Simulated Adaptive Matrix and the principle behind it actually has some basis in the real world. On paper, SAM is a specialized neural implant that links a person’s brain directly to an advanced artificial intelligence that is housed remotely. Think of it as having Siri in your head, but with more functionality than simply managing your calendar.

In the game, SAM provides the main characters with a mix of guidance, data processing, and augmented capabilities. Having played the game multiple times, it’s not unreasonable to say that SAM is one of the most critical components to the story and the gameplay experience. It’s also not unreasonable to say it has the most implications of any story element in the “Mass Effect” universe.

That’s because the purpose of SAM is distinct from what the Quarians did with the Geth. It’s also distinct from what real-world researchers are doing with systems like IBM Watson and Boston Dynamics. It’s not just a big fancy box full of advanced, high-powered computing hardware. It’s built around the principle that its method for experiencing the world is tied directly to the brain of a person.

This is critical because one of the inherent dangers of advanced artificial intelligence is the possibility that it won’t share our interests. It may eventually get so smart and so sophisticated that it sees no need for us anymore. This is what leads to the sort of Skynet scenarios that we, as a species, want to avoid.

In “Mass Effect,” SAM solves this problem by linking its sensory input to ours. Any artificial intelligence, or natural intelligence for that matter, is only as powerful as the data it can utilize. By tying biological systems directly to these synthetic systems, the AI not only has less incentive to wipe humanity out. We have just as much incentive to give it the data it needs to do its job.

Alec Ryder describes it as a symbiotic relationship in the game. That kind of relationship actually exists in nature, two organisms relying on one another for survival and adaptation. Both get something out of it. Both benefit by benefiting each other. That’s exactly what we want and need if we’re to maximize the benefits of AI.

Elon Musk, who is a noted fan of “Mass Effect,” is using that same principle with his new company, Neuralink. I’ve talked about the potential benefits of this endeavor before, including the sexy kinds. The mechanics with SAM in the game may very well be a pre-cursor of things to come.

Remember, Musk is among those who have expressed concern about the threat posed by AI. He calls it a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization. Unlike other doomsayers, though, he’s actually trying to do something about it with Neuralink.

Like SAM in “Mass Effect,” Musk envisions what he calls a neural lace that’s implanted in a person’s brain, giving them direct access to an artificial intelligence. From Musk’s perspective, this gives humans the ability to keep up with artificial intelligence to ensure that it never becomes so smart that we’re basically brain-damaged ants to it.

However, I believe the potential goes deeper than that. Throughout “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” SAM isn’t just a tool. Over the course of the game, your character forms an emotional attachment with SAM. By the end, SAM even develops an attachment with the character. It goes beyond symbiosis, potentially becoming something more intimate.

This, in my opinion, is the key for surviving in a world of advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to just have an artificial intelligence rely on people for sensory input and raw data. There has to be a bond between man and machine. That bond has to be intimate and, since we’re talking about things implanted in bodies and systems, it’s already very intimate on multiple levels.

The benefits of that bond go beyond basic symbiosis. By linking ourselves directly to an artificial intelligence, it’s rapid improvement becomes our rapid improvement too. Given the pace of computer evolution compared to the messier, slower process of biological evolution, the benefits of that improvement cannot be overstated.

In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” those benefits help you win the game. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. Having your brain directly linked to an artificial intelligence may seem invasive to some, but if the bond is as intimate as Musk is attempting with Neuralink, then others may see it as another limb.

Having something like SAM in our brains doesn’t just mean having a supercomputer at our disposal that we can’t lose or forget to charge. In the game, SAM also has the ability to affect the physiology of its user. At one point in the game, SAM has to kill Ryder in order to escape a trap.

Granted, that is an extreme measure that would give many some pause before linking their brains to an AI. However, the context of that situation in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” only further reinforces its value and not just because SAM revives Ryder. It shows just how much SAM needs Ryder.

From SAM’s perspective, Ryder dying is akin to being in a coma because it loses its ability to sense the outside world and take in new data. Artificial or not, that kind of condition is untenable. Even if SAM is superintelligent, it can’t do much with it if it has no means of interacting with the outside world.

