The Computers of Star Trek
Author: Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg
Publisher: New York: Basic Books, 1999
Review Published: December 2002
Here's a problem for you. You want to write a somewhat technical book about computers. In this book you will deal with topics such as the widespread distrust of computer technology by the general public (and anxiety about what role this technology may play in the future), computer security, elementary electronics, the evolution of different generations of computers, the technology of computer processors, object-oriented programming, and so on -- without turning off the general reader.
What do you do?
"Beam me up!" is the answer. You take the didactic pill of nerd-geek technological computer mumbo-jumbo and sugar-coat it by wrapping a Star Trek veneer around it. In doing so, you have the opportunity to attract two different audiences. The first is hard-core Trekkies who will read anything about Star Trek that is available. The second is people who are interested in computers and think that a book about the computers found in Star Trek may be relatively easy to digest.
And with The Computers of Star Trek you have the best of both worlds -- an entertaining book about computers, that manages to sneak in a good deal of material on how they work, that will teach the general reader about these remarkable devices, and a book about one aspect (and an important one) of Star Trek to make glad the heart of Trekkies.
Perhaps it won't make the Trekkies that happy because in a number of places the authors point out that the science and technology in Star Trek is pretty ridiculous. Thus, in their description of encryption, they write "In summary, today's encryption methods are not terribly relevant to the world of Star Trek. The use of 'fractal encryption algorithms' by Data is absurd. Just more technobabble to make the show sound futuristic and serious" (70).
The authors -- Lois H. Gresh, a science fiction writer and computer specialist who designs and codes corporate websites and systems, and Robert Weinberg, a novelist who has won the World Fantasy Award and Bram Stoker Award of the Horror Writer's Association -- have a good deal to say about the role of computers and new technologies in the future. One of their main goals is to show how each of the shows they deal with -- Star Trek (the original series), The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager -- reflect "the ideas and technologies of its time," and, as they point out, each of these shows was "years behind what's happening in the research labs" (xiii)
They also deal with an interesting philosophical problem -- the relation between emotions and our bodies. In their discussion of First Contact, they mention how the Borg hive-queen has activated Data's emotion chip and grafts a patch of organic skin onto Data's arm. She blows on this and Data has an "orgasmic upswing." Then, the Borg queen challenges him to remove the skin, which Data refuses to do. As the authors explain:
Whether inanimate objects can have emotions depends, of course, on how you define "emotions," but there are many philosophers who would take issue with Gresh and Weinberg on their position. Will androids have "real" emotions or "pseudo" emotions -- responses that seem like emotions but don't qualify as emotions, as we typically define them.
In various places in the book the authors use events in particular episodes of Star Trek and the other series to speculate about what life might be like in a few hundred years -- speculations that will be of interest to futurologists. Of course, like the writers who scripted Star Trek and its offspring, they, too, are captives of our current technologies, though they are aware of new developments in computer technology, so their notions about what might be happening have a bit more likelihood of taking place.
Many of the things that happened on Star Trek and the series that followed it were done because of the requirements of television. Television needed to shortcut the exits and entrances of characters into space ships, so transporters were created, and the same applies to replicators and holographic doctors. We are, after all, talking about television programs and there are certain narrative requirements and time issues that the writers of these programs had to deal with. In Star Trek and the other shows that followed it, the writers took what they knew about science and technology and projected it into the future. They were wrong about many things, of course, but at least they started their audiences thinking about the future.
Gresh and Weinberg conclude their book by writing "The Star Trek future is on the way. Most likely, sooner than we think" (163). Whether it will be like the future that they portray for us is impossible to say. But as they "take off" on various matters suggested by events that happened in various episodes of Star Trek and the series that came after it, they do offer a number of interesting points about the use of computers in the various Star Trek series and some fascinating speculations about what the world might be like in a few hundred years.
Arthur Asa Berger:
Arthur Asa Berger is professor of Broadcast & Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State University. Among his recent books are The Mass Comm Murders: Five Media Theorists Self Destruct, Video Games -- A Popular Culture Phenomenon, and Ads, Fads and Consumer Culture. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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