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25 Days of TNG, Day 13: 10 Things That Don’t Hold Up

When Gene Roddenberry and his team first put Star Trek on the air, there was no way he could know just how far Moore’s Law would take us. How could he have any conceptualization of what computers, cell phones, tablets, and cars would be like 300 years in the future?

He couldn’t. No one can know the future, not for certain.

Trek returned to TV twenty years later, in 1987, and though everything was highly upgraded, there were still technological advancements that were completely unexpected that have since made TNG into something of a dinosaur. Here are ten of them.

Push to talk.

1. Communicators That Only Communicate

Captain Kirk and company had what, in 2000, you thought of as a cellphone. It was a flip-top device with a few buttons and a tiny screen. Captain Picard and his crew used badges that you simply tapped and gave a voice command to. I compared communicators to my cellphone back in 2011 (and in the same article predicted that that year’s iPhone would be the 4S, not the 5) and found communicators to be on the losing side of nearly every equation. Some of the tie-in writers have done cool stuff with them — Daffyd ab Hugh’s part of the Invasion series shows just what Janeway can do with a little badge — but overall they’re the Trek equivalent of dumbphones. I admit that my phone is kind of an amalgamation of tricorder and communicator, but then, why would you need both devices in the future when you can have only one that does both right now?

2. Addiction in General

Addiction was most notably explored in “Symbiosis” and “The Game”, and pretty much ignored the rest of the time. The thing is, when TNG was airing was the same time that the U.S. was hitting “don’t do drugs” really heavily. These days there are still anti-drug programs as well as those ubiquitous “not even once” anti-meth ads, but the concept of drugs being our biggest problem has fallen by the wayside. I know for people who are (or have been) addicted it’s a huge part of their lives — either giving in or resisting — but the big push these days seems to be stopping people from getting addicted to prescription drugs that they started taking out of need (such as painkillers) and stopping people from sharing mental performance enhancement drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall. Maybe this is a personal thing, but to me the episodes about addiction feel horribly dated and heavy-handed.

3. The Lack of Money

In Gene Roddenberry’s future, no one used money. Sure, you could buy stuff with “credits”, whatever those were, but it was famously put in several TNG episodes (and First Contact) that the Federation didn’t use money. The problem the writers ran into, though, was that it was really hard to write bar scenes and frontier worlds if there was no way for money to change hands. So even before TNG was off the air the producers and writers invented “gold-pressed latinum” as a form of currency. I imagine the Ferengi were involved. No matter how advanced we get, either as a culture or a united planet, we’re still going to need to trade goods for services and vice versa. The barter system doesn’t really work on a massive scale — just how many chairs does it take to buy a car, anyway? — and we’re going to need money to keep track of it.

The Bynars put their entire planetary computer (which includes their minds and personalities) into the Enterprise’s computer. Yeah. Right.

4. Memory in a Computer

TNG’s best example of this is “The Schizoid Man”, and I’ve hung a major lampshade on it in my review of “Our Man Bashir”, but at this point we’ve learned that no computer will be big enough, powerful enough, or have enough memory to hold the entirety of one human’s knowledge. While the concept is very cool, it’s definitely a sci-fi conceit that won’t go away no matter how many times we disprove it. It does, however, lead to a lot of good sci-fi. Not that “Our Man Bashir” was good sci-fi, per se, but “The Schizoid Man” wasn’t a bad episode. Of course, then you also have “11001001”, where the entire computer memory of an entire race of beings was put into the Enterprise computer, and I’m not sure that I bought into the idea even back in 1988.

