Technology And The Void

It’s all Andrew‘s fault.

He has a blog, and people sometimes comment on it. And sometimes I think about the comments, and get an idea…and then sometimes it also occurs to me that Tom Bondurant is lurking out there somewhere, like Star Trek Rorschach…

And so for me it comes down to this, insofar as Star Trek goes: what enables people to make war anyway? Back in the days of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock — in other words, back when Star Trek was a science-fiction show — technology might have been extreme but it also in some sense made its users brave: or at any rate forced them to be brave on occasion, because there were many things that technology could, self-evidently, not do. Every story really begins, in the insufficiency of their technology! Thus scarcity was everywhere, because even though everyone had enough to eat (sure, you ate orange pyramids and blue cubes, but you ate), they nevertheless lived very close indeed to the shadow-line of irretrievable disaster: because if there’s one thing extreme technology is ludicrously effective at, it’s taking you to its own limits…which of course are already way past your own. So one wrong move, one loose screw, and the ship is sunk! One tiny clerical error and you perish forever in the black of space! Well, and isn’t this also perfectly true in our own, arguably non-science-fictional world? Some form of scarcity was always at the root of the Cold War stories, just as it was at the root of the Man vs. Machine stories (hint: they were all man vs. machine stories); for strategic advantage is the scarcest thing there is, generally coeval with the evidence for human freedom.

But that was in the before-time, when the Void was comprehensible as mere space, and sometimes time.

Now, it’s different.

Consider Star Trek: The Next Generation, and its replicators. Don’t even bother with the holodecks or the transporters, though all express the same technological super-plenitude as variations on a theoretical theme: just focus on the replicators. Moving through space and time at superluminal speeds is just a minor marvel, compared to the great leap forward these so-quotidian gizmos represent. In the world of ST: TNG, the cornucopia has been pulled so very wide open that even the days of blue-cube food are gone: no one need want for anything, ever, no matter who or where they are. Limitless 3D printing at your fingertips; a Philosopher’s Stone. Yet is even this enough to make a utopia? Well…

We’ll come back to that in a minute. But for now: the focus. Those replicators can make anything a person needs, can supply them with anything they want. And every starfaring culture in the Star Trek universe has them, it’s absolutely trivial technology, it’s like everyone having a pair of shoes or a pair of pants, it’s nothing-at-all, it’s the air you breathe. So…

Why do they make war?

Or, more to the point, how can they make war? Everybody has everything. Every star-empire is loaded with planets, that are all quite sufficient to the requirements of human life. Throwaway planets: they waste some on prison colonies, waste others on nature preserves. Sanitoria. Brothels. They’re all under-inhabited by Earth standards, these worlds, and Earth itself is no different. There’s lots of elbow room. And the Klingons aren’t Mongolians anymore, neither are the Romulans all U-boat commanders; even the Cardassians have stopped being Space-Nazis, as the Bajorans have moved through being Space-Palestinians, to being Space-Jews, to being Space-Christians. The whole geopolitics-mirror thing isn’t supportable anymore, at all, to the point where after ST: TNG managed one more kick at the can with its Gorbachev episode, it had nowhere else to go. Geopolitics? They were lucky to get mere newspaper-headline topicality after a while — Vietnam vets, that one where Worf had breast implants, the highly-regrettable episode in which the Enterprise found itself pitted against — yes — the Planet of the Space-Retards…


You think I made that up?

Oh, don’t you know I only wish I had, but never mind that now, because the name of the game is FOCUS. Why would anyone in the ST: TNG universe make war? What possible reason could they have for doing so? All the elbow room they could ever need, they have; all the material resources they could ever need, they’ve basically got too much of. If the Romulans and the Klingons ever shared a planet — and why wouldn’t they do so one day, except only for the fact that planets are in limitless supply — they would either not care about it, or they would be cool about it; for as much as is made of the appallingly minor cultural differences that any given Hollywood screenwriter can apparently steel himself to think up, it’s still no substitute for sublimated geopolitics and the even more sublimated racialism that animates it: the twin engines that drive SF wars successfully forward. TNG’s dry, schematic comprehension of “difference” is too distant and too easy, without the surge of blood and conscience behind it: its idealism just too darned ideal in its character, to be easily situated in the dangerous middle-ground where the rationale for conflict, both inner and outer, is grown. The old Star Trek traded rather heavily on both racist ideology and the seductive racialist pseudoscience that is its enabler, by pointing the stuff out specifically to argue against it: the Klingons weren’t fractious because it was built into their genes, the Romulans weren’t devious because they had a devious biological character, but these were institutional problems! And therefore problems that it was the business of individuals to struggle with: problems that only individuals could potentially overcome. But even as the New Trek took this principle even further, it watered it down most shamefully — even the Borg could be rehabilitated from their institutional conditions with relative ease, with nothing more than the sensitive application of a little Sense Of Wonder and some touchy-feely crap that (if you think about it) back in the 60s wasn’t even enough to liberate Mr. Spock…! So in the original Star Trek, there was never any guarantee that the individual would triumph over their institutional reality; but in its successor-series, there’s never any doubt

Which is not necessarily the worst thing in the world, even though it makes for frankly lousy drama. I mean, it is a bit shameful to simply brush aside the main problematizing element of living in an institutional reality, but it isn’t the most terrible thing in the world to uphold the idea that individuals can triumph over their cultural backgrounds! So at least it isn’t cynical, say that for it anyway.

However it does mean that the idea of Klingons and Romulans living together in peace isn’t at all a crazy one, unless their warlike character is biologically-determined — which it isn’t — because their cultural differences are slight to say the least: we’re not even talking about Greeks and Turks here, it’s more like New Yorkers and Californians. Therefore, in answer to the question “why would such races make war”, given that we can only deal with what we’ve been given to reason on, we can only be justified in saying:

Because it doesn’t matter.

Which, if you think about it, makes a certain degree of sense. After all, how likely is it that the Federation, the Klingon and Romulan Empires, and every other two-bit temporary dominion that may exist, are constantly running over one another’s tracks? Space is BIIIIIIIG, even with warp-drive; the Federation, anyway, is constantly discovering unknown worlds. And so can the Klingons and Romulans be doing anything else?

How is it, that you can even begin to divide up a galaxy into Yours and Mine portions anyway?

