Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Superhero Comics About Modern Tech

There are two great superhero comics which explore social media and NSA surveillance in interesting ways.

I really think you should read these comics, if you're a programmer. Programming gives you incredible power to shape the way the world is changing, as code takes over nearly everything. But both the culture around programming, and the educations which typically shape programmers' perspectives, emphasize technical details at the expense of subjects like ethics, history, anthropology, and psychology, leading to incredibly obvious and idiotic mistakes with terrible consequences. With great power comes great responsibility, but at Google and Facebook, with great free snacks come great opportunities for utterly unnecessary douchebaggery.

A lot of people in the music industry talk about Google as evil. I don’t think they are evil. I think they, like other tech companies, are just idealistic in a way that works best for them... The people who work at Google, Facebook, etc can’t imagine how everything they make is not, like, totally awesome. If it’s not awesome for you it’s because you just don’t understand it yet and you’ll come around. They can’t imagine scenarios outside their reality and that is how they inadvertently unleash things like the algorithmic cruelty of Facebook’s yearly review (which showed me a picture I had posted after a doctor told me my husband had 6-8 weeks to live).

Fiction exists to explore issues like these, and in particular, fantastical fiction like sci-fi and superhero comics is extremely useful for exploring the impact of new technologies on a society. This is one of the major reasons fiction exists and has value, and these comics are doing an important job very effectively. (There's sci-fi to recommend here as well, but a lot of the people who were writing sci-fi about these topics seem to have almost given up.)

So here these comics are.

In 2013 and 2014, Peter Parker was dead. (Not really dead, just superhero dead.) The megalomaniac genius Otto Octavius, aka Dr. Octopus, was on the verge of dying from terminal injuries racked up during his career as a supervillian. So he tricked Peter Parker into swapping bodies with him, so that Parker died in Octavius's body and Octavius lived on inside Parker's. But in so doing, he acquired all of Parker's memories, and saw why Parker dedicated his life to being a hero. Octavius then chose to follow his example, but to do so with greater competence and intelligence, becoming the Superior Spider-Man.

The resulting comic book series was amazing. It's some of the best stuff I've ever seen in a whole lifetime reading comics.

Given that his competence and intelligence were indeed both superior, Octavius did actually do a much better job of being Spider-Man than Spider-Man himself had ever done, in some respects. (Likewise, as Peter Parker, he swiftly obtained a doctorate, launched a successful tech startup, and turned Parker's messy love life into something much simpler and healthier.) But given that Octavius was a megalomaniac asshole with no reservations about murdering people, he did a much worse job, in other respects.

In the comics, the Superior Spider-Man assassinates prominent criminals, blankets the entire city in a surveillance network comprised of creepy little eight-legged camera robots, taps into every communications network in all of New York, and uses giant robots to completely flatten a crime-ridden area, killing every inhabitant. (He also rants constantly, in hilariously overblown terms, like the verbose and condescending supervillian who he was for his entire previous lifetime.)

Along the way, Octavius meets "supervillians" who are merely pranksters -- kids who hit the mayor with a cream pie so they can tweet about it -- and he nearly kills them.

As every superhero does, of course, Peter Parker eventually comes back from the dead and saves the day. But during the course of the series' nearly two-year run, The Superior Spider-Man did an absolutely amazing job of illustrating how terrible it can be for a city to have a protector with incredible power and no ethical boundaries. Anybody who works for the NSA should read these comics before quitting their terrible careers in shame.

DC Comics, meanwhile, has rebooted Batgirl and made social media a major element of her life.

I only just started reading this series, and it's a fairly new reboot, but as far as I can tell, these new Batgirl comics are comics about social media which just happen to feature a superhero (or superheroine?) as their protagonist. She promotes her own activities on an Instagram-like site, uses it to track down criminals, faces impostors trying to leverage her fame for their own ends, and meets dates in her civilian life as Barbara Gordon through Hooq, a fictional Tinder equivalent.

The most important difference between these two series is that one ran for two years and is now over, while the other is just getting started. But here's my impression so far. Where Superior Spider-Man tackled robotics, ubiquitous surveillance, and an unethical "guardian" of law and order, Batgirl seems to be about the weird cultural changes that social media are creating.

Peter Parker's a photographer who works for a newspaper, and Clark Kent's a reporter, but this is their legacy as cultural icons created many decades ago. Nobody thinks of journalism as a logical career for a hero any more. Batgirl's a hipster in her civilian life, she beats up douchebag DJs, and I think she might work at a tech startup, but maybe she's in grad school. There's a fun contrast here; while the Superior Spider-Man's alter ego "Peter Parker," really Otto Octavius, basically represents the conflict between how Google and the NSA see themselves vs. how they look to everyone else — super genius vs. supervillain — Barbara Gordon looks a lot more like real life, or at least, the real life of people outside of that nightmarish power complex.

Update: sadly, Batgirl made a surprising transition from good to bad, followed by an unsurprising transition from bad to terrible.