To Boldly Go

Photo by ER Post

A few minutes into the new Star Trek movie, I had to stifle a giggle. Jim Kirk, captain of a space vessel capable of blipping straight across the galaxy, pulls out his “communicator,” a far-future version of the cell phone. And it turns out to be a flip phone.

This seemed incongruous, since shiny, floating words had just told us Kirk was striding through the streets of San Francisco. There was the Golden Gate Bridge, still standing; there were the sci-fi hipsters, still occupying this city so far into its future. But where were all the software engineers? I saw no one tapping away at their Twitter feeds, no one programming an app.

In two hundred and fifty years, would working for a start-up no longer be cool? Had Apple’s influenced waned so far that we’d be back to thinking that the Razr is cutting edge?

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In most of the day-to-day details, the future of Star Trek looks attainable. People swipe through files on touch screens, and the space suits are equipped with interactive visors just like Google Glass. If we can just get everyone to wear that weird dri-fit mesh that the crew of the Enterprise seems to love so much, and maybe make some hovercars, within a few years the real San Francisco will look just like the movie’s. The two places, real and imagined, fit together well. As Wired puts it, “one is a fictional world full of technological wonders; the other is the nerve center of the industry actively making those futuristic technologies real.”1

But as I watched the movie, I was startled by one other incongruity: At one point, a character hops in a space car and cruises out to the moons of Jupiter. A quick and easy flight, it seemed.

It reminded me of a decade ago, when Lance Bass, the former N*Sync star, insisted that he’d get to space. Space tourism seemed around the corner. He never made it, of course, and we shouldn’t be surprised: It’s been forty years since a man last walked on the moon. In 1950, more than fifteen years before Star Trek debuted, we were talking about sending men to Mars. We’re still talking.

Technology is warping forward, but the work required to get human passengers into space–the heavy government investment in research and development, the distant prospect of profitability–has pushed back that dream. For all the cell phones and tablets that Silicon Valley is “making real,”  the most prominent technology in every iteration of Star Trek is as far away as ever.

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The plot lines of Star Trek Into Darkness sound like partisan readings of recent political history: There’s a war-mongering leader who uses conflict to consolidate power; there’s a moral crisis over the rights of an alleged terrorist. But every once in a while the writers remind us that they’re updating a franchise with an older ethos. We’re explorers on a research vessel, other characters object whenever Kirk wants to get aggressive. We’re not a military crew.

Ah, yes. That famous, archaic mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise: “to boldly go when no man has gone before.”

I already had San Francisco on my mind. I had just read “Change the World,” George Packer’s story in the latest New Yorker about Silicon Valley and its relationship with the wider, political world. In this pocket of the young and lavishly successful, he asks, what kind of work is being done to make a better world? In other words, where is this industry boldly going?

Packer’s answer: not much of anywhere. Silicon Valley, he writes, is “one of the most unequal places in America,” where both housing costs and homeless rates have soared; across a freeway overpass from the apartments of the elite, families, mostly Hispanic, live in poverty. Yet we laud the industry for the good they do. One tech worker wouldn’t take time off from work to hear the president speak because he thought he was “making more of a difference than anyone in government possibly could.”

It’s a place where entire worlds are built within a corporate campus–barbers, restaurants, dry-cleaners–so that busy employees don’t ever have to dirty themselves on the other side of the security gate. Workers are so harried that they no longer have time to sit and read a newspaper or a magazine; they can just swipe through the blogs and apps on their phones. Silicon Valley a place that looks inward, rather than out, and it produces technology that encourages us to do the same.2

The screens of Star Trek are things we look through: huge space ship windows that open out to “new worlds,” “new life,” and “new civilizations,” as the rest of that tag line goes. That’s a mission that requires big government investments and cooperation across lines of difference. Gene Roddenberry intentionally chose an intentionally diverse crew for the Enterprise.

The tablets and touch screens of Silicon Valley, though, are things we look at. And the corporations that make them want us to look away as little as possible. So we get alert after alert, notification after notification. It’s a mission that requires nothing more than good marketing and a nation full of willing consumers. If Apple, as one example, is boldly going anywhere, it may be “push[ing] tax avoidance to its most creative outer limits,” as Packer puts it in a follow-up to his story. A Senate report last week revealed that the company had hidden a billion dollars in profits from the I.R.S.

And yet we love these companies. When Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook showed up for a Congressional hearing on that tax avoidance, the session ended with praise, not rebuke. “You managed to change the world,” said a starry-eyed John McCain.

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Twice last week I saw the Google Maps car, driving around with its California plates. I live in rural Mississippi; if you’re coming by air, it’s about as far in travel time as you can get from Silicon Valley within the lower forty eight. I was excited by it, the same little thrill I get when I find myself on the JumboTron at a baseball gameMy reverence echoed that of the tribal aliens at the beginning of the movie, who witnessed the Starship Enterprise and decided that it was some sort of god. Here comes the great Google, I thought, exploring the world after all!

But then I stop and think. This is just a car with a camera strapped to its roof, a slapped-together tool of a private corporation, doing a kind of surveillance under a mask of friendly colors. The photos it takes of me and my neighbors, after all, will be used as a platform for ads, and will be combined with all the other information we fork over in the name of convenience.

Kirk’s little flip phone, I know, is just a throwback to the communicators of the original series. They were the best Roddenberry could imagine fifty years ago. But he could also imagine a world in which technology helped us look outward, rather than in, and we used it to connect across races, even across species. Back then our future seemed to lie out in space, not in a tablet screen.

That makes Kirk’s iPhone-free San Francisco an alternate world, a path we didn’t take, where we prioritized that unity and progress over neat consumer gadgets. Is it too late, or are we still bold enough to go that way now?

  1. Though the term “Silicon Valley” did not appear in print until 1971, five years after Star Trek‘s debut, that concurrence is not total coincidence. The Wired story reveals that Gene Roddenberry chose San Francisco as the port for his space-faring vessels because its naval history; it was the presence of the Navy that drew the first tech companies to the Bay, too.
  2. See also Rebecca Solnit’s great essay “Google Invades,” from the London Review of Books, which Packer references in his piece, and to which I linked previously.