With the 50th anniversary of the original series and impending debut of Star Trek: Discovery later this year, it seems like an ideal time to look back at how this franchise—which is so near and dear me and many of my fellow Cyborgologists—has imagined technology.
Those who grew up in the era of the recent J.J Abrams “reboot” series of action films, could be forgiven for thinking of the Star Trek universe is little more than a thin narrative strand binding together adrenaline hits in yet another forgettable instantiation of the timeless male fantasy of blowing shit up in space. But, in its prime, Star Trek’s cerebral nature and its relentless interrogation of moral and social values set it apart from other successful 20th Century space dramas like Star Wars or the original Battlestar Galactica series.
The original Star Trek series was notably progressive in employing women writers (primarily D.C. Fontana) and having a racially diverse cast, and it famously featured television’s first interracial kiss (which, speaking to the cerebral nature of the show, took place on a planet whose inhabitants where trying to enact the ideas of Plato’s Republic). Later series would push the envelope on media representation by featuring Black (DS9) and women (Voyager) captains. This opened the way to more explicit reflections of race and gender politics by the show’s characters.
Most significant, though, is the way that politics were baked into the setting of the Star Trek universe from the beginning. Creator Gene Roddenberry imagined that, with the elimination of material scarcity (and money along with it), 24th Century Earth would become a paradise. Having everything, humans would collectively turn away from the goal of accumulating wealth and toward the mutually intertwined goals of interplanetary exploration and self-realization. Roddenberry’s imagined future was a product of its time (i.e., the 1960s). The original series aired during the period of peak influence for Frankfurt School and other Freudo-Marxian theorists who were arguing that human potential could finally be realized now that techno-social innovations were on the cusp of providing whole of society sufficient resources to meet their basic biological needs. Once new technologies—and the unparalleled levels of productivity they promised to enable—made us all healthy and comfortable, we could turn our attention to higher order desires, such as the pursuit of knowledge and the search for meaning. This is the deep meaning of the series’ recurring introductory monologue:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Of course, it is naïve to imagine that, even in the absence of material scarcity, humans could put aside social and cultural difference (without any group being oppressed) and unite to explore the galaxy—even given the classic sci-fi trope that, once aliens appear on Earth (in this case, friendly Vulcans), differences between humans will seem small by comparison. However, this naiveté was only ever superficial—a way of disarming knee-jerk political reactions and evading prejudices by transposing human social dynamics onto our interactions with aliens. This was a particularly effective vehicle for social commentary during the periods that the original series (1966-69) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) ran, when television was still dominated by just a few risk-adverse networks.
Star Trek’s emphasis on exploration and discovery points not to a future of moral clarity and social harmony, but rather to one where our virtues are constantly tested—where personal contradictions and social conflicts perpetually emerge. This is what I understand David Banks to mean when he writes about utopianism in Star Trek:
Utopias… don’t just let us display the final result of a certain kind of politics, they let us interrogate the very foundations of our politics. They let us bring ideas to their logical and illogical conclusions and, in so doing, gives us a crucible in which to crush them up, mix them, and come up with brand new ideas. Utopic story telling should not be blind to anything: it should meet race, class, gender, and any other social structure head on and complicate it beyond comprehension. What comes out the other side should be a little unnerving, exciting, and dangerous. Exactly what the future should be.
I accept and agree with Banks’ perspective on the potential for radical utopias as imagined futures that facilitate our questioning of the present. And, his understanding certainly fits with Karl Mannheim’s classic definition that “a state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs” and “which, when they pass over into conduct, tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time.” But what Banks dismisses as failing to live up to the ideal of (radical) utopic storytelling, is still, I suggest, a form of utopianism; it is just a more naïve and insidious form of utopianism that imagines that there to be scientific solutions for social and moral problems. As such, these problems can be ignored as temporary setbacks, which will inevitably be resolved by the progressive arc of history and technological advancement.
