Star Trek and Information Retrieval
Star Trek presents a future that is simultaneously much more technological but in which our relationship with technology is more human; the question that is of most importance to me (information retrieval) is practically omitted.
The following is perhaps not as connected and internally coherent a piece as I would normally wish to publish, but I think that the ideas are interesting, and it satisfies my normal need to publish something around Christmas and New Year.
Two trains of thought are in my mind at the moment:
- Star Trek: my mother, who watched the original series during its first broadcast, has found a renewed interest in the franchise, and we’re taking the opportunity to watch the Original Series films together.
- Building humane means of coordination and information management.
Humane information management is usually on my mind, but it is especially so now, at Christmas, because the family telepathy board comes out again. This item is a cork noticeboard, onto which family tasks are placed into a two-dimensional matrix, with an axis for the member of the family to whom a task is assigned, and another for its urgency. See the board below (with names removed to protect the guilty):
We use it to coordinate, prioritize action, and ensure that everything gets done but that nobody becomes overburdened. The board is in essence a physical manifestation of the popular project management function that many now derive from a tool such as Notion, Trello or ClickUp. I’ll return to why I think that this is interesting some time later.
Back to Star Trek. As we’re watching the original series movies chronologically, we of course began with The Motion Picture. This is a wonderful, odd, utterly flawed and lovely film: for those who haven’t seen it, I do recommend watching, or at least reading the Wikipedia page.
Setting aside discussion of the film’s big visuals and big ideas, I’d like to focus on what is arguably a minor point. The main antagonist in the movie is a mysterious entity, heading towards Earth, destroying everything in its path; shortly before the beloved Enterprise is dispatched to intercept, Kirk gathers the crew to explain the nature of their mission, and show them a video of the entity destroying one of the Federation’s space stations.
What struck me on this occasion, not my first watching of this film, was that we’re led to believe that this is the first time the crew are hearing of the threat, and the first time they’re seeing the video. The film, set in the 2270s, has no representation of the rapid dissemination of media and news that we experience today, mainly via the Internet.
I’m not here to criticise the fact that Star Trek lacks a concept of the Internet, or more accurately a CNAS; though this would be fitting alongside it’s presentation of hand-held communicators, tablet computers, video conferencing, I don’t think it’s at issue. Rather, it is as though the producers expected in the 2270s for information to flow through a central authority and not from person to person. Additionally, although the civilization described in the movie has advanced technology, some of it hand-held, the crew are not constantly using anything like what we call smartphones, even in a utopian style.
The difference is striking: Bones and Kirk hold a conversation on the latter’s birthday in the sequel, The Wrath of Khan, 300 years after the invention of the personal computer, but there is no technological presence inserting itself into the conversation, nor does either break the conversation to check something. Were it not for the futuristic clothing and architecture, this scene might be mistaken for a depiction of people who have a moral bent against the casual use of technology, not two men are, though heroic, otherwise fairly normal.
A generous interpretation would be to assume that the creators anticipated something like the relationship with technology that we experience today, and thought that by the 2270s we would have resolved the problems that we are experiencing. It seems more likely to me that they didn’t anticipate it. And I don’t mean to be harsh: prescience isn’t everything in science fiction, and the movie might even be better as a depiction of an alternative way of being.
The question of information transmission is a fraught one: I find the close control of information wielded by Kirk and Starfleet quite unsettling. Conceptually, the civilization in Star Trek is presented as being benign, but in my view even an otherwise benign set up is not properly so if it wields this much power over how people see the world.
This is of course something I find quite off about Star Trek more generally: this civilization’s main exploratory and scientific organization is also its military (Star Fleet); despite achieving equality of ethnicities and the sexes, Star Fleet is utterly hierarchical. That said, The Next Generation series is quite stimulating for its discussion of the drawbacks of this hierarchy, and especially when personal ethics come into conflict with it.
Of course, the social mode of information transmission that is common today is troubling, also: falsehoods can travel with the speed of a virus, while we the users have few tools and little practice in interpreting how new pieces of information fit into the larger whole, whether they are true, and how to interpret them. Ironically, the social media giants are becoming more like the hierarchical Star Fleet as they try to combat foul play: banning, censoring and otherwise nannying us.
Anyone who has been with me for any length of time knows my thesis: we suffer because none of our online tools can tell us, natively and naturally, where pieces of information come from and how they are related; they can present the information itself, but rarely how it fits in, and almost never the big picture.
Evaluation, understanding and synthesis are together essentially a question of networks: what does this piece of information follow from? What does it cite? What cites it? What contradicts or supports it? Who originated it and how do they fit in? If one can answer these questions one has a chance of understanding, without outside influence, what something actually means.
But our information systems are broken: we have no way of expressing the links between pieces of media, and most links are broken eventually, media is copied with or without reference. One can piece things together slowly, but network complexity scales exponentially: meaning that bad tools make simple problems painful to solve, and complex problems almost impossible to solve.
So here’s the interesting thing about Star Trek: they have warp drive, replicators, transporters, and of course powerful computers that can act on almost any command, but their information retrieval system is unnamed, undescribed, and is shown simply presenting crew members with what they desire.
I would argue that any space-faring civilization that is able to coordinate on a planetary scale, abolish poverty, and devote its energies primarily to betterment and exploration must have solved the problem that I describe above. Our information and communication systems are already buckling under the strain of problems like climate change, economic stress and antisocial technology; the pressures of a civilization of the 2200s would be exponentially greater. I don’t feel cheated: Star Trek has given us enough already; I do think it’s time, however, to give this question a good fictional outing.
Back to the telepathy board. Although quite simple and inflexible compared to digital systems, our telepathy board is wonderful because it doesn’t require us to take out our digital devices yet another time, and place them between us as people. I don’t think that it’s absurd to say that the telepathy board is a hint as to how we might solve the problem of expressing networked information, without allowing our attention to be hijacked. It’s also a somewhat artisan entry in a growing genre of tools like this, the Neo smartpen (which I own), a devices that allows one to digitize hand-written notes on paper in real time, and the reMarkable (which I do not own), an eink tablet with stylus input: neither of which require the user to stare at a backlit screen.
Therefore, as a call to action for 2022, I suggest that we devote immense civilizational energy to solving the problem of how we understand information: Star Trek is helpful only to the extent that it treats it as a non-problem, something that we today are hung up on. Multidimensional, networked thinking is a hard one, also, because if one is in the habit of thinking in one dimension (us versus them, left versus right, etc.) people who are thinking with more nuance often come across as just odd; this is perhaps in a similar way how we see Bones and Kirk in the 1982 film The Wrath of Khan: today I was surprised to see that they weren’t grasping phones, while contemporary studio audiences might have been surprised that they didn’t have cigarettes.
As such, I think that if we are to survive, and solve our civilization-scale problems, we’re due a big serving of cold turkey, which, if nothing else, often helps one to rediscover what we used to do for ourselves, drawing from our own humanity, before whatever drug, cult or technology weaselled its way into our lives.
If this problem is of interest to you, I direct you to my manifesto: Six Imperatives for Communications Freedom.