Do you do it in big polygons?

How do you get people to agree on the big polygons?

How do you possibly arrange for the big polygons to be fought over, if they’re so big?

We’ll get back to that in a minute too, because just like the transporter and the holodeck and the replicators it’s just one principle that lies in the throat of these problems…and that’s exactly what is the problem…

…With space and time and scarcity, none of which really “exist” anymore in the Star Trek universe. A slight digression, if you would: if I were asked to think of an interesting-if-fannish Star Trek story, I’d probably offer the tale of the person who invented the Replicator Application, and smuggled it out to all the different star-travelling societies in a bid to put an end to their conflicts once and for all…and, parenthetically, I’d investigate the origins of the Transporter technology that it’s built on. Everybody has this: a technology that no less an authority than Gary Seven tells us is still in its infancy, and with that technology in hand it seems as though it wasn’t just steam-engine time for replicators somewhere between Kirk and Picard (I think that’s supposed to be about eighty years?), but it’s steam-engine time at the same time, all over the galaxy, even among peoples who don’t talk to one another and whose scientists don’t enjoy any intellectual commerce. So, given that either my notional tech-smuggler got the stuff out there, or that having the Transporter just automatically leads to the development of replicators in something of a tearing hurry, then if the tech-smuggler guy isn’t there the natural question simply falls back one more step: where’d they all get the Transporter from, then?



FOCUS, of course…I’m forgetting my focus. Of course there are no “natural” questions to be asked in Star Trek, which is the major thing that fan-fic efforts of all stripes (even my own) carefully choose to forget…just like the Mirror Universe makes no sense unless the people in it are all just “evil”, right? Because it isn’t a divergent universe made of quantum branching, it’s just a philosophical postulate, a literary device. And therefore gussying it up with reasons only robs it of its simple, wonderful force. Sure, it could be a universe in which Khan and his eugenical supermen won, and that would explain a fair bit of the conceit in “scientific” terms — humans with extra aggression built into them would be something the rest of the galaxy’s races would be forced to adapt to (especially if they stumbled across a technological advantage like, oh I don’t know, a starship from the future), and even the logical Vulcans wouldn’t particularly care if their geopolitical situation was a nasty one because of that…would they? But then we’re back to biological determinism, the very explanation that Star Trek has always meant to repudiate, and even though you could force a dialectic here — the Mirror Universe is what we’d have if people were subject to a stricter biological determinism — it still isn’t as though the Mirror Universe really exists, but it’s still a literary device meant to operate on the setting and characters of Star Trek, and therefore it still must have the same point as it ever did…

To wit: that biological determinism is bunk wherever you may find it, even in hypothetical Opposite-Lands where the continuity of scientific/historical explanations is purposely (and purposefully!) overturned…and anyway even if it weren’t, surely the whole thing is still a bit beggared by Wall-E or McHugh or whatever the wet-lipped Borg kid’s name was, because if he can be deprogrammed just by looking at pictures of puppies or whatever, then why couldn’t anyone? And then, it seems to me, once we accept that then we are no longer talking about whole organisms being biologically-determined in a simple way, then rather we must be talking about conflict between different modules of biological determinism within organisms — everybody has a “good” part, everybody has a “bad” part, and the question is which one will dominate the whole organism’s behaviour — which means pretty soon we’d be back to where we are right now anyway, where “local” motivations may be in constant contention but the superordinate “global” consciousness this contention produces may also feed back into it, and play Solomon to all the selfish little modules that compose it. So you see, it’s kind of counterproductive to go to the “natural” questions of Star Trek, because all they do is eject you once again into the fact that nothing in Star Trek is naturally-occurring: there are merely things in it that it is about, and things in it that it isn’t about. Like how come all the different species all have the Transporter etc. etc…I mean if you wanted to solve that inconsistency I think you’d probably have to say something like “the Transporter is itself an application of the warp drive technology”, but then that assumes you see an inconsistency in the overall design of the Star Trek universe, and honestly if you’re seeing that I don’t believe you’re paying enough attention. Because the inconsistencies come after, you know?

It isn’t the original series that tells us Khan’s supertribe is innately hyperaggressive, after all!

But that’s just a contemporary innovation, more to do with flattering our current neomaterialist bias than with creating drama. Just as seeking an origin for the Transporter would take me back to the warp drive, and then the warp drive would take me back God-knows-where…because is the warp drive explained, either? No; it’s just axiomatic in the Star Trek universe that there is such a thing as “progress”, and that societies can be graded by what level of progress — what pre-existing level of progress, note! — that they’ve attained. So a “warp-class” civilization is also a “transporter-class” civilization, and above them are the “pure energy”-class civilizations and below them are the (ugh) Space-Retards who can’t be trusted with warp-class tech because they are not developmentally prepared to enter the galactic milieu…

…Where of course everyone is perfectly nice and peaceful, because they’re “smart”?

Except obviously they’re not, because that isn’t the kind of progress we’re supposed to be talking about. The original Star Trek universe is all about progress because it finds its conflict in “progress”: the question of “what will Man become?” always implicated in his technological capability…

…Under the shadow of the Bomb, of course, since that was the number one fixation and concern and anxiety of the times, and it was what made it all go. No mention of Space-Retards in the original series, because if they existed they were us…! But in a post-1989 world we got anxious about other things, didn’t we? Destabilization…chaos…a loss of meaning coincident with the loss of the rulebook…which is, perhaps, another way of saying: the loss of control

But again, that is a thing we will get back to shortly. Because first we have to bring ourselves up from 1989 to now? Well, we don’t have to really, but it helps my little hack-job thesis if we do…because our primary concerns and fixations and anxieties have changed since then too, and that’s what explains the current problem — my current unease — with the device of the replicators in the Star Trek universe. Aha, the replicators, I bet you thought I’d forgotten all about them! But don’t worry, we haven’t gone off-topic yet…I’m just getting to where the problem lies, the problem that stayed subliminal to my awareness for all these years since ST: TNG went on the air, but which has now mysteriously become something I can think about, because the changing times have brought me up to it at last. Different concerns: you know, I was blathering a bit about this on Twitter (sadly, a service I shall soon have to leave forever), that the focus of our contemporary televisual dramas is on how character itself is the main threat to characters — tension arising out of the fact that self-actualization isn’t only complicated, but also something that inspires a kind of dread. Call it mind-control-in-reverse! Where there exists an inner, “true” personality under the skin of an outer “false” one…and the true one will get out, so how are you going to deal with it once it does? How will you keep the inner self from killing the outer one, as it must surely long to do? We’ve seen rather a lot of this kind of thing over the last couple of decades, and now we’re practically tripping over it…and it can be done well just as easily as it’s done poorly, and in a way it is (of course!) nothing new…any stroll through the Psychology section of your local bookstore will tell you that, and it isn’t like science-fiction writers haven’t long been obsessed with literalizing a “dual” character in their protagonists…but the accent is different these days. That dread, it’s something specific to the times. “What if the enemy is inside, what if I myself am the enemy?” It’s a communal nightmare we’ve explored a great deal in our fiction over a very long period of time, but post-1989 and post-2001 I think we must add:

“What if I myself, in my own authentic self, am the enemy?”

