Is it for better or worse that Star Trek has (mostly) avoided transhumanism?

Discussion in 'General Trek Discussion' started by eschaton, Sep 9, 2019.

  1. eschaton

    eschaton Commodore Commodore

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    One of the elements of Star Trek that was there from the beginning was that humanity - although technologically and culturally more advanced - remained essentially identical to today on a fundamental level. As time has gone on, this central conception of Trek has seemed more and more...well...quaint, given conceptions in written science fiction, and even some real world technological advances, increasingly suggest much more of a transhuman/posthuman future, where what it means to be "human" is far murkier.

    A couple of examples:
    1. In the Star Trek universe, it is basically canonical that humans mostly avoid genetic modification due to the bad precedent of the Eugenics Wars. By the time of the 24th Century, this seems to have weakened to some degree, with some genetic disorders apparently being cured through gene therapy, but the use is extremely limited. More surprisingly, other races - even ones who one would presume would have little in the way of taboos, like the Romulans and Cardassians - also don't seem to genetically modify their populace. Given the first steps in terms of gene therapy have already been approved by the FDA, and CRISPR-edited zygotes have come to term in China, the lack of engagement with this seems strange.
    2. While human lifespans increased steadily during the Trek timeline (from about 100 years in Enterprise to about 120 by the 24th century) no "cure" for the aging process has been discovered in the Federation. While we don't know if such a cure is possible, the first anti-aging drug arguably already exists.
    3. Another area where Trek seems quaint these days is how limited computers - and artificial intelligence in general - is. There are of course examples of self-aware machine intelligence, like Data and the Doctor. But they are fundamentally not shown as being superior in any way to humanity in terms of capabilities. This seems pretty unlikely, given Moore's Law suggests that once computers actually reach parity with human cognition they will rapidly exceed human ability by orders of magnitude, potentially resulting in an "AI god" type phenomena. Even setting this aside, due to the historic limitations of Trek computers going all the way back to TOS, they seem "dumb" even for lacking self-awareness. For example. the computer should be able to chart a path through an asteroid field much better than a human could ever do, due to the ability to think faster than a human and consider data outside of a human's field of vision.
    4. Another common scenario considered in science fiction regarding a transhuman future is "mind uploading" as a way to cheat death. Trek did actually touch on this a little bit, in the TNG episodes The Schizoid Man and Inheritance. However, as is typically the case in Star Trek, tech is treated as some one-off thing which is never really discussed again.
    Related to this, as I've noted in the past, is that not only is there no real sense of forward motion in humans, there's also none in any other races. Basically there are only three kinds of aliens in Star Trek: Pre-warp primitives, functional equals, and godlike energy beings. We have never really met alien races who have had technology for tens of thousands to millions of years, who have technological abilities which seem to be similar to magic for us.

    Now, there are two ways to consider Trek's avoidance of transhumanism.

    On the plus side, one can argue that since Trek is meant to be popular TV (not high-minded hard science-fiction) it has to have relatable characters. This means that we need to have the protagonists rooted in a world we can comprehend without much infodump exposition. Understanding the motivations that drive a human who has no fear of dying - for example, may simply be beyond the casual viewing audience.

    On the other hand, there is an argument that all good science fiction engages with the issues of the day. Today there is a lot more apprehension about what the future holds in terms of AI and genetic augmentation than there was in decades in the past. Hence largely avoiding these areas means that Trek is not engaging as fully with the zeitgeist of the times as possible.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2019
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  2. Tenacity

    Tenacity Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    The novelization of TMP had a communications implant in Kirk's head.
     
  3. Damian

    Damian Commodore Commodore

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    One of the things I like about Star Trek novels is they do in fact go deeper into some of the issues you mentioned. For instance the Control AI for Section 31 featured in the novels. The shows sometimes can be slow to catch up but I think they do a pretty good job of addressing some of the things you bring up at some point. But you also have to look at the past shows as the product of their times and what issues were prevalent when they were aired.

    Re: your first point, I never got the impression gene therapy was outlawed, but genetic enhancements and of course eugenics. Now we recently had a pretty lively debate about genetic enhancements and the ethics involved in the Discovery novelverse thread. But yes, it might seem a bit odd that in the 24th century it is still illegal. Various writers have written stories to try to explain why that might be (the Augment episodes of Enterprise and the later Klingon attempts to use the technology leading to their, um, forehead noncomformity are two examples where they try to offer an explanation, however imperfect).