Ideally, the human race should be the primary conduit to that world. That won’t just allow an advanced artificial intelligence to grow. It’ll allow us to grow with it. In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” Alec Ryder contrasted it with the Geth and the Quarians by making it so there was nothing for either side to rebel against. There was never a point where SAM needed to ask whether or not it had a soul. That question was redundant.

In a sense, SAM and Ryder shared a soul in “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” If Elon Musk has his way, that’s exactly what Neuralink will achieve. In that future in which Musk is even richer than he already is, we’re all intimately linked with advanced artificial intelligence.

That link allows the intelligence to process and understand the world on a level that no human brain ever could. It also allows any human brain, and the biology linked to it, to transcend its limits. We and our AI allies would be smarter, stronger, and probably even sexier together than we ever could hope to be on our own.

Now, I know that sounds overly utopian. Me being the optimist I am, who occasionally imagines the sexy possibilities of technology, I can’t help but contemplate the possibilities. Never-the-less, I don’t deny the risks. There are always risks to major technological advances, especially those that involve tinkering with our brains.

However, I believe those risks are still worth taking. Games like “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and companies like Neuralink do plenty to contemplate those risks. If we’re to create a future where our species and our machines are on the same page, then we would be wise to contemplate rather than dread. At the very least, we can at least ensure our future AI’s tell better jokes.

 

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Filed under futurism, human nature, Mass Effect, Sexy Future, video games

Is Democracy The Best Way To Ensure Basic Rights?

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When it comes to ensuring the happiness, advancement, and general prosperity of humanity, it’s not unreasonable to say that basic human rights are a core ingredient. Most know the basics of these rights as life, liberty, and property. Some even throw in the pursuit of happiness, which denotes all kinds of freedom, including the sexy kinds.

Beyond just sounding great on paper, human rights are a major guiding force. History has shown, time and again, that societies that value these rights tend to prosper more that only exist to glorify a despot. The contrast between the two Koreas is proof enough of that.

However, the preservation and promotion of basic human rights is no easy task. The world is full of corrupt, cruel, and power-hungry people who would scoff at the very concept the same way they would anyone who claims trees have souls. The fact that some of them manage to get elected in countries with democratic institutions says a lot about just how hard it can be to protect human rights.

It’s that vulnerability in one the most cherished modern institutions, which some claim took a major hit in 2016, that leads me to ask a question that I’m sure is going to draw me some level of ire. However, in wake of recent news and a particular Hollywood movie that indirectly touches on this concept, I think it’s worth asking.

Is democracy the best way of preserving basic human rights in a society?

I ask that question as someone who loves and celebrates the freedoms that being an American has given me. I feel lucky and honored to live in a country where I get to participate in the democratic process. I make it a point to vote in every election, be it mid-term or a presidential election.

That said, I’m not among those hyper-patriot, Ron Swanson wannabes who willfully ignores the flaws of the democratic systems around me. Between the limited choices offered by a two-party system, the non-democratic nature of the electoral college, and misguided ballot initiatives, I see these flaws as much as anyone else with an internet connection.

To some extent, I recognize that not all of these flaws are fixable within a democracy. The essence of democracy is people electing their government. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational and anyone who has read headlines from Florida knows that. People can also be whipped up into a hateful, mob-like frenzy. It’s one of the side-effects of being such a social species. We’ll often go with the crowd before we go with reason.

In a perfect democracy, every voter would be completely independent, completely informed, and only vote to elect the person they believe will best preserve basic human rights. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy any more than there’s such a thing as a perfect autocracy, there are bound to be flaws in the system.

Some of those flaws can be mitigated with things like voter education. Others involve mixing democratic systems with that of a republic. That’s primarily what the founding fathers attempted to establish with the United States, a republic being the fixed body of laws to preserve our rights and using democratic systems to protect those rights.

Other western democracies utilize various methods to address these issues, but so long as people are involved, there will be human flaws in any system. The key is making sure that those flaws don’t end up undermining human rights. The results haven’t been perfect. Ask any number of minority communities for proof of that.

