Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Stagnation of the Star Trekian Future

I never liked Star Trek TNG. Even though the original Star Trek now looks cheesy by comparison, it's only the visuals and props that seem that way. At least the characters were real human beings with human failings, not like TNG's politically correct, personality-deprived mannequins. I could easily picture James Tiberius Kirk letting fly an expletive or two when things aren't going his way. But Picard? Heavens no. Not even Worf, for crying out loud.

But all that's neither here nor there. My focus in this article will not be the lifeless characters on that television series, but the technologically stagnant future portrayed therein. Think about it: TNG takes place in the 24th century, 300-plus years from now, and yet humans and computers have managed to merge not one iota. It is set 80 years or so after the original gang, and what's new since that time? The computer's a bit fancier, the transporter looks snazzier, the ship just a bit sleeker, the phasers...well they don't seem to have changed at all. Human life-expectancy is essentially what it is today. This is what we call stagnation. Nothing much happening. Except that now, everyone is polite to one another, women are respected and aliens are accepted. Peachy.

When viewed from the perspective of an understanding of the coming singularity and the law of accelerating returns, that scenario seems downright unimaginative and even unthinkable. But that is still the climate of thought among most of our society. Eventually, however, the accelerating pace of technological development will become less easily overlooked. I like how Michael Anissimov puts it in his excellent article, Superhumanism:
Like cell phones leapfrogging land lines in places like Chile, mature Kurzweilian transhumanism will leapfrog watered-down notions of transhumanism based on stem cells and gene therapy and go right to the “sending nanomachines in all directions at the speed of light”-type understanding of transhumanism. We already see this happening. It will continue to occur with anyone capable of reading and understanding technology news and a few basic arguments.
One might even place some of the blame on the creators of such pablum as TNG for the pallid vision of the future under the burden of which our culture now labors. This next comes from a transcript of Eliezer Yudkowsky's keynote address at the WorldFutures symposium, and it is on the nose:
There's a standard cultural mythology of a place called "the future". It has towering skyscrapers, flying cars, and, of course, slightly more advanced computers. It's strange, really; we have beliefs, sometimes strongly emotional beliefs, about a place we've never been. It's as if we all had definite opinions about the people and culture of Atlantis. This... is Hollywood's fault. Hollywood keeps showing us people living and working and having adventures in starships and space stations. Those movies become our vicarious memories; we remember what the characters said, and what they looked like, and what happened to them, in the world Hollywood tells us is "the future".

Fifty thousand years ago, there was no such thing as television; humans did not evolve in a world where you can actually see fictions. We don't have strong innate safeguards to prevent us from reasoning using fictional memories. When reporters write about advances in medical prostheses or brain-computer interfaces, they can never seem to resist mentioning the Borg. What are the Borg? A dream. Something a Star Trek scriptwriter made up. We've invented a new logical fallacy; generalization from fictional evidence. The Borg are slow, clumsy, uncompassionate, inexorable, deadly; so humans with a brain-computer interface must be like that as well. We've seen them... haven't we?
Think about the technology we have now that didn't exist when many of us were children. Video games. Pong was the first and I played it for the first time when I was about 14. VCRs. CDs. Computers. The Internet. Cell phones. Bluetooth. We didn't even have these things in our imaginations before they were introduced. The truth, I believe, is that when the future comes, there will be technology that most of us did not have even in our imaginations. And it will come at a pace so blindingly fast that we will be unable to keep up with it. Until we become it.

So long, Star Trek TNG. (Capt. Kirk can stay.)



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2 comments :

Spaceman Spiff said...

I've thought a bit about technological/societal advancement in terms of Star Trek TNG vs. Star Wars. The writers of Star Trek are people who basically believe technology well lead/follow societal progress and that things will genuinely be better, people will only work if they choose to, etc. and it will be a story of the US, I mean the Federation, bringing enlightenment to everyone else.

I prefer the vision of Star Wars, at least in a literary way. In Star Wars, they clearly have advanced technology, and yet people face basically the same sorts of problems they do now: poverty, gender relations, politics, greed, etc.

I think the original Star Trek was much more like that, with Kirk being an old fashioned sea captain. As a result the show, like Star Wars, appealed to much broader human themes and thus retains its appeal even as we get further away from being impressed by the technology/special effects.

On the other hand TNG basically reflects the idiosyncratic and sometimes silly cultural/political norms/special effects technology of its own day, and thus seems less interesting the further we get from it.

Barry Mahfood said...

Great analysis. Very insightful.