Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Star Trek: 20 Basic Principles

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Star Trek Basic Principle #1: Radical Uncertainty

Captain’s Log, Supplemental: “We are seeing things that cannot possibly exist, yet they are undeniably real.” In its indeterminacy and paradox, the object discovers us. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle holds that the degrees of my knowing the position and speed of quantum particles are inversely proportional to each other, or that the act of measurement affects the object measured. For most physicists, this renews a productivist worldview where knowledge is as attainable as ever, just on an aggregate or probabilistic scale. It is a prelude to the working up of hypermodernist science into new technologies. For us, uncertainty opens to cognizance of the principle of non-identity of things to themselves, to the ambiguity and enigma of the object. At the level of quantum physics, the world is permanently appearing and disappearing.

Star Trek Basic Principle #2: The Vital Illusion

Reality or the world exists because of an ungraspable vital illusion. It is undecidable, as light is neither wave nor particle. Reality can be “helped” through commitment to non-knowledge; respect for the nonhuman; and recognition of singularities, appearances, and even “the nothing” as opposed to commonalities and formulae. It cannot be mastered by knowledge-obsessed systems like technoscience in its dominant forms or endlessly signifying consumer culture. Art can ally itself with the “defense of the real” through its emphasis on artifice, secrets, and the dramaturgy of illusion. Technologies partake in the ruse of irony, surprise, and accident that protects the real from its demise in a fully realized and dis-illusioned hyper-real.

Star Trek Basic Principle #3: The Surprise of Technology

The “reality status” of the Artificial Life characters we encountered was uncertain and mysterious. Not knowing that this was the Amusement Park Planet, we experienced objects in a suspenseful state with regard to whether they were virtual or real. The surprise of cyberspace is more fecund and intriguing than its routine functionality. This mode of the unexpected is related to the technological accident, but it is a “mishap” so innate to a system that it is not necessary to name it as “calamity” or “crash.” Virtual world designers should turn their attention to “intrinsic irregularities” beyond the separation of anomalous catastrophe and typical intent.

Star Trek Basic Principle #4: Recognition of Otherness

Consumer culture is a system of simulated differences based on replication to infinity of the strands of a code of “economic” comparability. Radical theories which prevailed in the last few  decades, such as identity politics and “popularized” deconstruction, failed to penetrate this logic and extended the proliferation of the “otherness of sameness.” We call for a paradigm shift away from celebration of multiplicity and discrete identities, and towards recognition of genuine otherness and irreducible “alterity.” What is truly “other” is indifferent towards me. It is strange, unintelligible, even monstrous and “evil.” In the encounter with a radical other, I am transformed. I need otherness to discover my real self, to not repeat myself forever or irradiate in the void. By eradicating all negativity, ours remains a culture of subjects without others.

Star Trek Basic Principle #5: Boundaries of the Human

As a creature of fractured identity, Mr. Spock exists at the boundaries between previously defined dichotomous categories which have more and more lost their distinct opposition. Humanism and anthropocentrism are brought into question from the standpoint of radical recognition of others and a broader appreciation and ethics of life itself. Cyborg Spock shows himself to be sensitive towards our “joint kinship with animals and machines.” In high-tech culture, the boundaries that “construct the human” – between human and machine, human and animal, living and nonliving, artificial and natural, male and female, informatics and biology, reality and fiction, truth and illusion, science and the humanities – have been disrupted and are no longer tenable.

Star Trek Basic Principle #6: Symbolic Exchange

Economic exchange in capitalism is based on a logic of identity for objects of the same “kind,” and an exchange standard for all objects that allows the measuring of their value on a universal scale. The individual is a “subject” who “uses” all these objects which serve his “needs.” The structural law of accumulation prescribes the amassing of value and meaning in endless one-way positivity. “Non-signifying language” and “the duel relationship” are processes of symbolic exchange which contest economic exchange and accumulation. “Symbolic” means a continuous and reversible exchange that transforms both counterparts, with no clear separation of subject and object. The advent of symbolic exchange is glimpsed in the circulation of gifts, reversible power, sports and gambling, cycles that accept loss or missed opportunities, metamorphosis, challenge, seduction, an altered relation to death, and all forms of ambivalence.

