Technology in the Star Trek Universe (updated!)

I’ve wanted to do a post like this for awhile, ever since my conceptual post on Galactic Empires in fact. After doing my research on what distinguished one from the other, I noticed just how central technology, or the perception thereof, is to it all.

And let’s face it, Star Trek has had a lot to say about technology over the years, not all of it consistent! So with a series of examples, I thought I’d examine just what Gene Roddenberry and his successors have had to say.

Cloaking Device:
First developed by the Romulan Empire, the concept for an invisibility field that encompasses an entire ship has been picked up by just about every advanced race in the galaxy. Considered impractical by many because of the intense power drain, other races have found ways to adapt it to give their ships a decided edge in combat.

One such race are the Klingons whose vessels all come equipped with a cloak. The Romulans maintain use of this technology on their military vessels, particularly their warbirds, and even the Federation has been known to dabble in it from time to time. Another discernible weakness is the presence of tachyons and anti-protons that cloaked vessels are known to produce.

Holodecks:
The holodeck is an advanced holoprojector device that was designed by Starfleet for use aboard starships, stations, and institutions. It serves the purpose of entertaining, training and training purposes. Using focused photons to simulate matter, the holodeck is able to create physically real virtual environments out of pure energy.

Because of their potential for danger, all holodecks come equipped with built-in safeguards. Matter created aboard the holodeck ceases to exist as soon as it passes beyond its generators, and the technology has been adapted to creating AI’s such as the ship’s emergency doctor program.

Hypospray:
This non-invasive piece of medical technology is the mainstay of Starfleet medical. Using a compressed air transport mechanism, this device is able to transfer the injectant painlessly from the device into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery.

In the original series, hyposprays resembled hypodermic needles, but by the time of the 24th century (the TNG series) they had become much more sophisticated, resembling the unit pictured at top left.

Phasers:
Short for phased-energy laser, phasers are the most common energy weapon in Starfleet and the known universe. Beginning in the 23rd century, the technology was adapted for use as hand-held weapons, military rifles, and as the primary weapons banks on ships.

The 24th century saw further developments in the development of this weapon, which included mutli-segment phaser arrays,  and phaser cannons. The former made their first appearance in TNG on the USS Enterprise D and other updated ships while the latter appeared for the first time on USS Defiant.

Replicators:
Using the same technology as the holodeck, a replicator is a matter-energy device that is capable of dematerializing quantities of small matter and reconstituting it as something else. This can take the form of food, commercial products, or machine parts. In short, anything can come out of a replicator so long as it has the atomic matrix down, and isn’t illegal!

Prior to TNG, Starfleet ships used food synthesizers, but by the 24th century, the technology had been perfected and made standard on all starships, stations, outposts and settlements. Because of their sheer usefulness and versatility, every advanced race has adapted the technology for their own use.

Shields:
Also known as Deflector Shields or Screens, these devices are the mainstay of all advanced races in the Star Trek universe. Operating by creating a layer, or layers, of energetic distortion containing a high concentration of gravitons, they are able to provide protection against weapons fire and natural hazards.

Typically, shields are emitted from either a central emitter dish or a series that are dispersed over the hull. They usually come in six sections, covering the fore, aft, port, starboard, dorsal and ventral areas of the ship. In time, shields can be dissipated by either continuous or repeated energy discharges, leaving the ship vulnerable.

Transporters:
Utilizing subspace technology and the same matter-to-energy concept as a holodeck, the transport is the principle means of transportation to and from ships in the Star Trek universe. Often referred to as “beaming”, transporters are able to dematerialize, transmit and reassemble an object from one pad to another.

Making its debut in the original series, the technology has been updated in the TNG universe and its various spinoffs to allow for greater accuracy and safety through the addition of added redundancies. This increased accuracy allows for point-to-point transport, usually within smaller areas like the ship itself.

Tricorders:
A handheld sensing device, the tricorder was invented by Starfleet specifically for use by Starfleet personnel. However, since their inception in the 22nd century, they’ve gone through repeated upgrades, adaptations and have been adopted by just about every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant.

As it stands, there are six varieties of tricorder in use within Starfleet alone. These include the psychotricorder which measures a patients brainwaves, a medical tricorder which diagnoses ailments and injury, and four models (VI,VII, X and XV) all of which are in service in one branch of Starfleet or another.

Warp Drive:
In the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is both the primary means of transport and the pinnacle of a race’s technology. In fact, Starfleet only makes contact with a new alien race once they’ve developed this technology, as it’s felt that it is only at this point in a species’ development that they will be advanced enough to experience first contact.

First developed by the human race in the late 21st century, warp technology was what precipitated First Contact with the Vulcans. Utilizing a matter/antimatter process and a dilithium chamber, a warp drive generates a “warp field” to envelope a starship. This has the effect of distorting the local spacetime continuum and moving the starship at velocities that exceeded the speed of light.

Every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant has this technology, though some are able to achieve greater velocities (known as warp factors) than others. In the course of the old series and new, new and more advanced forms of FTL are being researched which may replace standard warp. These include transwarp, quantum slipstream, and a host of others.

Conclusions:
Technology as Utopian:
For the most, part Star Trek seems to be making the point that technology is a good thing. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or the many spinoffs to follow, it seemed that humanity owed much of its current condition to technological progress. Though they never explained how, at many points in the franchise it is said that Earth is now a paradise, bereft of crime, bigotry, hunger, and inequality. Just about all known diseases have been cured, and even money has become obsolete.

