Should Today's Technologies Inspire?
April 25, 2012
We got to interview a visionary futurist with an eye on technology about what would inspire today's comic book writers to create our next superheroes with knowledge of real technological and scientific advancement.
You never know when it’s going to happen – that otherwise quotidian moment when you suddenly realize your entire thought process has just been tripped up and cast down a cerebral rabbit-hole destination unknown. Little did I know that what began as a typically pleasurable lunch with spyed and makepictures during the San Diego Comic-Con last year would morph into a mind-expanding mental wormhole voyage to the future courtesy of another guest at our table, JordanGreenhall, known to me only as the co-founder of DivX, Inc., the prestigious leader in software creation for video authoring and encoding.
The question was raised: what’s in store for the future of all this? (“all this”, i.e., the costumed conventioneers milling about the miles of booths promoting sci-fi movies, comics, toys, videogames and videogame systems, etc.)
Jordan began to answer the question … and that’s when the convention floor began to fade away into a surreal swirl of background static, as a true visionary began time-tripping my brain forward into the future. I now know why he’s at the top of the speakers’ list of every year’s futurist society conclave, philanthropic ethicist entrepreneurs summit and Aspen Institute-style fix-the-planet think tank confab. He sees through the pop clatter and clutter into the heart of what’s happening, where it’s all going, and what’s important and why.
So who is this guy rewiring
my cranial circuits, anyway?
Besides revolutionizing the way video is brought to all our digital devices with the DivX codec, Jordan is a trustee of the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit research center dedicated to analyzing and addressing the planet’s “environmental, technological, biological, economic and political challenges.”
This is the key to knowing what Jordan is really about, besides being a new tech genius. He’s one of the good guys who has decided to devote his knowledge of and special position in the new media revolution to turn the world historic wave of change washing over us in the direction of something positive, a better world. To that end, he is indefatigable as a globetrotting guest lecturer, sharing his insights and visions as an advocate for the “efficient, collaborative, open” model of new media-driven information dispersal, and an opponent of the old “closed, centralized, inauthentic” model of information control. Jordan is a prophet for the new wave, and he preaches that enlightenment comes when one accepts that the wave cannot be possessed and controlled, but only understood and then utilized for everything that knowledge of it can bring to this world and future generations.
The “digitization/socialnetworking/participation” wave is as profound and world-changing as Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. And this wave cannot be “owned” and controlled – it can only be ridden by those who seek to understand it, build it and share it with their digital network communities.
That’s all well and good, but what about the future of sci-fi
and superheroes like Iron Man and Wolverine?
I can only attempt to adequately paraphrase his scientific reference-laden response: Quantum mechanics and new discoveries flowing out of our technological revolution (like what’s going on with the Large Hadron Collider in Europe) is going to fundamentally impact and evolve science fiction, not least of which the “origins stories” of its superheroes.
The caped superheroes prowling Comic-Con are the products of the science speculation that excited creative artists back in the 1950s and 60s. The “science fact” being exponentially produced and disseminated to writers and artists currently will soon result in a whole new paradigm, a radical new chapter in sci-fi stories and heroes. Soon new sci-fi heroes will have their “origins” in detours through extra dimensions (courtesy of string theory) rather than as a result of radioactive spider bites. Evil nemeses will be much more interested in enslaving humanity through data control rather than by death ray. Superheroes will become much more concerned with using their powers to avert environmental disasters and systems collapses. New sci-fi heroes will have their genesis in our artists’ dreams of solving our current world-catastrophic challenges. “Superman” was imagined by no more than a daydream of possessing superhuman strength and being able to fly.
Today’s “imagineers” need only click on the science page of their online newspaper to be provided the raw ingredients for new superheroes with quantum mechanical and interdimensional identities and powers far more mindbending than those possessed by the super heros presently haunting the aisles of Comic-Con.
An interview with:
Sci-fi at bottom has always been anchored in “possible futures” based on speculative science. What scientific “new idea” do you see really catching fire in the popular imagination which will become a new “standard” for sci-fi stories?
