Star Trek’s trademark optimism gets a lot of lip service by us fans, the media, and especially Hollywood producers assigned to Trek projects who feel they must justify their jobs to the fans by paying homage to “Gene’s vision.” It is rare that you see anyone apply more than a surface reading of Trek’s vision of the future: we don’t destroy ourselves; technology is used for good; poverty and famine have been obliterated; abundance for everybody; blacks are okay (but women and gays are still cultural minorities). This reading isn’t nothing; these are all laudable characteristics (except for the still-prevalent sexism and homophobia in the franchise products). Although considering the cultural optimism of the Space Age during the 50s and 60s, it’s not exactly surprising that a show like Star Trek was created.
Today is different. In today’s socio-political/entertainment landscape of Doom & Gloom, there could be no more radical, necessary message than our future will be brighter than our past.
Jaron Lanier explains the lightning in Classic Star Trek’s bottle, and how it might be captured again.
In a brief tangent of his book Who Owns the Future, Lanier tells us what the Star Trek optimism is really about, and I would hope that all of those Hollywood producers would read it. His argument is two-fold: Classic Star Trek depicted advanced technology as no threat to humanity; it was not a threat because real people were always in control, Kirk in particular.
The idea that advanced technology does not ruin us is a backdrop theme of Star Trek, mostly unstated but starkly apparent when contrasted with so much other science-fiction. According to Lanier, technology on Trek results in a “more moral, fun, adventurous, sexy, and meaningful world.” The prime reason that “a more instrumented world” does not lead to the kind of dystopian vision of so much sci-fi is because “a recognizable human remains at the center of the adventure” and not only succeeds but thrives due to factors—human factors—that have nothing to do with technology.
Star Trek says there is something in the human that is essential and cannot be matched or even defeated by even the smartest, most advanced technology.
Trek sometimes—err, pretty frequently, or at least in memorable episodes—makes this theme explicit by depicting technology run amuck free of human handlers. The obvious example is the Borg, but there were many 60’s episodes where super computers took over entire populations and had to be stopped by Kirk and Crew. There were always machines carrying out their program without adult supervision, from the Doomsday Machine to V’Ger. The Trek optimism—even if the overall mood of the story is dark or frightening—shines through when the human(oid) heroes stick it to these amoral algorithms.
As an aside, this is why the technobabble solution—invented by TNG, but on Voyager and Enterprise know as the Act IV Resolution—is not only an affront to what Trek stories should be, but also to the type of optimistic sci-fi that Trek represents. In these episodes where some unexplainable technological gimmick saves the day, the human crew usually comes off seeming hapless and helpless while their technology is superior to their will and wits. In these episodes, you don’t even need a crew. The ship’s Computer could have easily assessed the parameters of the threat and sprayed it with a reverse polarity tachyon beam, or whatever, and called it a day. In contrast, the Doomsday Machine was not thwarted by technobabble. It was stopped because of the distinctly human brew of heroism, vengeance, love and madness that manifested as a will to act in the mind and heart of Commodore Matt Decker. The best of these stories end with an idea sweated out of a human brain, an insight, a whim, a gamble, a sacrifice.
Trek’s optimism teaches us that advanced technology is always a positive benefit—the Enterprise is run on amoral algorithms too. But also that technology is the necessary-but-not-sufficient element of human progress. As Lanier puts it, “At the center of the high-tech circular bridge of the starship Enterprise is seated a Kirk or a Picard, a person.” And that person makes all the difference.
The technology on Star Trek was just window dressing, but its presence conveyed a quiet, almost subliminal and powerful message. Roddenberry’s Enterprise was just a futuristic naval battleship. The technology was backdrop to tell space adventure stories. Still, this positive view of technology was a point of view the writers chose in stark contrast with so much popular sci-fi. Even before the 1960s, writers have always speculated about the dangers of powerful, pervasive technology, from Bradbury to E.M. Forester, who Lanier reminds us wrote a dystopian technology story in 1909 called “The Machine Stops” about an Internet-like system that takes over people’s lives. Star Trek refutes this negative view of technology. Or rather it posits a sunny future where technology continues to be used as a valuable tool, and where all of the problems that we fear about technology won’t actually come to pass because those tools will be wielded by decent, gloriously flawed people.
Lanier argues that the optimism exhibited in TOS and TNG-era Trek, which he praises as “pure kitsch, ridiculous on most levels” and “silly,” represented the better angles of a technologists’ nature. He thinks that it is “a shame that there aren’t more recent examples to supersede it.”
Lainer writes that the dominant narrative of our age will be about how so much of our lives are becoming “more software-mediated, physicality is becoming more mutable by technology, and reality is being optimized.” The problem he foresees is “that the humans aren’t the heroes” of this new reality; humans are obsolete, unimportant, slow and in the way of real progress. He argues that this narrative needs to be opposed, and that the importance of actual people must be reinserted into the utopian visions of the role of future technology. He writes, “Drawing a line between what we forfeit to calculation and what we reserve for the heroics of free will is the story of our time.”
Of all science fiction out there today, Star Trek is uniquely situated to make this progressive, optimistic but also subversive statement. The reasons it is progressive and optimistic is obvious. The reason it is subversive is because the power brokers of modern society—from Google to Apple to Facebook to the NSA—keep arguing that We the People need to take a backseat and let their algorithms take care of everything. Kirk would not approve.
Lainer’s analysis of Trek’s optimism offers a potential roadmap for CBS as they set out to create the first post-IPhone Star Trek series. The new show’s writers will have to update not just the design of the tech—when Enterprise premiered in 2000, the solution was to make the communicator’s smaller—but how people use and interface with tech. If CBS really wants to express Trek’s optimism, and make a statement that would launch a thousand think pieces because no one else in science-fiction is making this particular statement, they should imagine the technophobe’s worst nightmares and recast them in sunny, glorious, kitschy wonderment. Imagine Google Glass/Tricorder contact lenses. The Ship’s Computer as artificial intelligence that can be wired (or wi-fi’d) directly into people’s brains. No more need for Holodecks—just tell the computer what you want to experience and have her beam it into your temporal lobe. No need for communicators because you are constantly tracking and tuned into the people on your team so that on a mission you function as a hive mind, not unlike the Borg. Starfleet constantly uploads personal data on the crew to better plan missions and design starships to maximize effectiveness. The ship’s Computer collects information from every crew member and operates the ship by reflecting the collective will of the crew, presenting them with options optimized to their likes and needs. All of this and more—so long as the humans using the technology, with their foibles and their genius, remain at the heart of the drama. So long as the humans use the tech to enrich their experience, and not the tech using the human to enrich itself. So long as the human overrides the judgment of the computer algorithms just as often as they accept them, proving that the computer only offers an interpretation/expression of what the human already knows, and while sometimes the algorithm is useful, sometimes the digitized middleman isn’t needed or is just plain wrong. The man or woman in the center seat is still the indispensible hero.
Lainer is a technologist, so he applies that lens to Trek, but this is only one way that CBS could make Star Trek into a relevant social commentary again. There are dozens of other ways that would be just a valid and important, from dealing with xenophobia to gender issues to climate change to economic inequality to imperialism and terrorism and civil liberties, or all of the above. We can only hope that after 15 years of meaningless Trek, CBS will pick a point of view for this show to make it meaningful. It doesn’t have to be Lanier’s interpretation of what worked with classic Trek, but CBS needs to choose something and run with it.