The technology of ‘Star Trek’​​

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” —Frederik Pohl

It is very easy to imagine a future full of laser beams, force fields, and faster-than-light travel. It is much more difficult to imagine a realistic world in which those technologies exist.

A spaceship traveling faster than light seems an unprecedented boon for interstellar travel. But what happens when one wacko decides to aim a rocket (of now infinite kinetic energy) toward Earth? With each technological advance comes a number of second-order effects that are increasingly difficult to predict. The job of science fiction is to extrapolate these previously unforeseeable possibilities and then explore them for all their implications.

There may be a breaking point — a moment when humanity decides technology has outgrown its usefulness.

Sci-fi author Frederik Pohl was visionary in his observation of the genre, but I think a better way to restate his insight would be this: “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not only a way a technology will be used but how it will be abused.” Whatever ingenious development mankind comes up with next will inevitably one day fall into the wrong hands. And, of course, that presumes human hands were ever responsible enough for the tools we have created.

In the 21st century, aren’t these concerns at least a little warranted? We have the tools and the talent to deepfake Adam Sandler into Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” and that video came out four years ago. Remember, this was before AI generators such as Dall-E and Midjourney were released. If these powerful image and video editors were available, then is it not probable that someone somewhere has already taken advantage?

It seems shocking that there has not been a major political scandal of some sort — unless, of course, they have gotten away with it. With the power of image alteration comes the implicit inevitability that someone will alter an image — the truth — for their own gain. With the power of an FTL drive, there is the certainty that someone will turn that same ship upon a planet. And with the power of the holodeck, there is the implicit certainty that someone will take it too far.

The holodeck is a recurring plot device within the long-running “Star Trek” franchise. It is a room that can manifest tactile holograms that are indistinguishable from reality. In fact, these holograms are so lifelike that there is an episode in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in which a hologram gains full sentience as a human. The plot resolves itself the way the show often solves such complex moral quandaries: by shuffling the problem off-stage. The sentient hologram is deactivated and promptly forgotten for much of the show.

Admittedly, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did explore part of the holodeck’s ramifications in season three’s episode “Hollow Pursuits.” In this episode, Reginald Barclay becomes obsessed with the holodeck’s more exotic opportunities. I’m sure one with reasonable internet experience can see where this plot leads next.

Unfortunately, or perhaps thankfully, “Star Trek” doesn’t feel the need to answer the full societal ramifications of merging simulacra with reality. Barclay’s social anxieties are resolved, and the problem is treated as a singular incident rather than the monumental catastrophe of human psychology it represents. After all, if there were such a place where the internet could become as manifestly real as you or me, I’m sure it wouldn’t greatly upset the human race.

But assuming for a moment that it would, what would the ramifications be? If there were a room where all of mankind’s imagination could come true in a single thought, I do have to ask one single question:

Why would anyone ever leave?

Real science fiction

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Of course, this is hand-waved away with energy requirements or some other sci-fi jargon in the show. Perhaps spending too much time in the room exposes you to dangerous radiation. Whatever the case, “Star Trek” can have its excuses because it’s a fun sci-fi show meant to create thought-provoking commentary on improbable issues. It presents interesting hypotheticals intended to tease the mind and open up moral dilemmas.

However, in exploring this particular issue more seriously, a difficult question remains to be answered. What if the holodeck were real? What if we could create all the meaningful simulacra of human existence and then plug a person into it? What if we could build that room? And more importantly, why would we not center our civilization around building every such room for every such person?

If the internet — if all human desire — could be made tangible, is that not the ultimate consumer product? Would this not be sold to the entire human populace, and would our energies not be spent on making this as widely available as commercially possible? If we have at our fingertips a digital heaven, who wouldn’t reach for it?

Some would argue that portions of humanity would reject this technology out of hand. After all, Hollywood tells us that the luddites will rise against Skynet and re-establish human dominance over the planet. But has this been the case in the real world? Has the long march of progress been halted by its skeptics? Or has the majority of humanity gone along quietly with innovation — whatever the cost?

There may be a breaking point — a moment when humanity decides technology has outgrown its usefulness. Perhaps not. But it is doubtless that if this technology should ever come — and it should be adopted liberally — that would be the end of humanity as we know it.

Each person would be trapped in a digital simulacrum, living the best lives they could imagine. To put it more accurately, the best lives could be simulated for them. We’ve already seen the effect of the digital on the human psyche. No one disputes that fertility rates are declining across the board in developed countries. The results are in. Those who embrace the material benefits of the Industrial Revolution quickly fall below replacement levels. The cold, hard truth is that we no longer possess the will to create children fast enough to replace us. And while high immigration might seem like a short-term solution (albeit with many drawbacks), it certainly doesn’t solve the longer march of progress.

When we replace the real with the digital, humans become isolated from one another, eventually preferring simulacra to uncomfortable reality. For many youths today, it is easier to scroll on X or TikTok than to have a real conversation. It is easier to go to Pornhub instead of asking a girl out on a date. It is easier to swim in the internet’s currents than live your real life.

The questions of the digital replacing reality are not far-flung science fiction. While the holodeck might seem a pipe dream of a distant future, such technology is actively being pursued today. The holodeck is nothing more than a gimmick to merge the simulated with the real, which has been the goal of Western elites since the invention of the computer. With the recent news of Neuralink opening human tests, we are assuredly taking another small step toward that future.

I am not worried about the medical breakthroughs that Neuralink or other such technologies offer. I lose no sleep at night over the lives that will be made better by such innovations and ones still to come. What else might these technologies be used for? What are the unintended and often isolating consequences? And how can — and will — these technologies be abused?

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