Arguably, the first two Star Trek series, tended more toward this sort of naïve utopianism. Both series are deeply and fundamentally optimistic in their orientation toward technology. Despite the future’s inherent dangers, most problems are imagined to be resolvable with persistence and inventiveness. This unwavering faith in human ingenuity was Roddenberry’s trademark, and, as Banks notes, it is also a “box” that Star Trek’s writers only escaped from after his death.
In many episodes (from the first two series in particular), technical solutions act as a deus ex machina, eliminating any need for compromise or meaningful sacrifices on the part of the crew. These instances a parodied in the Voltaire song “USS Make Shit Up” whose chorus goes:
Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish
That’s the way we do things lad, we’re making shit up as we wish
The Klingons and the Romulans pose no threat to us
‘Cause if we find we’re in a bind we just make some shit up.
Technological deus ex machina may have worked as a in individual episodes as a useful mechanism, allowing writers to introduce scenarios that pose interesting questions without needing to answer those questions or connect all the dots relating them back to contemporary moral and social issues; however, it also created a broader meta-narrative of technological solutionism throughout the series. In other words, this narrative pattern encourages naïve utopian expectations that moral and social issues will be resolved by technological innovation, rather than moral or social insights and decision-making.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the first of the post-Roddenberry series. What makes it unique (and, in my estimation, the most creative and theoretically interesting show in the franchise’s history) is deliberate departure from the technological and moral solutionism of its predecessors. DS9 imagined a world were failure was a real possibility and success often came at a price.
Technology in DS9 is often hostile. Unlike the Starship Enterprise which is portrayed as the pinnacle of human inventiveness, Deep Space Nine is a war trophy won from the Cardassians and was previously used to enslave members of the crew and their kin. Rather than a symbol of hope, it is a symbol of oppression—or was. Nothing in DS9 is so one-sided. Despite being uncomfortable, alien, and dangerous, the space station also becomes home; it also becomes the last bastion of hope in humanity’s struggle to preserve its freedom.
Most significant, DS9 does not take an intrinsically optimistic or pessimistic stance toward technology, nor does it adopt the facile view that technology is neutral or value free. Instead, DS9 approaches technology with profound ambivalence, understanding that our relationship to technology is always a matter of human (or alien) values. Innovation is not always bad, but more innovation is not always better.
The episode, “Armageddon Game” is an excellent example of how this ambivalent relationship to technology plays out. The crew agrees to help two alien races cement a peace deal by figuring how to destroy the advanced biological weapons that both alien species had developed during their long war. On the surface, a degree of ambivalence is apparent in this narrative: Technological innovation has produced these terrible weapons, but it is also the solution for getting rid of them. Despite this superficial ambivalence, however, the narrative, without further development, would resolve into a “yay, science” moment, where, though technological innovation did create some problems (i.e., genocide), we can rest comfortably in knowing that such problems are nothing that can’t be solved with a little more innovation.
Instead of following this kind of pat techno-solutionist narrative, the episode takes a darker, more sophisticated turn: Once the weapons are destroyed, the two alien governments jointly undertake a plot to assassinate all the scientists involved with the project (including an attempt on a pair of the show’s protagonists, who barely manage to escape). The aliens believe that any technical knowledge of the weapons is too dangerous to exist and that peace depends on undoing the technological (weapons) development that has previously occurred. In other words, the aliens believe that the solution to the problem posed by the existence of these weapons is to simultaneously advance and turn back technological development. By presenting the aliens as having such an ambivalent relationship with technology—as neither single-mindedly embracing technological solutionism or skepticism—the episode pivots toward a much deeper conversation about values: What is the worth of an individual life and how much risk should a society tolerate for the sake of one person? These are not questions that the crew–or anyone–can answer (or render irrelevant) through innovation. Technology cannot save us from ourselves.
