The idea for this post came from listening to an episode of the This American Life Podcast which was rebroadcasting an episode of the Judge John Hodgman Podcast, because apparently that’s something that podcast do these days (Coming Soon: The Monthly Spew Podcast: Episodes of This American Life with our brand slapped on them! Pay up!). Putting aside the well-earned annoyance of anyone who subscribes to both of those podcasts and would therefore feel cheated (btw the final segment of This American Life was ALSO sloppy seconds of another podcast’s content), let’s look at what the story was actually about.
Invisibility or Flight
So John Hodgman has apparently been asking people this question at dinner parties and other social gatherings for years. It’s a good enough icebreaker, I’m sure. I mean, its no “How many five-year olds do you think you could kill?” when it comes to generated discussion, but it’s not bad. As he said, it’s better than asking what people do for a living. Unless what they do for a living is murder five-year olds; which is not a job. I hope.
What really surprised and annoyed me as the story went on was the way people thought about this question. Hodgman seemed surprised or nonplussed that people were very utilitarian about the question rather than indulging in dreams of heroism. Turns out people would like to be invisible to spy on naked people or to fly because it got them out of traffic. Nobody, according to Hodgman, wanted to fight crime or take on the mob. That wasn’t surprising to me. Neither of these powers is particularly useful for fighting crime explained many of the people questioned. That’s kind of bullshit. Sure flight without invulnerability or super strength is limited, but being able to fly at a thousand miles an hour still gives you a huge advantage over your average mugger. Ditto at-will invisibility.
No, it wasn’t the fact that no one really cares enough about crime to dedicate their lives post-superpower to stopping it that surprised me. The kind of people who are going to fight crime if they can fly are probably the kind of people who are already fighting crime without being able to fly. I’m sure that if Hodgman asked a lot of police and FBI the question they’d focus on how the powers could help them stop criminals but the average citizen is more likely to focus on how the powers help them in their own lives/careers.
So a lot of people picked invisibility and Hodgman came to a philosophical conclusion that people that want to be invisible are the kinds of people who are more ashamed of themselves. People that could fly were more hopeful about who they were; they wanted to show off not to hide.
You can watch the video above if you like seeing words while hearing them.
Ok; fine. But also; bullshit.
Those are horrible reasons for picking a superpower. You want to be able to watch celebrities have sex so you pick invisibility. You’re an idiot. Want to sneak into movie theaters for free or listen in on your coworkers while they talk about you? You’re also an idiot. Pick flight because you want to go to Paris? You’re also an idiot. Pick flight so that you can show yourself off as you soar through the clouds? You, sir/madam, are a total idiot.
So what is the right answer?
Flight is the blatantly correct answer, but perhaps not for the reasons you think because you might be thinking wrong. That’s ok. That’s what I’m here to fix.
Flight is the correct answer because the act of flying in and of itself would be amazing. Its not about what you can do with the power. The sheer joy of flying makes this an obvious choice.
Think about it this way. You turn invisible. Great, now you can go do lots of sneaky stuff. But how does it feel? Not the stuff you get away with; you could do that and still be visible it just takes more work. How does the act of being invisible feel? Like nothing. It feels just like you feel now except see-through.
Now reverse it. Think about yourself flying under your own power. Whipping through the clouds, doing spins and loops and dives. Every time you use your power, no matter what you’re using it for, you get to fucking fly! Every single time. That would be amazing.
Both powers have uses and you can go back and forth about utility, but the act of flying is so much better than the act of being invisible. Invisibility is all about how you use it. Flight is about enjoying each and every application of your power. And it amazed me that noboby in Hodgman’s piece ever brought that up. Nobody talked about how much more fun it would be to fly than it would be to stand around transparently.
And if you’re talking about superpowers and you’re too stuck up and self-important to consider the sheer joy of being able to fly, well then you’re not the kind of person who should be having conversations about something as childish as superpowers. Go back to your equally boring friends and talk about IRAs and mortgages and baseball stats.