What Star Trek: Discovery Can Tell Us About Tech and Social Progress

Star Trek: Discovery
A scene from Star Trek: Discovery featuring Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru (Doug Jones)
via CBS

Star Trek: Discovery landed on TV last week, and just in the nick of time. It’s been sixteen years since the last decent Star Trek series concluded its television run. (Yes, l am forgetting Enterprise. I recommend you do the same.) Those have been very long years for those of us who built our weekly schedules, social lives, and marriages around the rhythms of Star Trek.

Sure, we had the occasional movie, but the latest crop of Star Trek films were action movies set in space — not the real Star Trek we count on to use science fiction as a mirror of our real-world dilemmas. In the absence of weekly episodes that we could count on to provoke conversations about the ethics of holographic labor or the paradoxes of time travel, my husband and I were forced to resort to talking about things like our children, or worse yet, our feelings. Ugh.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world. Reach her on Twitter @awsamuel.

I recognize that not every marriage is as dependent on Star Trek as ours. We named our dog after a Star Trek character. We’ve dressed our kids as Star Trek’s evil Borg for Halloween. I may even have chronicled our latest family vacation in the form of a Captain’s log.

The Needs of the Many

What makes Star Trek essential not just for me, but for any contemporary tech user, is its role in helping us understand our relationship to technology. Star Trek has been famously credited with helping inspire such innovations as the communications headset, the smartphone, computing tablets, and voice-controlled computers. So it’s tempting to tune into the new series for a sneak peek at whatever might inspire a new generation of inventors: Neural implants? Biological computers? Something else?

That’s not where we need help today, though. Silicon Valley is stuffed to the brim with gadget-crazy entrepreneurs who are busy thinking of the next devices we need (and many we don’t). Where we really need help is in learning to live with the technologies we have. And there are lots of reasons to think Star Trek is positioned to help with that.

Star Trek invited its audience to see social and technological development as inextricably linked.

Just look at the biggest technology dilemmas we have today: How can we have the benefits of abundant, free information without the liabilities of fake news? How can we enable connection and community across difference without descending into flame wars and trolling? How can we harness data to make smarter decisions and offer better products and services without losing our privacy and autonomy?

These aren’t technology challenges; they’re social, political, and economic challenges that have been created, sharpened, or amplified by technology. And when it comes to engaging with the intersection between technology and social issues, there are few cultural institutions that have had as much influence as Star Trek.

Hailing on All Frequencies

By layering a post-prejudice future on top of one in which technology is so dramatically advanced and pervasive, Star Trek invited its audience to see social and technological development as inextricably linked. It’s a linkage that had particular resonance in the geek subculture that grew up around both the original series and its 1980s-1990s successors: For a generation that was drawn to Silicon Valley long before it was seen as a path to wealth, techies were more likely to be inspired by passion than by money. With its hybrid of tech and social progress, Star Trek spoke to the tech subculture’s 60s-inflected social values and its techno-fetishism.

The Star Trek universe makes its reappearance at a moment when those twin threads of Silicon Valley culture have largely been severed. Today’s prototypical tech innovator is a startup founder looking for enough venture funding to launch the next “unicorn,” and VC firms are looking for financial returns, not social ones. Sure, there are still plenty of techno-utopians kicking around the East Bay, but the social problems that have been catalyzed by the internet attract far less attention and creativity than the financial opportunities tech offers.

Star Trek has the potential to galvanize a new wave of technologists to think critically about the technologies they deploy and the social problems they can address. That’s because in addition to depicting both technological and social progress, Star Trek has often illuminated the relationship between the two. Dig into the past few decades of scholarship on Star Trek, and you will find compelling arguments for the franchise’s value in addressing such questions as the relationship between technology and freedom; the role of gender in framing our understanding of technology’s triumph over nature; and the impact of the internet on the treatment of sexual identity in Star Trek itself.

In “Lessons From Star Trek: Examining the Social Values Embedded in Technological Programs,” John W. Hansen directly invokes Star Trek’s value as inspiration for socially responsible technology development. Using the movies Star Trek II and III as his reference points, Hansen argues that the conflict between the heroic Federation and the belligerent Klingons usefully frames the conversation around the social ends of technology.

Discovery is slated to include the first openly gay character in the Star Trek TV series.

The Federation saw the technology as a means for creation; the Klingons saw technology as a weapon of power. We see the battle that rages between (a) the appropriate objectives of technology and (b) the exercise of personal liberty. Are these concepts related, as Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, hints, or are they virginal concepts that must retain their independence and purity?

You Will Be Assimilated

Tudor Balinisteanu extracts an equally sweeping perspective from a close reading of Star Trek: First Contact. (The best of all the Star Trek movies, obviously.) In “The Cyborg Goddess: Social Myths of Women as Goddesses of Technologized Otherworlds,” Balinisteanu contrasts the movie with prior Trek incarnations to tackle the franchise’s three-way dance between technology, social progress, and gender roles:

We notice through the many TV episodes and films of the Star Trek saga that a structuring axiom of its myth is the revolutionary principle; humanity’s progress is epitomized by the quest of the Federation’s flagship, the Enterprise. The evolutionist view is that humanity has evolved by adjusting to the natural environment. Having developed science, men have begun to transform nature.

Watching First Contact through a feminist lens, Balinisteanu argues that the movie’s portrayal of the villainous cyborg species, the Borg, is a departure from the series’ historical depiction of tech progress.

