Spark! A Telekinetic Girl Superhero is Pitched for a Brilliant New Comic

tumblr_n9pezntz0O1s9mw7uo9_1280

A few weeks ago I came upon perhaps my favorite website ever, Little Girls Are Better At Designing Superheroes Than You, where Alex Law and others are sent photos of real little girls in their own, self-designed superhero costumes, and illustrate them in full comic book glory. It’s one of those “I’m glad to be alive to see this” kind of websites, delightful for a number of wonderful reasons, like its rejection of girls’ stereotypes, its celebration of creativity and imaginativeness, and the pure joy that permeates each entry.

Now Law is taking another step in a similar direction, pitching a new superhero comic book whose central hero is just such a young girl, outfitted with a persona of her own design, but with actual super powers: Spark– who can assemble and control machines with her mind.

tumblr_n9pf34qhBZ1s9mw7uo2_1280

Law and her collaborator Ted Anderson (who’s done some of the latter-day My Little Pony comics) have posted a 15-page “preview” of the com
ic
on the Little Girls Tumblr, and it just looks great. The cast of heroes is colorful and original, the art is gorgeous, and the character’s relationships are already dynamic and full of dramatic potential. And Spark’s parents are pretty great, too.

I don’t know what the status of the pitch is, whether it’s definitely destined for publication in some form, but I hope so. If it is, I’ll be buying it, and reading it to my little boy and little girl.

Humanism in Software. Stop Laughing.

Image by Shutterstock.
When I talk about humanism, I’m really talking about compassion. Whatever the tenets of a given strain of humanism, whether you think it should have religious elements or be utterly devoid of ritualistic trappings, whatever version of whatever manifesto one might subscribe to, for me, humanism is really all about compassion for other folks, acting on that compassion, and all without any supernaturalistic component to any of it.

And heck, let’s throw liberalism or progressivism in there, too. For me, it’s all ways of saying and acting on compassion.

What a serendipitous stroke, then, as I get this blog ostensibly about tech and humanism off the ground, that I come across this post by Ben Brooks (via Patrick Rhone) about compassion in software.

What now? I know, but it does make sense, it’s not some dippy hipster thing.

Brooks sets up a dichotomy between compassion and fairness, which have absolutely never occurred to me to be in conflict, and uses the tax system as an illustration:

We should strive not to be fair on a whole, but to achieve fairness with each person. If paying taxes means you will go homeless, there should in fact be compassion there to analyze the situation and make a decision on a person-by-person basis. Fairness be damned.

But, what likely happened, is that another tax payer caught wind and shouted the most feared words in all of America: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

Motherfucker, life isn’t fair, get over it.

Life is about compassion, not fairness.

He then cites several examples of software that are “fair” in the sense of being as many things as possible to as many people as possible, versus those that are “compassionate,” in the sense of suiting the explicit needs of particular users in particular circumstances.

Here’s the marketing copy from Microsoft on Word:

Polished documents, anytime, anywhere, on all of your devices

Here’s the marketing copy from Ulysses III:

If you love to write, and write a lot, you’ll love Ulysses III.

Word tells you what it can do, and Ulysses tells you who it is for.

Comically, here is the one take away from Photoshop’s marketing:

Get all the latest creative apps, plus seamless ways to share and collaborate. All right on your desktop.

Compare with Acorn:

Everyone needs to edit photos at some point, but not everyone has the time to learn complicated super pricey photo editing software. This is why we created Acorn.

Again Photoshop is about its features, and Acorn is perfectly humanistic in what it will do with you.

Look! Humanism! And software! I told you this was a good find.

Now look, I don’t want to take the idea of the righteousness of user-specific software too far. But we are fortunate enough to live in a world today in which so many of the tools we use, being primarily bits of data, can be “compassionate,” having a mind to serve an individual’s need rather than check off an ever-expanding array of boxes.

