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: How the New Comes Into the World

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Most scientists, academics, and journalists who write about Star Trek claim to be fans and lovers of the various Starfleet Captains and their crews. But their customary methodologies function to deny to Star Trek its true originality as the creator of a reality-shaping science fiction that formatively influences culture, ideas, technologies, and even hard sciences like physics. Some book authors repeat the well-worn truism that Star Trek is a great modern mythology. Others follow the paradigm of The Science of Star Trek, substituting their own particular field of expertise for the word Science in that formula. This is exactly the opposite of clearing a path to the perception that Star Trek actively affects technoscience and techno-culture. It holds Star Trek in the weaker position of being tested against an established body of knowledge to see if it measures up on a scale of feasibility or correctness. The possibility that Star Trek is the lively initiator of a new real is thereby eliminated in advance.

What is the essence of Star Trek as a vigorously imprinting science fiction is for us a question still to be answered. To gain knowledge about something that we instinctively sense to be inaugural or instituting, we must be willing to lose something that we already know with systematic certainty, to voluntarily dispose of erudition that we acquired with the instruments of fixed scholarly categories. We must stay keenly aware of the elusiveness of the object under study and the sought after apprehension. We must strive to see the object of the investigation as non-comparable with what we already know, and non-exchangeable in the currency of existing wisdom. Our goal is to learn Star Trek‘s internal and underlying logic. As a singularity, Star Trek can only be grasped through an exploration that is carried out in Star Trek‘s own terms. But we ironically do not know at the outset what these own terms are. Acknowledging this paradox leaves us with a seemingly daunting task, but it remains possible to take a few intuitions or direct perceptions as our starting point. We can begin from recognition of the core questions that are asked by others who write about Star Trek.

There are two burning intellectual questions about Star Trek that pervade the existing literature and also engage us here. Why is Star Trek so popular? What are we to make of Star Trek‘s futuristic technologies? Each of these two questions is addressed by a corresponding series of books “about Star Trek” which either offers a recurrent answer (“Star Trek is a superb mythology”) or employs an inherited methodological prototype (“The Science of Star Trek“) that we find to be unsatisfactory. For the present study, not only is each of the two questions independently interesting, but we also search for an adequate answer to the first question in order to fruitfully answer the second one. We love Star Trek and we are technologists. We inhabit a technological lifeworld. If we are able to understand why we love Star Trek – to name certain basic principles, artistic and ethical values, or a single intricate thread within its “universe” that captures our adherence as true fans – then it will become clear what our attitude towards Star Trek‘s “imaginary” technologies should be. This is simply a matter of being consciously consistent. It is also critically important for our near future in late capitalist societies. Star Trek‘s futuristic technologies are our own twenty-first century technologies in development. When we have comprehended exactly why we believe in Star Trek – what the moral, aesthetic, philosophical, and techno-scientific grounding of our partisanship really is – then we will know exactly which tenets to reapply to our work as technologists, media practitioners, electronic artists, or thinkers about technology.

Just as literary criticism deals with forms and rhetorical devices such as irony, parody, and synecdoche, we speak of technological tropes such as the accident of virtual reality, the genetic code, software instantiation, or technologies of disappearance. The latter phrase has three separate meanings for the current inquiry. First, the major Star Trek technologies, as they are habitually envisioned, are technologies of disappearance in a literal and striking way. In transporter beaming, I disappear here and reappear there. In Holodeck virtual reality, I disappear from the physical into the virtual realm. In warp speed, the spaceship disappears from normal spacetime into the flash of faster-than-light speed. In time travel or sudden spatial displacement, there is usually a passage through a wormhole, portal, or stargate. Techno-cultural developments of the twenty-first century and beyond increasingly entail the leaving behind of corporeal existence to enter an alternate reality, such as an android body or online VR environment.

The second meaning of the title phrase of this book is a negative, critical theory sense. To write about “technologies of disappearance” is also to engage in a critique of the mainstream ways in which hypermodern technologies are conceived and designed. Human subjectivity and perception disappear into the organ-substituting imaging apparatuses of television, cinema, virtual reality, and real-time telecommunications. Classical time and space disappear into the compression of audiovisual memory implants and designer spacetimes. Human indivisibility disappears into cloning and genetic sequencing systems. The modernist pledge of scientific objectivity and the high valuation of “truth” disappear into incessant techno-scientific pursuit of techno-culture’s ends. Our consideration of the theoretical physics of the transporter, warp drive, time travel, and other Star Trek technologies will show that even “hard science” is to an augmenting degree driven by the demands of hyperreal science fictional culture. Theories get bent to conform to the wishes of an eager techno-cultural public that desperately wants acceleration in the coming to fruition of the technologies that will “make Star Trek real.” Here too there is movement from devotion to a set of immutable laws to a game with its own set of rules. In this case, the theoretical physicist player declares victory when he determines that the rules do not “rule out” the given futuristic technology as possible.

Yet the term “technologies of disappearance” has a third, more hopeful and affirmative, meaning for us. These technologies bring us into the proximity of new opportunities for symbolic exchange and duality within uncertainty that contest the prevailing order of endless signification and one-way economic accumulation. This mode of seduction is not to be found in reclaiming the modernist depths of “truth,” but rather on the superficial level of artifice, illusion, disappearance and reappearance. Such possibilities of reversal must be summoned into being or teased out from the standard transactions of the hypermodern condition. They are implicit in the quantum physics discovery of subatomic “virtual” particles that permanently pop into and out of existence. Disappearance is a strategy of feeling, resistance, and transformation that turns aside the intended primary uses of technologies and unpacks their alternative and creative secondary effects. It seeks alliance with the technological object that is striving through defiance and wily moves to achieve its own objecthood. I must first disappear from myself, sojourn with singularities and recognize the radical other, to have some chance to ultimately reach an indirect liberatory opening onto subjecthood.

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