Picard Never Took a Text Message: Star Trek, Technology, and the Absence of Social Media in the Future

While Star Trek might have been the inspiration for the cellphone and the iPad and numerous other inventions, there is a noticeable lack of messaging, social media, or even constant chirps on the cells. The lack of computers running scheduling and communication on the Enterprise is interesting to note.

While the first Star Trek communicator, in its ST: TOS format, certainly looked like a cellphone and sort of acted like one–it actually worked like a CB.  Citizen Band Radio was open and easy to use–you picked up a small palm-sized black speaker, pressed a thumb button that turned a microphone on, and spoke the name of your party into it, and they answered back.  “Breaker One Nine, this is Foxtrot.  Are you listening?”  And Foxtrot would answer if he were listening.  On TV, nobody dials a number, nobody speaks into the Star Trek devices in a tone suggesting they are talking to a computer:  “Commander Riker,” Picard says–AS IF speaking TO Commander Riker, not accessing his number.  Even ST:TNG Picard and crew were using little more than CBs on their shirts to communicate with each other.  They would bang their chest, making it chirp, just like you would press the button in on the CB, and then announce who they wanted to talk to.  Officers would look up at the ceiling, as if that was where the sound was coming from, and announce that they were, indeed, coming quickly.  To say that it used name recognition software is ludicrous because no one ever spoke into their communicator like we do into our telephones when the “menu of choices” voice comes on to ask us to specify what we want.

Further, no one used their communicators for much more than a quick call.  They used the interstellar version of SKYPE in all versions of Star Trek.  For short calls they used this CB on their chests.  But the CB didn’t come with any apps, any cool devices, games, nor was there any social media.  People used the device simply.  Except for the Enterprise computer, each technological device seemed to have one simple function.  They had an episode on ST:TNG devoted to computer games–and it was the villain of the story–or at least the addictive brain-altering drug in the hands of villains.  Think about it, though.  No one in the 24th Century had a cellphone that took messages or that vibrated.  No one looked on their phones for scheduling.  (We’ll come back to those iPad things in a moment).  No one got a text message.  Computers did not command the social life of the crew, of any of the crew.  In ALL of its incarnations from 1964 to 2009 there is a HUGE lack of the presence of any social media, any social life that is facilitated by computers.

The iPad things on ST:TNG were always work reports, instructions, wikipedia (when Data wasn’t functioning as a walking wikipedia), or a novel.  They were never iPads.  They were never used to communicate, nor go beyond a simple data storage device–with the exception of Jake Sisko who writes Anselm on it–making it a word processor.  I can’t think of a single episode where the pads ever worked as anything but a flat page of data.   I’ve seen characters look through the “profiles” of personnel when considering assignments, yes, but that’s still a data storage device.  The pads themselves never were used to interact with other people.

Yes, I can hear you say–” in Star Trek, people did work with computers a lot.”  But those computers ran the ship--they were little more than automated engines and microwave ovens with brains.  The computers were things that people went to in order to do their jobs, not for fun.  They were processors with tons of data, none of it used for social media.  And none of it used for fun.   Well, the ship did have a library of music—like iTunes–but this was little more than a huge CD collection.  Most people didn’t share songs—they were all for private enjoyment.  Characters turned on their “stereos” only when they were alone in their room.

What about the Holodeck?  Yes, a virtual reality that could envelop a person in a completely different plot or setting.  Why would anyone have Facebook when they could have a Holodeck?  But the Holodeck was more about privacy, not interaction.  People went on the holodeck for their alone time, mostly.  A few people tried disasterous dates on them—(most characters had bad dates using a holodeck program), but rarely did people meet more than one other person on the holodeck.   Holodecks were merely a re-creation of a REAL environment where people could interact physically with that environment.   Making it–actually–the outdoors.  The holodeck was never used as World of Warcraft–to link up thousands of users.  Or Second Life.  (Granted many characters form friendships with holodeck characters, even love interests–but they don’t meet real people in other places as multiplayer venues)*.

