The Most Science Fiction Part Of Star Trek
Lately I’ve been watching many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Star Trek of my youth. Watching it now as an adult I haven’t been able to suppress a feeling of despair and depression while watching. It took a few moments of self-reflection to understand why I think I had those emotions, it had to do with the most science fiction aspect of Star Trek: their advanced morals.
In Star Trek, things are attempted to be solved peaceably. Also, the crew is not allowed to have conflict amongst themselves. Crewmen and other species almost always listen to each other. They listen to reason, they listen to emotion, they acknowledge each others feelings and are open about them too. A lot of this is obviously for the show to have drama and discussion, but it feels very natural and you suspect this is what advanced spacefaring civilizations would be capable of.
I now understand the appeal of Star Trek to trekkies. It wasn’t always about the technology, the meeting of weird aliens, the space battles and philosophical questions like Q’s trial of humanity or Data’s humanity; instead, it was most likely the attractive draw of adults solving problems without the use of force and coercion. This is something our society lacks, a deficit that is even more noticeable today with how quickly we have trampled the rights of citizens during this pandemic. I can’t even begin to imagine our society ever behaving like the commanders aboard the Enterprise.
How can our society develop morally? It seems we attempt to solve society-wide problems through technology, medicine, and political agreements, but can this be enough for moral progression? President Biden walks a dark path when he openly blames the unvaccinated for causing pandemic-related problems. When the leader of the most powerful country on earth is open to othering and dehumanizing millions of citizens, we have a problem. We are going backwards, or maybe we never went forward, maybe it was always an illusion well-masked by technological advances.
Technology can only take us so far. The Enterprise has the equipment to subjugate planets and enslave races to do whatever they want them to do, but they choose peace and rational discussion and weighing of options. It takes a lot to resolve differences without coercion and punishment. I think of how feeble government attempts at vaccinating the population have been. First they try a couple of sad incentives, incentives like a vaccine lottery. It didn’t take long before positive incentives gave way to punishments, like losing your job. There isn’t even any debate or rational discussion, it is either you do this so everyone can be safe or you’re a massive problem to us.
It would instructive to have a knockoff parody version of Star Trek where a similarly advanced society resolves the same types of problems in The Next Generation the way we solve things today. Give the conflicted natives a weak incentive and then force them when they hesitate. Create asymmetric contracts and cover up everything Star Fleet does wrong. Conquer other civilizations and subjugate them through banks and debt. Undermine allies with attempted coups. Undermine your own people with psychological warfare operations. I see no evidence of Star Trek having these kinds of nuanced conflicts among self-interested actors and damn is it ever refreshing.
I can’t remember if it was Neil Postman or Jacques Ellul or someone else who said we need to evolve morally when our level of technology increases. For every time we make an advancement in new technology we make a Faustian Bargain, that is, whatever we gain, we also take something away. The internet has allowed many amazing and valuable innovations and communication of information that even the poorest can access, but it has also allowed governments and powerful corporations to exercise control and surveil their populations. Technology will always allow a lot of convenient and new benefits. The only thing that will keep technology in check, keep it from becoming the worst form of godlike tyranny, is our moral evolution. A careful examination of how we use technology so far proves we have not gotten better. I don’t think the current strategies of moral development have gotten very far since the strong still clearly dictate what is “correct.”
Sadly, Star Trek’s reasonableness is pure science fiction. I firmly believe we will never have a spacefaring society like Star Trek as we seem to be destroying any capability of such advancement while we still have fossil fuels and energy surpluses available. If we do not morally evolve, we will strip our resources and plunge back into a dark age with no end since all of the most powerful energy dense resources will have vanished. We will decay and collapse like Larry Niven’s Ringworld civilization. Perhaps that is why I am more drawn to post-apocalyptic scenarios and science fiction than I am glitzy peaceful rational dramas like Star Trek. But man, oh the sweet fantasy of living in such a civilization.