What are superpowers?
A decade or so ago, an artist friend of mine and I had an enlightening conversation. I’ll call her Julie. We were comparing notes on our childhoods. What she told me, best as I can remember:
From the time Julie was old enough to grasp a crayon, she was trying to draw. Soon she could draw near-perfect images of faces. Then houses, buildings, landscapes, getting the depth perception just right. How much “work” was involved? Some say it takes hundreds of hours of practice to learn any skill. But if, as a child, you are obsessed with something, you don’t have to be “motivated” to practice it. You just do it, every day. It comes to look like you had a “knack” for it.
Julie’s “motivation” came from within. She didn’t merely enjoy art. It made her feel fully alive in a way no one can put into words when they are doing it. They simply lose themselves in it.
As an adult, Julie became a photographer, and a good one! Many of the skills transferred. For a while she had her own company, which did weddings, banquets, and personal portfolios.
What I found interesting was the parallel with my own experience. As a child I was writing things down. I copied from books and encyclopedias. I began integrating and piecing together information in new ways, writing my own small items, just two or three pages of handscrawl. I had little booklets on various subjects (the planets were a biggie) by the time I entered grade school. I’d probably spent hundreds of hours writing such things. So to someone observing, it looked like I had a “knack” for it.
Like Julie, I didn’t have to be “motivated” to do this. The “motivation” came from inside. I lost myself and felt fully alive when writing. The hours flew by!
Obviously, upon growing up writing became central to my life, and I’ve written hundreds of items of various lengths for various audiences: articles, reviews, blog posts, forum posts, ghostwriting projects, lectures, and also five books (counting a published novella as well as the nonfiction, and not counting my MA thesis and my doctoral dissertation).
We do have superpowers, I call them: activities we seem born to do. They come natural to us as a drive that appears when we are children, and in which we can simply lose ourselves. I have no trouble imagining others. Think of the kid who figures out how to take his dad’s wristwatch apart and put it back together and it still works! Or the one who becomes fascinated with car engines, studies them obsessively, and is a sharp mechanic by the time he is in high school. The boy (or girl!) who becomes physically adept at a sport at a very young age, and can’t practice at it enough. The boy (or girl!) who has a “knack” for playing the piano (or guitar) and is composing his (her) own tunes as a child, as Mozart is supposed to have been able to do.
It’s not that we can’t learn other things. We can probably learn to do anything we put our minds to and spend the time and effort on, or any subject we choose to take up. But these won’t come as easily and naturally, which means we’ll have to work harder to gain mastery. It will seem like more work. It may even seem like a “drag.” Because we often have to be “motivated” from outside. Grades may be a motivator. Later, the promise of money may be another. Either way, the “motivation” does not come from within, and there is no disappearance of self into the activity.
Thus despite mastery, the person is never as fully alive or as happy doing the work he/she is doing.
Think of the clerk who is a competent number cruncher, let us say, but watches the clock all day. Or the insurance salesman who goes home exhausted after work and does whatever he can to forget about it.
How many middle-schoolers say to themselves as they jump out of bed in the morning, “Boy, I can’t wait to grow up so I can sell insurance policies for a living!”
Superpowers and Formal Education: Ally or Foe?
Do we all have superpowers? Possibly. What percentage of humanity is actually using whatever superpowers it has? I suspect the number is quite small. This is why so many people honor Thoreau by living lives of quiet desperation.
What does this have to do with education and (since this is a philosophy blog) philosophy?
Imagine, first, an educational system that encourages children to develop their superpowers, instead of one that (intentionally or not) stunts them through regimentation, divides the vast array of information out there into discrete, disconnected boxes called “subjects,” and measures “learning” by an ability to memorize enough content to pass tests. Oppose this to actual learning which involves constant exploration, asking increasingly better questions, challenging assumptions, and getting better at identifying problems and coming up with original solutions.
Seems to me the latter would view children as they are — their default setting one of natural curiosity about everything around them. Curiosity that can be encouraged, or thwarted until it is literally killed.
