Open Source Superheroes, Idoru, and the Batman

Posted by on November 26th, 2010 in comics, concepts, friends of the future, identity, no hero, rage against the machine

(Continued from Brands, Prosthetic Identities and the Batman.)

What if you could opt-in to a prosthetic identity like Batman’s or Kanye West’s?

What if you could Be Batman?

Mentioned here (and everywhere else on the internet) this week, J-Pop star Hatsune Miku is a fictional android, a sex symbol, a popular product spokeswoman, and the output of a vocal software package.  As such, “she” is not just a saccharine-sweet corporate-operated pitchwoman but also a prosthetic identity that anyone with access to her software package can participate in the co-creation of.  It was arguably this open feature of “her” prosthetic identity that allowed her to become so popular.

However, I’d like to approach this notion a bit more directly – after all, this is a blog addressing self-upgrading culture, innit?

There’s been a lot of talk about Real Life Superheroes this week thanks to a recent incident in Seattle that returned the idea of the RLSH to web-consciousness after KICK-ASS vanished from the theaters.   Is the idea of putting on a costume and leaping into action on the streets of The City so strange?   Well, probably, but that hasn’t stopped a surprising number of people from doing it regularly over the past decade.  Existing long before KICK-ASS (in fact the book KICK-ASS’s first bit of viral promotion was a video that made the Myspace Real Life Superhero rounds before leaking into the internet mainstream) there was a loose network of folks in costumes in cites around the world.

With the World Superhero Registry serving as one of a handful of internet hubs, real life superheroes do everything from patrolling the streets and paying parking meter fines, to cutting the blocks off cars with an angle grinder.  Many do little more than visit hospitals to talk to kids and champion various causes.  Never let it be said that volunteering with kids at a hospital is a bad thing .

The problems with this approach are legion.  Even the crime-patrolling supes are doing little more than what citizen vigilante group the Guardian Angels has been doing for years – just in cooler gear.  On the other hand, Guardian Angels have died at the hands of police and criminals and they’ve suffered the problems that any vigilante organization does.   The only place I’ve actually seen the Guardian Angels in action personally is post-Katrina New Orleans where they were almost universally loathed by the residents I spoke to.    Replace the capes and tights fetishism with a desire to play soldier, and you’ve got the ideologically troubling Minutemen who patrol the United States’ border with Mexico – often armed.

The flip side of KICK-ASS’ “rocket launchers and jetpacks” fictional real-life superheroism is Brian Bendis’ SCARLET which tells the story of a Portland teen, who when her boyfriend is killed by corrupt police, begins killing cops and organizing a community of like-minded people to fight institutionalized corruption.  It’s a story that showcases how Real Life Superheroism could could veer into armed vigilantism:  What if I want to be the Punisher or the Boondock Saints instead of Batman?

Still, the current of what I call autosuperheroism has been running pretty strongly through media recently.  I love superheroes and a lot of folks do as well; there’s a reason the movies do well and the books are the life-support of a sick publishing industry.  Superheroes are awesome, especially when divorced from the fascist power fantasies and stripped to a core of “we can do extraordinary things if we try”.  (The “auto” part comes in from embracing the idea that nobody else is going to rescue us – we’re going to have to do it ourselves.)  It could be just a thing from my personal sample-group and the cross-section of the internet I live in – where activism, comics, social-justice, sustainability and futurism cross-over – but there really seems to be an autosuperheroic vibe out there right now.

“Something is going on there, a strange collapse. Like you said, more and more people want to become superheroes, even as comic-book writers and filmmakers have spent the last 10 years trying to make superheroes much more real, relatable and convincing.”

We can all be Batman?

As I said elsewhere, the transformation of Batman into Batman, Inc allowed the Batman brand to act where Batman was not present.  I compared it to MEND in its ability to self-organize and be embraced by previously unaffiliated entities.  There’s a core to that mobility and the ethos that a “Batman, Inc” would propagate that I believe can be adopted in a very real and practical way that is strangely far more literal than dressing up as a bat.

While traditionally visible mostly to marginalized subcultures and groups, the collapse of infrastructure in the Western World (especially America) has been increasingly visible over the last few years.  Here in the US, we got to watch a city drown while the government watched and did almost nothing to intervene as well as other glaring examples of the people “we” were told would “save us” not being there when needed.  In the medwest, cities like Gary and Detroit start to wither on the vine as “we” watch.  So many people I know suddenly had the idea, even if it was one that didn’t blow their minds, that in the event of an emergency there may not be anyone to save them.

Meanwhile, everyone’s 15 minutes of fame continues to be parceled in 10-second bursts and the participatory panopticon becomes the norm of the interconnected world, offering media prosthetics in exchange for perpetually being in a low-watt spotlight.    It’s a confluence of media influences and environmental stresses that could just make taking pages from the four-colour playbook look like a good idea.

In a world where prosthetic identities are commonplace, we can all be rockstars – and superheroes are rockstars that help people.  Being something bigger than ourselves isn’t a superhuman feat in a world where Twitter lets you crowdsource solutions in seconds behind an @-handle that may be more recognizable than your birth name.

