3 March 2016

Sticking to the script? Superheroes, enhancement, and the challenge of steering technologies in socially desirable ways - Part 2

Guest post by Michael Morrison (Oxford, HeLEX)

[O]ur proper response to the inexorable march of progress that has brought us to this place and time in the history of civilization is to find a way to confront it responsibly. Not modestly. Non unself-conciously. Not with faith in a greater power than ours to descend from the sky and set things right despite our best efforts to screw up. We have an obligation to know who we are and what we can do. We have an obligation to understand the ramifications of the things we do, and to choose to do them  - or not – with our eyes open.
-- Elliot S. Maggin in his introduction to Kingdom Come collected edition (DC Comics 2008).

Instead of treating technologies as simply neutral things that can be used in either good or bad ways, we might think about technological consequences in a more nuanced way by examining the (social) relations their use promotes.

One thing all enhancement technologies do is create a difference between enhanced people and those who are not enhanced.

In order to think about the potential social consequences of enhancement, we therefore have to think about how enhanced humans might interact with unenhanced people, with each other, and with the world around them.  In short, how might the enhanced behave and what strategies might be available to manage this behaviour?

For golden age superheroes there was one, obvious thing to do: put on a costume, protect the innocent, and fight crime!

In one sense, these enhanced individuals acted in ways that upheld the social order and social values of the time. They used their powers to try and prevent undesirable things; accidents and natural disasters, crime, and even war, and to promote desirable social ends such as safety and prosperity.

However, while superheroes often acted in support of the law, they were rarely bound by it.

Instead superheroes largely acted according to their own codes of conduct.  Superman famously fought for 'truth, justice and the American way'. Wonder Woman creator William M. Marston intended the lariat-of-truth wielding heroine to represent his ideas of a new female morality.

In modern terms we would describe this is self-regulation of behaviour.

Another way of thinking about how golden age comic superheroes acted would be to say that superheroes (and supervillains) used their enhanced abilities to control the world around them, often using physical force, or the threat of force, to shape both their physical environment and the behaviour of unenhanced humans around them.  In many cases, such as the early incarnation of Batman, this involved imposing a more brutal form of summary justice than we might be comfortable with.

One of the limitations of self-regulation is that it relies on all parties agreeing on what behaviours are acceptable and depends on the good faith of the regulatees to enforce it.

By the 1980s comics such as Watchmen (1986-7) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986) envisaged a world where self-regulation was no longer acceptable and enhanced individuals would be faced with a choice between retiring, effectively ceasing to use their powers and leading ‘normal’ lives like unenhanced humans, or working for the government as special agents.

In both cases, superheroes faced a situation where they were required to submit to a set of rules devised by other people - either by following the law like other citizens or by having their actions approved (and directed) by a state authority.

In this scenario enhanced individuals become subject to formal regulation; that is, their behaviour is subject to a set of laws backed by the authority of a state (and ultimately enforced through physical coercion).

If self-regulation through codes of conduct might be considered too soft a form of regulation, top-down formal regulation by force of law may also be considered overly restrictive, even counter-productive: Both stories also feature costumed heroes who find the options of retirement or working for the government unacceptable, with the consequence that they opt to act outside the law, guided only by their personal codes of conduct. This course of action inevitably brings them into conflict with the police and other government-approved superheroes.

As mentioned in part 1 of this article, Marvel’s Civil War (2007) also explores similar themes.

This story begins with a confrontation between superheroes and supervillains that results in the deaths of several innocent bystanders. As public opinion turns against enhanced individuals in the wake of the tragedy, Iron Man Tony Stark proposes that, in future, anyone with enhanced abilities must register and receive proper training before being allowed to act as a superhero and fight crime.

This is an interesting proposition because it treats being an enhanced individual as something akin to a profession.

Professions, such as medicine, law, or teaching usually grant their members a certain amount of authority over people in their care, for a very specific area of social activity. In return, professional associations generally insist on their members achieving a certain, mandatory level of skill and agreeing to abide by a professional code of conduct in order to be allowed to exercise that authority.

Professions also generally require their members to abide by the law, even while they have some input into shaping how that law should apply to their members (e.g. in defining medical misconduct). Professional status thus mixes elements of self-regulation and formal (law-based) regulation.

In Civil War, the main objection of the super-powered opponents to Stark’s plan, led by Captain America seems to be that the registration and training will be overseen by S.H.I.E.L.D., whose role is something like a Department of Homeland Security for enhanced humans.

In the Marvel comics universe this kind of regulation can work because the distance between enhanced and unenhanced individuals is not that great (with some obvious exceptions like the Hulk). For the most part, the use of other technologies can allow unenhanced humans to compete with enhanced humans. An obvious example is the Iron Man armor that allows the otherwise unenhanced Tony Stark to compete on equal terms with Captain America or the X-men. On a more basic level many enhanced Marvel universe characters can still be harmed by conventional weapons such as tazers and guns which allows unenhanced police and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, acting in greater numbers, to pose a realistic threat to enhanced humans like Captain America.

DC’s Kingdom Come (1996) storyline also addresses the ways in which enhanced humans behave towards each other and towards unenhanced normal humans. However, in the DC universe, the capacities of most enhanced characters far exceeds that of a regular human. Superman, Wonder Woman and co are largely unaffected by other human technologies and cannot be harmed by human weapons. Self-regulation has been the only viable option in this universe for most of its history.

Kingdom Come posits a future where the golden age superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern have all retired, to be replaced by a new generation of enhanced humans. The new generation have effectively abandoned the moral codes of the old superheroes and use their powers for their own amusement and gratification with little care for the consequences to unenhanced humans. The possibility that enhanced humans would come to dominate unenhanced humans and regard them as inferior is often raised by opponents of human enhancement technology as a reason why it should not be developed.

After a particularly reckless fight between enhanced people causes a major loss of (unenhanced) human life, Superman decided to return from retirement, bringing the other golden age heroes with him, to restore order. Superman’s approach is to try and reason with those who will listen and to capture and imprison those who will not. As the conflict between enhanced humans worsens, the remaining unenhanced human authorities consider the use of nuclear weapons as a last-ditch desperate strategy to eliminate all enhanced beings once and for all. Only the Batman, who is both a golden age costumed adventurer and an unenhanced human is looking for a peaceful solution.

In the end a resolution is only achieved by enhanced and unenhanced humans agreeing to work together towards mutually agreed goals. This might be considered a form of incentive-based regulation – where force is not an option, people, enhanced or otherwise, can be induced to behave in desired ways (or to avoid certain undesirable behaviours) by rewarding this behaviour.

These stories do not, of course, tell us what will happen, any more than the NBIC report can. However, they are tools to think with, and through. They remind us that thinking responsibly about the consequences of technology involves more than just identifying ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of a prospective technologies. Being responsible about enhancement means thinking about how we might exercise some measure of control over the enhanced once they exist. Comics allow us to imagine different scenarios from codes of conduct for enhanced people to formal legal rules, from treating the enhanced as a new and specialized profession to offering incentives for good behaviour, and to think about which approaches would be suitably fair, flexible and enforceable.

The Dark Knight Returns written and drawn by Frank Millar
Civil War written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven
Kingdom Come written by Mark Waid with art by Alex Ross
Watchmen written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons

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