David Gerrold has responded to William Lehman’s article “Destroy the myth, destroy the culture.” by pointing out that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future within the Star Trek was far more sociological than technological. He should know, he was there. In meetings with the creative staff of Star Trek, Roddenberry spoke of a future where all people had equal opportunity and access to resources. This vision is glorious in its scope and ambition. Such a world would be amazing. It is also as fictional as the Star Trek series that envisioned it.
Gerrold has been part of the Sci-Fiction community for a long time. His career has been far more than just Star Trek. Before I knew he had written the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” I had read his book “Chess with a Dragon” at the suggestion of my girlfriend at the time (Thanks Amanda!). It was an excellent suggestion as can be attested to the fact I still remember the Dragon’s name for humanity translated to “the Presumptuous Food”.
However, Gerrold misses the reason why the technology of Star Trek is spoken of with such awe and the society that was envisioned as the Federation of Planets is not. We can see how communicators, automatic doors, and tri-corders have changed our world. We can point to cell phones and the entrance to the grocery store and see the technology. It works. The same cannot be said for the social aspects.
Many of the social ideas Gene Roddenberry envisioned have severe problems. Roddenberry thought of a world where people (and aliens) would all work together for the common good. Great in theory but who decides what the common good is? This shouldn’t be a problem except for two factors: available resources and the people themselves. For example: Party A wants to build a bridge to facilitate trade and party B wants to build a hospital to facilitate health. Both projects will require two cranes apiece but only three are available for both projects. Party A’s bridge will mean more resources coming to the area and an increase in the number and quality of jobs available thereby increasing the standard of living in the area. Party B’s hospital will bring more medical services to the area which will help people when they are hurt or sick. Which project takes priority? There are not enough resources to do both projects at the same time so the secondary project will at least be delayed and might possibly be canceled as other projects are put forward. Who decides which is more important? This is a problem even with human resources. Increasing the availability of education sounds very good in theory but where do you get the professors to teach the larger number of students? Also, how do you distribute this among the disciplines? The emphasis on a college education has meant we have a glut of lawyers but a dearth of welders. This is despite the fact a starting welder makes more than a starting lawyer and most lawyers don’t work at the law firms portrayed on “LA Law” or “Boston Legal”. There will never be enough resources for everything everybody wants so this part of Roddenberry’s social vision fails.
And now is where we bring people into it. Roddenberry saw people being better than they are. He envisioned a world where people worked together to achieve their goals and the organization that facilitated this, the bureaucrats of the Federation of Planets, were all competent and did the best they could at their jobs. As far as I can recall, the Enterprise never had a supply issue (“Mudd’s Women” could be argued but I think that was more of a compensation issue). They always had enough toilet paper and spare parts. Talk about fiction! In the real world there is a rule of thumb: 20% of your workers, regardless of your profession, will be awesome, 60% will be simply do their job and go home, and the last 20% will have the other 80% asking how they got hired in the first place and why they are still around. Throw in Dr. Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Rule of Bureaucracy and you’re lucky the Federation can get a starship into orbit, much less explore strange new worlds. And never forget self-interest. Whether the bridge or hospital is built is just as likely to be decided by who the bridge is named after or who gets a job on the hospital’s board of directors as by merit.
Ambition plays a role as well. Generally speaking, most people want tomorrow to be slightly better than yesterday. Ambition and greed are not necessarily bad. However, when an individual’s calculations have them thinking, right or wrong, that the use of force is more efficient and/or more likely to have them achieve their goals this creates a problem. You cannot take aggression away from humanity without taking away its ambition. Even Star Trek showed this in the episode “The Enemy Within”. Leaving it in means you will always have somebody who makes decisions from self-interest rather than the greater good. Take ambition away and you get the planet Miranda from “Serenity” rather than the United Federation of Planets. Make rules to mitigate the effect of ambition and you stifle the good aspects along with the bad. And, sooner or later, you’ll discover that, rather than rules eliminating aggressive behavior from people, you’ll find they have simply disguised it. People don’t “Progress” they adapt.
In summary, we praise the technology of Star Trek because it works and gives us something to strive for. With the right combination of wires and elements we can make the technology of Star Trek a reality. Roddenberry envisioned a future society in which everybody had the ability to fulfill all their goals. However, it only works on television and we generally don’t praise things that don’t work in reality. The unfortunate truth is that we cannot fulfill Rodenberry’s vision because people are people. We must accept that people are individuals with their own wants and needs and always will be. And the individual is where Roddenberry’s social vision fails.