Superheroes, revisited

Yesterday I pointed out that the modern equivalent of the power of invisibility is possession of a universal password. One can take the analogy further. Superhero comics have been with us for a long time. From Superman to Batman to the XMen, the basic premise has been the same — we place our collective hands in the fate of individuals with enormous powers, and we trust in those individuals’ heightened sense of responsibility and ethics, knowing that they will use those powers for the good of humanity.

Even Spiderman — poor misunderstood Peter Parker — courageously fought for good, even in the face of being falsely labeled a villain. What would possibly be more noble than to devote your superior powers to the defense of the very people who falsely accuse you?

Things got more complicated with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Suddenly the moral equation became tilted — superheroes were just like us, only with better training and colorful costumes. A superhero did not necessarily have a heightened sense of ethics — in fact it could go quite the other way.

We are currently in an analogous situation in the age of Google. I have no doubt that Larry Page and Sergei Brin are good and highly ethical people. But their superpowers will outlive them. One day others will have possession of the universal password — the modern equivalent of the power of invisibility.

And on that day we may find ourselves in the highly ethical universe envisioned by Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster when they created Superman, but rather in the far darker and more ambiguous universe that Alan Moore showed us in Watchmen.

And on that day, we may regret putting our collective fate into the hands of our modern day superheroes.

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