Star Trek Basic Principle #7: Non-Signifying Language

In early capitalism, the law of accumulation is limited to the science of “political economy” and  production. In late capitalism, it expands to wider instances of consumer culture; psychology (self and unconscious as psychic metaphors of capital); and linguistics (“signification” to infinity). In Chomsky’s linguistics, the brain is a “universal language machine” making possible the translation of all grammars and signifying systems. In Saussure’s linguistics, the playful gap between “signifier” and “signified” is barred by positing their equivalence in a linguistic sign that fixes a word’s identity. But language is sometimes other than a means of communication. In metaphor or poetry, or in the “mythical” speech of the Tamarians, language is not directly signifying. It is symbolic, ambivalent, evocative, and even destructive. “Meanings” are  exchanged, subverted, enjoyed, and transformed in relationship and encounter.

Star Trek Basic Principle #8: The Duel / Dual Relationship

In the paradigm of multiple “selves” that has dominated cultural thinking about cyberspace, there is soft intermingling with simulated others. In the duel / dual relationship, there is reciprocal seduction and transformation achieved through a real encounter with an agonistic other. For standard Federation translation technology, language is a system of universal signification stretching to infinity, on the model of economic exchange. For Picard and Dathon on planet El-Adrel Four, restricted language is immanent to an active relation of mutual challenges, obligatory responses, and sincere encounter of I and Thou constituting afresh who they are. Tamarian Language is a ritualized mise-en-scène that forms a connection between parties in common observance of its rules. The content of what is said is secondary to the conventional sequence of metaphors. The game continues even at the price of a sacrificial death.

Star Trek Basic Principle #9: Ambivalence Towards Hypermodern Science

Star Trek has long been an “emblem” of techno-culture, and one of our chief associations is that many adamant fans come from the ranks of technoscience: NASA aerospace engineers, Silicon Valley programmers, CERN physicists, and high school geeks starting up a billion-dollar company in their garage. But the stories themselves are not unquestioningly pro-science and technology. Episodes like Year of Hell demonstrate deep ambivalence towards “hypermodern” technosciences like quantum mechanics, chaos theory, hyper-dimensionality, supercomputing virtual reality, and genetic engineering. Worries are expressed about the dangerous reality perturbations resulting from the working up of the sciences of complexity and uncertainty into technologies. Ignoring the implications about reality’s non-masterable nature and instead practicing “normal science” may lead to new forms of paradoxical domination and destruction.

Star Trek Basic Principle #10: The Butterfly Effect

For chaos theory, a seemingly insignificant event can have major consequences for a complex system displaying nonlinear causal behavior. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that tiny fluctuations in input can set off chain reactions that lead to varied systemic outcomes. Technologies like genetic engineering or nuclear power reactors may be especially subject to such vagaries. Although it is often associated with meteorologist Edward Lorenz, the Butterfly Effect was originated by Ray Bradbury in his 1962 science fiction story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which the killing of a butterfly by time travelers to the Mesozoic Era leads to changes in world history.

Star Trek Basic Principle #11: Ambivalence Towards Virtual Reality

Since the cyberspace 1990s, VR has been a controversial prospect either celebrated or feared. For Bill Gates in The Road Ahead (1996), cultural citizens will work, learn, make friends, shop, explore cultures, and be entertained from the privacy of their homes. They will enter total immersion cyber-environments. For Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), VR is a betrayal of humanist ideals like reflective thinking, individual imagination, responsibility for one’s actions, and concrete physical reality. From the start, in The Menagerie, reworked from the pilot The Cage, Star Trek has exhibited an intriguing complex ambivalence towards virtual reality. Captain Pike first “defends the real” by rejecting the Talosian virtuality engine from the standpoint of the grounded liberal Enlightenment subject. Years later, he embraces the same Talosian virtual reality system and paradoxically “defends the real” again, switching to a hypermodernist standpoint of creative and subversive “detouring” of technologies.

