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.

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It’s a Wonderful Life, Captain Picard

270px-st-tng_tapestrySeeing that it’s Christmas, and I’m going through a midlife crisis, I thought I would further comment on the magic of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That magic: the Re-vision of a person’s life has been played out on a number of TV shows. That 70’s Show undid a kiss, Moonlighting a meeting, etc. Each show played off the idea that life could be revised differently, playing to our many regrets. All of us have wondered from time to time how life might have been different if we’d chosen another option.

Here’s Star Trek’s version of the Capra classic, and whether you are a Sci fi fan or not, or a Trekkie, the message in this episode is broad enough to speak about the human condition.

In “Tapestry,” Captain Picard is killed on an away mission. His artificial heart is damaged and it fails him. He meets up with Q as an afterlife. Q is the Trek Universe’s answer to God–an amoral, irresponsible, uncompassionate God. Omnipotence with no ethics. Clarence with no caring. Q offers to change one aspect of Picard’s life, and he uncovers a pivotal moment when Picard loses his real heart in a fight with badass aliens, when he was a young officer. Picard never realizes that the moment is pivotal. Q transports him back in time to play out that moment when he was stabbed. Q forces him to either accept death, or find a way not to get stabbed and see what his life would have been like with a real heart instead of an artificial one.

Picard replays the days leading up to the argument, to the fight, to the stabbing, to avoid violence. To do this, he has to stop his friends from defending their honor, and in doing so, loses his friends–but gains his life. Q transports him back to the future–or to the present. Picard finds that he has a completely different life. A life void of risk, completely safe. And by playing it safe, Picard has become a Lt. Astrophysics analyst, who transports data back and forth to senior officers.

If you want the whole episode, go to Youtube and begin here.

But I think the end has the meat of the message. Watch here.

The difference here is not that Picard is pivotal in the lives of others. Undoubtedly he was. But that our risks bring about a person who can lead. Our risks, or lack of them, define us. George Bailey’s sacrifices define him. Picard’s daring defines him. What defines you?

For another take on this idea, here’s a heartwarming video by Garth Brooks called “Standing Outside the Fire.” Pardon me mixing Star Trek and country music, but the themes are nice together.