To get it out of the way from the outset: I understand that I won’t be making myself popular with this post. Even if Star Wars is extremely enthralling and entertaining (“Star Trek has logic and stuff, but Star Wars has the Force, that mysterious form of power that only a select few are able to tune into”), I was literally socialized with Star Trek where technology and progress are concerned. To this day I consider Star Trek as exemplary in many aspects of how we as a society perceive and adopt technology.
For many who aren’t familiar with Star Trek, it’s conspicuous that many gadgets we use today or that are currently being developed, were already present in the original TV series. I find this to be somewhat irrelevant; nevertheless I would like to present a few technologies and products of the Star Trek universe in various stages of readiness, from “already-being-used” to “basic technology just researched.” In the Internet you can find countless additional comparisons and explanations.
The Communicator, introduced in the series in 1966, is what we call a mobile phone. Though the Communicator has a vastly different range (e.g. from starship to the planet below – dear telco providers, please follow this example, this is what we want J), many of its functionalities have become reality in today’s smartphones.
Martin Cooper, the inventor of cellphones as we know them today, reportedly was “inspired” by the Star Trek Communicator. No surprise, as Motorola – where Cooper worked – produced a mobile phone that was similar to the Communicator, both in name and appearance.
Operating computers via touchscreen is commonplace in the Star Trek universe. Touchscreens are used in the consoles of the large computers on the bridge, but can also be found on smaller, so-called PADDs throughout the series.
The reasons for this is probably trivial: Building PADD-based props was simply easier and cheaper than creating props with countless knobs and dials. A nice example for the incidental used of PADDs – similar to the iPad – can be found here.
“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot,” Captain Picard’s order to the Replicator is well-known. This device replicates a beverage or meal within seconds. Even though we don’t yet have a Replicator, several companies are working on one. And though we are still far removed from what we actually want, we will see a workable device sooner or later.
The Transporter is the key apparatus to move people and goods over distance. Simply put, the object isn’t moved, but de-materialized. The energy pattern of the object is stored and then rematerialized at the destination. Even those who don’t know the Teleporter have surely heard the catch phrase “Beam me up, Scotty.” Scotty was one of the guys who operated the Teleporter.
The Transporter doesn’t exist, even if various scientists, e.g. Michio Kaku, think that it’s basically possible. First steps have been taken, as can be read here in detail. Or, a bit more profane, here.
To me, the vision of society as depicted in Star Trek is far more exciting and interesting. For, though Star Trek may appear to be a Sci-Fi fantasy at first glance, its plots always deal with political, philosophical, social and ethical problems. In doing so, the story lines show alternative courses for action, which I think we are adapting more and more to the era we live in. Probably not directly from Star Trek, but I have been observing a trend toward an egalitarian society for some time (but yes, only in our Western society, of course). Star Trek was ahead of this curve, at least in part, some 50 years ago.
You might object and talk about the income gap and how wealth is distributed – how that’s by no means egalitarian. This is probably true; nevertheless we are well on our way to becoming the most liberal, open-minded and most-tolerant society in the history of man.
Star Trek has had a definite influence on this development. Courage was needed in the 1960s to cast a Russian navigator (Chekov) and a female, African American communications officer (Uhura). Contrary to today, the corresponding debates led to considerable publicity, but were a serious risk for the producers as well. Emotions also ran high when Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura in one of the episodes. To this day this kiss is considered to be the first interracial kiss on American television – though that is incorrect, as there were earlier ones than on Star Trek.
Mankind is shown as having overcome many, primarily social, problems and as a society it’s about to significantly expand its scope of activities. Because of this, it is only natural that there are no countries, religions or money. Instead, the concept is based on humanistic values that are defended, regardless of the challenge. Series creator Gene Roddenberry, who BTW was a bomber pilot with over 90 missions in WWII and in the War of the Pacific, was a staunch humanist.
I think, and many non-Star Trek fans would probably agree, that we can consider it a good thing if mankind develops in this direction. In a direction where society uses technology responsibly and still manages to continue to develop and preserve human values. As depicted in Star Trek, man is no stranger to us.
This becomes especially apparent in the remarks of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who repeatedly makes fundamental statements on a variety of topics. These comments are thus the ones that significantly affect our culture. You can find a collage of different such scenes here (well worth seeing!).
In light of the breakneck speed of technological developments such political and societal topics only gain in relevance.
A sort of counter concept in Starfleet are the Borg. The Borg are often described as the worst nightmare of transhumanism or as the inversion of fears regarding our continued development.
For all Star Trek illiterates: The Borg are a humanoid species that have been enhanced with a bunch of technology to attain the level of transhumanoids. The main characteristics of this species are a collective consciousness, physical strength of each individual (thanks to aforementioned technology), a collective organization and aggressive, expansionistic behavior. The Borgs’ aim is to assimilate as many species as possible; in other words, to turn them into Borgs as well. Star Trek fans are familiar with their announcement when meeting other species:
The Borg feature a form of mankind that is superior in technology and fact and which unites technology with biology at the highest possible level – while sacrificing exactly those values that are regarded as human on the path to this superiority.
It’s symptomatic of Roddenberry’s concept that Starfleet nearly fails on several occasions where the Borg are concerned and that it is exactly this set of human values and concepts (ok, in the case of the attack on the Earth 39 starships were involved J) that averts failure in the end.
Thus, Roddenberry clearly defines a fundamental humanistic attitude and behavior as the decisive feature of (a decent) mankind. This same basic message, in a different context, of course, is at the core of many religious parables. Therefore, it is no coincidence that some Star Trek episodes appear to be parables. After all, they are.
Don’t get me started on realism. That never plays in role in Sci-Fi. Actually, never in TV or the movies in general.
In my opinion neither the Starfleet nor the Borg scenarios are realistic. Both are consciously exaggerated extremes and as a rule people have a hard time with extremes.
Additionally, transhumanism is too promising as to not prevail. At first, likely only with injured people, such as those who have lost extremities.
There are already fully functional prototypes available that, for instance, can replace the upper arm (non-invasively). They simply cost US$ 500,000 right now. But that will change rapidly and an artificial hand won’t seem odd or new in ten years. Once this technology is adopted by society, then the door is open for further applications. On a factual basis there isn’t much to object to.
My children are still too young to deal with Star Trek. I think that even Kung-Fu Panda taxes them too much. What I find remarkable, however, is how much impact these films have on their thought processes and how quickly behavioral patterns find their way into everyday life.
But, I will familiarize my kids with Star Trek. This in the hope that they, like I, will develop a relaxed approach to technology that is characterized by curiosity – while understanding that mankind will continue to grow and prosper through an attitude based in humanism. Not one based on a fear of change or transformation – or through geographical and cultural separation.
In all likelihood this endeavor will fail, simply because it comes from the father. That’s never a good thing. It will end up with me having to buy them lightsabers for Christmas. Fuck it. But I can already see it coming.