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

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Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, by Alan N. Shapiro

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written by Alan N. Shapiro

published by AVINUS Press

ISBN-10: 3930064162

ISBN-13: 978-3930064168

Our society dreams of making Star Trek’s technologies real. University scientists, computer technologists and science fiction media fans strive to bring to fruition:

· the transporter with quantum entanglement
· interstellar space travel with faster-than-light speed
· time travel with fabricated wormholes
· the Holodeck as the Holy Grail of virtual reality entrepreneurship
· universal communication with the Klingon Language
· cyborgs and androids with artificial intelligence
· contact with aliens as the future that must take place.

But does Star Trek’s worldview coincide with the unbridled high-tech enthusiasm of recent years? Or is there a tension between the show’s originality and the Borg-like assimilation of its creativity by the Star Trek industry? Focusing on the stories themselves, the author reveals the basic principles behind Star Trek that contest the ideology of mainstream technoscience, consumer culture, and liberal humanism promoted by Paramount Pictures. Bringing together the passion of a true fan and an intellectual reflection on science, technology and media culture, Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance explains the real reasons for Star Trek’s global mass appeal for the very first time.

In his lengthy review-essay of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance in Science Fiction Studies, coeditor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. remarks:

Shapiro’s study of Star Trek is one of the most original works of sf-theory since Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity (1993).

In his review of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance at NoemaLab.org, Pier Luigi Capucci writes:

The saga of Star Trek, which has been called a “great modern mythology,” has developed over the course of more than thirty-five years in television series, films, animated episodes, video games, print publications of various genres, memorabilia and collectibles, etc. Over time, Star Trek has permeated our collective mores. Its status as a cultural phenomenon is unrivaled. It has not been surpassed even by the cinematographic success of the Star Wars series. Star Trek has attained an extensive and deeply rooted popularity among the mass media public. But there is also a huge number of academics, scientists and researchers – belonging to a plethora of disciplines ranging from physics to sociology – who, along with technologists, fiction writers, and journalists, dedicate books, essays, conferences and articles in the continuing tribute they pay to Star Trek.

Why is Star Trek so popular? What accounts for its mass appeal and extraordinary success? What are we to make of the technologies used by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, by Data and Captain Picard? These are, in essence, the questions that Alan N. Shapiro tries to answer in his Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, published in English by the Berlin-based AVINUS Press. Shapiro is an American expatriate who has lived in Germany since 1991. He studied at MIT and Cornell University, and is a software developer and former New York University sociology instructor.

The book considers in great depth an impressive collection of Star Trek episodes, both televisual and cinematic, grouping them into eleven thematic chapters. It is structured in multiple layers to which different typographies correspond. The episodes are retold and described, establishing the context to initiate a vast array of reflections, principles, anecdotes and references, ranging from philosophy to physics, from sociology to history, from technology to communication. This prolific feat of writing contributes to placing the Star Trek phenomenon in the framework of the culture of the last thirty years.

Star Trek has produced icons that have taken root in the popular imagination. But it has also outstripped, and anticipated through extrapolation, scientific and technological events, philosophical insights, and social and cultural transformations in ways that are frequently at odds with dominant or received ideas. It is an outstanding example of a technological mythology that goes beyond the eclecticism, cliched repetition and superficiality of many other instances of science fiction and fantasy. It insists more on the brain than on muscles or special effects. And it achieves all of this by taking on the challenge of inventing a popular yet high-concept media series.

Shapiro’s thesis is that the true originality of Star Trek and the reason for its success reside in its creation of a reality-shaping science fiction capable of formatively influencing “culture, ideas, technologies, and even ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” To compare Star Trek to techno-scientific and techno-cultural developments in order to judge the practicability or correctness of its so-called “representations” is a weak and reductionist approach. This is unfortunately what the vast majority of books and essays on Star Trek has done. It is a mistake committed in common by scientists and “leftist” cultural critics.

Star Trek‘s futuristic technologies – including the cultural, moral, aesthetic, and philosophical imagination that stands behind them – are our own twenty-first century technologies in development. They are the material-semiotic “embodied metaphor” of our current technologies. Taken as a whole, they belong to our “anthropological desire” (to use Roland Barthes’phrase). And only this explains the mass success of Star Trek. “Our society dreams of making Star Trek‘s technologies real,” Shapiro says: the transporter, the Holodeck / virtual reality, the “universal communicator,” interstellar space travel with faster-than-light speed, time travel with fabricated wormholes, cyborgs and androids with artificial intelligence, contact with aliens. These are “technologies of disappearance” because they enable their users to become ubiquitous, allowing them to “disappear” and “reappear” in different places and times. But they are also technologies of disappearance because the virtual and symbolic dimension that informs them makes “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.” The theoretical physics of the transporter, warp speed, time travel, and parallel universes is driven by the demands of hyperreal science fictional culture.

Finally, Star Trek technologies are “technologies of disappearance” because they offer a glimpse of the reign of artifice and illusion (in Jean Baudrillard’s sense), of the reversibility between disappearance and reappearance, a little like the subatomic “virtual” particles of quantum physics that permanently pop into and out of existence. In this case, disappearance can become a strategy of resistance and transformation that turns aside the canonical mainstream uses of technologies and unpacks their alternative and creative “secondary effects.” Perhaps even capable of changing the world…

 

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