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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 07/01/2002
Volume 2, Number 39

The End of the Superhero

This is an announcement to all comics fans. The superhero as we once knew him or her is about to disappear for all time. Something is about to happen that is going to make superheroes look, at best, rather quaint and old fashioned, and in all seriousness, totally irrelevant.

In fact, since we're all about to become superheroes ourselves, the old superhero will very soon turn into a relic of yesterday, a quaint episode in the comics chapter of literary history.

I'm not just making this up. Nor am I haruspicating about our future. I'm talking about something that's happening right now, thanks to one individual who bears some significant portion of responsibility for the whole thing.

Ever hear of a man named Ray Kurzweil? Some of you might well have heard that name before because he's the one who developed the flatbed scanner, optical character recognition, and whose work in the general field of pattern recognition led to the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first synthesizer that could sound like a grand piano and, according to a recent article in the science web journal, Edge.

" Kurzweil's multiple achievements won him "the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. He has also received scores of other national and international awards, including the 1994 Dickson Prize (Carnegie Mellon University's top science prize), Engineer of the Year from Design News, Inventor of the Year from MIT, and the Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. He has received ten honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents. He has received seven national and international film awards. He is the author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, and The Age of Spiritual Machines, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence."

All right-I'm not trying to present Mr Kurzweil as the new Superhero-although, in some ways that's what he really seems to be. More to the point, I want you to understand who it is that seems to be predicting the end of the superhero as we know him. And that's Mr Kurzwell himself. And coming from him, you have to acknowledge that he surely knows what he's talking about. And what he's telling us is what's just beginning to happen as the result of the continuing refinement of computer or digital technology into something called a nanbot.

Some of you will have heard the term before. For those who haven't, it's simply a contraction of "nano robot" and a nanbot is a digitally functioning robot so microscopically small, a true nanomite, that it can be inserted into the human body, into the bloodstream, into the brain, and be able to function as an incredible mental and physical enhancement of our biological selves. We'll be able to think, calculate, solve problems, repair our biological flaws, increase our normal strength, enhance all our senses by degrees of magnitude we once might have considered possible only vicariously, through the imagined powers of our various comic strip superheroes. This mechanical joining of man and machine has already begun to show salutary results in treatments for such illnesses as Parkinson's. But curative uses are just the beginning. Imaginative uses are likely to be far more impressive and even rather scary.

We'll skip over such things as speeded up metabolism, vastly increased musculature and speed of response and deal with one other looming technology-the VIRTUAL world that humans will be able to enter the moment they wish to escape the boredom of the everyday. Nanbots make it possible to create an internal, imagined environment rich in appearance and capable of adding such special effects that movies like Star Wars will seem rudimentary. In our own minds, we'll be able to live in environments and among beautiful people and stimulating experiences that like the most magical opium dream will be very hard to break away from and get back to the drab ordinary world. Think of the beautiful men and women we can put ourselves among, the sensual delights we can experience and then ask yourself the big question: Is this a new beginning for mankind or a new technological trap that can ultimately destroy us?

First, accept the fact that nanbots as I've just described them are already here. And that superheroes are therefore on the way out. Next, consider the terrible danger that nanbots, by the conveniences and delights and ease of living they will provide may turn us all into zombies. That we will lack challenges and cease to develop. Consider the possibility of a world in which everyone is happily and endlessly stoned.

I'm writing this because what we're facing is a stark reality which far from bringing about a better kind of life may confront us with the question: How can flawed personalities, people with moral and emotional limitations, capable of hatred or dislike or prejudice, ever again have the incentive to struggle and learn and improve themselves when, as they used to say in the sixties, one can now really drop out, tune in and stay cool?

Look at it this way. With the tremendous increase in income, lifestyle choices, housing quality, freedom to choose, plus all the geegaws of DVD, Music, Film, Synthetic entertainment, etc etc, how come we almost all seem to be running harder, working longer and relating to each other less closely than ever before. If this is happening now, what will the spreading use of nanbots actually bring?

As we were growing up, the superheroes comforted us, especially in a time of depression and war. But as we all become superheroes, what will we really become? Because, make no mistake about it-all this is on the way to turning into reality. The nanbots are here.

I didn't write this column just to take a Luddite stance and say, stop them. But I do want you to think about what is coming. I want you to discuss it as much as possible. I want you to think about other, more important realities, realities that come from within, that arise from something we used to call soul or spirit. I've written about these latter in various ways in my books, both in AN UNLIKELY PROPHET and its sequel, archived in these columns as A GATHERING OF SELVES. So really, we need to talk. We ought to talk right here on this site. We need to exchange ideas and visions as to how we should gird ourselves to deal with this coming reality. So that's it. The ball is now in your court. Let's start the dialogue now. There's no time to waste.....

--Alvin

<< 06/24/2002 | 07/01/2002 | 07/08/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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