With these flaws in mind, I believe it’s worth thinking beyond democracy to imagine other ways of preserving and promoting human rights. Some of those concepts manifest in movies, comics, and TV shows. The “Black Panther” movie presented an enticing, albeit fanciful, idea of an all-around good king who believes in basic human rights and does what he can to promote it, at least for his own people.

I’ve also cited Dr. Doom in a previous article who, despite being the ultimate villain in the Marvel universe, is pretty much the perfect ruler for any system of government. Sure, people in his government fear his wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear. You could argue that such fear is inconsistent with basic human rights, but in terms of actually securing people, property, and what not, Doom has no equals.

Outside the world of superheroes, though, there are also instances where a great leader who deeply values human rights gets thrust into power. That’s the entire premise of “Designated Survivor,” a show where Kiefer Sutherland does more than just shoot and torture terrorists. The best possible leader for a government isn’t elected. They essentially find themselves in that position.

In a sense, that embodies the disconnect between the fictional world and the real world. The idea that a king with ultimate power in a secretive country or some low-level government appointee would turn out to be a perfect president assumes a lot of things that don’t play out in the real world. It essentially vindicates what Winston Churchill once said about democracy.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Those bolded parts are my doing because those are the parts that most people recall. Considering the context in which Churchill said those words, having just fought a massive war against two leaders who had been democratically elected, it’s hard to blame him.

Even today, extremists who do not hold certain human rights in high regard do get elected to positions of power. It’s not a matter of people just throwing the concept away. People are still very tribal, last I checked. They’re going to vote or protest in accord with their own interests, even if it means undermining the interests of others.

That situation leaves basic human rights vulnerable. There are, as I write this, people living in functioning democracies whose basic rights are being undermined. While we have made a great deal of progress over the past century as democracies have spread, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Going back to the original question I asked about democracy’s ability to preserve human rights, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. For now, I’m inclined to side with the wisdom of Winston Churchill. Democracy has it’s flaws, but it’s the best we’ve got thus far. We can definitely stand to do better and should work towards doing so.

Some of that may involve getting money out of politics to mitigate corruption. Some involve doing the opposite of what China just did and setting term limits for politicians. Some are taking an even more radical approach by integrating emerging technology into the democratic process.

These are all bold ideas, which are certainly worth pursuing in the future. Until we have a real life T’Challa to be king or a super-intelligent AI capable of running a government with perfect efficiency, democracy is our best bet for preserving human rights. We shouldn’t stop trying to improve, but we should still celebrate it’s merit.

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Finding Greater Hope In Disturbing News

Every now and then, there’s a news story that comes along that’s so disturbing, so horrific, and so utterly offensive to every level of decency that it makes me question the faith I have in humanity. I know I’ve said before that I genuine believe that people are naturally good, at heart. I’ve even shared stories about how I came to believe this. However, there are times when that believe is tested.

Last week, I got an unexpected test in the form of one of the most disturbing news stories I’ve heard that didn’t involve a mass shooting. At least with mass shootings, it presents the opportunity for good people to show their strength in the face of those who are truly deranged. In this case, there were many of those opportunities to say the least.

While the story is still unfolding with each passing day, it has already made national headlines. It involves the now-infamous Turpin family and the unspeakable horrors they inflicted upon their own children. To those of you who haven’t heard this story, consider yourselves lucky. This is one of those stories that tests both your stomach and your soul.

The details are disturbing to recount. They involve abusive parents, abused kids, gross neglect, intentional malnourishment, and all the disturbing forces in between that drive such deviant behavior. The full story is still unfolding, but accord to a report from ABC News, these are the current facts:

An investigation is underway in California after 13 siblings – ages 2 to 29 – were allegedly held captive in a home, some “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks,” the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.

Parents David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested in the alleged torture and child endangerment case in Perris, California, about 27 miles south of San Bernardino.

The investigation began early-Sunday morning when a 17-year-old girl apparently escaped from the home and called 911, saying her 12 brothers and sisters were still being held captive there, the sheriff’s office said.

Responding officers said the teen “appeared to be only 10 years old and slightly emaciated.”

