Posts Tagged utopia

Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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Science fiction future

USS EnterpriseScience fiction is pretty depressing. At least, that’s what Glenn Harlan Reynolds said in a piece for Popular Mechanics. In his view current sci-fi, characterized by writers like Neal Stephenson, is too dystopian. Reynolds wants a renaissance of the upbeat sci-fi of the ‘50s and ‘60s, where science solved problems instead of causing them. I couldn’t agree more: today’s sci-fi is decidedly negative, which is odd, given how much we rely on technology.

We live in the Digital Age. Our smart phones, computers, and tablets were science fiction a generation ago, and now they are like appendages. They give us access to people and knowledge that we never had before, yet they don’t seem to be the path to a utopian future. In the near-future America of Stephenson’s Snow Crash, computers are used to spread a neurolinguistic virus. In contrast, it’s hard to think of a sci-fi story about a hero who saves humanity by tweeting.

The kinds of technology depicted in each sci-fi story may have something to do with this dissonance. Star Trek is the most optimistic of classic sci-fi series; it’s about a future where war, hunger, and sickness are virtually eradicated with science. Does your iPad feed you? Is it as much of a technological achievement as the USS Enterprise?

We are constantly being told that the Internet represents a revolution in human communication, but perhaps the people that harness it are thinking too small. NASA is being marginalized while brilliant young minds slavishly court “angel investors,” looking for cash for the next app or website. Shouldn’t they be looking to the stars?

As for the sci-fi writers, they should take the leadership position they used to have. Science fiction used to chart the course for actual science, but not anymore. Dystopian stories that comment on the potential ramifications of our behavior are vital, but in addition to describing the problem, someone needs to describe the answer. Writers in the ‘50s and ‘60s could have exclusively written stories about nuclear war, but they didn’t. They tried to look on the bright side.

That is becoming harder and harder to do. The negative impact of our tech-driven lifestyle is painfully obvious. Building our devices harms the environment and ruins people’s lives. It also makes us more lethargic and less willing to connect with that boring, tactile realm known as “reality.”

People can sense that there is something wrong; if they didn’t, writers wouldn’t create so many negative works, and people wouldn’t buy them. That says a lot about us, as all good literature should.

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Do smart cars make dumb consumers?

“I didn’t realize the car in front of me had stopped short,” the talking head on the television screen says,” luckily, my Mercedes did.”   A Lincoln is not just a luxury car, “It’s smarter than that.” In a crash, a VW Jetta will automatically cut its fuel pump, unlock the doors, and put on its hazards, because that is the smart thing to do. ExxonMobil even has smart gasoline.

Technology-enabled irresponsibility is making intelligence as important to buyers as fuel economy. Despite the recent tenth anniversary of The Matrix, most people do not seem to think that handing over everyday tasks to machines is a problem. In fact, researchers are working on making the human driver irrelevant. Volvo recently tested a “road train” of autonomous cars, and a robotic Audi TT sports car recently tackled the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb.  But few are questioning the ramifications of this technological shift.  Should we really give the wheel to robots?

Proponents of robo-cars point to the fact that humans are terrible drivers.  Anyone who has driven in Worcester, or even tried to cross the street, can attest to that.  We get tired, angry, and distracted.  We don’t get adequate training and then panic when faced with a difficult situation.  Our reaction times are glacial.  The proliferation of electronics in cars is only making things worse.  Recently, I encountered a car swerving wildly between lanes as its driver talked on the phone.

So autonomous cars will save us from ourselves; they will get us to our destinations faster, more efficiently, and more safely.  And since we won’t have to concentrate on driving, we’ll have plenty of time to do important stuff, like watch YouTube videos.

It all sounds great, but I’m not convinced.  Blaming all car crashes on driver error ignores mechanical faults.  Every year, most major manufacturers recall thousands of defective vehicles.  These defects are usually minor, but sometimes they can be serious.  In a couple of high-profile cases, Ford Pintos exploded when rear-ended and Explorers’ tires shredded under hard cornering.  At this time last year, America was besieged by out-of-control Toyotas.  I may not trust the idiot in the next lane, but I don’t trust his Camry either.

Even if a car is mechanically flawless, the roads it drives on probably aren’t.  Autonomous cars will need “smart roads” with sensors imbedded in them; the cars will use these sensors to orient themselves.  Go outside right now and take a look at your street.  How long do you think a delicate, expensive, piece of electronic hardware will survive there? America’s infrastructure is in bad shape and will require a significant investment just to make it safe for regular cars. Since funding for public works has become entangled in the larger debate over government spending and taxation, it is unlikely that large amounts of money will be invested anytime soon. Americans hate the delays roadwork causes and the taxpayer money it consumes with a passion; they will not tolerate the amount of maintenance a “smart road” will require.

Autonomous cars are taking people out of the equation, but few proponents have pondered the cars’ affect on the people themselves.  At one time, technology as viewed as a tool, a way to assist human beings in their endeavors.  Now, it seems like technology is supposed to do everything for us, while we vegetate.  Cars used to be powerful cultural symbols, they represented progress and freedom.  Driving is now viewed as a chore and cars are viewed as gas-guzzling money pits.  Given the automobile’s contribution to global warming, this may not be a bad thing.  But the loss of interest in driving is.

People used to take pride in their driving, like hitting a baseball or reducing a complex thought into 140 characters, it was a skill.  Operating (or even riding in) a motor vehicle will always be dangerous, but danger can be managed when people take it seriously.  Germany’s unrestricted autobahns are not a cruel Darwinian experiment because Germans take pride in their driving.  American always have better things to do, and that’s why so many of us are terrible drivers.  If you are really too busy to pay attention to driving, maybe you should take the train.

Good driving can be more than a safety issue. Caught between the ever-expanding powers of the wealthy and the fear of big government, individual Americans are feeling increasingly disenfranchised. Consumerism has become an attempt to empower people in a society that otherwise ignores them: individuals can express their personal qualities through their purchases. A Mercedes, Lincoln, or Volkswagen is a “smart purchase,” thus it shows the consumer’s intelligence.

Individuals should not let themselves get backed into a corner like this. Building a car that watches the road ahead denies its driver the opportunity to show that he or she is skilled enough to do so. It may seem frivolous, but how autonomous can individuals be when their only real choices in life are purchasing decisions?

Humans are pretty bad drivers, but the fact is that we are still capable of being good drivers and we should not let ourselves off the hook.  Today’s society worships convenience; if we encounter something that we are forced to do, we look for an excuse to not do it.  Self-driving cars will only make us lazier, and no utopian future is every built on laziness.  Instead, people will demand more convenience.  They will ask machines to help them, so they can stay in front of the computer all day.  The machines will oblige them, although they may want to harvest a little electricity in return.

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