[t]he social organization of the Borg adapts not by conquering nature, as in enlightenment/evolutionist-based visions of progress, but by integrating it with technological culture… in First Contact this integration is perceived as a threat because it allows for the acknowledgment of a woman:nature relationship that, undermining the hierarchy of technological environments placing men in a privileged position vis-à-vis nature (and women), reclaims women’s leadership as creators of techno-culture that does not need to subordinate nature.

3-panel comic shows Kirk and Spock confessing their mutual crush and making out.

A Kirk/Spock scene in a comic by Reapersun

If Star Trek has often considered the relationship between technology and social progress, the franchise has also been shaped by that very interplay. P.J. Falzone offers a great case study of this dynamic in the article, “The Final Frontier is Queer: Aberrancy, Archetype and Audience Generated Folklore in K/S Slashfiction.”  For those unfamiliar with the genre, Falzone sums it up as follows:

Known by various names (Spirk, K/S, Kirk/Spock) K/S is defined as fan-generated art, stories, novels, poems, songs, or other creative media that take as their starting point an imagined romantic relationship between the two principal characters of the original Star Trek film and television series… K/S is not a unique genre, but belongs to a larger body of “slashfiction” named for the “/” or “slash” between the names of the characters that the stories queer. Slash, by definition, deals with same sex characters that in the parent narrative are avowedly or assumedly heterosexual… Not only was K/S the first manifestation of a slash narrative, it has also proven to be the most widespread and enduring because the Star Trek narrative is ongoing.

What makes K/S such a great laboratory for exploring the relationship between tech and social progress in the Trek universe is the internet’s unique role in fostering the medium. As Falzone writes:

Relegated to the odd corners of Star Trek conventions, and shunned, sometimes cruelly, by many in the broader community of Trekkers and writers of fan fiction, slash inhabited a marginal and outlaw status for many years… Then came the Internet… what Cumberland (2000) calls the “paradox of cyberspace—personal privacy in a public forum” has provided the infrastructure for K/S to expand beyond its Trekker convention and APA roots and move into a wider sphere. [Cumberland] notes that slash “is no longer a curious subset of the fan fiction phenomenon, but has become one of the mainstream forms of internet erotica.”

Birthing a massive genre of queer fiction and erotica should be evidence enough for the intimate relationship between Star Trek, technology, and social progress. (Though apparently it isn’t enough for new Spock, Zachary Quinto. Despite being an openly gay movie star and an eloquent voice for LGBTQ rights, Quinto has ranged from derogatory to dismissive when it comes to the K/S genre, clearly missing its historical relevance to the gay community.)

Still not sold? Then step back and consider that the ultimate aim of Falzone’s analysis is to argue for the relevance of K/S in queering a Star Trek universe that “through its almost forty years… has still never featured a gay character.”

All that changes with the advent of Star Trek: Discovery, which is slated to include the first openly gay character in the Star Trek TV series. (The latest Star Trek movie quietly queered the longstanding character of Sulu.) After reading Falzone’s article, it’s hard not to credit the appearance of Discovery’s Lt. Stamets at least partially to K/S, since “the introduction of queer characters into the original Star Trek mythos through rewriting [was] a way for fans to fulfill the utopian ideals of Star Trek that the creators never did.”

Engage!

The relationship between technology and freedom. The triad of gender, nature and technology. The embrace of queer identity, online, and (finally!) on screen. These are all complex subjects for a science fiction franchise to address, and yet over the course of several decades, Star Trek has tangled with each of them.

When Voyager wrapped up its seventh and final season in 2001, it was before we had Facebook or YouTube or Twitter.

Now, with Discovery, we need Star Trek to once again pick up the gauntlet of addressing the complicated relationship between technology and social progress. We need Discovery to inspire a fresh generation of technologists to think not only about the kinds of technologies that could make a buck, but the kind of technologies that could make change. We need a Star Trek to inspire the kinds of conversations that made up so many of the early evenings in my marriage: conversations about how we want technology to function in our lives, and in our world.

But this time, those conversations needn’t be confined to the marriage bed or the family dinner table. When Star Trek: Voyager wrapped up its seventh and final season in 2001, it was before we had Facebook or YouTube or Twitter. We didn’t even have MySpace back then, for Pete’s sake. Sure, there were Usenet groups and email lists where Star Trek fans could discuss the latest episodes and ideas, but by definition those were communities largely composed of hard-core techies. Discovery is the first time we’ll have a week-by-week universe of ideas to explore, and a broadly accessible online medium in which both tech creators and tech users can discuss those ideas together.

So Discovery, please bring the ideas on: The complicated, messy, controversial explorations of what the relationship between technology and social progress could look like. My husband and I are waiting, and we’re tired of talking about our kids.


JSTOR Citations

"The Final Frontier Is Queer: Aberrancy, Archetype and Audience Generated Folklore in K/S Slashfiction.

By: P.J. Falzone

Western Folklore , Vol. 64, No. 3/4 (2005)

Western States Folklore Society

Lessons From Star Trek: Examining the Social Values Embedded in Technological Programs

By: John W. Hansen

The Journal of Technology Studies , Vol. 26, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2000)

Epsilon Pi Tau, Inc.

The Cyborg Goddess: Social Myths of Women as Goddesses of Technologized Otherworlds

By: Tudor Balinisteanu

Feminist Studies , Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 2007)

Feminist Studies, Inc.

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

Comments are closed.