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Old April 21 2010, 08:22 PM   #1
Gaith
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Trek, humanism and transhumanism

There was a fascinating article on io9 a while ago about sci-fi and humanism vs. transhumanism, which discussed Trek in some detail. What is this dichotomy, you ask? Well, the article fleshes it out as it goes along rather than presenting a definitive opinion up front, but this gets the gist across:

But is science fiction really humanist? Much of science fiction turns out to be about exploring our vast cosmos, and expanding our being. From this quest, one of two outcomes often arises: 1) We meet something greater than ourselves. 2) We become something greater than our current selves. It's rare, and becoming rarer, to find science fiction that rejects both mysticism and posthumanism. You could even argue that if the journey doesn't change us somehow, then what's the point?
And if the journey does change us radically, are we still the mere humans that humanism purports to celebrate?
Obviously, the author is starting from a position that humanism is the highest mindset, above theism and transhumanism, so if you're religious, you may find yourself at odds with the whole text.

Anyway, here's the bulk of the discussion of Trek:

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was an avowed humanist, who joined the American Humanist Association in 1986 and told Humanist Magazine in 1991 that the philosophy was the logical culmination of all his studies. (He also talks about fighting to keep a Chaplain off the Enterprise, and to keep Spock from having a Christian funeral in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) In fact, the rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek can be seen as a clash between mysticism and humanism.

Roddenberry also said, in the 1991 interview, "We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we've done already, we'll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into." This is a theme that the original Trek pushes quite hard, as various all-powerful entities harangue Captain Kirk about the youthfulness of the human race and our amazing potential to evolve.

In fact, if you think about that spectrum of humanism, with gods at one end and cyborgs at the other, you can see a progression across the entire Star Trek saga. The original series is very much about rejecting barbarism — the Enterprise crew is constantly meeting godlike beings, including the Greek god Apollo, and Captain Kirk always makes a huge speech about how far humanity has progressed, and the fact that humans don't need to worship a tribal god any more. (There are evil computers, too, but they mostly take the same role as gods, and often even pretend to be gods.)

But as Starfleet's technology progresses and becomes more miraculous, the concern shifts. The first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is very much a re-run of the original series' "meeting godlike entities" episodes. But the most memorable adversary the TNG crew meets is the Borg, who represent the opposite extreme — they've abandoned barbarism to such a great extent, they've lost their individuality and personhood.

It seems almost inevitable that the human race will wind up becoming like the Borg — but we fight to be able to do it on our own terms. In the very first Borg story, Guinan even tells Picard that eventually, the human race will be able to deal with the Borg (because our technology will have advanced.) For now — for right now — the Borg only see humanity as raw materials, but eventually, Guinan says the Borg might see us as equals. (Which does imply, on some level, that we will be like them.) Meanwhile, another frequent theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation is Data's search for his humanity.

By the time Star Trek: Voyager ends, the journey to becoming Borg-like has progressed to the point that the crew has an ex-Borg member, and the ship is enhanced with Borg technology. Janeway and Tuvok have been assimilated at least once, and thanks to a visit from Janeway's future self, their technology is now more magic than ever. The embattled starship Voyager only survives its journey through the Delta Quadrant by becoming more Borg-like than any Starfleet ship we've ever seen.

You get the sense that Star Trek can't go much further into its own future than that, because the Federation's technology will become so advanced, we'll no longer recognize its characters as being like ourselves. A kind of Star Trek Singularity is on the horizon, after which storytelling will be impossible. (And indeed, ever since Voyager ended, Star Trek has been all about its own past.)
The article goes on, though not about Trek, and though it starts from a clearly defined humanist perspective, it ends with questions, not a conclusion.

But the implicit Trek-related question it poses is a fascinating one: is there indeed a point at which Trek's in-universe technology necessarily abuses the franchise's whole thematic/Roddenberry-ian/humanist foundation? And if so, and the post-"Endgame" continuation of the franchise does indeed start to harm that principle, is it still worth continuing the series?