Inside the home, several children were “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings,” the sheriff’s office said. “The victims appeared to be malnourished and very dirty.”

Seven of the alleged victims were adults, ranging in ages from 18 to 29, the sheriff’s office said. The others were children as young as 2. The siblings – who authorities say claimed to be starving – were given food and drinks and interviewed, the sheriff’s office said. They were then hospitalized for treatment, the authorities said.

I’m not going to lie. I felt sick to my stomach reading this story. The idea that anyone, let alone parents, would do these sorts of things to children is pretty disturbing. While there are all sorts of crazy theories circulating about the psychology behind such sadistic behavior, the full truth will probably never be known. Besides, the damage has been done. These children will probably carry some deep scars for the rest of their lives.

News stories like these often remind us that as amazing a species we are, there are still parts of it that are undeniably devious. While I prefer to emphasize the good in people, as well as the progress we’ve made, it’s neither logical nor just to ignore the bad. Parents torturing, neglecting, and abusing their children is objectively bad by any sane measure.

As awful as it is, however, it’s still important to balance out the terrible with the hopeful. In most great atrocities, there are often glimmers of hope. That may seem impossible for a story like this, but it is there if you look. The horrors of the holocaust were undeniable, but even that darkest of periods can reveal moments of true heroism and inspiration.

Even with that in mind, how could anyone find such moments in a story like this? Something this atrocious makes that difficult. However, the moments are there. Even if the worst of this story has yet to come out, there are some powerful lessons to be learned. Here are just a few.


Bright Spot #1: Atrocities Rarely Stay Hidden (Especially These Days)

There was once a time when it was much easier to hide from the authorities and public scrutiny. A truly sadistic person could take their victims out into the vast wilderness, away from prying eyes, and commit their atrocities without much risk of getting caught. For most of human history, that was the norm and not the exception.

It’s different today. Thanks to modern infrastructure, the media, and mass communication, it’s much harder to hide these sorts of atrocities from the public. That’s especially true in a modern, industrialized country where we have internet, emergency services, and a semi-functional justice system.

If the Turpin family had lived in a less developed country, chances are their crimes would’ve gone unpunished. Even if one of their children had escaped, they probably wouldn’t have been able to get proper help or convince the authorities to aid them. In some parts of the world, those authorities don’t even exist.

Say what you will about the state of the industrialized world. It certainly has its flaws. However, when it comes to committing atrocities on children, those crimes are hard to hide and are rightly condemned. That counts as both progress and justice.


Bright Spot #2: All That Abuse Did NOT Prevent The Children From Escaping

Even though the Turpin family couldn’t hide their atrocities forever, they still managed to hide them for much longer than most people will ever be comfortable admitting. One of the ways they hid it was to condition and control their children to an extent not seen outside of a North Korean prison camp.

Stories of the sheer breadth of the neglect these children suffered are still coming in, but one thing is clear. The parents of these children worked tirelessly to control every aspect of their lives. They were sheltered, starved, restrained, and completely cut off from the outside world. By all accounts, there was no outside world, except the world their parents wanted them to see.

Despite all this, though, one of these kids still found the strength and the will to escape. The only reason these crimes were even exposed was because the 17-year-old daughter climbed out a window and managed to call 911. The fact that this girl, despite all the abuse and deprivation, still found the will to escape says a lot about her and the human desire for freedom.

As repressive as these parents were, it still wasn’t enough. They still sought to escape. The strength of the girl who managed to escape cannot be overstated and it highlights, what I believe, is the biggest takeaway from this otherwise horrific story.


Bright Spot #3: It’s REALLY Hard To Control/Break Someone

 

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No matter how disturbing this story gets or what kind of horrific details emerge in the coming weeks, there’s one important lesson we should all take from such a disturbing crime. No matter how much a person is abused or how much someone tries to control them, it’s extremely difficult to completely break them.

These children, including the girl who escaped, were conditioned from birth to live under their parents’ authority. They grew up literally not knowing any other way to live. As far as they knew, the idea of not being controlled by their parents was an alien concept. In terms of controlling and/or breaking someone’s will to resist, the parents had every circumstance working in their favor.