Yes, it seems that in the future, the focus of the economy has shifted to one of “self-improvement”… Might seem a bit hokey on the surface, but as I said in the Galactic Empires post, it’s really not that farfetched. Although its still pure fiction, the advent of something like warp drive, which would make space travel quick and affordable, commerce and transport between colony worlds would be open. This would mean abundant resources that went far beyond Earth and the Solar System, and we already know just how rich our system is in resources (see Asteroid Mining).

But more importantly is the development of replicator technology, which comes in the form of personal and industrial sized units. The former are used to produce everything from food and clothing to consumer products while the latter can create just about anything in bulk quantity. If this were possible, then all scarcity and deprivation would cease to exist. What’s more, the entire basis of an unequal distribution of wealth would disappear. Frankly, it puts me in mind of what Orwell said in 1984:

From the moment that the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.

By the “machine”, Orwell was of course referring to industrial technology and the economy it spawned. However, his overall point was clear. Modern technology, dedicated to the write purpose, had the ability to significantly raise the fortunes of all people. And let’s not forget how in the Star Trek universe, hyposprays and various medical devices can solve just about all that ails you! Break a bone, you get the bone knitter! Tear your ACL, you get the… ligament bonder. I don’t know, all I do know is that pain is virtually obsolete in this universe and its because of progress.

So really, Roddenberry wasn’t far off when he envisioned a “perfect society” in the future. It was just in how he failed to explain how this could done that things seemed a little weak. But of course, there was a flip side to the whole thing.

Technology as Dystopian:
But of course, there were plenty of examples of technology gone wrong. The examples are a little too many to name, so I’ll keep it to just a few. The first comes from the first season when the Enterprise D comes to a planet of Aldea. There, a group of advanced humanoid aliens live in relative peace and prosperity, except that they are sterile and therefore dying off. Hence why they start kidnapping the Enterprise’s children!

Eventually, the Enterprise crew determines that the source of their problem is the great machine that runs their planet, otherwise known as “Custodian”. Because they’ve forgotten how to use the machine, the Aldeans have been unaware of the fact that it’s long since broken down and has been letting harmful radiation in. They assist them in fixing it, and the lesson about letting technology run your life has landed!

The second example comes from the regrettable movie Insurrection, where the Enterprise E comes to an idyllic planet inhabited by the Bak’u. Here, people live in virtually perfect harmony with the planet by denying themselves certain technology, opting instead for the simple life. Their philosophy is simple: “when you create a machine to do the job of  man, you take something away from the man”.

All of this seems inconsistent with the usual message of Star Trek, and even the movie itself. Far from being purely primitive, the Bak’u employ all kinds of labor saving technology, which includes irrigation and dams. So really, are they really so opposed to technology or just specific technologies? Nevertheless, the metaphor is clear. Combined with the fact that this place has youth-preserving powers, the metaphor of this place is pretty obvious. It is the fountain of youth, garden of Eden, and the evil Son’a who are advanced and creepy want to destroy it. Not their best movie!

But the last and best example comes in the form of The Borg. A race of cybernetic beings who have merged the organic and synthetic, run by a hive mind that quashes all individuality, and threatening to assimilate all in their path, the metaphor is so thick you need a knife to cut through it. They are the ruthless march of progress personified!

And just look at them and their ships, are they not the perfect representation of cold, unfeeling technology? Sure they are! And the way people change once they’ve been assimilated, becoming soulless automatons and losing all color and individuality. Tell me that’s not a perfect visual representation of the death of the human spirit under the weight of urbanization and anonymity.

Some might call this inconsistent, but it seemed more likely like Roddenberry and his writers were simply hedging their bets. On the one hand, he was showing how human potential could one day yield the perfect society, or at least one that was free of all the problems we know and lament today. On the other, they must have wanted to show the obvious downside and dangers at worshiping at the altar of progress. After all, if you put an ideal, any ideal, ahead of humanity and life, all you get is dystopia!

And as always, other races in the Star Trek universe serve as a mirror for the human condition, or rather different aspects of it. If the human race has got it right, then others must not have achieved that careful balance of humanity and progress just yet. Whereas some prefer to be Luddites and live in an agrarian Eden, others have become runaway cyborgs who assimilate all in their path. It’s all about balance people!

Well, that was kind of fun! And it combined two of my favorite things in the world. Sci-fi and literary criticism. Perhaps I should do more of these. As always, suggestion on which franchise should be covered would be great. I can think of a few off the top of my head – such as the Star Wars universe, Dune, Aliens, Terminator, and possibly Battletech – but I would like to hear from others too. There’s always those added few that would be perfect but I fail to think of. Thanks all!

10 thoughts on “Technology in the Star Trek Universe (updated!)

  1. I’m not sure those are two different things though. The main message of ST seems to be along the lines of, “If technology harms you, yer doing it wrong.’

    Both the Borg and the Bak’u are species that are doing it wrong. Whereas humans are muddling along in the right direction at least. But then, the thing that makes ST so enduring is its unshakable optimism. No matter how it seems now the future will be good. I don’t buy that, but it makes for damn fine entertainment.

  2. I liked this quite a bit. I was never much of a Star Trek fan, always enjoyed The Next Generation as a kid and the movies (when I would catch them); but never got into the earlier or later stuff much. However, this weekend is the big Philly Comic Con and they’ve managed to wrangle all five Captains in the same place, which I am pretty excited for.

      1. awwww you never read those books? Anne McCaffrey is a master. WAS a master as she passed away earlier this year.

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