Saturday, May 13, 2006

Star Trek's Greatest Weakness

On his Mondolithic Sketchbook blog, illustrator Chris Wren wrote a rant which I, a former Star Trek fan, have always thought and wanted to say about this legendary American science-fiction franchise. So I'm taking the liberty to post it here in its entirety:

"With a resurrection of Trek in the works under the creative guidance of J.J. Abrams, I thought this might be a good time to put my two cents in on the subject of what Star Trek needs in order to be relevant again. The chances of anyone actually involved in the project ever reading this are beyond astronomical of course, but at least there's a chance I'll one day be able to say "I told you so - if only you'd listened." at a devastatingly opportune moment.

Trek's greatest weakness is its obsession with humanity. Ironically, it was the exploration of and speculation about the human condition that gave Star Trek its soul and enduring charm in the first place. But that sentimental fascination with what I think will eventually come to be known as "classical humanity" is what's holding the franchise back today. Star Trek's original message was "Even with all this miraculous technology, we're still human beings, at the end of the day. A man is still a man, a woman still a woman." That was a comforting sentiment in the 60s, 70s and 80s, but not today, because we're starting to realize that at the end of the day, some of us - perhaps many of us - won't still be human, and we need science fiction that helps us deal with that.

If you look at trends in contemporary science fiction and futurism everything is pointing towards an impending and unavoidable existential crisis that will force us to redefine what it means to be human. Assuming that technological and scientific progress continues in the Western world at its current exponentially accelerating pace, by the middle of this century there will almost certainly be non-human intelligences living on this planet. They may be in the form of persons augmented by genetic manipulation and cybernetics to the point of no longer being human, or purely synthetic artificial intelligences, or a combination of both. But their arrival, and the social, political, economic, emotional and spiritual challenges we'll face coexisting with them, are inevitable.

Star Trek's greatest weakness is a canon that not only sidesteps these important issues, but forecloses any opportunity for meaningful debate about them: "As you know, Number One, late in the 21st century we all sat down and unanimously agreed to ban all research into genetic enhancement, and that pretty much settled the matter". Apparently the human race is also of one mind in terms of medical technologies that will, long before the 23rd century, be available to prevent children being born with congenital abnormalities. If I was Geordi LaForge for example, I'd be pretty pissed at my parents: "So, you let me be born blind, in order to satisfy YOUR abstract, enlightened sensibilities about the meaning of being human. Thanks. Thanks for nothing."

Even the subject of our relationship with artificial intelligences is ducked by Star Trek, by having Data, an android superior to humans in many ways, long to be human. One of the challenges of dealing with artificial intelligences is that they will not be human, and will have no more desire to be human than you or I desire to be earthworms. I can accept pretty much anything in the Star Trek universe: transporters, aliens who speak colloquial English, warp drive, artificial gravity, shields - but not the idea that there's something special about being human that makes us the envy of lifeforms and intelligences the universe over.

The issues and challenges of what we today broadly refer to as Posthumanism will be upon us in a matter of decades, if not sooner. If a resurrected Star Trek is going to be relevant, if it's going to be at the cutting edge of futurism and science fiction, then it must address the questions and challenges of posthumanism in a more substantive way than it has in the past. Otherwise, it'll just be wagon train to the stars again, only with LCD screens and fancy visual effects instead of toggle switches and mini skirts."

Friday, May 12, 2006

William Gibson: they'll keep spying on us anyway

On the AlterNet, Deanna Zandt wrote: "There's an excellent interview with William Gibson (the guy whose groundbreaking sci-fi novel Neuromancer brought us the word "cyberspace") over at OpenSourceRadio, where Gibson discusses the wider, long-range implications of the NSA wiretapping scandals (the latest bombshells can be found in PEEK).

I've been watching with keen interest since the first NSA scandal: I've noticed on the Internet that there aren't many people really shocked by this. Our popular culture, our dirt-ball street culture teaches us from childhood that the CIA is listening to *all* of our telephone calls and reading *all* of our email anyway.

I keep seeing that in the lower discourse of the Internet, people saying, "Oh, they're doing it anyway." In some way our culture believes that, and it's a real problem, because evidently they haven't been doing it anyway, and now that they've started, we really need to pay attention and muster some kind of viable political response.

I think it's [the X-Files, Nixon wiretapping, science fiction]. I think it's predicated in our delirious sense of what's been happening to us as a species for the past 100 years.
It never ceases to amaze when various participants on our blogs and stories respond to scandals and discoveries with, "Of course they are! Duh!" Progressives often have this tendency towards smug "I knew it, I told you so" that isn't just self-defeating, it's dangerous. Time to muster up some gumption, folks, and actually do something about it."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The People's Network is now in working order

From Stephen Colbert: New American Hero: "The second reason Colbert made such a huge splash is the rapid advance of video on the web. Almost overnight, the media world has irrevocably changed as video is increasingly becoming as important as print and still images on the web. When, in a matter of hours, dozens of websites can post or link to a video and get the word out about a spectacular event, the role of the gatekeepers and the corporate media shrinks big-time. And it doesn't matter if the networks or CNN or Fox decides that they don't want you to see it -- they can't stop it. The people's network is now in working order. Progressives now have a television capacity; still rudimentary, perhaps, but powerfully effective."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Web We Love is Endangered

On the AlterNet, Annalee Newitz wrote: "Underlying network neutrality is the idea that people should be allowed to attach whatever they like to the ends of the Internet's wires -- and they should be able to do it without significant hindrances, like paying steep access fees to AT&T to get their businesses online. Neutrality is why we routinely get cool new "end" innovations like virtual reality world Second Life or smart phones that connect to the Internet. As both Internet protocol inventor Vint Cerf and former FCC chair Michael Powell have argued, these kinds of new worlds and widgets are only possible because the wires are neutral and their ends are open.

What would a world without network neutrality be like? The worst possibility is that companies like AT&T would create "prejudiced pipes" that push paying customers' traffic along more quickly than nonpaying customers'. If indie bookstore Powell's wasn't able to pay AT&T's fees, its online store might load far more slowly than Amazon's -- if it even loaded at all. Some companies might force music and movie companies to pay extra to make their downloads work, thus preventing anyone but the major labels and studios from making their wares available online. Ultimately, consumers would have less choice online, and small "end" start-ups would be at a great disadvantage when they put their stuff online. If established players like the New York Times can pay the prejudiced-pipe owners for quicker load times, who will bother to read slow-moving blogs?"