39 Comments

Of Star Trek Sociology and Why It Doesn’t Work

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.

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About James Schardt

A retired Army Aviation Mechanic and former Non-Destructive Testing Technician, James Schardt is currently a college student studying Mechanical Engineering. He has been known to contribute book reviews and articles to the Otherwhere Gazette.

39 comments on “Of Star Trek Sociology and Why It Doesn’t Work

  1. Yep, all too true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beyond what you said is the fact that even though ST had a message of social justice, the primary reason it succeeded as a franchise is because it told entertaining stories. Browbeat me with a message without telling me a story that keeps my attention and I’ll walk away. Make the story interesting enough for me to hang around and the message will get distributed to a wide audience. Perhaps Gerrold forgot that the point of a story teller is to tell a good story first.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In Gerrold’s defense, he did not forget that. Gerrold was pointing out that Roddenberry’s emphasis was on society, not the cool, neat, whiz-bang technology. However, almost nobody can tell you what the Federation Government looked like but, everyone remembers transporters (even though we don’t have those yet).

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  4. Even STNG covered the agression/ambition issue with the Ep that saw Q send Picard back in time to avoid getting stabbed. The resulting Picard was a milquetoast nobody, pidgeonholed as an unhappy botanist or something equally unmemorable…

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  5. There were a couple of things that the whole foundation relied on: cheap, unlimited energy and the ability (requiring said unlimited cheap energy) to manipulate matter (transporters and replicators). So, the bridge vs hospital problem would never really have to be addressed because they appeared as if by magic. Neither the toilet paper generally — I guess you might still run out in the stall.

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  6. “There will never be enough resources for everything everybody wants so this part of Roddenberry’s social vision fails.”

    The very first lecture in “Introduction to Microeconomics” back in college had the line “wants are unlimited while resources are limited.” This really is the first law or economics. So far nobody has come up with a realistic way to change that. It remains pure hand-wavey magic whenever it’s used in fiction, less “real” than the magic of fantasy fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And just like magic in fantasy, it can be really useful in a story to look at something besides the limited resources thing.

      See also, “why RPGs don’t have you sitting there watching your character sleep for a third of the game.”

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The original Star Trek also was willing to give opposite sides of an issue a hearing: a deconstruction of “remote control” “painless” war (a stand-in for the proxy wars of the Cold War) in A Taste of Armageddon on one hand and an argument for why when your enemy arms one side in a “proxy war” you are justified in arming the other if only to restore the “balance of power” and leave the “proxy” some semblence of self-determination) in A Private Little War.

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  8. These are all good points. And probably much more grounded in reality than Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.

    But Star Trek as a vision wasn’t meant to be a prediction, nor was it meant to be accurate sociology either — but it was intended as a set of moral thought experiments, and perhaps even a goal to aim for, that human beings might someday learn to resolve our differences without laying hands on one another.

    As prediction, all SF stumbles. But as an ideal, Star Trek still works. That’s why it maintains its iconic status.

    Remember that line from Robert Browning’s poem, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” That’s Star Trek too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points. But as I’m sure you know, since Lehman’s blog post and your Facebook response, this has been discussed a lot in the SF&F blogosphere. Left, Right, and inbetween or undecided.

      As an SF fan that grew up with Star Trek I remember several of the episodes {but not all}. What stuck with me really wasn’t the sociology or the moral message, what stuck with me was the story. Maybe action, but maybe something else.

      One of the episodes that stuck with me was the “Trouble with Tribbles”. Believe it or not, I don’t recall the social message. I’m sure it was important at the time, but what I remember is the fun the characters had with the tribbles. The upside, the downside, and the delivery to the Klingons.

      It was a fun story.

      Most of the rest of the original series that I recall, I recall because of the action. Sorry, I missed the moral message again. But I had fun watching the stories. Star Trek was the best of TV SF at the time.

      Of the movies, all of them, “The Wrath of Khan” is my favorite. Again, if there was a social message I missed it. I just thought that I was seeing a good old fashioned revenge tale.

      One other thought, the social causes have changed as our society has changed. And so has the terminology. The folks that worked hard in the 60’s on our social causes of the times are not today’s Social Justice Warriors. The modern SJWs {a tag they took on their own} are on the left, but that is all the resemblence they have to the social heroes of the sixties.

      In fact, if we look to Star Trek again for inspiration, the modern SJW’s would be the Borg. Their whole existence is predicated into slotting everyone into a hole, whether you fit or not. And they absolutely lose it if you oppose them or disagree.

      What is it our heroes in Star Trek do when they run into rampaging Borg? Why the fight and work to protect individual freedom.

      my $.02

      Liked by 4 people

  9. “Roddenberry saw people being better than they are.”

    Sure. He saw technology better than it is too. He saw them both AS THE COULD BE. Tech has moved faster than he envisioned, but people are getting better. Give the vision time.

    I for one, still believe.

