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To Fly, or to Be Invisible?

October 19, 2013

The most recent episode of This American Life dealt with superpowers, and why the idea of superpowers attracts our attention.  I was especially drawn to the show’s first segment, “Invisible Man vs. Hawkman”.  John Hodgman conducts an informal survey, based on one simple question: If you could have one of two superpowers, which would you pick: invisibility or flight?  I thought I’d take a crack at answering this.

First, invisibility strikes me as the more interesting power to analyze.  Philosophers and writers have been using the power of invisibility to explore human ethics for a long time.  In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon uses the Ring of Gyges to argue that man would not be moral if he were free from the threat of punishment; H. G. Wells explores similar themes in The Invisible Man.  The way it’s used in ethical thought experiments, it’s a wonder that any superheroes would be given invisibility as a power.  Invisible Man could of course sneak up on muggers, but he could also sneak off with the old lady’s purse.

Now, flying is, of course, a power that humans have wanted for ages.  We’ve wanted to join the birds and soar above the towns below.  And rising up to the sky has a sort of spiritual connotation.  You are ascending to a higher plane, joining the gods or what have you.  But it also resists ethical analysis.  While invisibility is ethically ambiguous, flying is ethically neutral.  It’s like breathing–it suggests nothing about the person who possesses the power.

That’s probably the reason that many people in the This American Life segment ultimately pick flying.  (Actually, that’s the reason Hodgman gives.)  Invisibility raises too many personal questions: are you sneaky, deceitful, cowardly, voyeuristic?  Picking invisibility in that scenario forces the subject to confront their inner demons.  Even if the subject does not believe they possess those vices, they may worry that invisibility would corrupt their morals.  Better to pick the neutral superpower.

For my part, though, I’d stick with my guns and pick invisibility.  I think it better suits my personality: quiet and introverted, wary of conversation.  I’m not sure I’d even do anything with invisibility; it would just be nice to fade out for a bit.  (Besides, I’d probably use flying for the same purpose–I would just burn more calories in the process.)  If I’m being more practical, it would be great for poetry–much easier to people-watch when others aren’t watching.

Ah, see, I’ve fallen into the voyeuristic trap.  Should I back out?  Embrace the clarity of flight.  Nah.  At the very least, if I’m invisible I can soundtrack my life with Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”.  A great song, so that’s something, right?  Actually, no, wait, that’s also really depressing.

Hmm, this question is a lot harder than I’d anticipated.  Now why wasn’t fire breath an option?


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