    On the second point they did touch on the issue of aging from time to time. "Miri" for instance came about because the population was experimenting with life prolongation experiments. Insurrection was an attempt to harness fountain of youth properties from radiation. And there were some other examples, using android bodies for immortality came up here and there. I think we see life spans increase over the centuries partly I would say due to better medical care in the future and cures for illnesses that are deadly today.

    I think Star Trek has touched on AI a number of times--though granted usually in the negative "The Return of the Archons" "The Apple" "The Ultimate Computer" "Spock's Brain" are examples from the original series. You cited some others. And sometimes episodes have explained why having a live person at the helm might be preferable. In TNG's "Booby Trap" for instance it was noted their track through the debris field could be handled by the computer with 50/50 odds for survival. But what Geordi noted to forget the odds. The computer can't anticipate--or a better word I would think is play a hunch. Picard uses a maneuver that the computer may not try, using the gravity of a large asteroid to slingshot around. Now you can argue whether the computer may or may not try something like that. But computers generally don't play hunches. Humans sometimes just have a feeling, may play the odds.

    I think at it's core Star Trek is human-centric because that's the way Roddenberry created it. He wanted a smart sci-fi show, but he also wanted to make it an allegory, or even critique of humanity. It wasn't always perfect. But ultimately I think it was more important to Roddenberry to have a show about humanity and our relationships to one another, and to show a humanity that has grown as far as those relationships go. So sometimes the technology took a back seat to that. That might be partly why humanity appears much the same way as today. Though I would argue humanity in Star Trek made advances in other ways---for instance poverty, hunger, and war have all been eliminated on Earth. That's more social advances but humans of the 22nd-24th centuries are not the same as today in that respect.

    Partly it's probably canon related now. For instance, we know genetic engineering (at least on the enhancement front) is still illegal in the Federation into the 24th century. So current shows are somewhat limited by that (though I suppose the Picard show could probably explore it since it's a later show). But even there we learn the Denobulans in Enterprise use genetic engineering that is taboo on Earth (though I'm not clear if that includes enhancements or is it just more traditional gene therapy to cure illnesses and defects).
     
  4. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    It's a missed opportunity. Early TNG was clearly setting the stage for more exploration of transhumanism -- Geordi and Picard both had bionic implants, Picard was a decade older than his portrayer (suggesting increased longevity), and there was perfectly legal human genetic engineering experimentation going on in "Unnatural Selection." But there was a ton of producer turnover in TNG's first few seasons, and many of the intentions of the original creators were not picked up on by their successors. So the attempts at transhumanism faded, and Picard and Geordi ended up being the only non-evil cyborgs in the franchise. And then DS9 even retconned in the stupid Luddite idea of an actual law against human genetic engineering.

    All in all, the franchise ended up defining "human" far too narrowly. Not just where human augmentation or gene modification was concerned, but where Data was concerned as well. The idea that he was somehow "less than human" because he didn't behave like a neurotypical human is really quite offensive in retrospect, now that we've developed somewhat more understanding and acceptance of autism and neurodivergent behaviors.

    Fortunately, Discovery has been taking things back in the other direction again, giving us cyborg human characters like Detmer and Airiam, and a genetically augmented character in Stamets. They're tricky to reconcile with the primitivism of TOS's ability to rebuild human bodies (see Captain Pike), but naturally they're a more sophisticated, plausible, and preferable approach to futurism than what we were given 50-odd years ago. Similarly, DSC has moved beyond the previous shows' narrow definition of human behavior somewhat by giving us a lead character who's human but was raised within Vulcan culture and isn't judged for not acting "human enough."
     
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  5. eschaton

    eschaton Commodore Commodore

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    My sincere hope is that Discovery touches upon this in the third season, as traveling nearly 1,000 years into the future, it would be crazy if we found mankind basically unchanged. My ideal setting - not that I think they will do it - would be a "Left Behind" Trek, where much of the Federation ascended into energy beings/godhood a few centuries back, leaving various relic populations of post-human (androids, holograms, uploaded minds, etc) in isolated places (all of which self-identify as being "human), and a bunch of inexplicable "magic-tech" left behind.

    I am worried, however, they're going to eschew this and just show the future as pretty similar to Trek's "present" - likely due to some sort of "Dark Age."
     
  6. Damian

    Damian Commodore Commodore

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    Another issue with AI doing all the things you noted is it would fundamentally change the premise of the show. That is humans exploring the galaxy. If AI could run ships and explore there wouldn't be much need for a human crew. So in some ways the AI always had to be subservient to the people running the ship. But I do think AI was explored a number of times. Another good example was the exocoms that were featured in the episode of TNG with the particle fountain (I can't remember the name of the episode off hand). They became sentient AI.