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    • People are the same. People still murder, rape, abuse and all other manner of evil things. People will continue to do this.

      The only way to stop people from harming one another is to engineer humans to where they are no longer humans. The only way to stop humans from hating one another is to engineer them so that they are no longer humans.

      You have good people, but you have bad people as well. You always will, as long as humans are humans.

      Unless you do want to go the Miranda path and try to engineer humans to be something that they are not.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. The Economics of Star Trek I always found ludicrous. By TNG it’s pointed out that man has evolved into some kind of glorious socialist, anti-materialist future. (Picard tells someone from the past that we have evolved beyond commerce and the need for money or some such). They apparently don’t use money, and let’s stop to think that things like food replicators and the holodeck, essentially solve the basic economic problem, of scarce resources and unlimited wants, if you can literally transmute matter to make a steak you have no need to explore space. Also the holodeck. My God, you guys go off and explore space, I’ll spent my entire life in my holodeck with Jessica Alba, Marilyn Monroe and the 20 year old Sofia Loren, thank you. Progress would grind to a complete halt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “My God, you guys go off and explore space, I’ll spent my entire life in my holodeck with Jessica Alba, Marilyn Monroe and the 20 year old Sofia Loren, thank you. Progress would grind to a complete halt.”

      If an analog of the holodeck is invented before human cloning and uterine replicators then the human race will be essentially extinct within a generation.

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    • No holodeck in the original series (animated now withstanding) so Kirk went out looking for the green skinned Jessica Alba.

      By the time Next Generation came around the crews were generally neutered-males who occasionally wore skirts so they didn’t even need a lock on the holodeck doors. My how things changed.

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    • TeacherinTejas has it partly correct. Picard’s comment to Lilly (Alfre Woodard’s character from the past in “First Contact” ) was that the economics of the 24th century were different, that they no longer sought material gain. How they achieved that is beond my purpose here.) What is not correct in the educator’s comment is that there was, in fact, some form of money. In various forms of Trek, there is mention of credits, and DS9 often features latinum. How their banking system works or how Starfleet’s finance offices pay the people is never explained; however, that would be boring. Perhaps at some point, one has to exchange credits or latinum for use of the holodeck or to travel by transporter. The Teacher’s romp with Ms Alba and the other ladies would probably exceed his public school pay.

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      • In Deep Space 9 they established that the Federation doesn’t use something that can be exchanged for latinum; it was plot justification for doing a “for want of a nail” thing to get a baseball card.

        Maybe credits can’t be exchanged? Or can’t be earned?

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        • OK, I wasn’t a big follower of DS9, so I missed that part. The Federation’s citizens probably needed something for exchange when they were on non-Federation worlds, and they’d have to earn it somehow since merely replicating it would be unethical.

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          • I’m not entirely sure I consider that episode cannon, myself– it was one of those “trying too hard to be clever and the writer didn’t pay attention to the established lore” ones.

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  11. Star Trek is like Superman in that it is a symbol that many people, without disregarding its problematic aspects, should aspire to. But we will never become Superman.

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  12. More succinctly, Roddenberry either never heard of or outright rejected Adam Smith.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I liked Trek well enough, but never liked the’ well, we solved all those annoying human aspects and issues and simply wouldn’t do that’ manner. Oh, we don’t have monetary issues either, and we’ve transcended all prejudices and we are politely amused by quaint religious concepts. And this isn’t a nasty military ship, even though the Enterprise has enough firepower to incinerate a continent..

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  14. Great article, but I need a clarification on what you mean by “progress” more specifically the idea that progress is limited by human capacity. 100 years ago, no country had universal suffrage. Slavery was common until about 200 years ago. Times changed. Now, the idea of regressing back to those once societal norms seems abhorrent, if not impossible. Clearly regression is possible (for example ISIS) but it’s also hard. Is progress just the product of cultural norms? If so, we see to have created some norms that are pretty enduring and pretty positive. There is a tone to this article that feels very postmodern in its thinking, that denies any real progress. I think progress is very clearly real, and not just technical progress and an endless progression or ever more clever gadgets, but real social progress. I’m not in any way however, a “progressive” as that modern term is used, but consider myself a classic liberal. Thing is, I have no idea what is possible for the future society of humanity. We are already working and collaborating today on levels that people just a century ago would have thought impossible. A lot of this is communitarian, some free market, but it is happening. Is a Star Trek future impossible? Well, it might seem so to us, but them universal suffrage was once considered just as impossible. Don’t count Roddenberry entirely out just yet. He may be right after all.

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    • Just a small thing, but even though slavery isn’t condoned in our society as an institution it does still exist in small forms. It’s also still not uncommon in other contemporary societies.