Star Trek Basic Principle #12: The Accident of Technology

The mishap of the transporter, the Holodeck, or warp speed is emphasized on Star Trek above the normal operation of the system. In The Enemy Within, the just-created duplicate Kirk walks to the transporter console and lustfully communes with the technology that has given him life. This “evil Kirk” is the intrinsic “accident” that belongs by necessity to the transporter. Every technology has a rational purpose and a built-in accident “waiting to happen.” The “worm” infiltration of a computer network or the environmental hazard of radioactive nuclear fallout is first experienced as extrinsic to the assemblage which engenders it. But scrutiny reveals a more primary “cataclysmic” dimension endemic to each system as intricate component or secret ruse, indicating the “loss” in what it means to be human that its invention has brought about. The triumph of media virtuality over physical reality lays us open to the advent of “generalized” accidents unfolding quickly and virulently due to their delocalization and diffuse embedment.

Star Trek Basic Principle #13: The Ruse of Technology

The object takes revenge through the portion of each technology that is its ruse, that ironically overturns our designs and expectations. The device turns its cunning against the convictions of inventors who wish to rule a compliant world through technique. Technological reversion is the “objecthood” of the object, acting on its own behalf and in defense of the real. The deep-rooted accident of duplicate Kirk turns a spotlight on the “essence” of the transporter, which is the phantasmagoria of total knowledge of a person captured in a digital pattern image or “quantum physics” snapshot of their subatomic particles. Kirk-Two’s appearance brings into relief anxiety about the “perfect” operational system of quantum information science and the coming digital-quantum teleporter. It is the dream of a human being understandable entirely through her information, identical to herself, and leading a completely knowable existence. The Enemy Within questions this edifice through the tropes of the accident and the double.

Star Trek Basic Principle #14: Reversible Power

French theorist Michel Foucault put forward the thesis that, in a hegemonic system, power is everywhere and, as a principle of micro-organization, produces the social. This concept of power has had great influence in cultural studies, such as on the feminist theory of “performativity.” But it is confining because we can never challenge power unless we conceive it from the start as a reversible relationship. In Arena, Kirk turns the legitimacy of the law set down by the super-advanced Metrons against itself. To settle a dispute between the Enterprise and the ship of the reptilian Gorn, the Metrons seize both vessels and force Kirk and the Gorn commander into a one-on-one duel to the death on a barren planetoid. After outwitting him, Kirk refuses to kill his alien antagonist, even at the risk of the Metrons killing them both. He discovers something of more symbolic worth to him than his own life. By refusing to “exchange” the Metrons’ power, he points to Machiavelli’s secret that power “does not exist.” If it is not exchanged, it disappears.

Star Trek Basic Principle #15: Strange Attractor

Chaos theory indicates that complex systems are more likely than traditional systems to undergo changes in the mode of “catastrophe.” The sudden cataclysm is initiated by a “strange attractor,” which differs from more predictable linear attractors. The hypercharged agent mutates the system inside out to an organization that was implicit in the earlier one. The supernova of All Our Yesterdays suggests a critical mass being reached in techno-scientific knowledge accumulation that transforms this system into the fosterer of chaotic reality disturbances. Star Trek itself is seen as a strange attractor for contemporary techno-culture.

Star Trek Basic Principle #16: The Cyborg Project

The cyborg is not searching for an identity. She is “situated” in a project that begins “where we are now,” saturated in simulation and hyper-reality, and intimately entangled with technologies. The original meaning of cyborg was an Engineered Astronaut dreamed of by NASA. Spock is not just “Mister Logic,” or a figure “torn between logic and human emotions.” He is the quintessential male cyborg, his inter-species birth made possible by Vulcan technoscience, his skills as an information processor fitting with the cybernetic paradigm of a self-regulating machine built for command, communication, and control. In the episodes, Spock explores the boundaries between organic and machinic, human and nonhuman, self and other.