Despite all that, they still failed. They still could not completely control their children because they still tried to escape. It only took one of them to succeed to make the point. No matter how strict the control or hard the abuse, they can’t subvert the natural desire to be free. If nothing else about this terrible story inspires you, let that be it.


I don’t wish to dwell too much on this story, if only because much of it is still playing out. While we shouldn’t discount the horrors involved, there are some small bits of hope that we can glean from such a story. It may not completely overshadow the breadth of the atrocities, but it should remind us that as flawed as the human race may be, we will fight such atrocities when we confront them.

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Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History (Seriously)

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These days, being an optimist is hard. In some cases, you’ll get laughed out of the room for not thinking the world is on a steady descent into a dystopian hellscape in the mold of “Mad Max,” “1984,” or “Idiocracy.” I don’t deny that current events, especially after the 2016 Election, have made optimism difficult. However, that’s exactly why it’s worth talking about.

I do consider myself an optimist, at heart. I sincerely believe that, on the whole, things are getting better for the world, the human race, and everything in between. I’ve even tried to make my case through personal experience and through empirical data. I don’t imagine I’ve changed too many opinions, but I still think it’s important to put that perspective out there.

With a new year upon us, I think that perspective is worth belaboring once more. This time, however, I’m not alone in my optimistic sentiment. There are others who share in my optimistic outlook. Some of those individuals are far smarter, far more accomplished, and far more charismatic than I’ll ever be.

By those standards, Steven Pinker checks all the necessary boxes. While he’s somewhat of a controversial figure in some circles, the man has some solid credentials. He’s an accomplished professor at Harvard and has written multiple books on issues ranging from language to psychology to human nature.

His seminal work, though, is his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature.” If you want a compelling reason to believe that the world is getting better by most measures, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s not just about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Mr. Pinker provides real, verifiable information that the world is getting better and human nature is far better than we give it credit for.

Beyond his books and his famous TED Talks, Mr. Pinker continues to make his case for a more upbeat outlook in various ways. Recently, his work was cited in an op-ed article in the New York Times entitled “Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History.”

Granted, a title like that is a bit heavy on hyperbole, but the writer, Nicholas Kristoff, is dead serious in making that case. Link Mr. Pinker, he doesn’t just interpret all the ongoing trends in the world through the mind of a stoned hippie. He puts the state of the world into a context that goes beyond all the horrible headlines we saw in 2017.

He, and other optimists like him, tend to look at the broader trends in human society. The data is out there, but it’s hard to put into a compelling headline. That doesn’t stop men like Kristoff and Pinker from making a concerted effort, though.

We all know that the world is going to hell. Given the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the paralysis in Congress, warfare in Yemen and Syria, atrocities in Myanmar and a president who may be going cuckoo, you might think 2017 was the worst year ever.

But you’d be wrong. In fact, 2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.

A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.

Again, these trends are hard to see and harder to report on because they don’t happen all at once. If tomorrow, all poverty was magically wiped out, that would be a big news story. However, human progress doesn’t work that way. It’s slow, gradual, and sometimes boring. It does happen, though. The events of 2017 were no exception.

Violent went down. Poverty went down. In fact, they went down to their lowest levels in modern history. Compared to a year ago, 5 years ago, or 50 years ago, the trends we saw in 2017 were all improvements by most objective measures. A lot of these trends are things Mr. Pinker has been talking about for years. Mr. Kristoff simply builds on them.

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

For most individuals, these trends are difficult to notice. That’s largely because they’re driven by forces that most people don’t notice or understand beyond their personal existence. Even in a world that’s so connected and becoming more connected with each passing day, it’s easy to overlook this kind of progress.

It’s also a lot harder when the news is largely dominated by negative headlines that highlight how dissatisfied the general public is with the direction of society. Again, there is a context here and one that I’ve tried to point out before. It’s one of the first lessons I learned in college when interpreting media of any kind, be it the news or superhero comics.

The reason why all these negative headlines are headlines in the first place isn’t because they’re common. It’s because they’re so rare. Stories such as mass shootings, brutal murders, and war crimes make the news because they don’t happen every day. That’s why they qualify as news. They’re aberrations and not normal occurrences.

