Thursday, May 17, 2012

Resistance Is Futile


It was interesting throughout the run of Star Trek Next Generation (TNG), when the creators of the show needed an enemy so vicious, so bad, and so opposite of the Federation, conciously or subconciously they ended up creating an enemy like the Borg. If TNG was supposed to be our future, or at least how we thought our future was going to be, then we perhaps understand ourselves little better by inspecting this mhytical Federation and its greatest enemy, the Borg.

What were the main features of the TNG universe? Surely Roddenberry peppered his creation with lots of anti-capitalist messages. There is no money in TNG universe, there is no poverty, no widespread disease. Energy is abundant, and manufacturing items are painless. In a way actually the show had both anti-capitalist and a Third Wave message. If you can literally create things out of thin air, you do not have a blue collar workforce, everyone is white collar, the only thing that remains is knowledge and artistic work. "We only live to better ourselves now" advertises the Captain in one episode. 

However, past the thin anti-modern, anti-capitalist layer, the organization of a spaceship is still very hierarchical. The bridge of Enterprise is very similar to a hierarchical office, 50s style, there is still the "corner office", literally a place in a corner somewhere that the captain goes to when he wants to chill. There is still the senior staff. People take greeeaaat care to use their rank along their names. Federation has Earth at its center (sector 0-0-1). Starfleet Headquarters is very centralized, in one episode we find out they can take out any of their own ships when they want, using codes keps centrally.

Does this mirror our current state of affairs, or in a way, America (Roddenberry hailed from there after all). I remember reading somewhere that US education and workplace is elitist. Some could say it is meritocratic. Maybe it is both. At US workplaces there is always this issue of being a "rockstar"; a mix of elitism and meritocracy. It is something you "attain" at least, not born into, but has this weird aura of status attached to it. After many years of observing it, I decided I do not like it. It creates too much pressure on people involved and actually does not leave much room for error.

Other TNG signs the show saw itself as centralist, modernist, hierarchical; Before "the big battle" with the Borg, the captain wonders around in the ship, trying to clear his mind, and starts confiding in a friend, and says: "I wonder if the emperor Honorious watching the Visigoths coming over the 7th hill truly realized the Roman Empire was about to fall". Wait a minute.. All of a sudden the Federation is Rome, and the Borg are the Visigoth? Hmm.. And when the Enterprise is attacked by the Borg, "the voice" comes on the viewscreen and starts bitchslapping everyone saying "your archaic cultures are authority driven" etc,  and other words to the effect of "we will kick your ass", and "give up now".

The rest / the conclusion of the story is also interesting. The Borg captures Captain Pickard, the authority figure, nice move since single authority figure was the weakness after all, then he is "assimilated" and he becomes part of the Borg. Our strength / weakness become Borg's strength. But, of course we had to beat this enemy, and had to feel good about ourselves at the end (an unwritten Trek rule), so Enterprise's first officer "Number One" steps up, becomes the new Captain, takes Pickard back (hence his knowledge of Borg) and beats the enemy and his old captain. So yes, we are hierarchical, but people can move up in that hierarchy sooo easily, u see, we are upwordly mobile, seemed to be the message, in a way "the hierarchy is there but does not matter" -huh?-. That seemed to be the feel-good conclusion. We have a little stick up our ass, but we are also pesky. Agile. Dont f--k with us, alien people.

The more I think about it though, the more I conclude, in Trek universe that the Borg should have won. They are designed to be bad looking in a vampire kind of way, turn people into ghosts, but beyond this dramatization, they are connected through a superfast networking structure (WiFi in the brain!), and they are highly decentralized. Their ship looks one of those Google, Facebook server farm structures with 99.999% uptime, high degree of failover and load balancing. High local peer-to-peer connectivity, tech empowered individual also happens to be a main factor of our postmodern age. How can you beat that?

Looking at the larger trend, it seems dealing with issues around authority, centralization, decentralization is a major factor of the sea change present in recent TV shows. Lost went to one extreme, its people were running around like chicken with their head cut-off, there was no authority, but no ideas for the future either; they were literally "lost". Battlestar Galactica authority figures and characters were all dysfunctional. In Game of Thrones almost all "rockstar" figures died, and at times quite horribly, by the end of Season 1. TNG apparently itself went through a generational change internally. We find out from TNG writer (later BSG creator) Ron Moore that Roddenberry wanted TNG characters to be "flawless". Younger writers rebelled, there was lots of friction, and after Roddenberry's death this generation of writers started getting their way. Hence we had the Borg, a great tool TNG used to criticize itself while still maintaining its feel-good attitude.

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[1] Of recent creations, it seems Avengers was able to pull off the rockstar concept, but 1) it needed lots of them 2) we have one tech augmented, one chemically altered, and a beast in the mix. 3) the big enemy happens to be a demigod -- the manifestation of the ultimate rockstar. There is also the mandatory central "bad" figure, the government, and an tacit acknowledgement of the ridicolousness of the whole shabang -- "Heroes [read: rockstars].. It is an old fashioned concept".

[2] None of what we say obviously means individuality and skill should be deemphasized. What we are suggesting is that the pressure around being "always on" needs to be lessened, and expectations around what people can deliver, and when, needs to be readjusted. Especially undeserving rockstars (almost all them, falling off like flies each day around us due to the turbulent nature of our age) need to get out of an individual's way.