Our Tech Future
I spent some time recently rewatching the original Star Wars trilogy. The version I watched was the 2004 remastering for dvd. We could spend our time going over the horrors of George Lucas’ unleashed when he made the changes. But that is something for a different time. Right now I want to spend a little time talking about something I noticed within the stories and a trend I realize had been prominent during the original release of the movies.
Basically, we are looking at a limit of our technology within the parameters of science fiction. The crazy part of this is the whole idea of science fiction is meant to be a look at possible futures. But in that we are at times limited by our understanding of the technology we use.
Though I started out with Star Wars I am going to step back a little further in time, back to the ‘60s and the technology used for the show Star Trek. For many of us the original series technology was horrible. Sure they had those great flip communicators but really, the computers and computer controls on the ship itself were horrible.
Sure at the time they were thinking ahead because the computers on the ship were much more powerful than what we knew in real life but they were still clunky and for lack of a better word right now, bizarre. The thing is, the thing that made them so bizarre is part of this trend we see for a number of years after. This bizarre quality can best be expressed as how unnatural the interactions were with the machines.
It wasn’t just in Star Trek. This unnatural experience proliferated throughout science fiction at the time. Remember the show Lost in Space. Robbie the robot is such a huge part of pop culture and geekitude. But it was a caricature of a human being. It was written as something close but not quite entirely unlike a real boy, like a wooden puppet but without the strings.
I hadn’t consciously made this connection until I started watching the old episodes of the show Star Blazers on Youtube. The robot that becomes part of their crew matches Robbie the Robot in all but appearance. For something that is supposed to be a super computer on its own, it is stilted, choppy, and more of a comical attachment to the rest of the show.
And this brings us back to Star Wars. So as I was watching it I began to piece together these thoughts and ideas about what was so odd. When we look at the “droids” within the stories, we find that they are caricatures of humans when they look like people and the ones that don’t look like humans are still so alien to what could be considered people or natural that we know for sure they are something different than the rest of us. But we see something a bit different as well. There is a bit of the change within the stories that bleeds through to the rest of science fiction as well. The droids in Star Wars develop their own personalities. But even then they are still stilted and alien to the human perspective.
And the way technology is displayed isn’t much better. Within the Deathstar we see the gun crews about to fire the super laser to destroy Alderaan and the equipment they are using is all push buttons and physical slides. Now, we can take into consideration that such things are part of the technology we had available for visual effects but still, it is also part of the limited ways we saw within technology at the time as well. When you consider the visual technology of the prequel movies actually looked a bit more futuristic than the original movies it shows how much our technology itself jumped in that time frame.
It was with the movie Blade Runner that we saw a bigger change in what we could expect from a story involving robots and androids. Sure there were stories in writing that showed a deeper shade of what an android could be but visually on the big or small screen, they hadn’t really been explored. The replicants of Blade Runner took the idea of artificial life to a whole new level. Without testing we couldn’t tell the difference between a replicant or a true human. And the big point of that is we had actors that could be human and still play this role of something alien to what we actually are. These roles, these ideas paved the way for what could be done with characters within stories.
Which brings us back to Star Trek, or at least the Next Generation. By the time TNG came about most fans had accepted much of the technology of the original series as simplistic at best dorky in perspective (not an attack, just a realization of what we were working with). But aside from the touch screens and datapads that were a huge improvement as well as the power of the computers in retrospect being vastly superior to even what we have now, it was the introduction of Lt. Commander Data that changed our view of what it means to have an android within a storyline.
As a play on the alien nature of the character, he looked mostly like a human but with differences to keep him apart. And then his demeanor actually fell into an almost comical interpretation of what a human could be. Instead of a replicant we were given an android that possessed similar traits and abilities of a human being but was purposely made different so that its alien nature wouldn’t upset the humans it interacted with. He became the best of both worlds and the reasons why he was not quite human became part of the lore (no pun intended) of the storyline.
The sad thing is, our technology is changing so fast now that it can be difficult to envision what to look for in the future without something either making it impossible or something changing and then taking us down a different path. Too often stories that explore the possible changes of technology now are relegated to fantasy instead of science fiction. And instead we are shown dystopias as the possible futures we can expect. Instead of pushing for a future where we can use our technology to advance our achievements we are taken to a darker place where our advancements have wreaked havoc to the world around us.
Science fiction has always been a question of what if, or what could happen if. Sometimes we have to wonder where our minds are taking us when the only answer we seem to have anymore is complete and utter destruction and the fall of society. We seem to have taken the fear of the alien nature of our technology to an extreme level.
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