Superman is listening

One year at sleepaway camp, I think I was about eleven years old, I was reading a Superman comic book, and I got to my favorite part, where they publish letters from kids. Often readers would write in to ask various questions, and some of these questions were of a technical nature.

In this particular issue, an intrepid reader had noticed that Superman had caught some bad guys by using his super hearing to eavesdrop on their nefarious conversation. Because he is Superman, he’d been able to do this from halfway around the world.

What the kid wanted to know was this: With all of those billions of people chatting away, many of them a lot nearer than those villains, how was Superman able to pick out a single conversation through all that chatter?

The editors of D.C. Comics had an answer ready: Because Superman has super hearing, he is not only able to hear all the conversations in the world at once, but he is also able to distinguish each conversation from all the others. From there, it’s just a matter of choosing the particular conversation he is listening for.


If you are like I was as an eleven year old kid, you might be deeply suspicious of answers that merely repeat the question using different words. On the other hand, you might think that was a fine answer, in which case you may have have a bright future in politics.

And yet the scenario they were describing is something we now take for granted: If I mention your name in my blog, wherever you may be in the world, within a few minutes you might very well get a helpful alert from a Bot informing you that I was talking about you — even if you’ve never before heard of either me or my blog.

When I was a little kid, this kind of thing would have seemed about as plausible as a guy from outer space flying through the air in tights and a colorful red cape.

And yet, as Edna says, here we are. Some day soon, when we have cast away those silly smartphones, and information technology moves, as it inevitably will, into our eyes, our ears, our fingertips, those Bots will have a much richer meal to dine upon.

Imagine a cafe, perhaps twenty years in the future. You are sitting with a friend, settling into your second Bermuda highball and trading gossip. Or maybe not. For whenever you name-check someone, whoever or wherever they may be in the world, a tireless Bot is ready to whisper your words into their ear.

Superman is listening.

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