If you are a regular visitor to my blog, you’ve likely concluded from my writing, that I am a huge Star Trek fan.
I’ve posted below one of the most iconic scenes from the entire Star Trek genre, when Picard meets Kirk in the Nexus in Star Trek Generations. I’m especially intrigued by this scene because it embodies the theme that was expressed loudly, boldly and confidently throughout the entire original series: an unrepentant faith in scientific progress and the eternal perfection of man. In that respect, Star Trek embodied the values of 18th century Whig liberalism. It served as a paean to modernism and the unrelenting, undaunted, march of scientific achievement, at least, what remained of it in the late 1960’s, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the midst of the Cold War and as the United States became more embroiled in the what ultimately proved to be the travesty of the Vietnam Conflict.
Indeed, looking back more than a half century to its first season, I’m struck by how frequently Star Trek, particularly the original series, dealt with the danger of humanity’s becoming untethered from these lofty aspirations and with reality in general and, as a result, falling prey to some malignant force that would prevent our species from attaining its full potential.
Recall that the first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, dealt with this threat in the form of the illusion-making power of the wily, cerebral Talosians, whose atrophying civilization teetered on the verge of extinction — ironically, as the result of acquiring this remarkable skill.
As I’ve pointed out a number of times in this forum, this is one of the things I’ve always found especially interesting and even inspiring about science fiction: Its having taken on many of the characteristics of religion by pointing humanity to threats, particularly technological threats, that traditional faith, perhaps because of its ancient lineage, is arguably not as well-equipped to do.
Warnings Seemingly Unheeded
In fact, as we move deeper into the 21st century, we seem to be on the verge of harnessing Artificial Intelligence in ways that bear a rather unsettling resemblance to the technology that ultimately threatened the fictitious Talosians. Indeed, quite a few public intellectuals, from the recently deceased cosmologist Stephen Hawking to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and historian Yuval Noah Harari, have essentially picked up where The Cage and other works of science fiction have left off, warning us about the myriad of dangers associated with this rapidly expanding technology.
In the years leading up to his death, Hawking warned us about the danger of our ultimately facing a threat from highly sophisticated, deadly robots, eerily portended in Terminator movie series. More recently, Kissinger has raised the specter of AI’s imposing on us a set of ethics or morality not of our choosing, much as the technologically advanced Spaniards imposed their religion on the hapless Incans some 500 years ago.
In his most recent book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Harari warns that humans ultimately may be drawn incrementally into a future in which AI increasingly anticipates and assuages every human need and whim without our even having to ask for help, to the point where we are ultimately reduced to a coddled but enslaved species little different from the Soma users in Huxley’s Brave New World.
Equally remarkable is the fact that these warnings seem to be falling largely on deaf ears. It seems there was a time, certainly when I was a boy growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, that human beings seemed more fully attuned to these threats. Indeed, Star Trek was only one of several science fiction works that alerted us to these threats. The films “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” and “Westworld” come to mind. Yet, in hindsight, this strikes me as a time long ago when people, especially Americans, still possessed a strong confidence in civilization and its capacity to adjust to rapid change.
Today, though, we seem to be beset by a kind of civilizational ennui, if not fatalism, one perhaps reflected in the opioid addiction and suicide epidemic that has much of the American hinterland it its grip. One gets the impression that tens of millions of people, not only ordinary people but also many elites in the United States and throughout the developed world, have essentially succumbed to a sort of post-modern malaise, concluding that the challenges facing us are simply too complex, too intractable to resolve.
I’ve even wondered a time or two if some of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, harbor some measure of comfort from contemplating our species’ demise. As I’ve observed before, some science fiction movies even seem to have touched on this theme, however gingerly, notably “The Invasion,” an updating of both the 1956 and 1978 versions of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
As with the two previous versions, the aims of the alien invaders are ultimately thwarted, yet in the final few minutes of “The Invasion,” a broadcast commentator almost seems to evince regret that humanity has been granted a reprieve from extinction. Moreover, one of the film’s principal characters, Yorish, rather dolefully observes, “All I’m saying is that civilization crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this is no so, when every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence — well, this is a world where human beings cease to be human.”
We seem to have traveled a long way from the heady optimism of Star Trek. Sometimes I even find myself succumbing to the view that we humans no longer possess the will nor the courage to save ourselves from what awaits us. Perhaps more of us are coming to resemble the disillusioned and nihilistic Dr. Stephen Falken in the 1983 thriller WarGames, clinging to the hope that what ultimately supplants humanity eons from now will be better — more attuned to what threatens them, better equipped to avoid the malaise that seems to be consuming us.
Picard Meets Kirk in Star Trek: Generations.