Computers never signaled to people that they had meetings coming up, never pinged them, no alerts.  They didnt’ have your calendar on them.  People seemed to remember who they were going to interact with.  For that matter–who had a watch on?  How did they tell time?  Star Trek visually reflected a future, but philosophically and culturally reflected the past.  Those adults on the Enterprise are living like people born in the fifties, using computers more as things to serve us rather than things that we absolutely have to have–on which our very relationships are built.  Having computers that do what we have them do now would have changed the plots of Star Trek dramatically.

Why is it that there wasn’t CONSTANT updating of new information as people from multiple galaxies discovered new things?  The way new discoveries were made was either when a) a crazy scientist testing out a theory came on the Enterprise to “borrow” it as a lab, or b) when characters were going to conferences.  When Wikipedia changes daily, when New Scientist can barely keep up with innovation today, Geordi LaForge kept saying that old people’s textbooks were still “required reading at the Academy” and Data never got overwhelmed with the amount of new information being discovered per second by gazillions of great minds all over the galaxy.  Ways of transmitting new data in Star Trek had 1970s highways—either people came onboard, or someone phoned in. People were either on the verge of discovering, or they discovered it years ago.  But as we know with the information culture–new data, new discoveries, things that completely change our way of thinking–don’t seem to be a part of a Star Trek future.  Star Trek still relied on pre-80s ways of dealing with information: storage and retrieval.

Star Trek didn’t reflect, really, the reality that we have even today: with information exploding everywhere, with our lives being lived online, where information is King, and networking is like breathing.  It skirted around the social media explosion by ignoring it–and making it irrelevant to the lives of Star Trek characters (or making it metaphorically, the Borg–see below).

Do we really credit ST for the inspiration of cell phones and iPads or should we credit them with the size and ease of technology in our hands?  What we’ve done with these devices far outstrips anything created on the show in its history.  And without the cultural changes that information culture brings, Star Trek technology is merely smaller, faster, more efficient–making things more powerful–but not groundbreaking or life-altering culturally.  Certainly computer and information culture has made us think and act differently–more globally, more networked than ever before.  Where is the inevitable consequences of that?  Did Star Trek writers miss the inner changes of culture during the 90s and beyond?  Did they fail to capture the different mindset of information culture?

Perhaps so.  But I find it strangely comforting that they don’t have social media in the future.

People interacted with other people.   The number of times I heard characters say, “Meet you in Ten Forward” or “Are we still on for that game of Kadiscat?” or “You’re with me, Number One” speaks to the fact that characters on Star Trek relied on meeting each other in real time to communicate.  They didn’t rely on devices.  They spent time together.  The computer through the Holodeck recreated real places to interact.  They didn’t send each other texts, or messages.  None of them ever refer to messages they sent from their pads, or their computers.  Computers didn’t facilitate more than vocal messages, like a phone, and they didn’t eliminate or diminish personal time spent with a person.  The Technology, for all its innovation in inspiring wireless and palm-sized devices, never seemed to answer a list of needs greater than the 1970s:  they had a big stereo, a big car, a neat phone, and light reading.

Now, realistically, a TV plot can’t have people communicating through social media…that would be boring.  As a writer, I know many of the conventions of the genre require character interaction, no cell-phone interruptions, or Will Wheaton having 2 million friends.  But it made me think.  Whether or not a Star Trek plot called for actual interaction, we can at least say that it showed us that life requires more human interaction.  We can survive on less computer interaction in the future.  We don’t need all this interaction.  Characters are allowed their own thoughts (sorry, Counselor Troi).  And breathing time.  They can put the pad down because, really, it’s only a book.