Because that’s the really modern kicker, isn’t it? Well beyond Freud and Jung and all of their self-help successors, that’s a new sort of paranoia for writers to grapple with, and not just SF writers either! Not too long ago, I mentioned in passing that the superhero always wins his or her four-colour fights because unlike the supervillain he or she is capable of honest self-expression…which is the only thing sufficient to creating the passage of time in such stories, and the reason they are not merely and entirely repetitive in character. But what if the self-expression isn’t good, in anything but a therapeutic sense?

What if the totalization of the Self, the integration of all its fractious bits, isn’t healthy for anyone?

And yet it still must be a Good, right?

I mean…can we really live without it being a Good? Can we? Or doesn’t that overturn something much more basic than the existence of Progress, and in a much more arbitrary way than any mirror-universe-where-people-are-bad-because-they’re-bad ever could?

…Okay, and so maybe I did lose focus there, a little. Well, so back to the replicators! Which are, like Khan’s inbuilt hyperaggression, a modern embroidery on Star Trek’s otherwise-clear historical thesis about how technology and humanity must interact…and like a lot of things in our real lives, it’s a minor logical convenience that conceals in its principle of operation a great potential for abuse — a potential, indeed, to unravel the very fabric it’s been embroidered onto. Whyever would the spacefaring races of Star Trek wish to make war, when they have so much space available to them that the very concept of “elbow room” ought not to be one they can grasp in the first place, because they have no need of it? Without any lack of resources, what logic can lie behind the adoption of the zero-sum expansionism they all seem so fanatically engaged in? During the Cold War there was a pretty solid subtextual reason for it all, but now the Cold War’s gone and the Singularity’s here instead, so there’s little to justify it all with: the Borg are the only antagonists that even make sense anymore as antagonists, aren’t they? And if you recall, the only reason they became antagonists in the first place…

…Is because Q wanted to scare Picard, which he did by catapulting the TNG crew into a far-flung region of space they couldn’t otherwise have reached. New space, you see, is the terror that Q brandished in front of the Enterprise senior staff…the terror of being linked into it, suddenly a part of it, in desperate need of processing it…and please don’t think it was accidental, that this was the face terror wore! Because, as I said up top a little ways…

Space no longer really “exists” for the Enterprise crew or any of their traditional antagonists, and neither does scarcity, within their little bubble of friendly, accessible trade-routes and space-lanes and diplomatic demarcations. Everything’s part of a plenum, a smooth and ultimately non-terrifying expanse within which all the rules are known and all the playing-fields are level, even if there is sometimes danger and not every single little thing has been thoroughly explored. Indeed the lack of a truly comprehensive exploration of the space-already-known is what preserves the plenum’s capacity to draw all interest to itself in the first place: as any writer may retroactively insert any amount of hidden, “archaeological” texture into it, and thus make sure the universe of Picard & Co. continues to sacrifice breadth, for depth. The bubble of lawfulness and pattern can be made so interesting, in other words, that they never think about the larger Void that enwraps their continuum (for that’s what it is!), the shield of uncrossable distance that separates them from the awful necessity of having to take new and more chaotic things on board in a hurry. And for this reason, to them, “space” is just another word for “context”…a context that Q’s action is intended to shake violently, and of course it does precisely that: Picard, so complacent when it comes to “final-frontier-ism”, has the frontier shoved in his face and must rapidly change his spots. But…

The fact remains that this injection of terrifying new space into the continuum is something brought about only by Q’s omnipotent and apparently peevish intervention; and really Picard is quite right to be complacent, given only that Q stays his omnipotent hand. Eventually the Federation would encounter the Borg, but in that “eventually” might they not increase their capabilities to the point where the Borg are not too discomposing to their context? Their insulating Void is nibbled away from the inward edge, so they never really see it: they only see the context it decomposes into, bit by bit, as a product and a meaning, as a product known as a meaning worthy of being treated as “product”. And even when Q pulls that curtain away to shock them, they still do not really see it, or they see it only in a momentary flash, before — even in their terrifying state of unpreparedness! — they do after all beat the Borg, and gain the time they need to work out how to master them. For just one moment, all the windows to other possible versions of the continuum are thrown open, and the babble of terror breaks through! The Borg, as the principle of assimilation made literal, cannot themselves be assimilated!

The Borg, as Modernity’s ultimate skyscraper, cannot be modernized any further!

Cannot be de-modernized!

Because they are the logical conclusion, of a valid argument. However…

…It’s all only for a moment, before the brave Captain and his microcosmic crew manage to assert (admittedly, with more force) what they always assert: the value of the limited self, the self as a thing with boundaries and edges and the power to distinguish itself against the things it is not. The Borg claim that they’ll take the Federation’s distinctiveness and add it to their own, but they don’t actually show a whole lot of distinctiveness whether it’s their own or anyone else’s, and their ship founders on the old contradiction of Being and Becoming, until soon — very soon! — it sinks below the sea…

And then that’s that! And we’re back to Klingons and Romulans again, aren’t we? And the Void enwraps all, like a nice cozy blanket.

And yet they still make war. Even though there’s no reason for it. Because once again there is no space, there is no scarcity, there is nothing to go to war over…and therefore, somewhat paradoxically, my conclusion is that they’re making war over the scarcity of space. The scarcity of scarcity?