    Could it have been explored more? Sure. I think it probably will. But I think that goes back to being a product of their times. We are much more aware of AI now then we even were in the 90's (outside of dystopian visions of AI like Skynet in The Terminator). So I would expect to see more of that in the future.
     
  7. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    As eschaton said, a lot of SF these days features post-human AI characters that identify as human, because they're what humans evolve into upon giving up mortal flesh -- sort of the equivalent of the hoary old "evolve into incorporeal beings" trope, but instead of some magical "ascension," it's uploading into a computer network, like how Ira Graves uploaded his mind into Data's brain. These digital beings can exist in cyberspace or download themselves into temporary bodies, which can be cloned human bodies, androids, or whatever form is most useful in a given environment. (My own Analog story "Abductive Reasoning" features an alien whose mind is encoded on a computer chip which travels through space in a tiny, wafer-size sublight spacecraft but can use nanotech to 3D-print an organic body around her brain-chip when she lands on a planet.)
     
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  8. Nightdiamond

    Nightdiamond Commodore Commodore

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    They did do a weird episode in early TNG where some scientists set up a special lab to create genetically engineered children from scratch. It didn't seem like they were just trying to cure diseases and repair human problems, they were going for eugenics-style perfection.

    What made it so weird was how it blatantly ignored the ban on genetic engineering (I know that the ban may have been a retcon from DS9) and how the lab people implied they were trying to create a genetically engineered race of people, rather than improve the human race as is.
     
  9. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    They weren't "ignoring" a damn thing, because the "ban" wouldn't be invented for another 8 years. You can't ignore something that doesn't exist yet. It was "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" that ignored "Unnatural Selection," not the other way around.

    And I wouldn't call it a retcon, not in the strict sense. "Retcon" is short for "retroactive continuity," so it's meant to maintain continuity with what came before -- the old facts are still valid but they're reinterpreted or added to. For instance, "The Prophets engineered Ben Sisko's birth" is a retcon, or "T'Pau used to be a Vulcan resistance leader" is a retcon. Something that actually contradicts what came before isn't a retcon because it doesn't maintain continuity, it breaks it. I'd call it a continuity alteration. (Altcon? -- No. Just no.)
     
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  10. Doctor Bombay

    Doctor Bombay Serial Cat Lover Premium Member

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    Continuity and canon aside, one of the things that has always attracted me to ST is the concept of the "Human Adventure." Roddenberry created the show to talk about things that couldn't be discussed on TV at that time and thrust these things into the future. So, you have future people experiencing many of the same things the viewers were experiencing in the '60s.

    It is the variables in the human equation that make the show timeless, sort of like Shakespeare did in his time. Bringing in transhuman factors like genetic engineering are better off being treated as anomolies rather than the norm.
     
  11. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I disagree entirely. What is the human adventure if not exploring new ways to be human? Look at how much -- and how positively -- our definition of human norms has been expanding in the past couple of decades, to encompass the autistic spectrum, LGBTQA+ diversity, and so forth. Placing arbitrary limits on what counts as "human" is just xenophobia, and Star Trek should be beyond that.

    According to the recent "generalist-specialist" theory of human development, a key factor in our survival and prosperity as a species has been our drive to expand beyond our natural environment and colonize more hostile areas, forcing us to adapt and innovate in order to thrive in new places. Our compulsion to continue expanding beyond our existing limits, to explore new ways of being, is what defines us as human. That's been the core message of Star Trek from the start. So why limit that expansion only to exploring new planets rather than exploring new facets of ourselves? That's missing the whole message of ST, which is why DS9's "ban on genetic engineering" notion was so misguided, backward, and wrong for ST.

    Let's not forget that the phrase "the Human Adventure" was introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a movie that ended with a human merging with an AI and ascending to a higher level of existence. That ability to evolve into something new was celebrated in the movie as the very essence of our humanity, the thing V'Ger lacked that only humanity could give it. That's nothing if not transhumanism. Roddenberry celebrated humanity, yes, but because he believed we had the potential to evolve into something greater and more transcendent. He saw us as a species just entering our adolescence, beginning a journey toward fulfilling a potential we could barely imagine. Humanity as we recognize it today was supposed to be the foundation we would build on going forward, not a perpetual ceiling on our ability to grow.

    https://www.inc.com/kevin-daum/21-gene-roddenberry-quotes-that-inspire-a-great-future.html
     
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  12. Doctor Bombay

    Doctor Bombay Serial Cat Lover Premium Member

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    Yeah, I think you misunderstood me, Christopher, or at best you read too much into my post.
     
