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.