Conversely, good headlines rarely make the front page because they lack the same novelty and emotional impact as bad news. Naturally, people are going to react more strongly to a horrific headline because our survival instincts compel us to devote more energy to the bloodier, more dangerous information.

That’s why, even if 2017 was the best year in the history of the human race, our caveman brains aren’t going to process that because it’s so focused on all the negative news that came out over the past year. That news may very well be a tiny sliver of the events that transpired in 2017, but that news will still garner more attention, especially in the current digital economy.

We can still take comfort in the progress that happened in 2017, though. No matter how many negative headlines there were, that doesn’t undo the genuinely good things that transpired in the past year. Mr. Kristoff even went out of his way to provide an anecdote, of sorts, that highlighted just how much good can come from even the worst parts of the world.

Granted, this column may feel weird to you. Those of us in the columny gig are always bemoaning this or that, and now I’m saying that life is great? That’s because most of the time, quite rightly, we focus on things going wrong. But it’s also important to step back periodically. Professor Roser notes that there was never a headline saying, “The Industrial Revolution Is Happening,” even though that was the most important news of the last 250 years.

I had a visit the other day from Sultana, a young Afghan woman from the Taliban heartland. She had been forced to drop out of elementary school. But her home had internet, so she taught herself English, then algebra and calculus with the help of the Khan Academy, Coursera and EdX websites. Without leaving her house, she moved on to physics and string theory, wrestled with Kant and read The New York Times on the side, and began emailing a distinguished American astrophysicist, Lawrence M. Krauss.

Think about that story, for a moment, and reflect on how 2017 made it possible. Thanks to all the progress made in global communications, a woman in Afghanistan in 2017 was able to pursue opportunities that would’ve been impossible a mere 20 years ago.

This woman, despite living in one of the most war torn parts of the world, still managed to gain access to the kind of education and informational resources that were once reserved for aristocrats and academics. That, by any measure, is an astonishing accomplishment for humanity.

In many respects, 2017 was the best year ever because it continued the trends had been going on for years. As a result, more people have access to information, education, and the basic necessities of life than at any other point in human history. That, more than anything, is why it’s not unreasonable to say that 2017 was the best year ever.

The fact that concerns over celebrity scandals is a greater concern than poverty, war, or famine shows that we are making more progress than we think. It also bodes well for 2018 being an even better year than 2017. Despite what negative headlines may say, the human race is on an unprecedented winning streak and I hope, along with men like Mr. Pinker and Mr. Kristoff, that the streak continues into 2018 and beyond.

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The Doug Stanhope Principle (And Why We Should Apply It)

In my experience, comedians offer the most memorable and insightful commentaries on otherwise serious issues. Even if they’re just trying to be funny, which is their job, I think those commentaries have worth beyond the laughs. There are even times I think comedians don’t realize just how insightful their humor can be.

I’ve made my love of comedy known before and not just through my weekly Sexy Sunday Thoughts. I’ve cited accomplished comedians like Christopher Titus when exploring very non-funny issues, such as jealousy. I don’t just do this to help lighten the mood on a site I want to keep light and sexy. I do it because comedy can reveal more than the breadth of our sense of humor.

With that in mind, I’d like to cite a comedian by the name of Doug Stanhope. I’ve never mentioned before, but has been one of my personal favorites for years. He’s not on the same level as a Jon Stewart, George Carlin, or Lewis Black. However, given his brand of humor, that’s not too surprising.

Stanhope’s comedy is decidedly NSFW, touching on issues that would give most network producers brain aneurisms. His opinions are overtly harsh and unconcerned with your delicate sensibilities. If you’re wondering just how harsh he can be, here’s a quick taste.

That said, he is not a shock comic in the tradition of Howard Stern or Andrew Dice Clay. Stanope’s comedy, as crude as it can be at times, is very smart. One bit in particular stands out. It comes from his “Deadbeat Hero” album, one of my personal favorites and one I think every comedy fan should listen to at least once.

