OWLS: Utopia? Make It SoJanuary 31, 2020
Hey everyone, and welcome to my first OWLs post of the year! Don’t remember what OWLs is? Well, as per the website, OWLS is a group of content creators who promote acceptance of all individuals regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. We emphasize the importance of respect, kindness, and tolerance to every human being. Every month we discuss real-world topics through online tours, sharing personal experiences and analyzing pop culture, literature, and other forms of media. Even though we come from all walks of life, each and every one of our amazing members are dedicated to our cause!
This month’s OWLs topic is ‘Visions’. In this instance, we’re defining that as: Happy New Year! Since it is a new year, it’s a new you! This month we will be talking about various pop culture mediums that focus on envisioning “the future.” What type of future do we want for ourselves, our communities, and the world? Also, we will be sharing our goals and plans for the new year.
So, I’m going to go back to my childhood and teenage years for this one. I’ll be talking about a series that not only influences my writing to this day but also gave me a clear vision of the future I wanted to see. That show is Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Growing up, history was one of my least favourite subjects in school. There are a lot of really important events that have happened in the past of course, but much of what learned about just didn’t interest me. So dull was the teaching, that I actually ended up thinking, “Once we get beyond dinosaurs, what’s the point?”
Dinosaurs were always cool, by the way. Even a boring teacher can’t change that.
Part of this is due to my own tastes in fiction at the time though. I was an awkward teen, and with several years of being bullied under my belt, I was in no mood for the real world a lot of the time. So, I looked to genre fiction for solace. A big part of that was sci-fi, and specifically, portrayals of a future far better than the reality we lived in.
Star Trek was my first sci-fi love, specifically The Next Generation. To this day, TNG is my go-to version of the franchise. Now, there are things that Star Trek didn’t do well, of course. The amount of back and forth that went on between cast and crew members of multiple generations of the show regarding LGBTQ characters and gender identity is crazy, for example.
One thing it did a very good job of though was predicting the future in terms of technology. While a lot of stuff in the franchise seems like it really is from the far-flung future, we actually do have some of it already. Or similar, at least. So, that’s what I wanted to start with here: Tech that Star Trek: The Next Generation predicted.
While The Original Series saw food being synthesized in the form of colourful cubes, TNG saw the birth of the replicator. This meant that the crew could order whatever food they wanted, and zap, there it would be. Not only that though, but the replicators would also go on to be used to create everything from spare parts to clothes.
While not as quick as the fictional machine, 3D printers essentially serve this purpose. From pizzas to prostheses, and even organs, as long as we have the physical materials available, a 3D printer can build what we need. Where this varies from the Trek universe is that the Replicators there were generally thought to be creating objects from subatomic particles rather than pre-existing components. Perhaps one day that will change though; Look up the Brett-Wheeler Process and you’ll see that we’ve already done work on changing light into matter.
The flip communicators of the TOS were a direct influence for the first mobile phones, and their wrist communicator replacement from the TOS films are similar to smartwatches. For TNG though, there were badge communicators. Now, the obvious thing to point to here would be that you can now buy replicas that work via Bluetooth. But that’s not what I want to mention.
No, I want to give a shout out to the Vocera Badge. These devices are designed to allow secure communication for hospitals and emergency services. Just like in TNG, they can be used to communicate with one or many people, and they even have an associated app to work in tandem with smartwatches (which were in fact predicted in the TOS movies)!
Geordie La Forge’s VISOR is one of the most iconic images in the franchise. I know that many of us around my way used to steal our Mum’s plastic hairbands to pretend to be Geordie because we were just that cool. The thing is though, it’s a serious piece of tech. Designed to help the blind see, the VISOR worked by detecting electromagnetic signals and transmitting them to the brain through neural implants in the temple.
Enter the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, aka the bionic eye. With this system, patients have a tiny array of electrodes implanted on the retina. They then wear a small camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses. Everything the camera sees is converted into infrared LED signals which are then transmitted to the retinal implant. The chip then stimulates the retina cells, causing them to send information to the optic nerve.
Now, this isn’t as effective as the fictional VISOR. It can help people discern light, movement, and shapes, as well as potentially allowing them to read large-print books. You can’t see colour though. And to see naturally, you’d need an implant with around a million electrodes. It currently has sixty. It also won’t work for everyone and is only used by those who have lost their sight via the loss of retinal cells through retinis pigmentosa. For those that can use it though, this must be a truly magical device.
There have been things like this all through the franchise, of course. For example, Google Glass was essentially utilized in Deep Space 9. Oh, and Scotty seemingly invented ALON, transparent aluminum, in the fourth TOS film.
For all the other cool things we could get though – such as Holo Decks, Transporters, and Data – perhaps the thing we most need is to move towards a Star Trek style of living. It may need updating to remove the prejudices of the era in which it was made, but the message of progress and working together, no matter where you’re from, is one that I always took hope in.
Star Trek has always been a series that primarily promotes civility among all people. And part of that is it being set in a post-scarcity economic climate. What that means is that people’s basic needs can be acquired cheaply or for free, thanks to the required items being produced readily and with little need for human labour. It seems fairly unrealistic to a point, but when you look at things like the 3D food printers, and evolving automated manufacturing processes, is it really that much of a pipe dream? I think not.
But…even utopian futures have downsides. The concept that wars could be avoided if all countries agreed to put down and destroy their weapons has one fatal flaw: you need everybody to participate for it to work. When you expand that beyond Earth and into a wider universe, it becomes even more difficult. And even those that primarily seek peace and understanding are armed with more than just knowledge and empathy.
Battles happen. There are aggressors on all sides. And sometimes, people die for no other reason than that somebody else chose to end their life.
That in itself is a sad reflection on how we view ourselves, I think. Even sadder is that it’s a true reflection. We are not yet at a point where conflict is non-existent, and the clashing of world views means that we likely won’t be for a long time, if at all. It’s simply not an easy thing to fix.
If there’s one thing that Star Trek taught me though, it’s optimism. I believe that we’ll reach a point where the good far outweighs the bad, even when it comes to how we treat each other. All we have to do is collectively decide to ‘make it so’.
I hope you all enjoyed that. Don’t forget to check out Scott (Mechanical Anime Reviews) post that came before mine, and all the others on the tour too!