For my own part, I'm inclined to think that if the answer to the first question ever becomes a "yes" (and the article gives a compelling argument for that having happened already), than the second question should get the same response. In the meantime, especially with JJ's alt-canon, sticking to the pre-"Endgame" era strikes me as the most reasonable course of action.
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Old April 22 2010, 12:35 AM   #2
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Well, take DS9, for example. The writers on that series were willing to play the devil's advocate (if you can forgive the use of the term in a discussion about humanism) and question whether humanity was really as evolved, socially speaking, as it thought. But that's a theme that we saw develop even before DS9, in TNG episodes made after Roddenberry's death.

Roddenberry's explicit progressive vision, as we saw it in TMP and early TNG, was to present humanity as a species that had overcome its flaws and become 'practically perfect in every way.' The result of this was that none of the conflicts that made Star Trek viable as a compelling story could come from within or between humans. Rather, they had to be threats from the outside. It's anyone's guess whether this element was phased out after Roddenberry's death more because it was inconvenient from a storytelling perspective, or because it was simply unbelievable.

Looking at history, we see a recurring pattern of people trying to create utopias and leaving nightmares in their wakes. I think that if Star Trek is reduced to nothing more than utopian humanistic quasi-propaganda, it certainly loses some of its relevance. For better or worse, Star Trek is most compelling not when it's predicting what humans could be, but when it's showing us intriguing reflections of what we are.
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Old April 22 2010, 02:56 AM   #3
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Roddenberry was channelling Clarke (Childhood's End) and Sturgeon (stories and novels to numerous to mention) re. our being at one point in our evolution, not the endpoint.

The more I learn about neuroscience and human enhancement, the more the idea of corporeal humans going out in ships seems so unlikely. We're right on the verge of a paradigm shift in what it is to be human. Visual images are nearly transmittable brain to brain. Linking thoughts/consciousness is a big next step, but coming.

Roddenbery, in "The Last Conversation" by Fern, talks of his wondering about us becoming a social organism, a new whole with emergent properties. (We might even be there and not know it, just as my neurons aren't aware that a larger thing called my brain has consciousness.) He didn't think the Borg was necessarily a bad thing, but they had to be made scary for t.v. I highly recommend it; I found a copy by accident in my library's used book sale room!

GREAT post, by the way -- I tried to get something going like this before, examining GR's sci-fi influences, since he was definitely channelling some mid-20th c. zeitgeist. He reminds me kind of Henry Ford, who took others' ideas, put 'em together at the right time and place.

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Old April 22 2010, 03:09 AM   #4
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Yes, great thread. My first reaction is that I don't think the humanist element negates, or stagnates, the "hero's journey". Humanity seeks to find better ways. When we aspire to better ourselves we tap into a deep energy within. The Borg were more about assimilation and subjugation. Efficiency. The humanist journey is an organic process.
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Old April 22 2010, 06:07 AM   #5
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

The thing about Star Trek is that it is not just humanist, but vehemently anti-transhumanist. Other than the major exception of Data, who nonetheless has been made to accept humanity (or organic beinghood) as the highest value and best goal, and hence rendered harmless, virtually every transhumanist aspect of Trek has been antagonistic to "our heroes" (V'Ger) or openly and unsubtly villainous (the Borg, Khan).

Trek features a society that has outlawed enhancement genetic engineering, to the point that it punishes people who did not consent to it by barring them from state service and prestigous jobs, and in some cases (and we do not really know how due the process was that the Jack Pack got) locking them in mental institutions. It's also important to remember that the United Earth government managed to kill every last one of the Augments, except the ones who made it to space--where the Federation finished the job.

The Federation is a society that mistrusts Borg- or Matrix-like mental internetting to the point that, despite clearly having the technology to make it happen, rejects it almost to a man (Bynars excepted). They go to the insane lengths of building, maintaining and powering holodecks instead of advancing the actual virtual reality technology they have.

These folks misunderstand personhood so badly that at least one hundred years after their first encounters with sapient robotic life (M-5, V'Ger, so forth) and non-carbon life (Horta, Excalbians, Tholians) there are still people, important people within the apparatus of the state, who treat Data like a tool and have to be told that this guy is alive and a person. "Measure of a Man" is a good episode and all, with the minor proviso that the premise requires the Federation to be extremely stagnant and maybe a little retarded.

The problem ultimately comes the (bear with me here) quasi-Marxist dogma that the Roddenberry ideal incorporates. No, it has nothing to do with communism, but the notion that humans can be perfected without changing human nature, and the quasi-Abrahamic notion that human nature is sacred, and that anything that changes human nature is a perversion to be opposed at any turn.