If there was a comment on social media in Star Trek, you might find it in the characterization of the Borg.  In fact, people have said before that the Borg seemed to symbolize man’s dehumanization by its complete integration with computers.  Borg were always in social media, per se.  You could take Seven of Nine’s transformation from Borg back to human on Voyager as someone being weaned off destructive Facebook.  Borg have a million friends.  Like.  They don’t have to communicate verbally or even meet together to communicate with everyone simultaneously.  They are efficient.  Seven of Nine was the only character I can remember who had a daily iCalendar.  She referred to her pads full of scheduling.  She would have been loved by both IT people and those that sell Networking Management software.  *Unimatrix Zero was the closest to Second Life that the Star Trek Universe got–but again, it was Borg escapism.  It was their version of Facebook that launched a revolution.

We’ve always assumed that, of the characters and races and social structures in Star Trek, the Federation is our future.  What if that isn’t the case?  What if Star Trek is positing that we might just be the Borg already–and that we too must be weaned from our reliance on the social network.

Because when it comes to who is more efficient and more socially networked, the Borg clearly win.   But the Federation needed no Facebook in their organization.  To get to their future, they Boldly Went Without.

14 thoughts on “Picard Never Took a Text Message: Star Trek, Technology, and the Absence of Social Media in the Future

  1. Anthony Trombetta September 15, 2011 / 9:59

    Jerome, let’s not be silly. Next Generation aired in ’87. Facebook, Skype, MMO’s, Smartphones, Ipad’s and every modern social media convention that we’re used to, didn’t even exist yet. It’s not a some big utopian moral leap that the Enterprise doesn’t check it’s Facebook page, it wasn’t anywhere near the writer’s radar. No one was text messaging in ’87. Except for us dorks on BBSs. Even the newer (lousier) Enterprise series aired long before Facebook exploded. So yes, kudos to the future for not exploiting technology they never knew about.

  2. jstueart September 15, 2011 / 9:59

    Anthony, the point of the essay isn’t that the writers didn’t know anything about social media, but that their vision of the future which everyone hails as full of cellphones and iPads, actually wasn’t. It didn’t predict the social media invention, nor did it even keep up with information culture. And information culture started WAY before Star Trek was done. In fact, several of the series were still being written and aired throughout the nineties and early 2000s.

    What I’m saying is that a Star Trek future, as prescient as it seems, and as forward thinking as it seems, still interacted with information culture and technology like it was in the seventies. It may have had hand-held devices, but the harder writing of how this would change a culture wasn’t part of the writing. They may have written about larger computers–but didn’t take into account the consequences of these computers.

  3. David Wesley September 15, 2011 / 9:59

    Hey Jerome! Loved the post, and I’d like to say more, but I’m typing blind at the moment (white text on white background)!

  4. Jay Stephens October 15, 2011 / 9:59

    There was one episode where Counselor Troy checks her appointment schedule using voice command in her office, so the basic idea was present in Next Gen. In another, the computer states that there are messages available, again not huge, but there.

  5. Amanda McDonald October 18, 2011 / 9:59

    So, First- in reply to Anthony… Um, most of the technology that was on ST-TNG didn’t exist yet. The series could have included any form of imaginary creations, including programs like facebook. It’s the lack of programs like facebook or other social media that Jerome is pointing out. Deep in the writers’ psyche, there was no all encompassing social media that the crew dealt with. In fact there is one episode that Jerome forgot to mention. There was an episode where everyone on TNG got a game from a recently visited planet. As more and more people became obsessed with the game, more people were being brainwashed or “programmed” to follow directions of the game’s creator without questions. It was Wesley, the doctor’s son who didn’t get brainwashed and was able to save the day. So, I think that saying facebook wasn’t even in the scope of people’s brains back then is silly-it certainly was, and the fear of losing day-to-day relations with others was, and still is-a major fear.

    Jerome, great post. Very thought-provoking. I think I have to go write now…

  6. TEE January 4, 2012 / 9:59

    H e l l o anybody awake??? Actually your right. He never took a text message. He sent one. And Whorf took one.

