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What Can We Learn From Star Trek?
editorial by David M. Switzer
One of the reasons that many people enjoy Star Trek is its depiction of the future. A future in which humans are still around, that is, we didn't blow ourselves up. But more than that, humans have solved many of the problems that plagued them in the twentieth century. Racism, poverty, war, environmental degradation -- all have been eliminated, and Earth is pretty much a paradise in the twenty-third century.
So we can be hopeful about the future. But can we learn anything from Star Trek about how to get to that wonderful future? And surely that future isn't perfect -- are there some things in Star Trek that we might want to avoid? Yes and yes.
The ridiculousness of racism is shown by the original series episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." Two beings from the same planet are at war with each other -- because one is black on the left side and white on the right side, while the other is white on the left side and black on the right side. It's silly, but it shows the silliness of discriminating against someone because of their skin colour. At the beginning of Deep Space Nine, Kira hates all Cardassians because they enslaved her world for many years. She later comes to realize that not all Cardassians are inherently evil. In the episode "Duet" she meets a Cardassian whom she eventually comes to know and admire.
Star Trek does a good job of showing that the world isn't divided into good guys and bad guys. Of course, it's easy to view the crew we watch every week as the good guys -- just as it's easy to view Canada and the United States as the good guys in our world. The Horta in the original series episode "The Devil in the Dark" was killing miners, and so initially appears to be a definite villain. Kirk decides to ask questions before shooting, and finds out that the Horta was only protecting her children. The miners were inadvertently destroying her unhatched eggs.
Many species in Star Trek with wildly varying cultures are able to get along, at least most of the time. If they are able to do that, surely we can all get along here on Earth where we share so much in common with our fellow humans. The Vulcan philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations would serve us well: we shouldn't just tolerate differences, but celebrate them. If everyone was the same, it would be a boring world. Conflict will always be with us, but if we take the time to understand where our neighbours are coming from, we won't be as quick to fear or judge them just because they're different.
Captain Picard respects the ideals of the Klingon Empire even though he doesn't agree with them all the time. But he doesn't have to agree with them -- he has his culture and they have theirs. We probably don't imagine ourselves to be prejudiced against anyone. On the other hand, we've grown up doing things a certain way. We may assume that our way is the right way, consciously or unconsciously. But just because other people do things differently doesn't mean that their ways are inferior. Those other ways might not work for us, but they don't have to.
We probably agree with the ideals of the Federation -- they're mostly twentieth-century American ideals, after all. But sometimes Captain Kirk forces those ideals upon other societies who have ideals that he doesn't like. Forcing people to live in a democracy seems oxymoronic somehow. In the episode "The Apple," Kirk destroys a computer that is providing for the people on a planet. Any socialist ideas that appear in Star Trek are almost always exaggerated so that they are obviously ridiculous. This computer is keeping people happy, and they have everything they need, but it doesn't let them progress. Kirk and McCoy want the people to run their own lives, but Spock suggests that they don't have the right to choose for them. I agree with Spock -- even if we just want what's best for everyone, we can't decide for other people.
Kirk breaks the rules all the time, right? Well, both Kirk and Picard view rules as guidelines and use their own judgement in individual cases. The pendulum swings back and forth on this, but right now we're too legalistic in our society. Strict attention is paid to laws at the expense of the needs of the people involved. There are many authorities we obey without thinking about it. Parents, supervisors, religious leaders, politicians -- all of these people tell us what to do. We should always think about the orders we're following, and refuse to obey when we know that to do so would be wrong.
In a famous psychology experiment, people were tested to see how far they would go in administering shocks to other people. The shocks weren't real, and the ones supposedly receiving the shocks were in on the experiment. An overwhelming number of people continued administering shocks even after the receiving person complained loudly about the pain. People followed their orders to administer shocks because the experimenter was an authority figure.
The Federation doesn't share its technology with races that haven't evolved to the point where they would use it wisely. In the Next Generation episode "Samaritan Snare" we meet the Pakleds who acquire technology that is beyond them, and they can't get enough of it. They kidnap La Forge to make him give them more weapons. The Pakleds aren't evil, but power has corrupted them and they want more.
Back in our world, technology has advanced rapidly in recent years. However, our values have not undergone the necessary corresponding changes. We have incredible technology in many facets of life, but we're more likely to use it to produce weapons than to help people who are starving. In the past we've done things just because we can. You'll probably agree that just because we can build nuclear weapons doesn't mean that we should. The advances coming soon in, for example, genetics are going to necessitate some decisions about what we want.
If you watch the commercials between segments of Star Trek, you'll be encouraged to buy various things. But if you look closely at the rooms of the people on the show, you'll notice that they don't have a lot of things. As Picard tells a person who just woke up after 300 years, the acquisition of wealth is no longer what's important to people. At the end of the movie Generations, Picard is rummaging around his demolished ready room to find what? Not his priceless artifacts from an alien world. His photo album.
The whole consumer attitude that has sprung up over the past half-century is rather disturbing. It used to be that a product lasted a long time, and when it broke you fixed it. Now the product doesn't last long at all, and you throw it away and buy a new one. Hopefully it won't take a tragedy to make you realize this, but things aren't important. Family and friends are.
Each Star Trek crew has a hierarchical command structure and, although viewpoints are solicited and listened to, decisions are made by the captain. It's easy to see that when decisions need to be made quickly, someone has to have the authority to decide. But in general, decisions about what goes on in our community, our country, and our planet should be made by the people involved. For example, decisions about a community should be made by the people in that community. In consensus decision-making, everyone's voice is allowed to be heard and taken into consideration, and everyone must agree with the final decision. Obviously, decisions will take longer when more people are involved. But a decision that is made slowly will last longer and more likely be a better decision.
When to try to convince someone of our view and when to agree to disagree, when to obey orders and when to refuse, which technology to use and which to reject, how to make important decisions -- these are difficult questions. And we're not going to answer them here. But they are questions worth thinking about -- indeed, it is imperative that we think about them. Star Trek inevitably reflects the late twentieth-century American ideals of its writers, directors, and producers. Although the future depicted in Star Trek isn't perfect, we can learn from it and work towards making our future a time that we'd want to live in.
This is the first issue of our second year, and we've started the year off with a special giant issue which includes a two-part story that will be concluded in the next issue. We've also started an interview column. Each issue will now contain an interview with a Canadian science fiction and/or fantasy author (coming up next is Tanya Huff, and then Robert J. Sawyer). We're publishing the magazine quarterly, so you won't have to wait quite so long for the next issue. And we're now paying authors and illustrators for their contributions -- 1 cent per word for stories, and $10 per illustration.
David M. Switzer teaches introductory Computer Science courses at the University of Waterloo, and is an editor and publisher at Crystalline Sphere Publishing. He is, of course, a Trekologist, and also watches Babylon 5 and The X-Files. The best movies he's seen recently are Dark City and The Sweet Hereafter. He reads science fiction and fantasy (surprise, surprise), plays tennis and volleyball, sings, plays piano and organ, and plays cards. The best non-SF book he's read recently is Daniel Quinn's Ishmael.
Last modified: November 23, 2008
Copyright © 1998 by David M. Switzer