5. The Transporter

As a corollary to the previous, if it takes that much memory just to pattern a human brain, imagine how much memory it would take to pattern a brain plus a body? I mean, it takes DirecTV two hours to download a two-hour film in HD from the internet to my DVR, and that’s just so I can watch the antics of the American Pie gang in their latest adventure*. Even at the fastest speed over fiber-optic cable, it would still take a few minutes to get the movie to me… but when you’re going down to an alien planet, there’s no wire. It’s all over-the-air. It’s fast, sure, but it’s not that fast. Plus, you have to scan a person into the machine, send the data, and reassemble said person at the other end. How exactly are we going to send that many molecules in anything resembling a good clip? I know it’s just Star Trek, but the more we learn about what exactly it would take to transport a person, the less likely it becomes. Unfortunate but true.

6. The Effects of Terrorism

Terrorism is addressed a few times in TNG, including the addition of a former terrorist/freedom fighter to the crew. Again, it’s not until DS9 that the concept of the two things being synonymous is truly addressed (the Cardassian opinion of the Bajoran Resistance), but the thing about TNG was that we never really saw how pervasive an effect terrorism has on cultures. Sure, in episodes like “The High Ground” we saw increased security, but what about the cumulative effect? How much has your life been changed by terrorist attacks in your country? September 11, London, and so on were more than just an attack on a specific place — they were an attack on an entire people, and its effects are still being felt today in the continued erosion of privacy and security in the name of freedom and safety. And I live in a country where terrorism doesn’t happen very often; imagine how much different this paragraph would’ve been if I lived in the Middle East? I wonder how people who live there feel about TNG‘s portrayal of terrorism.

7. The Lack of Social Networks

No writer in the TNG era could possibly have predicted anything like Twitter and Facebook. The voluntary announcement of everything we do (and the photographs of everything we eat) was a completely alien idea. However, some Trek did occur during the rise of social networking — to wit, Enterprise — and yet it was completely ignored. I guess it would’ve been difficult to extrapolate out just how much of an influence social chat, video, and photos would have on that world. I can hope that, by 2364, we’ve gotten ourselves under control, but I think it has to get worse before it gets better.

8. Bans on Genetic Engineering

Throughout the entire run of Star Trek, the concept of genetically engineering humans to be better, faster, stronger, and smarter has been looked down upon. In fact, one of the best villains in all of Trek, Khan Noonien Singh, was genetically engineered. Even now debates rage over the ethics of enhancing humanity, and the technology isn’t far behind. We can already use drugs to improve mental and physical conditioning, and the moment a drug becomes available to treat a condition that exists due to laziness, it gets used. With obesity as big a problem as it is, if you had the chance to change your child’s genetics so s/he would never have to deal with that, would you? I know it can be somewhat of a slippery slope to go from something that simple to actually improving a person to be “better” than everyone else — again, dealt with much more ably in DS9 than TNG — but in the TNG era, genetic engineering was still completely verboten in the Federation, and that’s not going to last.

I can’t imagine typing on this, but I suppose I’d get used to it.

9. Weird Computer Keyboards

The QWERTY-vs-Dvorak argument notwithstanding, what do you think the odds are that your keyboard will look like this [[insert image to right]]? Ever? But even with the popularity of personal computers in the 80s and 90s, the TNG production designers chose instead to modernize the TOS keyboards. No one has a QWERTY anything; instead, they use what must be some form of T9 typing to input commands. Who still uses T9, anyway? Every phone has a full keyboard, and many can use something like Swype so you don’t even have to type the whole word. I predict that QWERTY (or its Chinese equivalent, if the Chinese culture takes over Western civilization) will still be in existence by the time we get to the 2300s. I mean, if you think about it, they still have QWERTY keyboards on Serenity, don’t they?

Y’know what would’ve been really subversive? A male actor playing Soren.