  13. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I tried rereading it twice, and it still sounds like you're saying that it's not "the human adventure" if you include transhumanism. If that's not what you meant, then what did you mean?
     
  14. Tim Thomason

    Tim Thomason Commodore Commodore

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    It's still a retcon, IMO. It's just that the ban on genetic engineering has to be more nuanced than presented in Doctor Bashir to account for the apparent lack of one in Unnatural Selection.
     
  15. Rahul

    Rahul Commodore Commodore

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    I actually think it is a GOOD thing Trek hasn't done transhumanism with its main characters.

    Why?

    Because it's such an overwhelming topic, it would overshadow every single other story they want to tell. Do they want to tell a first contact story Darmok & Jalad at Tanagra style? Too bad. It's now about transhumanism. Time-travel story? Nah, it's about transhumans doing time travel. Characters getting stuck on a planet? No. It's now about transhumans such on a planet.

    And so on. It would be interesting for a plot of the week (with, day, a trans-non-humanoid alien race), to explore ONE KIND of transhumanism. But considering how far reaching the consequences, and how big the uncertainties are, it shouldn't be done with the main characters on Trek.

    Still no excuse for never featuring classic robots though...
     
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  16. Nyotarules

    Nyotarules Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Looking at the definition of transhumanism Discovery explores this concept better than all the others due to real life changes in social attiudes in our culture. If T.V Star Trek is rebooted from stratch I hope the concept of transhumanism will be explored whether its a species where transforming their sociey is the norm like the Bynars or even like the Chobliks (a TITAN novelverse species member of the UFP, where cybernatic enhancements are the norm).
    If we went back in time 300 years a human in 1719 would still look like a 2019 human but with very different social and cultural attitudes, so perhaps most humans in 2319 Star Trek universe would still be recognisable, but there might also be humans with cybernetic implants due to illness/disability e.g La Forge & Ariam or through choice.
    The concept of a Federation ban on eugenics never made any sense to me and seems to be based on the 1960's sci fi negative attitudes towards humans artifcially enchancing themselves. Sadly humans do not need genetic enhancments to have meglomanaic tendencies, just check out some of our real life politicians. Khan and his ilk would still be a dictator even without great intellect or super strength.
    By the 23rd century the idea of a human dying at age 140 was not unexpected, (DS9) in the novels a Commander Elias Vaughn of over 100 years old still serves in Starfleet and has the looks and energy of a 50 year. He even meets his Mirror counterpart who looks like a decrepit 100 year old man, so somewhere along the line, the human DNA has advanced itself in the Prime universe, it cannot be all down to natural good health.
     
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2019
  17. Damian

    Damian Commodore Commodore

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    I do think we have to look at the various shows being a product of their time. At the end of the day Star Trek has always tried to 'sell' it's product to the then current viewers.

    In some ways in the past Star Trek has touched on transhumanism in the past, but until more recently your average viewers have not been all that familiar with it. They probably looked at Geordi and his visor simply as someone with a tool to help him see...or Picards artificial heart as, well, he has an artificial heart to help him live. I don't think viewers in the later 80s and early 90s were giving it much thought in terms of transhumanism. Your average Joe probably didn't think all that much about AI during that time either except in terms of what existing science fiction depicted like in 2001 or The Terminator.

    Nowadays that sort of thing is much more familiar I think, so I think you'll see it more in upcoming and future shows.

    But I wouldn't sell Star Trek short on transhumanism either. Maybe writers made some questionable decisions in the past--perhaps they sacrificed a potential avenue of transhumanism in favor of a specific story they wanted to tell. But I do think there were times they explored it or touched on it, but more in terms that the then viewer could relate to.

    And partly I still think the reason humans of the future at least appear like humans of today in Star Trek is because they wanted to the characters to be people the then viewers could relate to. I think they wanted to show what we as humans could be capable of if we got past our biases and worked together for a greater good. I don't necessarily think it's a humanism vs. transhumanism....just the focus of the stories was more on the characters, their relationships with other characters and solving problems...and just trying to tell an entertaining story. And they sometimes tried to tell a story relating to an issue that is pertinent for the time. Racism, biases about persons infected with a particular disease, terrorism, war, etc.
     