It is hardly a cliché that “public school” kills most kids’ natural curiosity in short order!
The death march may start as early as kindergarten. The idea of kindergarten is Prussian in origin, not American; translated from German the word means “child garden”: as if children are akin to plants to be grown in a garden!
This became part of a “theory” of education, usually attributed to Horace Mann, a founding father of American “public education” back in the 1830s, based on a European, not an American, philosophy of personhood and society. The basic idea was that “society” owns the person. The consequence was that children (unless they were children of the ruling elite) should not be encouraged to be autonomous and freely acting agents but instead subordinated to developing industrial civilization, i.e., to business’s need for servile employees, government’s need for loyal subjects (later, taxpayers), and cannon fodder to fight its wars.
Was this a good thing?
What we can say at this point is that the free use of one’s superpowers may put one at cross-purposes with the needs of industrial civilization.
The Trajectory of Industrial Civilization.
It can be said for industrial civilization that the standard of living gradually improved — by leaps and bounds.
Diseases were eradicated; new technologies enhanced our capabilities and made life less precarious and more convenient. Violence dropped steadily. People grew wealthier and their capabilities grew still more. Communications eventually spanned the globe. Travel across oceans was eventually reduced from weeks to less than a day.
Probably because enough people were using cognitive superpowers, which can lead to inventions that solve problems.
You will find arguments that the “first world” has never had it better. Although the honest will concede the existence of numerous troubling processes.
Let me mention a couple such developments: at least since the 1970s (1971 being the year Richard Nixon killed the gold standard),. Since then, currencies have lost most of their purchasing power, real incomes have fallen relative to a rising cost of living, and wealth and power have consolidated in the hands of ruling elites.
We’ve also seen a seismic shift in medicine and health care from curing acute conditions to managing chronic ones — because the latter are more profitable to the elite owners of, e.g., pharmaceutical corporations. The masses, who may have become that because their superpowers have been forever stunted, have seen a steady rise in (often stress-related) health problems. Because life, once at least tolerable, has become increasingly precarious with the rise of the “gig economy.” It’s a cinch you cannot really maintain even a developed superpower in the sense I described at the outset if you are working multiple jobs to keep the rent paid, the lights on, and food in the fridge.
Has anyone checked the suicide rate lately?
In many respects (culture is another) we have started slipping backwards. Pollyannish views of Western civilization don’t deal honestly with matters that have had us divided all along (e.g., the division of elites versus peasants, which long precedes that of “left” versus “right”). So much for an honest assessment of the exact factors that are widening the divisions between different groups today.
So perhaps the superpower-dependent gains of industrial civilization were only temporary (?).
Rules and Superpowers.
Civilization needed boundaries, some will argue the obviousness, and these have to be instilled in children if they are to grow up to be responsible citizens. This means learning to live according to rules. These rules may seem to force a curtailing of one’s private superpowers, whether to become that clerk, supplying something some market needs (or an employer needs), being obedient to the law, or for some other reason coming under the general term socialization so that one becomes “well-adjusted.”
We can all agree that we live in a world of causes and effects, and that the whole basis of political economy is supply and demand. In this world we have to produce the means of our survival and advancement. We not only produce but then oversee the distribution of these means. Most serious economists believe that market-driven systems, emerging within populations, are better at supplying people’s needs than command-driven systems that start at the top and go down. Many will claim that industrial civilization did this.
The man or woman who can use his/her superpower to succeed in the market, in that case, is a man or woman to be praised — although envy is more common! I think one of the unnamed factors behind the opposition to market-driven economics is the alienated realization that for most of the human race, this is a dream that will remain a dream. Hence all those lives of quiet desperation. For every writer who earns a good living cranking out bestsellers, there are tens of thousands of us out here who earn little or nothing from it. Some of us teach. Others, less lucky, became bored clerks or insurance salesmen.
The late Gary North thus advocated the sort of personal enlightenment that distinguishes one’s occupation from one’s calling.
Your occupation, whatever it is, is how you pay the mortgage, keep the lights turned on, and put food on the table. Becoming a successful insurance salesman will accomplish this, among many other humdrum “day jobs.”
