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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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Filed under biotechnology, futurism, health, human nature, Neuralink, Sexy Future, superhero comics

Second Chances, Learning From Past Mistakes, And The Return Of The XFL

America likes to claim that it’s the land of second chances. People, in general, are often willing to grant second chances to those who have made mistakes, failed, or were just the victim of bad luck. Some end up needing more than second chances, but we’re willing to give them to those who prove they have a vision.

We do it in our personal lives as well, giving second chances to those we love. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. However, the first step, and arguably the most important, is giving that chance to someone, even when you haven’t forgotten the extent of their mistake.

That brings me to the XFL. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way to effectively transition to this topic. I know the title alone sounded like a jumbled compilation of random thoughts from someone who talks about everything from sex robots to superhero movies. I promise I’m going somewhere with this. I also promise it’s both relevant and applicable.

To those who haven’t heard the big news, the XFL is back. A full 17 years after this eccentric, over-the-top league that inspired the likes of “He Hate Me” and glorified brutal hits is making a comeback. Vince McMahon, the colorful personality who turned wrestling into a billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut, is taking another shot at creating a new football league to compete with the towering Goliath that is the NFL.

As a self-professed football fan whose picks for this past season were dead wrong, I’m genuinely intrigued by this news. I won’t let myself get too excited about it just yet, given how badly the XFL failed the first time, but I am willing to give it my attention, as well as a second chance.

The story of the first incarnation of the XFL is an amazing story. The fact that it also involves exceedingly sexy cheerleaders doesn’t hurt it’s appeal either. Just last year, ESPN did a documentary on that story called “30 For 30: This Was The XFL.” If you want a comprehensive take on what happened to this over-the-top league, this I highly recommend you check this out.

By the end, you’ll appreciate why giving McMahon and the XFL a second chance is such a big deal. It may even give you a better appreciation of why second chances are so hard to give at times. In a sense, this second incarnation of the XFL may end up being a case study on the underlying merit of second chances or the lack thereof.

Whether it’s to a professional athlete, an ex-lover, or an employee, second chances are hard because our brains are wired to remember failures more vividly than successes. The whole notion of “once bitten, twice shy” has actual biology and evolutionary forces behind it. Failure in nature can sometimes mean failure to survive.

The last time the XFL failed, it cost both McMahon and NBC $35 million each. The greatly inflates the price of a second chance, to say the least. Why, in that context, should we still give it one?

Well, I can only speak for myself. I’m not a sports expert any more than I’m a brain surgeon. However, in the spirit of second chances and learning from past mistakes, there are a few I think are worth considering with both the XFL and life in general.


A Second Chance Can Prove You’ve Learned From Failure (And Are Able To Learn In General)

This is as valuable a skill in helping the new XFL succeed as it is for anyone who has ever screwed up in life, which covers pretty much everybody. This is probably the most important aspect of second chances. It gives an opportunity for someone to do more than just claim they’ve learned. Now, they can show it.

Say what you will about Vince McMahon and a lot has been said. He’s an entertainer and a businessman. He wants to make money and, if his net worth is any indication, he’s pretty damn good at it. You do not get that rich by never learning from your mistakes.

It’s hard to say for certain what McMahon will do differently at this point. However, if the content of his announcement is any indication, he’s very much aware of why the XFL failed the first time. He’s ready to take those hard, not to mention expensive, lessons and try again.

Given the breadth of McMahon’s success, he’s someone who can make more out of second chances than most. That’s why I’m going to give him this one, even if I find his persona annoying.


Second Chances Reveals Opportunities Otherwise Not Seen

It’s a common theme in business, romance, and everything in between. Both failure and success create opportunities. The failure of “Batman and Robin” paved the way for “Batman Begins.” The success of the iPhone paved the way for the booming smartphone business.

One failed relationship can also strengthen another. The many failures of other football leagues have only served to strengthen the dominance of the NFL. However, sometimes success can have pitfalls. The past few years have not been kind to the NFL, to say the least. Given the sheer size of this entertainment behemoth, it’s an easy target.

In that respect, the XFL’s timing couldn’t be better. It’s coming along at a time when fans are somewhat disillusioned with the NFL, but have little alternatives beyond the hopelessly corrupt NCAA. The XFL could finally give the NFL the kind of competition that is necessary for any product, service, or art to innovate.

Let’s face it. We humans are a competitive species. If someone is doing something better than us, be it football or underwater basket weaving, we want to match and exceed them. It drives us to be better. It helps make us better people.

Football needs that right now. The NFL needs that. The XFL has the perfect opportunity to achieve this. Combined with the lessons of their first failure, they have much more going for them now than they did in 2001.


Greater Risks Bring Greater Rewards (And Greater Lessons)

This is probably the most important aspect of second chances for both the XFL and for life, in general. Everything that’s worth doing, whether it’s creating a new football league or finding the love of your life, requires a certain degree of risk. Some aren’t willing to risk that much, but those who are have a chance to achieve much more.

I say this as someone who avoided taking major risks until much later in life. Looking back on how I carried myself in my youth, I regret not taking more risks. Hindsight has revealed that I missed out on some pretty big rewards, both material and personal. Sometimes, you really have to do what your brain says is insanely risky to get those kinds of rewards.

What Vince McMahon is doing qualifies as exceedingly risky. He’s putting up $100 million of his own money to make the second incarnation of the XFL happen. He’s also taking on an organization in the NFL with obscene levels of influence, both economically and culturally.

At the moment, most people probably think he’s crazy and bound to fail. Those people aren’t willing to take the risk, but none of them have a shot at the big reward that McMahon is seeking. Even if the chances of the XFL succeeding are less than one percent, it’s still greater than zero and that’s all the chance you need with a second chance.


A Second Chance Can Also Help Fix Broken Or Flawed Systems

This is the part of the new XFL that has me the most intrigued, as a football fan. That’s because, as it stands, the system for developing players for the NFL is basically a cartel wrapped in a monopoly. The NCAA is the cartel. The NFL is the monopoly. If you want to make a living playing football, these are the sole gatekeepers.

It’s a system with many flaws, which have been documented on more than one occasion. The problem is there’s no incentives to fix those flaws. Neither the NCAA nor the NFL have any pressure to do so. They wield total power over all things football and can be as unjust as they want.

The XFL can change that. They can shake up a system that does plenty to screw over college players and professionals if they fail to make it in the NFL. They can provide a new path, bring new ideas to the table, and take chances that a cartel and a monopoly don’t even think to take.

It wouldn’t be the first time a monopoly got broken up. In most peoples’ lives, they either avoid situations where someone has all the leverage or work to subvert it. We do that with the people we work with and the people we love. Again, it often requires that we take risks and chances. However, it only has to work once to affect change.


It’s still not clear just what the new XFL will bring to the table or if it will succeed. For now, it has many forces working against it. However, as both a football fan and someone who sees the merit of second chances, I’m willing to give it one.

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Filed under Current Events, Reasons and Excuses, sports