We’ve always known that fiction can (and does) create reality. The often cited connection between Star Trek and a wide variety of our favorite toys (including the incorrigible efforts to fabricate teleportation) is a classic example. What is happening today is that the line between “future” and “present” is getting thinner and thinner. As a consequence, it seems that many of the “new ideas” that will hit the popular imagination are less widely speculative (in the Roddenberry, Asimov or Clarke sense) than they are practical conjectures that have been on the cutting edge for a while and are just about to move into the popular consciousness.
What do you think will be the “paradigm shift” in how new superheroes (or even our traditional iconic ones) will be conceived and how their stories will be told?
Personally I think that the next wave is going to be the re-absorption of the (super)hero into the hero. The superhero is largely the expression of the desire for power on the part of the powerless. One of the major themes of the current era is the “flattening” of power and new, more complex, challenges. I sense, perhaps, a return to the more human stories of adventure and heroism to which the normal person could, in principle, actually aspire. We will be witnessing the most dramatic “leveling up” of individual power since the invention of multi-cellular life. In many ways, a mid-21st century human will be a superhero. When you speculate about cybernetics, genetic and chemical modifications, and the more esoteric man/machine interfaces (for example, one mind controlling multiple geographically separate bodies) – not much of the “superhuman” is left outside of the “adjacent possible”.
With so much riding on how well a “tipping point” mass of the population of the Earth understands enough about climate change, etc, and how committed they become to changing things – how important is the “educational” and cultural role of comic books and sci-fi genre fictions generally in saving the world?
It’s clear to anyone who’s been paying attention that the “ComicCon” genres are (by far) the most effective “memetic organisms” yet devised by humans. It’s sometimes hard to recall that scarcely 70 years ago these genres were marginalized – by the marginal for the marginal. Can it be the case that the flashlight-lit passions of impotent nerdy teenagers have somehow come to utterly dominate the global zeitgeist? It certainly seems that way. And while the rich rewards of this domination still seem to flow more to Flash Thompson than to Peter Parker, the memetic ball is clearly in Superman’s court. Yes – it seems very likely that something like the memetic success of genre fiction is a necessary component to achieving a global tipping point.
Where should anyone who cares about the future of humanity keep their focus trained right now? What general information resources on the web or elsewhere should the concerned world citizen try to be aware of and monitor regularly?
What I’m seeing right now is that most of the best stuff is happening sub-rosa. Bloggers having “off-the-record” conversations. Private groups on Facebook or wikis. It seems right now to be about acquiring a certain sensitivity. A nose for who is saying something that smacks of the future – and a huge network of people who are mutually surfacing the below-the-surface conversation. When you find someone smart, see who they follow (and retweet) on Twitter. Who do they +1 on Google Plus? Whose answers do they like on Quora? Pretty quickly you’ll find yourself tapping into the vital flow of “the conversation” and, soon enough, contributing to the portions that are most important to you. After all, a primary theme of the Great Transition is interaction – not just monitoring.
What is the single most important inspiration or cause that keeps you motivated to keep on thinking, exploring and seeking solutions for the survival, extension and betterment of human life on Earth and beyond?
My kids. If you make the decision to have children you can no longer afford the luxury of being cynical.
For the Reader
1Do you prefer science fiction stories in which superheroes or average human beings are the main protagonists? Do you think advancing technology will shift sci-fi to being mainly about humans with tech powers, or will there always be the need for a super-human “superhero?”
2Which classic superhero do you think best fits and exemplifies the essence of the new Technological Age? Which superheroes do you think don’t fit so well and why?
3Which relatively “new” superhero (who reflects the times and tech of 2012 more than 1950) would you like to see raised up out of the pages of his or her graphic novels and turned into a major film or video game on the same level as “Superman” or “Batman”?
4Flying, x-ray vision, super-strength, shape-shifting, invisibility, mind control, etc. are so played out. Can you think of a “new” super power that could really give you the edge in your struggle for goodness to triumph over meanness and evil?