  18. eschaton

    eschaton Commodore Commodore

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    I'm not entirely sure I agree. I look at something like Iain Banks' Culture series of novels as an example of what Trek could be like if transumanism was added. Some of the basics:

    1. It is a post-work, post-scarcity utiopia. The vast majority of sentients laze about doing little, because everything is automated. There is no money, and little in the way of government at all, because since no one really needs anything from anyone else, and everything is in abundance, society can be run on an entirely voluntary basis.
    2. Most of the planning and administration is done by super-advanced benevolent AIs (termed "Minds"). One of the things Minds do is pilot starships - which generally makes them more like luxury cruise liners than military vessels.
    3. Drones and other artificial intelligence have equal status under the law (such as it is) with humans. All essential work is performed by non-sentient devices.
    4. Biological humanoids formed from the merging of seven or eight different species. A biological citizen can alter their gender, or gross physical form, whenever they feel like it. There are numerous other improvements, like limbs growing back on their own, the ability to switch off pain (or release self-created drugs into the bloodstream) defuse toxins, rapidly adjust to different gravity, etc.
    5. Death as we know it has been defeated. Most humanoids are biologically immortal, practically speaking living around 350 to 400 years. People routinely save "backups" of their consciousness which are booted up in case of bodily loss. Some choose to live forever, but most eventually choose to voluntarily die, become an AI, join a group mind, or "sublime" their own consciousness into some greater entity.
    Now, you might think all of this makes for a boring utopian world. But Banks got around this by basing all of his stories on the fringes of The Culture, often with a protagonist from The Culture dealing with non-Culture worlds. The focus of many of the novels are either the agencies "Special Circumstances" (an intelligence agency) or "Contact" (its diplomatic arm).
     
  19. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I'm not sure that quite washes, because as I said, early TNG was ready to embrace transhumanism (Geordi's VISOR, Picard's bionic heart, the genetic engineers in "Unnatural Selection") but later showrunners dialed it back and defined Roddenberry's "humanism" more narrowly than he would have himself.

    The problem with "a product of their time" arguments is that in any time, there are some people who are more forward-looking than others. Some people have the imagination to push the status quo forward, while others are content to stay within existing limits or even try to go back to a more "traditional" time. (For instance, in the recent controversy over renaming the John W. Campbell Award. Some argued that Campbell's racism was just a product of his time, but the reality is that it was extreme even in its day and made many of his contemporary colleagues uncomfortable.)

    I think that Trek's later showrunners just weren't as science fiction-savvy as they could've been. TOS was very informed by the prose SF of its era, bringing in a number of prominent SF prose authors to write for the show, but the Berman-era shows virtually never did that (the only examples I can think of are Diane Duane & Michael Reaves for "Where No One Has Gone Before," Dennis Bailey & David Bischoff adapting their novel Tin Woodman into "Tin Man," and Peter S. Beagle writing "Sarek"). So those shows weren't as up on the SF concepts of their era as TOS had been.


    It's not like such concepts were totally unknown to viewers of the era. They had a cyborg hero in RoboCop. The 1993 series Time Trax (from Harve Bennett) featured a time-traveling 22nd-century hero and villains who had physical and mental abilities beyond the present-day norm but typical for the enhanced humans of their time. '80s and early '90s kids were exposed to transhuman cartoon heroes like the Galaxy Rangers, the Silverhawks, and the X-Men.


    People don't have to be exactly like you to be relatable. That's what getting past your biases means -- being able to empathize with people who are different from you, seeing that you still have the essential stuff in common no matter the outward differences. Heck, Star Trek's most popular characters tend to be the nonhumans like Spock, Data, Odo, and the Doctor, so it seems contradictory to suggest that Star Trek viewers in any era would have had trouble relating to transhumans.
     
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  20. eschaton

    eschaton Commodore Commodore

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    Thinking about it more, there was a lot of retrenchment in Trek after the early TNG period was done.

    Early TNG experimented with a lot of the wacky stuff that TOS was known for: There was technology indistinguishable from magic, beings so advanced they appeared to be gods, space-dwelling entities, group minds, inorganic life forms, telepathy, mind uploading, etc. As TNG wore on though, the focus shifted to telling stories of the week which were focused either on "anomalies" or alien races who were functionally indistinguishable from humans in every way that mattered. DS9 took this even further - which in one sense was good, because it allowed for a focus on character and a deepening understanding of the cultures of the (fundamentally human) races like the Bajorans, Cardassians, Klingons, and Ferengi. But VOY in part almost destroyed itself because it completely forgot how to make aliens...well...alien, leading each "race of the week" to be unmemorable, and destroying the interesting aspects of The Borg, Species 8472, and even Q.