10. Heterosexual Sex is the Only Sex

“The Host” and “The Outcast” were TNG‘s only real efforts at exploring nontraditional relationships during the run of the show (although if you believe the tie-in novels, Lt. Hawk from First Contact was openly gay and in a relationship with a security officer named Ranul Keru). And, to my mind, they really failed at it. “The Host” had a huge missed opportunity at the end. I mean, it’s 2012 now and I work with several openly gay and lesbian people, some of whom are in committed relationships. I have to think that, 350 years down the line, the concept of it being strange and weird will have gone away (I realize Beverly’s issue was with Odan’s changing forms, not his/her sex, but still). And then, in “The Outcast”, the writing was treated as such a heavy-handed dose of morality that was so clearly supposed to be about homosexuality that I just couldn’t deal with it. Later, DS9 did explore the concept of Trill hosts and sexuality in a much better fashion, but I can’t think of a single canon Trek that dared to even try and address male homosexuality. I realize that TNG ran from 1987 to 1994, and back then it was much harder to address these issues on TV, but remember that the original series did get Kirk and Uhura to kiss when it was taboo for a white person to even think about being romantically involved with a black person.

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* It was actually a pretty decent movie. Better than the direct-to-video ones, that’s for sure.

Comments (9)

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  1. Dirk Bruere says:

    Not sure what your comment was meant to say about the feasibility of brain uploading to computer, but the article you referenced stated some 20 petabytes, which is by no means excessive even now. I would expect petabyte storage to be available on most PCs circa 2025. The possible limits of computer memory density is far beyond this. In fact, multiple bits can be stored in single atoms. Even with Stross’ hypothetical “memory diamond” 12g could hold 1000 brain maps.

    • Jason says:

      Have you ever heard of Moore’s law? (Referring specifically to #4 and #5 above). Even today Quantum computers are being studied as well as using bacteria as a bio storage. So your assumptions on TNG’s computing capabilities are fairly behind (even today’s standards)

    • Rob says:

      The cited article makes a claim of 20 petabytes, but I note that the citation it gives carries a “not supported by cited reference” warning. It’s a severely optimistic estimate, even allowing for the assumption that the human brain is as simplistic as certain researchers are hoping.

      I’m with Josh here – I get annoyed at the proliferation of scifi that just casually assumes we’ll build a computer that’s better than our brain in the next fifty years, without thinking it through. However, that’s not the worst thing about StarTrek’s holodecks…

  2. Harry Pottash says:

    Several of the items on this list seem weak
    1) ” Communicators that only communicate.”
    At the moment the smart-phone may be swallowing all sorts of other devices, but it doesn’t need to be, or stay that way. Often specific use tools end up functioning much better than general purpose tools. I would take a look at “what technology wants” by Kevin Kelly for a good explanation of this concept.

    4) “Memory in a computer”
    5) “The Transporter”
    It’s funny to me that you start the article by invoking Moore’s law and then proceed to totally ignore it. As Dirk Pointed out, the very article you site suggests 20,000 TB to store a human mind. Given moors law that’s _nothing_, (you can buy a 1 TB drive for $100 if you shop around today, if storage doubles every 2 years, then it’s ~35 years until “a human mind worth of storage” costs about $100. In reality Moore’s law appears to run closer to “double every 1.5 years” in general and “double ever year” for storage, putting Dirks “2025” estimate at optimistic but plausible.
    Scanning technology seems to be hooked to the same doubling pattern, though it’s not nearly as far along. I think it’s safe to assume, however, that if we give exponential growth a hundred+ years it will do quite well

    9)”weird keyboards” . I don’t think I have ever seen a weird keyboard in TNG, what I see is that when people want to do text input they use a voice interface. It appears that mostly when people are using consoles, they are doing specific tasks on a mostly icon driven interface. That seems entirely plausible to me.