I admit it sounds just stupid at first blush. The scarcity of space as a casus belli? Well, how isn’t that a way of saying “elbow room”? Aha, but that isn’t quite how I mean it, just as the modern accent of the “enemy within” doesn’t mean, straightforwardly, the war between Id and Superego. Every culture in the ST: TNG universe wants to maintain its separation from all the others, its distinctiveness…for the very reason that the distinctiveness is slight. Just as they fight bitterly over territory, because their territory is actually in very little danger. They actually need nothing, so they are willing to contest anything and everything…because the only space that remains real, in all this wide galaxy, is the relatively small space that exists between warships when they’ve got a phaser lock on each other. Because it is the one remaining instance in which well-known and widely-used space can be reconstituted as Void: not a trade route, not an orbital path, not a medium of communication, not a medium of anything…not a “linked-in” part of the plenum, but a gap, a chasm. An emptiness. The planets are just excuses; the Empires are completely arbitrary in their scope. How do you get people to establish the frontiers of all those Big Polygons, and maintain them? The truth must be that you don’t even bother; the truth must be that you don’t even really care. The technology is godlike, fail-proof, self-maintaining. One person could fly a starship. Starships could be flown without people.

Starships, really, don’t necessarily need to be flown at all.

And if you wanted war, you could just model it mathematically.

But, as Captain Kirk might say, what would be the point? Consider what Kirk does in “A Taste Of Armageddon”, when confronted by the virtualization of war: he gives a big speech against biological determinism and then he destroys the enabling technology, thus bringing the scarcity of time and space back into the previously-computerized conflict and forcing the issue that had previously been so adroitly skated over. Kirk the Wrecker! Kirk the Doom-Bringer! But as impressively Alexandrian as his solution is, it still isn’t a solution that can be transported (pardon me) to the later developmental stage of his own milieu…not once those replicators have made the scene, creeping up on all the old justifications and stabbing them in the neck! Because it really is a utopian set-up, at that point, and the world simply won’t bend to give anyone a good reason to fight…

And so it becomes necessary to make one up. Because not just a taste, but a full banquet of Armageddon, is what’s on the menu here! When a perfect technological sufficiency removes all the old differences that used to matter — all the old distinctiveness wherein free actions were situated bleeds away, as utopia enforces that implacable logic which is all its own. So irresistible, so inevitable, that even wishing for peace is an exercise in futility!

Even wanting things is pointless!

And so scarcity itself becomes the most valuable thing there is. The flip side of adventure and possibility! The origin-point of drama and purpose! Oh, how they search for it — tirelessly, tirelessly, everywhere they go. Hunting the elusive Void, that separates objects from one another, in every tiny inch of space-that-is-not-space, space that connects rather than dividing. Chasing the bravery dragon in range-to-target reaches, hidden dimensions that need devious uncurling: hell, it’s a wonder they’re not all more bellicose, you know? For better a real and genuine final frontier — an real and genuine undiscovered country! — than a mere final resting-place. So the Void of an armed standoff (no matter how it gets resolved, although let’s face it in TNG it’s usually resolved without violence) is the escape-hatch, from oppressive utopia…the trapdoor to a higher and freer plane…

But, only because it all doesn’t really matter anymore? Otherwise, everything is all perfectly congealed into an impeccable stability?


Not really. Because does not the limitless cornucopia itself, betoken the presence of a sort of Void? Fights in space are all very well, but distinctly pre-replicator thinking…to the point where they may make the most sense, simply as psychological evasions: let’s not look at this new gaping hole in reality, that gets bigger every second, but let’s concentrate instead on the old one that’s getting harder and harder to find, harder and harder to squeeze into. If one is truly interested in final frontiers, then this is probably not really the way to go; in fact it seems to me that the only reason you would go that way, is if a final frontier was the very last thing you were interested in. Q knows it: the Federation is complacent as hell because it feels entitled to its complacency, it is willing to spend all its energies on complacency, and therefore that complacency is itself a very great existential danger. Because what is it, that the cornucopia can not provide?

Here’s where the Andrew part comes in. How can a society exercise control over the potential of its technology? All very well to talk about safety protocols, administered and enforced by computer, ringed around with the magic spells of access codes and command authority — one presumes that on board the Enterprise only Picard can order up high explosives from the replicators — but the problem with potential is that it’s…well, it’s potential, which means it’s all that which doesn’t currently exist as a known and charted list of possibilities. You don’t even need to reprogram the computer, to figure out how to replicate things you shouldn’t: the computer doesn’t know everything all by itself, right? So every superpower you haven’t thought of, that’s the superpower Wesley Crusher has when he’s sitting in his room with the replicator right there, even if the bottle containing the djinn has got a child-proof cap on it…


Hell, especially if it’s got a child-proof cap on it. Because if “potential” is your biggest worry, then guarding against all-that-isn’t-potential is like stacking sandbags in the wrong place: like stacking sandbags on a mountaintop, really. All the destructive stuff you know about, is stuff you’ve already got just lying around…isn’t it? So there’s no point asking the replicator to make you a phaser rifle or an antimatter bomb, when there’s already one sitting in a locker down the hall, protected by no more than a magic spell, a string of words spoken in a sufficiently deep voice, and if you’re already messing around with magic spells anyway then why bother to go down the hall? How trivial is technology you already know about, for heaven’s sake, in a world of such super-plenitude as this? Ashby and Godel look on and cluck their tongues at the reactionary urge — that urge made reactionary in the very moment of its conception! — to codify all in a great Principia, to enclose all in a great fence of Known Continuum wherein every action is subject to mitigation; knowing everyone should know better, but it’s just so easy, you know? So easy to think about the organism as an imaginary whole, instead of a thing with many synchronized parts that has a neat way of hanging together. Simple names are just so seductive, you see! They’re so readily put in order; they make everything so tidy. In my neck of the woods, now, that tidyness is best evidenced by statements like:

“I’m provisionally in favour of the Northern Gateway pipeline, so long as we’ve got the appropriate environmental protections in place.”

Where “appropriate environmental protections” means “magic formula of spoken words that will allow the oil to flow without people getting upset”, and NOT NECESSARILY ANYTHING OTHER THAN THAT…because of course there are no “appropriate environmental protections” in terms of actual instrumentalities, that will save our fisheries when (and not if!) a big spill comes, but somewhere out there is indeed a magic hypnotic spell that will allow the pipeline to built despite the inevitable disastrous consequences, if only someone can successfully locate the necessary “appropriateness” in linguistic space…

(Though more on “linguistic space” on some Later Day, and anyway as long as I have a body to be thrown in jail that pipeline will not be built…!)

