Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Karim Remtulla
Review of: Alan Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Avinus, 2004.
In Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, Alan Shapiro fulfills three primary objectives. Firstly, Shapiro explores Star Trek’s popularity as, “a great modern mythology”,1 posing vital questions about the role of Star Trek’s culture industry, creativity, and fandom in developing and subsequently sustaining this “mythology”. Then Shapiro hones in on the technologies of Star Trek and discusses how television and other entertainment conglomerates appropriate these technologies to construct this massive, cultural industry. Finally, Shapiro applies varying, postmodern perspectives on notions of “disappearance” to interrogate both Star Trek’s culture industry and its technologies, in effect raising to the surface the contradictions and tensions that exist around these technologies. By intricately interconnecting each of these three overarching themes, Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance represents a complex and quintessentially postmodern analysis of the technologies of Star Trek and their socio-cultural significance.
For Shapiro, the saga of Star Trek is premised on two key factors: Star Trek’s popularity and the public’s perception of Star Trek’s technologies as a result of this popularity. Shapiro claims, “…but we also search for an adequate answer to the first question in order to fruitfully answer the second one”.2 As such, according to Shapiro, the reason behind Star Trek’s popularity is also behind the public’s attitudes towards Star Trek’s technologies.
To authenticate this relationship, Shapiro takes the originality and creativity involved in the Star Trek television series and movies as separate and distinct from their culture industry, and then contrasts them with the culture industry surrounding them, to illustrate how this tension influences the subjective experiences of Star Trek fans. Shapiro posits some twenty basic, Star Trek principles such as, Recognition of Otherness, Ambivalence Towards Virtual Reality, Symbolic Exchange, The Accident of Technology, as well as, Reversible Power, to bring about, what he declares is, “the basis for the ‘invitation to argument’ issued to what we have called the Star Trek hyper-reality industry”.3 To this end, Shapiro’s approach is decidedly phenomenological presenting some twenty-four examples from Star Trek comprising both television and movie episodes.4
Shapiro’s distinctively postmodern enquiry of socio-cultural “disappearance” is further brought to bear in his questioning of Star Trek’s culture industry and its technologies. The crux of Shapiro’s argument comes about largely through a discourse of “disappearance” between Jean Baudrillard’s notion of “simulacra”5 as it signifies the machinations of Star Trek’s culture industry and Paul Virilio’s notion of “accident”6 as it problematizes Star Trek’s technologies, although, Shapiro also expresses “intellectual debt” to Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Victoria Grace, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, and Katherine Hayles.7 As a result, when speaking of “technologies of disappearance” three, possible conditions emerge: 1) technologies that literally bring about corporeal, spatial, and/or temporal disappearance or displacement; 2) a critical perspective on how, “Human subjectivity and perception disappear into the organ-substituting imaging apparatuses of television, cinema, virtual reality, and real-time telecommunications”;8 and, more subversively, 3) “disappearance” as resistance to the intended uses of technology and the, “endless signification and one-way economic accumulation”,9 of the “hyper-real” Star Trek culture industry.
In this regard, Shapiro’s close examination of the technologies in Star Trek is unabashedly extensive. Ten chapters in the book are dedicated to probing technology and “disappearance”. Each chapter primarily concentrates on one technology, explaining its functionality, and working out its particular, provocative modalities of “disappearance” and their socio-cultural consequences. Each chapter highlights the “simulacra” perpetrated by the culture industry with respect to a future utopia based on perfected technologies as well as the potential, inherent “accident” borne by each technology. Shapiro deliberates most of Star Trek’s well-known technologies including holodecks (Chapter 1), supercomputers (Chapter 2), transporters (Chapter 3), universal translators (Chapter 4), time travel (Chapter 5), wormholes (Chapter 6), interspecies, cyborgs, and androids (Chapters 7, 8, and 9), and warp speed (Chapter 10).
Still, one additional connotation around “technologies of disappearance” would have been fruitful for Shapiro to consider more fully in his writing. Hogan (1998) contends, that, “As technologies embed themselves in everyday discourse and activity, a curious thing happens. The more we look, the more they slip into the background. Despite our attention, we lose sight of the way they give shape to our daily lives”.10 Thus, a fourth state of “technologies of disappearance” for Shapiro to have included more explicitly would have been per se “technologies that are no longer humanistically perceptible, either corporeally, spatially, or temporally”.