  3. Josh Roseman says:

    To bulk-reply to everyone:

    On memory in a computer: I was pretty much only going on what I read at this point. I suppose if I’d spent more time researching I might have come up with a bit better justification. I guess it’s theoretically possible to transfer an entire person’s knowledge and experience into a computer, but as was done with several “transfer the person into the computer” episodes, it’s not just that. The human body is such a complex machine with all the parts working in such perfect concert that… well, let’s put it this way: my company sells web advertising. We sell standard packages. But even with a standard package, each and every ad has to be modified in a specific way for messaging, content, and functionality. Much in the same way that you and I both have fingers, but we type at different speeds and with different levels of accuracy. If I’m reassembled from a template, my brain will expect my hands to do one thing but they’ll actually not have the right muscle memory, so I’ll be clumsy/slow/uncoordinated. Replaceable parts are all well and good, but so much of humanity isn’t interchangeable in that fashion. That means we’ll have to store every single bit and byte of data individually, instead of just copy-pasting a template and filling in the necessary values in our initialization data object.

    On the transporter: The previous argument applies. Plus, there’s this: I have the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, but it still goes into overdrive trying to play Civilization V. I can only imagine the sheer amount of hardware and computing power that would be needed to run a transporter.

    On communicators: What Harry is saying strikes me as the same argument people use to justify carrying around an Android phone and an iPod Touch. Not that there’s anything wrong with his argument — or his position — but if I was going on an away mission, I’d want to carry as few items as possible. Also, I wouldn’t want to integrate the communicator into a badge that can easily be ripped off my chest (or stolen out of my pocket). Peter David addresses this in _Imzadi_ with the subcutaneous communicator implant — which sounds like a damn good idea.

    On keyboards: Yes, there’s a lot of voice commanding going on, but the icon-driven interface is what I was referring to. The icon system doesn’t make sense, it looks different on most consoles, it’s not really scalable because some consoles only have tiny typing areas, sometimes it’s on the screen… it’s like being in a large corporate building that’s half-remodeled: every conference room has a different projector and audio setup, a different phone, and a different power station for plugging stuff into. All the projectors run at different resolutions, some accept Macs and some don’t, and the lightswitches are never consistent. That’s kind of how I see the systems in Star Trek. And that doesn’t take into account the fact that NONE of the stations on DS9 are labeled in Standard — does that mean every crew member on DS9 learned to read Cardassian and/or Bajoran? I’m just looking for a consistent interface system that everyone can use, which is why we all use QWERTY keyboards and two-button mice these days.

    Thanks, all, for your comments so far.

  4. Sabre Runner says:

    It’s a shame about the sexuality thing because Hoe Haldeman’s The Forever War came out in 1974 and by the end of that war, humanity consisted mostly of people who thought actual hetero sexual exchange of fluids was disgusting.

    And I’m so sorry for being patronizing but my two year old Toshiba ran Civ5 without a hitch and without complaint for the four games it took me to get tired of it.

  5. Josh Roseman says:

    I agree with your statement on the sexuality thing.

    I think the reason my computer had so much trouble with Civ5 is because it’s a Mac and the game was originally programmed to run on a PC.

  6. Paul Kraus says:

    Regarding your reply on October 15, 2012 at 8:36 am where you talk about the need to scan every aspect of the body … Instead you model the DNA and related to the experience of the individual. You use that to reconstruct the person.

    This may be analogous to the signal sampling today where you can recreate a given signal via either time based or frequency based sampling. One or the other may be much more (bandwidth) efficient than the other for a given signal.

    Or to give another example, the difference between vector graphics (draw a green circle with diameter 5″ at location x,y) vs. raster graphics (color this pixel green). Vector has much higher resolution and lower bandwidth needs for certain images.

    Just because we have not yet figured out *how* to sample the entire human being does not mean that we can’t or that we won’t. With modern DNA sequencing we are much closer. And if a trip through the transporter restores missing limbs, that’s a bonus feature 🙂

    • Josh Roseman says:

      I agree that it would be cool if a transporter could reconstitute missing limbs or broken parts. I could use a new left knee.

      I recently watched the British version of Eleventh Hour, starring Patrick Stewart, and he brought up an interesting point in the cloning episode: a cloned person is just DNA. My clone will look like me, but not be me. You did say you’d have to grab the related experiences as well, but I imagine that, not the DNA, is what will take up much more space in the computer.