In that album, he talks about a number of issues, but one in particular stands out. That issue is marriage, one I’ve discussed too on this site, albeit not with the same level of humor. On this topic, he makes one of the most insightful observations I’ve ever seen on a treasured institution.

If marriage didn’t exist, would you invent it? Would you go “Baby, this shit we got together, it’s so good we gotta get the government in on this shit. We can’t just share this commitment ‘tweenst us. We need judges and lawyers involved in this shit, baby. It’s hot!”

The bolded parts are my doing because I think the implications of that question go beyond the comedy, more so than I think Stanhope himself intended. In a sense, it reflects the paradox of marriage and traditional romance that I’ve talked about before in that we see it as natural, yet we need all these social institutions to protect it.

The fact those institutions exist is a subtle, but telling sign that these traditions aren’t as natural as we think they are. More than anything else, they’re the product of taboos and social norms that people cling to out of fear, familiarity, and ignorance. I won’t go so far as to call it a form of excuse banking, but I think it highlights our imperfect understanding of human nature.

One of Doug Stanhope’s greatest strengths as a comedian is his ability to break down a treasured and cherished concept in a way that’s both revealing and insightful. What he did for marriage with this one question immediately makes us ponder the flaws in our current understanding of it.

Once we stop laughing at the punch-line, though, I would take it a step further. I would ask that question again in more general form as a means to help us scrutinize our traditions, values, and everything else we hold sacred. Sure, that’s bound to make some people uncomfortable, but that’s exactly the point of certain brand of comedy, especially Stanhope’s.

Like the Simpson Filter I coined earlier this year, let’s coin another using this question. Since I’m not a branding expert with only a fraction of the wit of Doug Stanhope, I’ll call it “The Stanhope Principle.” The core of that principle can be summed up in one simple question.

If something didn’t exist in its current form, would you invent it that way?

Sure, it’s not nearly as funny as Stanhope’s bit on marriage, nor is it meant to be. In essence, it’s a question meant to get your brain thinking about things that it usually doesn’t think about. In some cases, they’re issues you’ve gone out of your way to avoid.

Take any current issue, be it a major political controversy or a certain state in your personal life. Now, apply the Stanhope Principle and try to answer the question honestly. Here are just a few possible examples.

  • If our tax system existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If our health care system existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If our current relationship existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If the job we worked existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If our website/blog/product existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?

If you ask that question and answer it honestly, which is key, you might be surprised by what you find out. You might think your personal relationships are functional, but applying the Stanhope Principle could expose flaws that you’ve been overlooking or ignoring.

Apply in a larger context, such as politics, marriage, and gender issues, and the insights get a bit more complicated. Given the current inequalities that still pervade in our society, as well as the double standards we apply, the Stanhope Principle reveals the breadth of the flaws within these institutions.

It can be distressing, acknowledging those flaws. That’s usually where the excuse banking enters the picture, but that can only further mask them. Another honest application of the Stanhope Principle will only remind us of those flaws and even reveal how we’ve made our situation worse.

Ideally, the Stanhope Principle should be a basis for improvement. A good example is Apple, one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak probably didn’t know they were applying that principle, but they were.

They saw the current state of computers. They saw there was a lot of room for improvement. Given how cumbersome computers were for much of their early history, they decided to innovate and create a better way of using them. The result is a company that is worth over half-a-trillion dollars.

Applying the Stanhope Principle for worked out pretty well for Apple. I’m not saying it can make everyone a billionaire, but it does help break down a situation and an issue in a way that allows us to see the bigger picture.

More than anything else, it exposes the imperfections of our current situation. For some, it motivates them into improving their situation, be it a relationship, a business, or a social policy. For others, it’s an uncomfortable reminder that there’s a flaw in that they need to cover up or mask. In that sense, it should be easy to see who are more likely to become billionaires.

There are all sorts of way to apply the Stanhope Principle. I’ll certainly try to apply it to future issues that I discuss on this site. For now, I just want to offer my sincere thanks to Doug Stanhope and the principle he inspired. He has made the world inherently funnier and more interesting to explore.

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Filed under Current Events, Marriage and Relationships, Reasons and Excuses