Columnists

Wayne MacPhail
Mobile computers and superpowers

| September 5, 2008
When I was a kid, back in the early 60s, I was obsessed with superheroes, their powers and their origins. Now I find they help me understand the allure of mobile computers. Bear with me.

I grew up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and spent many a hot summerâe(TM)s afternoon in a canvas pup tent reading 12 cent comic books that explained how The Atom used a white dwarf lens to shrink himself to subatomic size, how lame medical student Donald Blake became Thor after finding the Norse godâe(TM)s hammer disguised as a stick, and how a trip through the Van Allen radiation belt gave the Fantastic Four their powers.

My friends and I formed a Superhero Club, I jerry-rigged a utility belt from army surplus junk and we generally made nerdish fools of ourselves running around the neighbourhood feeling superior to our hapless mortal parents while wearing capes made of pillowcases tucked into our dungarees. At the height of the idiocy I got my rubber bat-boot stuck in the top of our picket fence and smacked my little cowled forehead into the bottom of the fence trying to swing from my bat-rope. Mrs. Moffat, next door, saw it all while hanging out laundry.

Despite such set backs, it was a powerful fantasy believing that while we appeared to be average citizens we actually possessed powers far beyond the understanding of even science teachers. No one knew we could see through girlsâe(TM) dresses, had icicle-breath and could, if we ever needed to, circle the Earth five times before the street lights flickered lazily on and we had to go home.

I bring the whole embarrassing episode up because Iâe(TM)ve started to feel like a secret superhero again. In fact, I think the best way to understand the true appeal of mobile computers and mobile devices is to imagine them like the stick that turned the skinny Donald Blake into the God of Thunder.

When I was in downtown Toronto last week I saw iPhones everywhere. The owners looked like average citizens but they were anything but. With the touch of a button, any of them could be granted the power to see themselves as a blue dot moving through an urban landscape where every street name was known to them at vast distances.

Using a mobile Twitter application they could see which of their âeoefollowersâe was in the vicinity and was sending them silent, near telepathic messages like Aquaman communicating with dolphins.

Turn on the âeoepublicâe Twitter feed and a million human voices are tuned in, the way Superman rises above the Earth and hears the cries and whispers of the worldâe(TM)s humanity below him.

With Wikipanion the planetâe(TM)s knowledge, as rich a resource as Jor-Elâe(TM)s library in Fortress of Solitude, is a search term away. Bliin allows the secret superheroes to watch humans around them move from place to place, like the Dark Knight harnessing the power of a network of cell phones to create a virtual map of human activity in Gotham.

Using Last FM, their super hearing can pull in any radio station, any music on the planet. And while they canâe(TM)t control the weather like the X-Menâe(TM)s Storm, they can know it for any city on Earth.

So a mobile computer hooked to WiFi and GPS really is Green Lanternâe(TM)s ring, Thorâe(TM)s hammer, Atomâe(TM)s white dwarf lens, Hawkmanâe(TM)s wings, Batmanâe(TM)s suit, Spiderman radioactive bite or Supermanâe(TM)s yellow sun. It is the talisman that gives us all great power and great responsibility. Itâe(TM)s a portal that allows its users to live two alternative realities at once.

Anyone who has used one extensively knows the feeling. You are both in an office, classroom or party but are also tuned to distance voices, fresh information and extended senses that give you updates, overviews and perspectives that are invisible to those around you.

You are both here and there, like a quantum particle or the forever wandering Doctor Manhattan. You are a split personality with an alter ego in the palm of your hand. Or, at least, thatâe(TM)s how it seems to me sometimes.

And Iâe(TM)m torn, sometimes it makes me feel informed and powerful. Other times Iâe(TM)m waiting to smack my head on the bottom of a picket fence because Iâe(TM)m not paying enough attention to whatâe(TM)s going on right around me. And, mostly, I still feel like I have a cape stuck in my pants.

But, and this is the point, I also feel like one of the genetically advanced protagonists of Heroes, or Dr. Xavierâe(TM)s mutants. I am having my senses extended and enhanced in a way that soon will be commonplace.

It will become a natural part of being human, of being social. Of being in two places at once. And what being âeoehere,âe being âeoefriends,âe being âeoepresentâe and even what âeoeknowingâe means will be altered as dramatically as Clark Kent ripping off his white shirt in a phone booth.

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