This echoes the observations of early-20th Century sociologist Max Weber, who argued that, despite the modernist impulse to put faith in reason, science and technology can never enable us to escape the need for moral judgements. Virtues are matters of faith, a different order of knowledge than empirical data or objective reasoning. These virtues—whether received are chosen—cannot be proven but only accepted or denied. Most importantly to a show about aliens—who, inevitably, are proxies for competing aspects of our own humanity—meaning is only realized in light of what we choose not to do or be. He explains (“Objectivity in Social Science,” 1904):
The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. It must recognize that general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals which are just as sacred to others as ours are to us.
Both Weber and DS9 (throughout its many episodes) demonstrate what might be described as an existentialist orientation: To affirm ourselves—both in our individuality and our humanity—we must make moral choices—choices of consequence that affirm one way of being at the expense of foreclosing other possible ways of being. The illusion of naïve techno-utopianism—whether pedaled by Silicon Valley or the earlier incarnations of the Star Trek franchise—is that technology offers an escape from morality; that we can innovate our way out of having to make choices or sacrifices that affirm our values; that technology will allow us to transcend the need for morality so that we can, somehow, live a life that is amoral without being immoral.
A second DS9 episode (my personal favorite) shatters the illusion that this sort of naïve, amoral utopia is possible, even in the imagined Star Trek universe. The episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” begins with news that humans and their allies are losing a war for their freedom against a vast interstellar empire known as the Dominion. Captain Sisko believes humanity’s only hope is to draw the Romulans (who have long been enemies) into war on their side. He recruits an exiled former spy named Garak to aid him in a plot to forge a recording that ostensibly proves that the Dominion is planning a sneak attack on the Romulans. When Sisko asks Garak to aid him in carrying out this plot, Garak responds:
It may be a very messy, very bloody business. Are you prepared for that?
The captain pulls strings to have an expert forger named Grathon Tolar released from jail so that he can assist them. He also pays bribes and deals in contraband in order to obtain the necessary technology. Once complete, Sisko arranges a secret meeting with a Romulan senator who, despite all Sisko’s efforts and moral compromises, scrutinizes the message and determines that it is, in fact, a forgery. Persistence and inventiveness have not paid off for Sisko, and these efforts only convince us that it was unrealistic to ever believe a technical solution was possible.
What makes the episode most interesting is that it turns out not to be a simplistic morality tale about crime and punishment; instead, it creates a scenario of moral ambivalence in addition to technological ambivalence. Once the forgery is discovered, the ambassador is furious and leaves the station. Shortly thereafter, his ship explodes, apparently sabotaged by the Dominion. The Romulans recover the forged message rod from the ship’s wreckage, which they fail to carefully examine because they already blame the Dominion for the assassination. It convinces them to join the war on the side of the humans. The episode ends with a revelation that Garak had in fact planted the bomb and planned to assassinate the ambassador all along, because he believed the stakes were too high to place faith in the forgery (i.e., the technical fix). He also murdered Grathon Tolar, the forger. The real revelation, however, is that Sisko picked Garak to help him because, in the back of his mind, he knew Garak would do anything necessary to ensure they succeeded in drawing the Romulans into the war. Garak calls Sisko out, saying:
That’s why you came to me, isn’t it, captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing. Well it worked. And you’ll get what you want: A war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And, if your conscious is bothering you, you should sooth it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.
Sisko then closes the episode reflecting to himself:
I lied, I cheated, I bribed a man to cover the crimes of other men, I am an accessory to murder. The most damning thing of all: I think I can live with it. And, if I had to do it all over again, I would… a guilty conscious is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant, so I will learn to live with it
At this pivotal moment in the story arc of the entire series, technology cannot save humanity, but lies and murder can. If technological solutionism is the naïve belief that humans can invent their way out of moral and social problems, existential entitlement is a parallel belief that all moral conflicts can be solved without sacrifice or compromise. Of course, Sisko would have preferred another option—an easy technological or moral fix—but such solutions are not guaranteed in radical utopias such as DS9 and are certainly not guaranteed in reality.