Your calling is then the exercise of your superpower, whatever it may be. You use your occupation, North explains, to fund your superpower, with each in its place so that the former can accomplish its specific goals while the latter puts you on course to leave a legacy. That legacy may be your version of the next Great American Novel or it may be something else. North penned detailed commentaries on the various books of the Old and New Testaments knowing he would earn very little if anything at all from them. With superpowers, money isn’t “a thing.” They’re labors of love!
In this way of looking at things, in developing and using your superpower, if the market won’t support it, you are on your own. For some, this means liberation. For others, it has meant deep alienation and resentment. There are analyses, moreover, that industrial civilization does not really liberate but suppresses superpowers the free and full use of which will threaten its structures.
Where Did Nikola Tesla’s Superpower Take Him? From Industrial Civilization to an Economics of Abundance.
Suppose we could create a civilization based on an economics of abundance instead of an economics of scarcity, which is what we have now. Scarcity implies, of anything, that there is never enough to go around — even if “we make a bigger pie,” as Ronald Reagan once put it.
I have elsewhere written, perhaps too optimistically, about the possibility and the prospects. A key is energy and its production. Produce anything in sufficient abundance, and by the law of supply and demand, its price to consumers drops. This applies to energy as much as it does anything else consumers purchase and use.
But this means that an economics of abundance will render today’s leviathan energy corporations obsolete! If the price of energy drops, their profits disappear! Hence the energy leviathans — indeed, all corporate leviathans — have seen technological systems able to generate abundance as an existential threat. They have opted to maintain systems based on a presumption of scarcity, which can be lessened or aggravated through the right manipulations.
But the questioner in me still asks, What if? Specifically: suppose we ask, perhaps pointedly, what was Nikola Tesla working on when J.P. Morgan pulled his funding, and when his laboratories were raided and his scientific papers confiscated and classified?
J.P. Morgan was ruling class, of course.
Was Tesla working on an energy technology that would have created abundance and thus made corporate-based centralization obsolete? I can’t prove it, but some have thought so.
Presumably no one who has read this far would quarrel that Tesla had a definite superpower, had gotten results with it, and that the structural needs of the kind of elite that industrial civilization generates moved to suppress it.
The matter bears thinking about, since allegations of the existence of so-called “free energy” technology have appeared again and again, always in the shadows, their inventors not merely defamed as “cranks” trying to build “perpetual motion machines” but often coming to bad ends.
The better to maintain scarcity, because the demands of an economics of scarcity keep the population under control. Even if it means most live lives of quiet desperation, forgetting whatever superpowers they might have sensed in themselves as children.
Is it just conceivable that corporations, no less than governments and perhaps even more than governments, prefer controlled populations to populations of freely acting agents?
Rules Versus Controls.
What do we mean, controls, and how do they different from rules? For it is true enough, we could not imagine civilization without rules. No one serious has ever proposed such a system — which would not be a system at all. Rules can be moral, legal, or institutional. Without moral rules presupposed within a community (however we “ground” them), trust would be hard to maintain, and those practices (business and otherwise) that form the warp and woof of communities would not even develop, much less be maintained.
Legal rules — “the law” in the formal sense, is there because no one really believes everybody is going to live by the agreed-upon rules of the community, the “social contract” if you will, and there needs to be accountability. Institutional rules are going to be specific for organizations, and are products of those who created the organizations for specific purposes. Their rules exist to ensure that things get done and the goals of the organization are achieved. The better organizations will subordinate these to morality and make as much use as possible of human psychology, so that the actions they desire will emerge automatically.
Including the superpowers of their participants!
Ultimately, rules as I am using the term reduce to the way the world is put together: cause-and-effect again, to be discovered; the natural world or the human world. Call this natural law if you wish. Rules are necessary conditions for survival, community, and advancement of any sort. They are necessary for people with different personalities and different goals to live together and work together in society. They emerge naturally when adult human beings interact and decide they have common problems that are better solved working together than working separately. Education — the real thing — helps!