…But on Star Trek, you find the tidyness coming out in theorems like “safety interlocks” and “modulation of the shield harmonics” and other assertions of postmodernity that are enlightening on the one hand, and occlusive on the other, but since you get to pick which is which you’re always in the money as far as stability is concerned…

Until, that is…you’re not.


Yes, there is another Void, that technology addresses, and TNG-era Star Trek’s enormous (if subliminal, and maybe even subconscious) interest in it is precisely what makes it not exactly a science-fiction show as its illustrious predecessor was, but instead a curious hybrid of fiction and thought-experiment that is less about allegorical drama and more about the counterposition of philosophical theses…which is the very thing that leads me to think my aimless musings about its post-scarcity politics of Void might be considered legitimate, even though as a fiction it continues to have no “natural” questions in it that are available to be asked. Well, but perhaps there are such things as “unnatural” questions, whose asking may prove more fruitful? The TNG-era universe of Star Trek is pretty much not for me, I confess — I like my drama a bit more dramatic, if you know what I mean — but any show which is so much about the ordered arrangement of propositions in a hierarchy can’t help but appeal to the philosopher in me, whether or not I think any of its specific arguments are any good. I’ve often said that I think the best TNG-era shows must have been the ones about “how computers work” — your ship-in-a-bottle, your homing-pigeon android story — unless they were the ones about how an essentially dull and static status quo contains within it many overlapping ghosts of alternative meaning, shows that might have been building up a laminate of Star Treks we never saw, that all the TNG-era products exist on top of as a kind of conceptual sheen

Which is to say: the other Void is the one we find in language.

Since that’s what latter-day Star Trek — in my view, anyway — is really about. Well, and in a world of godlike technology, isn’t the programming language of it all just…language? The things language can do, and not do; the limits that language can take you to, and what you can do without it when it drops you there, at the bleeding edge. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit it, but I can’t find the link right now to my own post on Star Trek’s most revealing moment: the Voyager episode containing the war in the Q Continuum. Aha, and right away you ought to be thinking “shit, so they have one too?!” Oh, indeed they do, indeed…as Janeway finds out when she is transported (sorry) there, to see it all looking exactly like the American Civil War, with muskets and manor houses and Q telling her “this is all just how your tiny mind interprets it, so the reality of it doesn’t drive you insane.” So someone shoots at Q as he stands near the mantelpiece, but instead of hitting him they hit a clock or something and they blow it to bits…because he ducks…and I think…

Well, what was the clock, then? That Janeway’s puny human mind merely “interpreted” as a clock on the mantel?

And what are the “bits“, that it was blown to?

And: what is “ducking“?

And when the Voyager crew arrive to rescue her, and escape the Q notice by hiding behind trees…

Well, and what the hell are the “trees“?

And what’s the “dirt” they get on their faces, and what is the “wood” that’s thrown into the “fire”, and the “bandages” that staunch the “blood” caused by “bullet holes”…and what’s “nightfall” and what’s “sunrise”, and on and on, and you’ll forgive me for repeating myself, but really I do no more than the episode itself because the principle really does go on and on and on…and all the while it is all about technology, and all the while it is all about the Void, and endlessly the Voyager’s crew traverses the edge of enlightenment and/or occlusion…as Q rants on metaphorically, about what you’re not seeing.

And what you will never see.

I mean…forget the Klingons and the Romulans, but why do the Q make war? You know? If there’s one territory we’re not in, anymore, it’s for sure the geopolitical…or allegorical…heck, I am not sure it’s even really the metaphorical, at all, at all…

For what metaphor can really stand to be stood for, by another metaphor? Is it possible to have a metaphor for a metaphor?

Back to Wesley Crusher standing in front of the replicator. Loss of meaning. It’s present at every stage of the TNG-era’s, uhrr…development, because meaning is a product of control, which is given by technology, which is held up by “progress”, but the edifice is not secure because it’s built entirely out of two-edged swords. And you can ignore that fact for a long time — if you work at it really hard and really desperately, even longer! — but eventually the knowledge of instability must seep in no matter what you do. Technology, designed to shelter you from the Void, can’t help but bring you closer to it at the same time, because every time it closes a door it also opens a window. The whole post-TNG world is constantly lurching towards the brink of collapse, of utter dissolution, of the desynchronization of its parts…and even exploration isn’t enough to keep blowing up the bubble. Only war, good old reactionary war, can keep you distracted from it all. Good old war, the reasonless thing! At least you can always count on it.

Until, that is…you can’t.

“Because it doesn’t matter”, I said, and you know what…it really doesn’t matter, does it? The Federation and the Klingons and the Romulans, they aren’t competitors but partners; they’re all in the same boat, and they’re almost the same people, and pretty soon they will be the same people, so in a way it already doesn’t matter, because if they’re almost the same and they’re getting more the same and soon they’ll be the same then we might as well just hurry up and say Sameness Has Arrived, even if no one is yet willing to see it. So who is going to war, that may be looked on as a poorly-formed question…the who doesn’t matter, because “who-ness” doesn’t need to be applied — when it’s the conflict that entrains the identities, not the identities that cause the conflict. It’s the Void that makes those technologies do what they do, which in turn places the fingers of individuals on the trigger, magically moving the people all into place so they may be contrasted with one another, though they may think it’s all their own idea. Just as it isn’t Wesley Crusher’s staring into the replicator that conceives the terrifying new technology of actualized potential, but the replicator that gazes also makes that thing happen. Has already made it happen. It will happen. And once it starts, it won’t stop.

And clearly it’s this, that concerns Q. Oh, very old stuff, none of it “original”, you know! But the accent is new.

Even if the words are the same, and the tune.

19 responses to “Technology And The Void

    • Okay. I skimmed some of this, because I’m getting ready to go out of town — but as usual, I’m both thrilled and terrified you’re talking TNG. Thrilled because (obviously) I love Star Trek, and terrified because I’m probably going to sound rather thick.