      As far as ‘progress’ is concerned, I think that’s simply a societal construct. It only exists because we say it does. The norms of society are there to make the society work for those in power. As the people in power change and they address the needs of those keeping them in power those constructs alter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree that some forms of “progress” are just societal constructs but not all. I remember childhood fights and the fear of bullying, but it’s something nearly absent in my children’s schooling. School really is nicer. If you’ve never been on the other side of a swirlie, perhaps you don’t recognize the progress when it comes.

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        • Bullying still exists. It’s likely your child is going to a better school (or at least better run) than you yourself did. What one society calls ‘progress’ another thinks is horribly backwards. History doesn’t have an arrow, it’s just a series of interconnected events. What we see as ‘progress’ is completely subjective.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It still exists but it’s far, far less, and not just because my kids go to a better school, which they don’t. There has been a huge change in human attitudes regarding this, and the triumph of the geeks proves it. Being a sci-fi fan 30 years ago was enough to get you singled out, now being a Doctor Who fan puts you in the mainstream. I’m kind of envious of my children really. They grew up in a better time than I did. And I’m not the only who has noticed. Go check out P.J. O’Rourke’s latest on the boomers. Even after tearing them a new one he steps back and acknowledges that a lot of things are more peaceful, kinder and better overall.

            Neither am I making any kind of ahistorical Fukuyama “End-of-history” arguments either. History can go all kinds of directions, but doesn’t that mean we should nudge it a a positive way? Are there NO universal human values? Is everything culturally contrived? I find that very postmodern in thinking, and bit pessimistic and cynical. Progress is not completely subjective. It moves in fits and spurts, and stalls and sometimes doesn’t move at all, but we have managed to get an awful lot of people on board with free and liberal societies, full suffrage, free markets and trade and what not. Things like ISIS are especially nasty IMO because they feel that they are being left behind.

            I just think we can’t possibly know what the future holds, and to hold to an idea that man is irrevocably screwed, is just pessimistic. Our ancestors would have loved to live in our era. I hope I feel the same way about the next one.

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        • If you’ve never been on the other side of a swirlie, perhaps you don’t recognize the progress when it comes.

          This is definitely not the place to try that line of attack… pretty much everybody here was bullied, some to the point of needing medical attention, and there’s a decent number who know the bullying has shifted, not vanished. Including things that would have resulted in the bully fearing their parents and the police speaking to the parents instead being defended by the parents, and swept under the rug.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Hey, count me in that number. But my point wasn’t an attack, it was an observation which I think is true. Online bullying isn’t as bad as the old-fashioned pummeling kind. Things are better. Not for everyone, not everywhere, but they are better. Man there’s a lot of cynics and pessimists in here. I thought this crowd was into Human Wave. This seems very dour.

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            • An observation which I, and many others, do not believe to be true.

              If you think online bullying is the only thing going, your kid must either be in a really good school, or– like many other recent adults have pointed out– has learned that telling an adult just means that you get punished with the bully, and become more of a target. That is, assuming the bully doesn’t have a “behavioral pattern” which means they will not get punished at all.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Man there’s a lot of cynics and pessimists in here. I thought this crowd was into Human Wave. This seems very dour.

              Human wave involves fixing problems, not pretending they don’t exist.

              And “pretend people are perfectible” is the root of way too many of those problems.

              Liked by 1 person

  15. The irony of your reference to “the bureaucrats of the Federation of Planets” who “were all competent and did the best they could at their jobs” is that Gerrold’s “Tribbles” includes the less-than-competent blowhard bureaucrat who wanted the grain protected and blamed Kirk for the tribbles.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Using present modes of analyses to judge a future society/technology is futile, perhaps even infantile. Replicator technology alone would be enough to completely invalidate everything this article supposes.

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    • And where do the materials to supply the replicator come from? They cannot come from nothing. Star Trek assumed an economy without scarcity. Yet, as I tried to say in the article, this is an impossible idea. If more resources are available people will want to do more with them.

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      • They don’t even make something from pure energy– if I remember my uncle’s rantings about Voyager right, they need raw material.

        This is in addition to the power source’s requirements.

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      • To say nothing of who repairs a bum replicator.

        Hypothetical: I have a machine in my house that meets my every material need and want. I no longer have to work because those needs are met. Which is good, because I have no job because the factor that used to make things to meet those needs are now closed as well.

        The idea was that despite having their needs met – and if I had a holodeck, my house would BE a holodeck that looks suspiciously like Tony Stark’s Malibu house – my incentive to work becomes less and less. It becomes imperative that people work and work hard for “the greater good”. It sounds great, but there’s no evidence that sufficient numbers of people would do that. The Soviets tried it, and we all know how well that worked out.

        Besides, who does the crap work? Who works as janitors (notice the lack of robots on Star Trek)?

        Star Trek is an awesome show, but it’s flawed if you want a realistic depiction of society. It’s not that we can’t be better than we are, either. It’s that it believes we’re better than we ever will be.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. […] There apparently has been an online debate about the sociology of Star Trek, summarized in the Otherwhere Gazette: […]

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