Controls are a different animal. Above, we mentioned controls, and the likelihood that corporations (i.e., those running them) prefer a controlled society to a free society, however they couch their explanations around such terms as “the marketplace” and “liberal democracy.”
Rules, articulated, are just formal expressions of conditions for survival, betterments, and advancements of various sorts. Given the right social philosophy, they allow one’s superpowers to come out. The caveat, of course, is not to forcibly interfere with others in using them.
Controls, on the other hand, stifle superpowers (unless someone in the ruling class can put them to immediate use). Among the many things wrong with “public education” is that it depends on controls, not rules in my sense. If anything, such institutions assume that rules in my sense do not work, are not enough — that human beings interacting freely to learn and solve problems is not enough, as it will not allow a sufficient foothold for a ruling elite to increase its power. It is too “messy” and unpredictable — but above all, too decentralized!
Controls, it should also be clear, are imposed from the top down, as opposed to emerging from the bottom up. As opposed to natural, ongoing discoveries of what actually works in the sense of making things better for an increasing number of people, controls tend to be the inventions of ruling elites, those fascinated with power, who develop lines of thought on what is necessary to impose controls on people and either persuade them to accept a life based on controls, or force them to accept such a life.
The majority of political systems, whatever political philosophies and ideologies they embody (if any), are systems based on controls, not mere rules. They often spring full-blown not from natural developments of people working together to solve problems but from the mind of some isolated intellectual, whose ideal could be described as “a place for everybody and everybody in his place.” The idea of the Perfect Society, or Utopia, goes back at least to Plato. Many later philosophers have put forth their versions. Rousseau, Marx and Engels, Skinner — and most recently, Klaus Schwab (mouthpiece of the World Economic Forum).
So against these, free minds (relatively speaking) have counterpoised Dystopias. Huxley’s and Orwell’s are the best known, obviously, but there are numerous others, with more appearing all the time. Science fiction in particular is a gold mine of Dystopian themes, especially “technology gone awry,” having gotten away from its creators who made false assumptions about its possibilities. Generally speaking, Dystopia is Utopia gone away, because human nature cannot be fitted into the boxes the Utopian intellectual wants to shoehorn it into. If people have superpowers that constitute threats to structures built by the ruling elites, these will be suppressed. Since the appearance and use of these is inherently unpredictable, a population subjected to controls instituted in childhood is more desirable to any state of affairs permitting their free development.
Back to Freely Used Superpowers — Someday….
One day, we might be able to undertake, on a sufficiently large scale, accessible and intellectually honest studies of why industrial civilization has taken the trajectory it has (centralization), what mindsets were responsible, whether any specific groups aided and abetted this project, and more. We might arrive at a better explanation of alienation than Marx gave us (his explanation was purely economic), considering how some, especially intellectual and artistic types, have tried to rebel in one way or another, and why so many of these rebellions have been destructive instead of constructive.
More important is that suppressing people’s natural inclinations always eventuates some form of totalitarianism. This may be covert if it can rely on deception and subterfuge, but will turn overt if its lies are exposed. In any such system, the individual person is invariably a cipher, whatever he/she is told (that he/she can “vote,” and so on). He inhabits “a place for everyone with everyone in his place”: controlled, and ultimately monitored for signs of individual thought that could lead to dissent.
We might also someday come to grips with what will be necessary to build a civilization based on actual abundance, not scarcity, which would transcend all this, and how we can presently design systems, first personal and eventually societal, that whatever the present conditions will better enable people’s superpowers to come out.
This site is not (yet) monetized. Independent philosophers, i.e., philosophers outside of academia, also have to buy groceries and pay bills. If you thought this content worthwhile, please consider my Patreon.com monthly “tip jar.” One-time private donations through PayPal are also acceptable (email: email@example.com).
My earlier book Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons For the Decline of the American Republic is available here.
I have linked to a couple of articles I wrote for the Medium audience. If you go to those and enjoy them, consider becoming a member. It only costs $5 per month.
And please watch for future announcements.