      Anyway, as it happens I have just spent a week or so re-reading the excellent Diane Duane series of Romulan/Rihannsu novels. Basically, the Rihannsu are the Vulcans who didn’t really take to Surak’s reforms, so they built generational ships and braved the void, and that (plus a nasty encounter with another species) shaped their culture irrevocably. So I commend those books to you (and to all, of course).

      Next, it occurs to me that both the Dominion and the Borg are set up as races which conquer “just because.” The Klingons were that way too, originally. They were all just There, opposed on principle to the Federation. And to a certain extent (stay with me) we may be meant to reduce all these conflicts between empires to personal conflicts. What you’re describing sounds like war as a choice – so, to interpolate, we as individuals must also choose to fight. That sound about right?

    • I think it’s about right! Certainly John Colicos’ Klingon commander shoves it out there, in “it would’ve been a glorious war” — shades of Englehart’s Supreme Intelligence! So the Klingons, at least the ones that “count”, are definitely presented as being bellicose on purpose, just as the Dominion leans back on its (less forthright!) excuse of preemptive paranoiac conquest. That’s a whole other thing that could stand some ugly unpacking, obviously — the slave race that becomes a terror? Deliberately creates other races to worship and serve them? Suddenly “biological determinism” really seems so inadequate a term, with such contemptible distance in it…an uncharitable analysis might label it the Empire of the Reverse-Racists or something, you know?


      So I’ll take someone who makes war as a lifestyle choice over someone who wages it on institutional or otherwise dogmatic grounds, I guess…

  1. I don’t know. You maybe give less credit to tribalism than I do, but I think division is universal (ants and whatnot withstanding, because ants may be impressive but they couldn’t build a spaceship), and that it wouldn’t matter if Romulans thought exactly the same as humans there’d still be plenty of wars in the far future. To that extent, removing scarcity might be necessary to ensuring a conflict-free future, but it’s not significant. So these interminable Klingon/Romulan/Terran wars don’t seem too unlikely to me. The replicator is of course a major continuity problem – why are these Ferengi going around trading for gold-pressed latinum when they could cook it up in their replicators – but all SF hits snags like that. It’s impossible to dream up any scenario for the future that isn’t utterly implausible.

    You’re right about the hugeness of space, and by the time the Star Trek races had filled up a significant proportion of the galaxy they’d have to have tens of thousands of warships to fight each other, so the battles in Star Trek would be poxy. Even the Borg just send a cube or two. Hell, send a couple of million and see how Picard copes with that. I always thought Poul Anderson did a good job of showing the ridiculous size of space. The number of stars within 100 light years is eight times larger than those within 50 light years, because volume is distance is volume cubed. You can cope with the number of stars near the Sun, but at some point, not very far on a galactic scale, it become unimaginably vast. Everyone at some point should point a small telescope at the Milky Way. Forget the moons of Jupiter: I’m betting it was the starfields that blew Galileo’s mind.

    • Ha! Yes, send a couple million Borg-Cubes, ho ho Picard!

      Also, “it’s impossible to dream up any scenario for the future that isn’t utterly implausible” could stand translation into Latin as a motto, I think…

      Of course all yer Star Trek antagonist-species are just a mirror of human beings, the old Suspiciously-Similar Alien trick…it’s to SF what the European coastline is to fantasy…so they really are already almost exactly the same, and they still fight anyhow, to the point where I feel a bit justified saying they fight because they’re the same…still: the SCALE of it really is ridiculous, as you and Poul so ably point out. Whatever skirmishes they’re all having would actually be insignificant in “geopolitical” terms, and anyway hardly anybody ever gets killed because in the whole history of this warfare that we’ve been given there are about maybe a dozen punches that even so much as land, right? And you have to think hardly anybody ever hears about them even if they do. “Report from Captain Kirk of the Enterprise just came in…apparently there was a bar fight somewhere out on the frontier last month, no injuries beyond a split lip though.” “Sigh…file it with the others I guess, that filing cabinet at the back of the closet will do…”

      On the other hand, how do you know ants couldn’t build a spaceship?

      • Also, as someone once pointed out (can’t remember the exact quote) that having the means of superliminal travel you necessarily have planet-busting technology. Replicator technology sounds like it’s that sort of power. So if he had one in his parents’ kitchen, a disgruntled teenager with hacking skillz could take out the whole planet. Even in Star Trek’s Shangri-La future, that’s going to have the authorities thinking about a ban. But then if every crappy merchantman vessel has warp, every crappy merchantman vessel can total a planet.

        I really think there’s a blog post (not that I write them anymore) in why Poul Anderson’s galaxy was such a great invention. Quite a few things wrong with him as a writer, but nobody portrayed vastness like he did.

        And ants obviously can’t build a spaceship because they couldn’t read the manual. The letters would be too big for their insect eyes to parse.

      • Superluminal travel also, in a painfully straightforward way, means time travel…so you don’t even need to blow up planets, you could just sort of stop them from happening

        Good point about the ants. They would need to develop some sort of Large Print Reading Machine before they could build a spaceship, of course! Perhaps by researching old people, who seem to read large print quite effortlessly…

  2. The thing for me about the replicators and the transporters and even the spaceships is, where do they get the raw ingredients? Gotta come from somewhere.

    There are several possibilities. One, the replicators and transporters need to start with carbon and hydrogen and various other elements, either elementally or bound up in whatever molecules are available, and they make their stuff out of that. But then this limits them quite sharply to whatever they had around in the first place. Which is especially a problem if you’re in a spaceship out in deep space. You’ve got almost a closed system there, which means that you’re going to end up eating your own reconstituted crap whether you like it or not. And building your friends out of it if they beam aboard.

    A little less problematic is if the food and people are created out of any kind of matter that gets broken down somehow and reformed. This widens your scope considerably; the Enterprise will still have to take meteors and stuff aboard every so often but it’s a much more solvable problem.

    But then you also have the problems of the spaceships and space stations and everything. Lots of metal goes into those things. Not as bad as a Death Star, of course; how many planets had to be dismantled (so to speak) to build that? But still a lot of metal. And I know there’s a lot of floating rock out there, but if you broke down the entire asteroid belt, how many spaceships would that get you?