    The first text message sent on Star Trek The Next Generation was sent from a Romulan Warbird directing the Enterprise to rendezvous coordinates in

    the Neutral Zone in the episode “Data’s Day”. Appoximatly 26 minutes into the episode. Whorf says: They are responding, we are to proceed to the

    agreed coordinates. Hello. thank you very much. This episode was filmed in 1991 January. Twenty one years ago. Then in 1998 Picard sends another

    text message to the helm control manned by Deana Troy “TEXT MSG SENT: STN 01-001 RECEIVED: STN 01-017 / ENCRYPTED PGM HELM TO HDG


    How many more text messages can you find People. Let’s all start watching some Star Trek! There is alot of it thanks.

  7. TEE January 4, 2012 / 9:59

    Sorry the text message wast sent from Picard on the Bridge of the Enterprise to the Helm in the move “N E M E S I S”

    Thanks I’ll let you know if i find anymore text messages sent on Star Trek. Let’s not forget Uhura had a bluetooth back in 67

  8. TEE January 4, 2012 / 9:59

    I’m sorry Wharf actually says” They are responding, text only, we are to proceed to the agreed coodinates.

  9. jstueart January 9, 2012 / 9:59

    Hi TEE,

    Sure, the crew on NG had to suffer with a few “Text only” messages from damaged ships, surreptitious spies, or technologically-inferior races— not exactly text messages as we see them used today. Certainly not what they used as communications normally. Star Trek prefers interstellar Skype, or walkie talkies. And it’s Worf. Troi. Certainly though, even with your two examples—years apart—Picard and gang don’t communicate normally through texts…and not as we know them. It’s like saying that because someone uses morse code in a movie that morse code then is part of their culture. Because Picard occasionally uses “text only” doesn’t mean that it’s a part of their culture.


  10. QJo March 11, 2012 / 9:59

    Hi Jerome. Interesting article. I know it doesn’t invalidate the argument, but I did come across at least one other texting example. In the Star Trek Voyager sixth season episode “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”, Seven of Nine is shown sending secret text messages of a flirtatious nature, via pad, to the Doctor during a staff briefing in the conference room.
    You may argue that the event occurs only in the Doctor’s daydream subroutine, but should we dismiss the event because it stems from the imagination of an imaginary person on an imaginary ship in an imaginary future, as opposed to an actual event in the life of an imaginary person on an imaginary ship in an imaginary future. I imagine not.

  11. Mark Pemburn March 18, 2012 / 9:59

    Interesting observations but I sense a lack of context. The world of Star Trek reflects a technological paradigm that we are just now beginning to realize but the social model is one deeply entrenched in the last century. While it’s fairly easy to project the path of technology from the present, it’s much more difficult to accurately envision social changes. And, given that ST was created for broadcast TV, it was nearly impossible to show anything too far beyond current norms. And: Concerning those things that “you never see” — you never see them because they’re not important to the story.

  12. jstueart March 20, 2012 / 9:59

    Hi Mark and QJo,

    For QJo: good eye. Yeah, I think the more social media became part of our lives, the more Star Trek pulled it into a storyline.

    For Mark: I’m not critiquing Star Trek for not imagining this—I’m just saying that I think it’s interesting that we didn’t predict this technology–that comes with social change. The show was expert about talking about social change and about technology, so that doesn’t give it an excuse for not imagining it. I just think it’s remarkable that Star Trek didn’t foresee this—and foresaw cellphones, shuttles, etc. Facebook came out of left field.

  13. jstueart March 20, 2012 / 9:59

    I’m also saying that the future was just fine WITHOUT FACEBOOK, even better, perhaps. And that maybe we should think about eliminating it. Geordi never posted on a blog either….

  14. halde December 14, 2013 / 9:59

    Thanks designed for sharing such a pleasant idea,
    piece of writing is pleasant, thats why i have read it entirely

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