The problem is that the first notion has been experimentally tested throughout the past century and found wanting; and the second is at best cognitively dissonant in an ethos that rejects any divine hand in the creation of humanity, and at worst just irrational and based on an obviously wrong premise. It's weird because Trek society winds up aligned with some very conservative elements of our own--anti-cloning, anti-genetic engineering, anti-automation. Of course, you know who else rejected genetics? Stalin.

And how TOS and TNG's elevation of blind humanism relates to the existence of fucking aliens who are obviously superior in some or most regards to humans and inferior in few if any (Vulcans, Betazoids, Deltans), I have not a clue. I mean, if Augments are evil because they can throw a punch pretty hard and are kinda smart, how about the billions of super-strong telepathic computer-people you formed a government with?
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Old April 22 2010, 10:27 AM   #6
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

The thing about GR is he managed to do all this without being regarded as arrogant and without winding people up. He managed to convince people it would happen. OK, some people said, well, that's Star Trek, it's not the real world, but ST was regarded as a sort of idealised projection.

TOS humans werre not as bold and adventurous as 20thC people and TNG humans were a bit tame, but, still, they were human.
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Old April 22 2010, 11:47 AM   #7
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

You make good points, Myasischev.
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Old April 22 2010, 12:30 PM   #8
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Perhaps they think that humans will only progress slowly.

The Q did say that humanity would eventually overtake the Q. The Metrons said that humans would be interesting one day. Kirk said that we might progress to the level of the Organians.

ST has to say things like that, in order to keep people on board. I'd be interested to know if there are any examples of creatures on our earth that have evolved, but been attacked or destroyed by other members of their species and ended up being a dead end, evolutionarily.

I know there are some organisms that haven't changed in hundreds of thousands of years, some millions.
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Old April 22 2010, 03:15 PM   #9
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Cheapjack wrote: View Post
I'd be interested to know if there are any examples of creatures on our earth that have evolved, but been attacked or destroyed by other members of their species and ended up being a dead end, evolutionarily.
Yes. They are called Trekkies.

ba da bing

But seriously, GR did have HIS humans evolve by TNG -- they're all nice and non-argumentative among the crew supposedly. Wasn't that one of his edicts?

And there's that intro or first chapter to his TMP novel about how Starfleeters are throwbacks to an earlier stage.

Unrelated: I'm inchoately remembering a number of post-corporeal beings in Trek. Are those transhuman or no, since they started out as a different species (Organians, Trelayne's parents/Q, Charlie X guardians, etc.)?

I highly recommend Naam's book, "More Than Human" btw.
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Old April 22 2010, 06:40 PM   #10
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Cheapjack wrote: View Post
Perhaps they think that humans will only progress slowly.

The Q did say that humanity would eventually overtake the Q. The Metrons said that humans would be interesting one day. Kirk said that we might progress to the level of the Organians.

ST has to say things like that, in order to keep people on board. I'd be interested to know if there are any examples of creatures on our earth that have evolved, but been attacked or destroyed by other members of their species and ended up being a dead end, evolutionarily.
Depends on which model of the extinction of homo sapiens neanderthalis you subscribe to.
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Old April 23 2010, 08:47 AM   #11
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Actually, this forum is an example of what we might evolve to. It's a bit non-corporeal. It's a bit of a dimension of thought, of discussion, of evolution. Well, it's electrons wizzing through wires and photons and plastic, but it's a bit like that. It's more evolved than reading the paper and writing a letter to it?
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Old August 14 2014, 06:10 AM   #12
Tim Walker
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

I imagine that in the aftermath of the Dominion War, many people would be patched together with surgically implanted prothesis. A large...class?...of cyborgs!
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Old August 14 2014, 06:42 AM   #13
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

That might create lumbering zombies coming back from the dead and hungry for braaaiiinnnz. Kind of like this thread.
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Old August 14 2014, 03:12 PM   #14
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Re: Trek, humanism and transhumanism

Tim Walker wrote: View Post
I imagine that in the aftermath of the Dominion War, many people would be patched together with surgically implanted prothesis. A large...class?...of cyborgs!
Good point, but it should, perhaps, appear in it's own thread rather than resurrecting one that has gone four years without activity.

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