Such an inclusion could have perhaps permitted Shapiro a broader focus on some of the “less” apparent but nevertheless crucial of Star Trek’s technologies. What comes to mind are such appliances as the Captain’s Log and the Replicator as well as gadgets such as the Tricorder and the ubiquitous Communicator Pin. Each of these implements could also have far reaching consequences when pondering the “perfect crime”, “duality”, “reversibility”, “implosion”, and of course, “miniaturization and pure war”. Perhaps not so much the appliances, but certainly the “smaller” gadgets, are quite central to Star Trek’s culture industry and likely contribute generously to its profitability through their ease of marketing and commoditization.
What becomes apparent, then, is that any discussion of Alan N. Shapiro’s Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, necessitates several, significant prerequisites: 1) a solid grounding in the thinking of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, and in particular, their views on new media technologies, society, and “disappearance”; 2) an advanced level of familiarity with Star Trek’s television episodes and movies to be able to conceive of Star Trek’s technologies as drivers of both, “technoscience and techo-culture”11 ; and, 3) an indefatigable curiosity about the laws of the natural and physical sciences and their influences on the actual or potential inner-workings of current and/or futuristic technologies.
To fully appreciate Shapiro’s passion for technology, though, what must be better explicated is Shapiro’s unique point of view. For Shapiro, technology is the “object” of absorption in the classic Baudrillardian tradition, and Baudrillard’s own words best capture this sentiment: “The object is, admittedly, mediatory, but at the same time, because it is immediate, immanent, it shatters that mediation. It is on both sides of the line, and it both gratifies and disappoints”.12 Shapiro viscerally immerses himself in technology, anticipates and participates actively in its inception and evolution, and witnesses its nascent creativity and potential uncertainty and reversibility. When it comes to technology, his outlook is innately that of an “insider’s”, and, from “the inside out”. Consider Shapiro’s elaborate description of the discovery of faster than speed of light travel:
Based on M-theory postulates about multi-dimensional hyperspace, a hypothesis regarding quantum excitations provoked at discontinuous subatomic mass-energy extremes during matter-antimatter integration was put forth. If proved correct, the theory could be applied during regulated plasma re-cooling of a nuclear reactor’s fissionable material, leading to the managed release of hyperpliable string like particles. These generated particles could be harnessed into controllable rocketry technology that would finally enable breaking the formidable barrier of the speed of light.13
Moreover, Shapiro is an accomplished software developer with a deep proficiency in sociology and postmodernist thinking.14 He thinks, “like a programmer”.15 Having internalized technology’s creativity and reversibility, Shapiro understands its coexistent tendencies towards “simulacra” and “accident”. Shapiro’s firsthand, subjective, experiential knowledge of this most basic duel/dual antagonism between the zero’s and ones that comprise genetic sequencing of all computer-mediated technologies affords him the awareness that behind every “simulacra” of one hides the (un)anticipated “accident” of zero. No doubt invisible to most others, the “symbolic exchange” between the zero’s and ones that transpires on a moment by moment basis, as witnessed by many a computer programmer, forms a foundational component of Shapiro’s perspective in this book and should not to be dismissed in the reading of this work.