Geek culture helps birth Maker culture.  Suddenly “makerspaces” are viable community resources.  Highly-networked organizations like Burners without Borders, Geeks Without Bounds and various Worldchanging spin-offs can leverage that networking to react quickly to problems and use local resources to help solve problems when infrastructure, for whatever reason  fails.   People who couldn’t give two tugs about Bruce Wayne are able to use their media footprint and digital prosthetics to organize in a way that stands to have real lasting impact on actual human lives.  The lesson from Batman, Inc becomes:  The ability to mobilize along the lines of 4th Generational Warfare – even, or especially in non-combat circumstances - is a superpower.

I have friends who are Street Medics; tossing on colorful tough clothes to go out into violent situations and help the wounded.    Wikileaks, love them or hate them, is a team of people (many with secret identities) that manages to keep whole governments on their toes using volunteers, donations and support from the crowd milling about the internet.  (Sadly, that description fits terrorist networks such as Al-Quadea, as well.  The same technologies and social structures that allow a previously unthinkable ability to leverage distributed resources – often in spite of geography – are also the things that allow wide-scale disruption and crime.)

The same current that gives us real life superheroes trying to help others spawns variants when it hits other spheres of interest.   Zombie lovers teach preparedness  in the US while the LARPers at a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. event in Russia get lessons on firearms handling and wilderness survival. (And those very real people who make their living within the real Chernobyl Exclusion Zone take on the name “Stalkers” co-opting the parlance of the movie and the video games.)   Tactical fashion slides into mainstream consciousness via William Gibson’s Zero History.  I can’t be the only one who sees in the “gear queer” fetishism an acknowledgement that the normal trappings of military lifestyle are associated with a machine that is ill-prepared for the world around it.  And if the military is losing its legitimacy – then we should do it ourselves, right? (Or at least look like we could.)

In the end, stripped of the technical language and self-upgrading futurist posturing, the idea that we can all be Batman if we want to is a valid one.   Batman is a man who took the darkest thing in his life and turned it into a superpower – who here doesn’t have a loss or tragedy that they wouldn’t like to weaponize or utilize to improve the environment?   Superheroes are a secular pantheon that instead of sitting above us unattainably, move through our lives as stories and challenge us to emulate them and join them.  They are an artistic transmission vector for the program of a finer world.  Batman will be punching things long after we’re all dead or uploaded; Batman, Incorporated or no Batman, Inc.  A brand is a story – a story that is often used to disenfranchise humans and  make the world a little less than it could be, sadly.  The idea of Batman as a brand is the idea of the narrative of Batman being able to help others in the absence of a Physical Batman.  Just like the prosthetic identities and micro-brands we use and generate ourselves are stories.   Just as I hope the story I tell in order to feel out the interconnected world is one that might help someone, somehow – the story of Batman is that of someone using their broken heart to help the person standing next to them.

We’ve all got broken hearts, and we’re all standing next to people who could use help.

We can all be Batman.

You can even wear the cape, if you want.

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4 Responses to “Open Source Superheroes, Idoru, and the Batman”

  1. I think Morrison tries to address the class issues in his Batman RIP (which in fact, got me to lay off my constant class critique of the idea of Batman) and the rest of his run. Even Batman in hand-stitched rags with homemade weapons and a Bat-bat is Batman. It's Bruce Wayne and his money that brings the toys. There's obviously still a lot of wish fulfillment there – especially as being in that upper 2% income bracket starts to reveal itself as a super-power in and of itself. Batman never clicked for me until I realized that while the money is obviously part of his success, at his core he's just a really depressed guy with martial arts skills, meditation and a desire to help.

    I definitely think treating the state like damage is the only sane way to live – until the state itself gets better. (There's my "Tellerism" showing again.)

    And yeah, as I've harped on many a-time: "I always come back to the idea that seen from above, self-orginizing effective understructures would look a lot like crime." The state doesn't want to be routed around, even if it is for fairly innocuous reasons. It's not an evil plan from above, but the simple self-preservation instinct of an entrenched power structure.

  2. [...] Open Source Superheroes, Idoru, and the Batman – [...]

  3. Damn, well that's a hell of a lot to think on. Great work, Kevin.

    Interestingly enough, I saw this just after I posted my own short rant on the Seattle superheroes (focussing more on the ground-level crime side).

    Probably more later once I've had a chance to digest this piece, but one thing that interests me is that this seems to spring up in reaction to a fracturing of traditional, easily available identity sources — people still want to part of something grander and greater, but aren't really sure what that is. Vague identities make for easy networks.

    I differ on networks' strength. They're good at making a cause or subculture hard to root out, but decisive or concentrated action isn't really their strong suit, one reason they tend to fare badly when forced to directly compete with a more hierarchical group. One reason entrenched power structures (good, bad or ugly) are shaken but mostly intact is because competing networks can disrupt quite effectively, but can't yet offer widely viable alternatives (no matter what John Robb says ;-)).

    I've rambled enough, but one last thing: the first groups to put a little more organization, aim and resources behind some of these nascent identities are going to be a force to be reckoned with.

  4. [...] we can all be Batman but within that same current are the same kind of fascist undertones that superhero comics have [...]