It's Alive!!!

Curator's Note

It’s Alive!!!

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is the perfected answer to Mary Shelley’s nineteenth century caveat to humanity’s interest in evolving through technology. Data is a modern-day Frankenstein; he was not born so much as built in an effort to bring sentient life to circuitry…in human form. The character of Data represents what is called the "technological singularity" —the thing that will push humanity to its intellectual event horizon — or, point of no return. The term was first coined in 1993 by retired professor and novelist, Vernor Vinge. Vinge and other futurists believe there will be an "intelligence explosion" after the singularity, though if humanity does reach an event horizon, no one can even begin to realistically predict the outcome.

In 1996's First Contact, the crew of the Enterprise comes face to face with an alien collective known as the Borg. Every bit a futuristic Frankenstein-race, the Borg "assimilate" natural humanoid beings by taking off various parts of their biological bodies, replacing them with "advanced" technology like robotic arms. By forcibly adding to the collective, the Borg are in a constant evolutionary state, consistently perfecting all they are. The caveat here is that there are no individuals — ever. It is an entanglement of the worst kind.

When Data is captured by the Borg-Queen in First Contact, instead of removing his biological parts and replacing those parts with "improved" technological parts, Data’s arm is grafted with human skin. He becomes a reverse-Frankenstein, where perfection isn't found through science and technology, but through humanity itself. Now Data can feel, a totally alien sensation to the android. Yet physical sensation is something humans take for granted every day.

Since the advent of science and technology, humanity has become distracted from itself—always looking to animate the inanimate for the purpose of claiming ourselves gods. But we will not find our evolution in a technological singularity, or an anticipated intellectual event horizon. The true prophets of human evolution are better found on the silver screen, in the pages of comic books, and in the media musings of other 100% human minds…no nanotechnology needed.


Watching this scene for the first time in a while, I'm struck by the fact that the only humanoid part of the Borg-Queen's body is her head; this would seem to support the argument you're making about the relative strengths of humanity vs. those of the Borg. I'm curious about the signifiance of grafting the human skin on Data, though. What's the difference between the thinking that takes place in the mind and the sensation that is registered on the surface of the body? Is one more "human" than the other? Is one more easily simulated by technology, and why? Just questions prompted by your thoughtful commentary.   

Interesting stuff. I'm  fascinated by the flip-flop of thinking about Data's skin grafting as AI evolution coming full circle – very weighty stuff considering our anti-BODY culture. With regards to the body it’s quite easy to conceptualize the borg as the body culture we currently promote – homogeneous images of perfection – think of Hollywood’s starlets and all their plastic parts. An AI future is pretty much my nightmare – BUT... we are already cyborgs – aren’t we? We always have been. Human beings aren’t singular beings. We're collectives. This is all wrapped up in our ideas of the liberal subject and our  belief that the  options are singular or collective – we need to think philosophically more in the gray – the space where technology and the body exist together because that’s  reality. Check out Andy Clark’s book Natural Born Cyborgs – he argues that  blending with technology is part of our make-up as beings.

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