Nevertheless, a complete appreciation of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance also invites some conversation around Shapiro’s style of writing. Attesting to Shapiro’s sociotechnical adeptness, his writing makes frequent usage of terminology commonly found in software programming rhetoric and interestingly juxtaposes and intersperses it with terminology more common to sociological and cultural expression. In describing his approach to analysing specific technologies prevalent in particular Star Trek episodes, for example, Shapiro claims:
Since we are admittedly speaking about subjectivity, it is not a question of ‘proving a thesis’ regarding why people really love Star Trek. My approach is rather to examine what it is that I personally and ‘biographically’ love about Star Trek, and hope that the results are enjoyable and provocative for ‘like-minded’ readers. The most captivating episodes for me are those about Star Trek’s futuristic technologies. Scrutiny of these ‘technoscience stories’ makes up the substance of this volume. I make an intervention as an ‘active consumer,’ thoughtfully retelling the stories in my own words, like a reverse engineering scriptwriter.16
His description of episodes demonstrates equally a meticulous attention to detail complemented by a continuous aspiration towards generalized, meta-theorizing. Here, Shapiro exclaims:
We love Star Trek and we are technologists. We inhabit a technological ‘lifeworld.’ If we are able to understand why we love Star Trek – to name certain basic principles, artistic and ethical values, or a single intricate thread within its ‘universe’ that captures our adherence as ‘true fans’ – then it will become clear what our attitude towards Star Trek’s ‘imaginary’ technologies should be. …Star Trek’s futuristic technologies are our own twenty-first century technologies in development.17
In fact, Shapiro’s thorough attention to detail, and his penchant for inductive compilation of such minutiae into a grand schema for Star Trek, may further shed light on the visual impact of his work. Shapiro’s profuse use of paratextuality is very reminiscent here of Hutcheon’s (1989) conception of paratextuality in postmodern non-fictional novels18 in the form of numerous sidebars and frequent use of bold formatting, scare quotes, varying font sizes, and subtitles (as partially exemplified in the quotations cited throughout this review). To be sure, the use of paratextuality is so intense in some sections that a question remains whether this technique is intentional to convey some additional subtextual, conflictual, mood or meaning to the reader.
Not surprisingly, Shapiro does allude to two duelling styles of writing, saying that, “One is the retelling of the individual Star Trek story. The other is a theoretical, philosophical, or at times “scientific” or “technological” discourse. The two styles do not always coexist in an easy harmony”.19 More ominously, the combining of Shapiro’s literary and visual style may arguably be a ploy to ironically, but accurately, metaphorize and portent Virilio’s apprehensions around “interruption” and our modes of experience gradually becoming, as Kellner’s conveys, “increasingly fragmented, discontinuous, and transhistorical modes of experience that grasp instances and partial relations rather than whole fields”.20
The shear depth of effort and extent of this work obliges some thought to Shapiro’s motivation in undertaking this book. For this reason, the final chapter of the book, Chapter 11: “The Founding of Futurity”, does warrant some elaboration and may suggest a befitting message upon which to conclude this review. Here, Shapiro presents the true frailty of Star Trek’s culture industry and the supposed inevitability of Star Trek’s “technologies of disappearance”. Shapiro deftly demonstrates how the culture industry, using the movie Star Trek: First Contact (1996) as a “reverse grand narrative”, “forcefully presents a powerful, mythic narrative of the prehistory or origin of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries Star Trek universe”.21 However, what is cleverly not relayed in this narrative, Shapiro goes on to share, is that, “The participants or actors in these events had existential or psychobiographical choice. There were free agents. They might have opted to do something other than what they did”.22 As maintained by Shapiro, Star Trek can be an inspirational source for agency and creativity. With a prime directive of the “reappearance” of hope and the search for other possible futures, Shapiro boldly opted to go “where few have gone before” and embark on a journey to seek out the “reversibility” of “disappearance”, and ultimately, its “opening onto subjecthood”.23
About the Author:
Karim Remtulla is from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
1 – Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Anivus-Verlag, 2004:8.
2 – Ibid.:9.
3 – Ibid.:29.
4 – Ibid.:35.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
6 – Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Pure War. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents, 1983.
7 – Ibid.:34.
8 – Ibid.:20.
9 – Ibid.:21.
10 – Maureen P. Hogan. “The Disappearance of Technology: Toward an Ecological Model of Literacy”. In D. Reinking, M. McKenna, L. Labbo, & R. Kieffer (Eds.). Handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998:269-281.
11 – Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Anivus-Verlag, 2004:8.
12 – Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:5.
13 – Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Anivus-Verlag, 2004:348-349.
14 – Ibid.: Back Cover.
15 – Ibid.:7.
16 – Ibid.:15.
17 – Ibid.:9.
18 – Linda Hutcheon. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989:79.
19 – Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Anivus-Verlag, 2004:35.
21 – Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Anivus-Verlag, 2004:351
22 – Ibid.:352-353.
23 – Ibid.:21.