Star Trek Computers Aren’t All That Retro

Last month we talked about Star Trek: The Original Series miniskirts, how they came to be and what they signified. While researching the paper that eventually turned into that post, I found out some interesting things about technology too. Most sci-fi isn’t actually futurist, meaning it doesn’t actually attempt to predict the future in an accurate way. Most sci-fi is designed to make a social statement by taking a situation to an extreme, or to explore possibilities by asking scientific what-if questions, or both. It’s not meant to be a “history of the future.”

Star Trek did those social things, and fantastically well. It’s famous for them. However, it also turns out that Gene Roddenberry, creator and showrunner of Star Trek, was an enthusiastic futurist who wrote papers on the future of technology and was invited to lecture at NASA as well as several universities and colleges. While Star Trek was first and foremost a fantasy of space travel, Roddenberry was interested in presenting concepts he actually found workable and likely to exist in the future. One of his most important ideas was the Enterprise’s central computer, described in this pre-production memo:

More and more I see the need for some sort of interesting electronic computing machine designed into the U.S.S. Enterprise, perhaps on the bridge itself. It will be an information device out of which April and his crew can quickly and interestingly extract information on the registry of other space vessels, space flight plans for other ships, information on individuals and planets and civilizations, etc. This should not only speed up our storytelling but could be visually interesting.

A typical personal computer station. YourProps.com

A typical personal computer station. YourProps.com

The final version of the computer was not a physical object on the bridge, but could be accessed from several bridge stations, personal interfaces in crew quarters, and from other locations. Like most science fiction creators, Star Trek writers did not predict the rise of the internet, touchscreens, or even modern Graphical User Interfaces, so characters frequently refer to “tapes” and even use paper printouts for analysis on occasion.

The attitude toward computing is old school too: Computers are for math and for looking up information in databanks. While monitor-like screens offer books for business or pleasure, no one on the Enterprise bridge is playing Galaga or IMing their friends — not even anyone in the rec room. Computers, or rather THE computer, are for professionals, and information comes in discrete chunks that the computer can receive, provide, or compare.

Kirk contemplates some microtapes.

Kirk contemplates some microtapes.

Still, though, it’s worth noting that crewmembers have the advantage of a practically-infallible voice-control capability, so anyone can ask the computer for that information without a specific skillset. Plus, the central computer that can be accessed from multiple locations is actually a very important step toward the internet or a basic computer network. This is one of several cases where Star Trek directly influenced the course of technology, since Bill Gates has pinned his inspiration for personal computer operating systems on those shown in Star Trek.

The colorful, unmarked squares referred to as “microtapes” are often mocked for resembling floppy disks, but actually predated them, since even 8-inch floppy disks were not produced until 1967. The concept of removable storage was itself new at the time. Likewise, teleconferencing was hardly common in 1966, but is used about as often as voice intercom onboard the Enterprise, and is the default method of communication between space ships. The large, flat viewscreen at the front of the bridge has even been called a precursor to modern plasma screens, and while the technology used for such a thin screen was never described on the show, it fits perfectly into Star Trek’s sleek, ultramodern, seamless aesthetic.

Still from "Spock's Brain" showing the main viewscreen used to display a map.

Still from “Spock’s Brain” showing the main viewscreen used to display a map.

Finally, a word on communicators. In function they resembled radios more than phones as we think of them today. You can’t leave a voicemail on a communicator, there’s a system of shared frequencies rather than individual numbers, and ALL you can do is talk on them. but as with Bill Gates’ computers, flip-phone inventor Martin Cooper has cited Star Trek communicators as his direct inspiration. Flip-phones and the idea of portable connectivity eventually led to modern smartphones: the ultraportable, ultrapowerful information innovation that Star Trek supposedly failed to predict when it “left out” the internet.

I used to laugh because Star Trek thought it was so futuristic, using floppy disks and computers without screens. Turns out I was all wrong: Star Trek wasn’t mimicing old stuff and hoping we wouldn’t notice, it came first and helped create the technological landscape we live in today!

3 responses to “Star Trek Computers Aren’t All That Retro

  1. ST:TOS model of computing seems to me more like “time sharing”, something that was very common from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. In it, a computer would be connected to several dumb terminals that its users would use. The earlier ones were essentially glorified typewriters that would communicate one’s typing to the computer and that the computer would send text for them to type. Then came video terminals which were almost equally dumb, though for the later ones, the computer could send special command sequences to make its text appear in different places on the screen.

    Time-sharing faded as desktop computers became more and more capable over the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    ST:TOS also had a “single big machine” view of computing, much like 2001’s HAL 9000 and Isaac Asimov’s Multivac computers, instead of some big network of smaller computers. It also was not connected to the tricorders or communicators, and the Enterprise’s onboard comm system was not connected to it either.

    There is a computer-related scene that I consider totally fatuous. In Court Martial, Captain Kirk’s lawyer expressed disdain for computers, preferring his library of law books. But a computer can contain copies of his law books, and it will be *much* more searchable. One can even print out physical copies if one wants.

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    • Quite so — they didn’t have a concept of a network, or the possibilities of wireless connectivity yet. I’ve often thought about this regarding the communicators, because while the connection to a cell phone is obvious, they never even thought of voicemail. The communicators inspired cell phones, yes, but they function like radios. With the advent of smartphones, the difference between central computing and networks of computers is even more apparent.

      I agree that Cogley is being basically ridiculous about his books in “Court Martial,” especially given his status as resident of the future where he’s being UNSPEAKABLY odd rather than just idiosyncratic, but unfortunately he reflects a lot of people’s opinions in the present day, even young people. They just cannot seem to grasp the advantages of searchability.

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  2. As to what science fiction is about, Isaac Asimov once proposed (“Future? Tense!” in “From Earth to Heaven”) that SF is not as much about the new technology but about what people do about it. Thus, it is not as much about self-driving cars as what will become of manual driving. IA himself once wrote a story about self-driving cars (“Sally” in “Nightfall and Other Stories”) featuring manual driving being outlawed as needlessly dangerous, a move that was very controversial.

    IA also thought of what people might write about cars in 1880. Something like

    There could be the excitement of a last-minute failure in the framistan and the hero can be described as ingeniously designing a liebestraum out of an old baby carriage at the last minute and cleverly hooking it up to the bispallator in such a way as to mutonate the karrogel.

    Or

    “The automobile came thundering down the stretch, its mighty tires pounding, and its tail assembly switching furiously from side to side, while its flaring foam-flecked air intake seemed rimmed with oil.” Then, when the car has finally performed its task of rescuing the girl and confounding the bad guys, it sticks its fuel intake hose into a can of gasoline and quietly fuels itself.

    A lot of visual-media SF seems to me similarly naive about spaceships and space travel.

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