When we were using typewriters, that was more or less the only available technology, so while there were different varieties of typewriter, they were all still banging-and-dinging mechanical keys and hammers slamming ink against paper. Today, you can choose the software tool that suits your specific writing needs. I’m writing this right now in TextEdit, because all I need in the drafting process is a plain text app. I don’t need Word and its vast feature set.

Come to think of it, even the hardware options today are more “compassionate” (except for the fact that they’re freaking expensive, but we’re just stretching an analogy here). You can still use a typewriter if you want (if you can find one), or you can write on a laptop (big or small), a tablet (big or small, with or without a keyboard), a phone (big or small, perhaps even using voice dictation), or pen and paper.

Now on the enterprise side of things, or perhaps in education, when one kind of software or hardware is “deployed” to many people at once, maybe “fairness” is the way to go, but even then, it seems to me that it’s in productivity’s interest to have more custom options for individual employees rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. But again, the customizing approach is likely more expensive.

All that said, I think I’m going to take another look at Acorn.

Collective Genius and Brains in Vats

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 4.31.43 PM
I’ve at times felt some discomfort of the idea of the “genius,” maybe chiefly because I discovered I am not one, much to my delusional childhood chagrin. But the more one knows about one’s brilliant heroes, who despite having powerful creative and intellectual gifts are also rife with human flaws, one begins to see that for “genius” to flower and actually become something meaningful, someone else needs to work alongside the genius. Last year Hélène Mialet wrote at Wired about Stephen Hawking (someone we regard as easily qualifying as a “genius”) and how in many ways Hawking is a “brain in a vat,” and what we think of as “Steven Hawking” is really a larger gestalt of brilliant people:

In another version of Hawking’s story, we notice that he is more “incorporated” than any other scientist, let alone human being. He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking’s “genius,” far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature. … What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies.

And I think this applies to a lot of people we think of as either geniuses or extremely important or powerful. There’s a reason we can refer to President Obama, the White House, or “the administration,” and mean the same thing each time. The language we use reflects the understanding that the words and deeds of “President Obama” are actually those of a vast array of human beings working extremely hard, all under the banner of “Obama.” Barack Hussein Obama the person may be the hub of that network, the brain in the vat, but he is only one part of it. The successes and failures we ascribe to him are really borne by that network.

Joshua Wolf Shenk in a piece at the New York Times narrows this idea of “group genius” to the pair.

[A]n impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience…contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective. The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

I found this both enlightening and alarming. As readers of my previous blog have been told severally, I am a pretty severe introvert, and the idea that “genius” really requires, or at least best thrives, with people in pairs worries me a bit. (The fewer the people in a group, the more the intimacy is increased, and the more threatening that can be to us introverts.) This is not to say I have never been or am incapable of being collaborative with another human being — I used to be a professional stage actor! — but especially these days it doesn’t come up much. I don’t even work in physical proximity to my coworkers, but alone in my home office.

Perhaps Lennon needed McCartney, Carl Sagan likely needed Ann Druyan, and presumably Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak and later Jony Ive (or Tim Cook?) — not as the person behind them, but as creative partners — and they were fortunate enough to find each other and decide to collaborate. But all these collaborations took place before the Internet dominated so much of our social lives. These people had to interact in meatspace. Even the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came together in person in a garage.

But what Google and others helped enable with the rise of the Internet and the Web was collaboration — deep, meaningful, substantive collaboration — between people who have never been in each other’s physical presence. That gives me hope.

Now, just because it’s been enabled, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily happening much. I genuinely don’t know, and we’re really only on the cusp of this being a viable way to work and create together, via our connected devices, never in the same room. As someone who works from home, I feel pretty confident that good work and collaboration is not only possible, but in many ways improved and augmented with remote interaction, and I can thrive and excel in a vat-brain support network. But is this how the next “White Album” or Cosmos or iPhone will come to be?

I’d bet that probably yes, eventually, when more areas of friction in communication are removed, and there’s no meaningful difference between popping into someone’s office with a sudden whim and doing its equivalent online.