Star Trek: TOS (Terms of Service)

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A Recently, we activated an Amazon Echo. My attitude toward smart speakers can be divided into two eras:

Before Echo: Why would anyone want a privacy-destroying box in their home? Why should Jeff Bezos know everything about how my house is laid out? Is the point of late capitalism really letting me have modest conveniences in exchange for better advertisements?

After Echo: Exchanging my privacy for the modest convenience of playing Barenaked Ladies through a voice command is the absolute pinnacle of late capitalism, and Jeff Bezos should probably just buy the presidency already.

Having a computer I can talk to and ask anything–converting cups of flour to grams; inquiring about the weather in Kuala Lumpur; finding out when the next Chiefs game is; begging to hear “One Week” whenever I like–has, in fact, transformed how I think about computing. That Alexa can understand my natural queries (mostly) is so convenient that when I can’t use Alexa interfaces seem clunky and dumb. Why can’t I ask Alexa to show me the Chiefs game instead of having to laboriously click four or even five buttons to get there? As trivial as it may seem next to, say, the Singularity, it really mattes to my daily life in a way that no piece of tech since my first-gen iPhone (and my iPod before that) has done.

By this point, it’s a commonplace that we’re never going to get the science-fiction world that twentieth-century writers and filmmakers envisioned–no Moon bases, no rocket flights to London, and certainly no interstellar empires. We’re probably not even going to last out the century in recognizably comfortable societies; I for one hope the climate-induced collapse comes after my death, but that increasingly seems too optimistic. So I’m embracing this minor improvement.

Nevertheless, having grown up with those visions of post-scarcity societies, I can’t help but interpret these development through the lenses of disposable science-fictional texts like Star Trek. And now: I have questions about how computers like the ones on the Enterprise worked. Just as a reminder: by Next Generation, these computers are shown to be super versions of Alexa and Siri—always on, operating via a wake word (“Computer!”), and able to execute complex queries flawlessly.

  1. How long are search queries stored? In other words, “Riker Googling” but for real. So let’s say that some crew member—call him Reginald Barclay—has some perverse habits but is otherwise a fully-adjusted member of society. But to indulge in those habits, he has to use the computer (“Show me pictures of Counselor Troi”). Who can access those records? Under what conditions?
  2. Does the computer record everything it hears? On Deep Space Nine, there’s both an always-on computer and a full-time station constable. But why do we need both? If the computers are always recording everything, and given the long-term decrease in storage costs there’s no reason they shouldn’t be, then Odo’s job shouldn’t be any more complicated than standing over a corpse and asking, “Computer: who killed this Vulcan?” (And, of course, there should basically never be any crime given this.)
  3. Does the computer hook up to a Federation “social credit” scheme? Post-scarcity or not in its material sense, the Federation still clearly allocates positional goods (member of the Federation Council, ranks in Starfleet) and other goods that involve scarce sentient time (access to Starfleet vessels for astrogational surveys, Starfleet ambassadors and Marines for bringing strange new worlds into the Federation, etc). So the incentives for vetting people must be pretty high! The ubiquity of computing must make a panopticon tempting under these conditions. And even if the Federation does not do this overtly, covert agencies like Section 31 must want to use it. How can the Federation guarantee that it won’t be used like this?
  4. How do Starfleet and other computers run (and update) apps and OSes? Seriously. Imagine a fight with the Borg, and suddenly: Blue Screen of Death.
  5. What’s the use of computing aside from running the shields and warp core? Does the Federation have social media? Are there anonymous forums? Can you even have anonymity with ubiquitous computing and a galaxy-wide Internet (a sort of Omninet)? Is it possible to secede from the Federation Omninet? Does a Federation-wide agency monitor StarTube to make sure there’s no conspiracy theories (“Picard: Still a Borg operative?”) or disinformation bots (Twitter, but with Borg drones) trying to pry Bajor from Earth’s clutches?

I’m sure that if Gene Roddenberry were around there would be canonical answers to these questions and more; I’m also sure that it would reflect the most optimistic, Stewart Brand-view of the potential of the Internet that we could envision. (Well, that or the scoldiest Greatest Generation “youngsters, get off your phones” mentality you can imagine; Gene Coon probably would have softened it pretty fast, though.) But Roddenberry didn’t think about these things because the Star Trek view of the future is as optimistically linear as you can get.

My view here is neither original nor free of this linearity. It’s not original because lots of people are thinking about what a world of ubiquitous computing will look like and what its social implications will be. It’s still tied to linearity because this critique still relies on projecting the trends of the past ten years into the future, instead of projecting the trends of ca 1960-1980 into the future. But between 1960 and 2010, we’ve seen a lot of nonlinearities—just not in the way we expected. We got Apollo but not Moon bases; we got Alexa but not strong AI. So it’s unlikely that this critique will perform much better (maybe social media was just a blip before nationalization).

Nevertheless, I think there’s some value to this exercise. We know the images of the future we’ve grown up with are badly miscast but they probably still shape our actions now to some extent or another. So critiquing those visions on their own basis using our experiences now can help us get prepared for the decisions we’re facing or will face soon.