    Or maybe everything’s sythesized from pure energy: put in e, take out c-squared, and you have some m that you can share with the boys in 10-Forward. Easier still, and much more portable, but is there really that much energy available? It’d make all the sense in the world for solar, or rather stellar, energy to be their main source, but if it is, I never heard about it. Is dilithium crystals still the standard? If so, it sounds like a model for single-point failure to me.

    I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t believe in this abundance. I imagine something like a Parkinson’s Law of resources: societal needs expand to fill the available resource supply. And, of course, the reason Star Trek never addressed any of this is because they wanted to set up their universe precisely so that they wouldn’t have to, which is kind of funny because a) they wouldn’t have had to anyway if they didn’t want to, and b) they didn’t really solve the problem they were trying to solve, the proof of which is this blogpost.

    • “And building your friends out of it if they beam aboard”. Indeed; they’ve got a little problem there, haven’t they? Whether to use the corn for eating or for running cars and trucks…

      It’s a disappointing thing about the TNG-era stuff, to me, that I do find myself questioning this stuff…like I said, I really do think it has to all be about the dilithium crystals if you want to figure out limits and causes and causes that can help you evade limits: I think somebody said the dilithium crystals still couldn’t be replicated? And within the structure they’ve created that ends up kind of strongly implying that there ought to be some reason that makes it so. Their antimatter supply isn’t easy to explain either, eh? With the best will in the world, you still have to make the stuff, and that can’t be absolutely trivial. One imagines that a starship travelling at (say) 125 times the speed of light would have little trouble figuring out how to turn itself into an exotic particle factory, but even in that case you’d have to get up to superluminal speeds first, get up into nonsense territory before you can do all your nonsense activities…and the TNG movie with Zefram Cochrane in it sure doesn’t present a world where the manufacture of antimatter can fall much below its current cost of…like a trillion dollars an ounce, I think I read somewhere? Even if you can think of something really cool to do with it once you get it. So…

      Yeah, definitely things that I never needed to think about with the original series! Anymore than I needed to think about why the Klingons were baddies.

  3. I feel like the replicators and holodecks are limited in what they can create to things they know about. Which is limited to what’s in the computer, which is in theory, limited to what people know. So you can tell it to build you a 5th dimensional duck gun, but unless you can tell it how to do so, it ain’t happening.

    I’d point to that TNG episode where the alien probe makes Barclay supersmart, and he wants a machine which will plug his brain into the ship’s computer (b/c it can’t handle whatever he’s done to the warp field). The holodeck says the device he wants doesn’t exist, but fortunately, he’s smart enough he can tell it how to make one. If he wasn’t, he (and the entire ship, presumably) would have been up the creek.

    As for why they fight, I might go with what Disintegrating Clone said about tribalism. As you noted, the two sides might be getting less different all the time, and they might eventually all be pals. The Klingons and the Federation get along a heck of a lot better in TNG than they did in the original Trek, right? But it’s gonna take time. If, as you noted it’s been less than 80 years since replicators were introduced, isn’t it also possible society is still reacting to that? People, be they Romulan, Federation, whatever, haven’t let go of the idea that stuff is scarce? Maybe it’s gonna take a few more generations (is that a pun? it’s not intended if it is).

    Though here’s something: Are replicators common in households, or just starships? It’s been awhile since I watched TNG, but I can’t recall a scene where someone is on a planet, be it Earth or the Klingon homeworld, and they use a replicator. Do all the spacefaring races regard it as some technology that can only be used in space, where ships can only carry so much? So scarcity might still be an issue amongst your average Joe planetside, and then we’d have to consider why they were limited to starships, and how all the powers had stopped some young entrepreneur from producing one for everybody’s kitchen. I guess it could be connected to the warp drive (Matthew’s idea about making things from raw energy), and then there’s trouble with creating a warp drive on a planet (or within it’s gravitational field.) They have to use impulse until they get farther away from worlds and stars, and they did that episode where heavy warp drive use was causing subspace fissures in an area of space, so the Federation passed warp drive speed limits. There must be some danger if everyone on a planet had a mini-warp drive powering their replicator. I don’t know if that answers anything, but it’s what I’ve got.

    • On the other hand, if the computer doesn’t know what a 5th-dimensional duck gun is, and you do, then you can probably get it to make you the parts for one! The business of “what it knows” must be pretty involved — just imagine someone making the safety protocols, having to list all the things you can get a replicator to make and then figure out how to tell it what not to make! You’d have to think of things like “don’t give anybody a glass of water at absolute zero”…

      But I covered that already, didn’t I.

      More interesting, maybe, is thinking about whether you’ve ever seen anyone use a household replicator…because even if you haven’t, it would be so easy to change. I was just talking about this a while ago with Nathan Adler, the idea that in the Marvel Universe the Living Tribunal is some sort of a multiversal singleton, unique and unrepresented in the divergent universes because he’s above them. But, the problem with this is that it can’t be true, can it? Because if Dr. Strange might have done different things, and the Living Tribunal interacted with Dr. Strange, then if Strange acted differently so would the Tribunal…which is all just a needlessly-convoluted way, really, of saying that anything that’s part of Marvel Comics’ publication record is subject to being made into a What If? one day. If it happened, it could’ve happened differently; and if it was published, then it “happened”. That’s the nature of comic-book cosmologies, that the bottom layer of reality is what gets printed…so, I was saying to Nate, until it gets printed it can’t be changed, so it’s safe that way…or if it would just be too dull to contemplate changing? “What If…Richard Rory Had Been Killed By The Mad Viking?” is probably — probably! — not a story anyone would bother to print, so probably — probably! — it’s a cosmologically-secure fact, drama determining destiny and all that. Although of course there is always BENDIS, so don’t get too complacent, Rory…!