Star Trek Basic Principle #17: Challenge to the Death

In the consumer system of identities and differences, there is much value and little sense. Authentic meaning emerges through direct action, real social relations, confrontation and conflict. In our culture, death itself has been emptied of challenge and stakes. It has been sanitized and confined to the margins in the separation of life and death. In Amok Time, Kirk and Spock must do battle to the death during the sacramental “marriage or challenge” ritual of Vulcan culture. Spock’s betrothed T’Pring spurns him and chooses the Kal-if-ee or challenge, a brutal component of the wedding rites left over from the times of antiquity when those coming of age killed to win their mates. In this ceremonial duel encounter in the hot furnace of the collective Vulcan soul, intensified meaning or stakes are immanent to an obligatory system of rules that is other than the contemporary arrangement of the determining coded model and its instantiations.

Star Trek Basic Principle #18: Android Seduction

For the Star Trek industry, Data’s predicament is that of a postmodern Pinocchio who pines to become human. The stories suggest that Data’s quest is more about the struggle than the goal. His condition is paradoxically that he is neither the “same as” nor “different from” the human, neither comparable nor opposable. Since the definition of human is not fixed, the android can “double” and induce a transformation in us. In The Measure of a Man, Data becomes Picard’s double, pushing him to doubt his self-confident liberal humanism. How will we, ourselves merged with technologies, no longer sure of our boundaries, be judged if we sit in judgment of him? In The Offspring, Data’s daughter Lal perishes because he fails to convey to her the essence of the android condition as the tension between the artifice of appearing to be human and the unreachability of that endpoint. He teaches Lal the technical details of simulating the human, but does not teach her the heart of simulation, which is android seduction.

Star Trek Basic Principle #19: Becoming-Borg

Seven of Nine is a cultural icon and cyborg figure descendant from Spock and Data. For the Star Trek industry, her narrative arc is summed up in the phrase “recovering Borg” or becoming human. Her parents were noted Borg specialists whose imprudent high-risk research in the Delta Quadrant led to young Annika Hansen‘s being assimilated at age six by the Borg. Captain Janeway represents the postmodernist maternal superego who, 18 years later, replaces the father’s failed authority. The Captain enjoins Seven of Nine to “choose” and “enjoy.” Choose to stay with Voyager and to become human. Enjoy your “individuality,” your creativity in Leonardo’s Holodeck workshop, your sexuality, your food. Pleasure becomes her Starfleet duty. From a hypermodernist perspective, we practice “reversibility” and reinterpret the stories as Becoming- Borg Seven of Nine. She learns to live the singularity of her situation, and to become something that would have not been possible without her experience with the Borg.

Star Trek Basic Principle #20: The Founding of Futurity

In The City on the Edge of Forever, time travel frames a narrative emphasizing existential freedom as the core of history. Sent back to 1930s NYC by the Guardian of Forever, Kirk falls deeply in love with Edith Keeler. Technology devised by Spock reveals that Keeler must die in a traffic accident to not delay U.S. entry into World War II and protect the integrity of the timeline. But Kirk is genuinely unsure whether to choose the universe or the woman he loves. The painful choice is not decidable in advance. The movie First Contact depicts a crucial event in the opposite mode as that which must take place. Zephram Cochrane must carry out the first flight of a warp speed-capable craft on April 5, 2063 that is detected by Vulcans. It is an occurrence necessary to the founding of futurity, at once establishing Star Trek‘s past and the Star Trek fans’ future. When the drunk Cochrane refuses to get into his ship Phoenix because he does not want to become a “statue,” time traveling Commander Riker shoots him with a set-to-stun phaser and straps him down in his hero aviator’s pilot seat. History was a modernist concept. It entered a crisis in postmodernism, and is replaced by futurity in hypermodernism.

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