      Anyway the point (such as it is) being that anything published is fair game for What If? treatment, simply because an important feature of causation in the Marvel Universe is that only editors can prevent writers from writing whatever they feel like writing…so you can’t control what they’ll do with what you give them, you can only control what they can do with what you don’t…except if you don’t give them Thing X then Thing X doesn’t exist already anyway, so they still might do whatever they feel like doing. And always, far more than just the thing about how changes in supercomics are never permanent, the true cyclical thing happening here is that there cannot be any lasting explanation of how things work in your universe, unless it’s an explanation that lacks the power to intrigue future writers…again, notwithstanding Bendis. Notwithstanding Bendis, only a cosmology that gives future writers no real cool ideas, can stand the test of time…can really be “in continuity”, and for Marvel particularly that’s a serious problem, because they dwell on Cosmic Explanations quite a bit. DC does a little better: for instance that the Phantom Stranger’s secret origin has already been destabilized (fans of Faction Paradox will jump immediately to the “conceptual entities” like the Shifts) means that he can’t easily be altered — where no explanations will stick, then none are necessary! Even Nate’s suggestion, not unlike Dave Fiore’s suggestion that if Jesus ascended bodily into the sky (and yet we can’t see him) then he is probably hiding behind the Sun like Counter-Earth, that the Phantom Stranger is…

      Oh, but I should ask him if he minds me giving it away…

      …Is a certain mysterious personage we already know of, but don’t know much of, is one that would probably fail to stick by being too perfect rather than not perfect enough. But anyway, anyway…the replicators, right. I like your explanation, but I don’t know if it could be trusted unless you could sort of put the bug in enough ST fans’ ears that it became common knowledge that “duh of course you can’t have replicators in people’s houses”, since the fear of looking silly would also probably constrain a writer from just writing whatever they wanted to?

      And yet…Bendis abides…the chaos in the heart of all things Narrative…

      But having said all that…it does make sense. You have this wacky technology to give you artificial versions of stuff out in space, where maybe you couldn’t use any of the cooler and cheaper and more elegant task-specific technological solutions you could use in a big and complex ecosystem where there are lots of natural processes to enlist. One certainly gets the impression that on TNG’s Earth nobody would be caught dead eating anything but the freshest organic produce, eh? Likewise “synthahol” is probably not a big thing on Earth? Where everyone probably only drinks the grandest and most flavourful natural stuff, always in moderation of course, but if you should make a mistake and overindulge then you wouldn’t need to go to the hospital and have them cleanse your system with a magic wand, which I am guessing is what they do instead of giving anybody anything so crude as a pill…so things aren’t going to get screwy until some young entrepreneur does put one in every kitchen, whereupon EXPLOSION EXPLOSION EXPLOSION that’s the end of the Federation, or the Klingon Empire, or whoever is unlucky enough to have the greatest number of “visionary” citizens…

      So, yeah: regulated access would stave off the transformative effects for a while, probably…


      • Hawkman may be as safe as the Phantom Stranger, in the sense that he is totally ruined for anything except showing up and being Hawkman

  4. I’d also assumed Next Generation wasn’t a post-scarcity society either because there aren’t that many replicators or because they still eat up a lot of resources. But Star Trek…they chuckle because we still used money in the 20th century but you apparently still get paid wages to be in Starfleet, so who can say?

    But even if we’ll assume that replicators are plentiful and efficient, it’s not that long that they’ve been in existence, apparently. Maybe society just hasn’t really adjusted yet? I mean, if the replicator came out tomorrow, what would it do to conservatism to be told that you no longer really need to conserve? Donald Trump’s probably not gonna be “Oh, sweet, I can FINALLY stop trying to make billions of dollars and just relax.” All that “Well, I WORK for a living…grumble…no handouts” stuff would probably take decades to work itself out, you know? Some people might even straight-up REFUSE to use them on political/moral grounds. Or any other reason, really: gourmets all “I can tell the difference between replicator steak and a real steak made out of a real dead cow,” audiophiles all “Replicator vinyl is inferior to actual vinyl.”

    But the border thing I think is crazy too (and it was one of the problems I had with the concept I came up with for the sci fi TV show meme however long ago that was with a division between the inner and outer solar system). Keeps the show packed with “border dispute” plots, though, I guess. Pitch for an absurdist spinoff: Star Trek: Four-Dimensional Border Patrol. “So wait, where IS the Federation-Klingon border?” “I dunno…there-ish? You are POSSIBLY violating a treaty in trespassing here? Look, just turn back around and we’ll both save ourselves a headache.”

    • Ah, that was such a nice one, that checkpoint thing! An SF comedy with a great ensemble cast, that’s what we need…!

      You’ve got to figure that Neutral Zone does a lot of moving around, since there’s no way to mark empty space…it must be that you take bearings from stars and then plot a border between them, but that would totally mean the border not only is in motion but is going to continue to be in motion, and in the 25th Century you’re either going to have bunches of people have to move off a planet they grew up on (heyy…there was a TNG episode about that, now that I think of it!), or you’re going to have “grandfathered” human settlements in Romulan space or something. Hmm, to a degree this sort of thing is pretty involved in DS9 too, I guess! Anyway, this would be something everyone would’ve known all about back when they signed whatever treaty it was that established the Neutral Zone, obviously, and therefore something planned-for and negotiated over. You have to think that Earth is never going to be eaten up by the shift of the Neutral Zone, and neither is Romulus, so presumably that forms the main constraint on where the damn thing can go, and the main basis for negotiation over that “where”…if someone’s trading less space now, for more space later, or if someone trading more space now, for less later, but they’re planning to make the territory pretty useless for the other guy when he finally gets his hands on it. Well, shit, if the Federation and the Romulans have a treaty then they have diplomatic relations, and maybe a large part of those involve Federation ambassadors going into Romulan space to look at planets that will be Federation property in a hundred years or so, that the Romulans have promised not to mess up, to see if they’re messing them up? You could imagine stuff like “if at the time of the treaty this planet’s economy is agricultural, you can’t just start mining the shit out of it if you find there are dilithium deposits there you didn’t know about until after the treaty was signed…

      There’s an SF series in that, I think! Perhaps not as good as my “Leonard McCoy: SPACE QUINCY” idea, but…

      Waitaminute, did my Dad’s spellcheck just pass QUINCY…?



      Wow, that’s weird.




      Starsky and Hutch.

      No, it doesn’t like any of those…



      I’m afraid to try plain old “quince”…quince…quince…

      Pardon me, I think that blood sugar thing must be acting up again…

  5. Decided to do this one in “Reply” mode, since you all have so much to say I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep track of it all otherwise…and still not done! But need to think about resuming my many travels, so there may be a delay of an hour or two before I finish my first responses…also my blood sugar is doing funny things and I’m not sure I’m making all the sense I probably should…

    More shortly!

  6. Pingback: Flashback! To “Star Trek: Into Darkness…!” | A Trout In The Milk·

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