Homo-Sapiens Only? Known Unknowns and Other Minds Beyond the Human

Curator's Note

Star Trek VI calls on Fukiyama (not so subtly) and Hegel to think about the insecurity contained in an unknown future. But every frontier begs to be explored, and we do this today through premediation, big data and predictive analytics. Starfleet (and human society) is only a "homo-sapiens only" club if we acknowledge people as being fundamentally technical beings. We explore space with the aid of spacecraft, and we explore the future with the aid of non-humans that help us to judge risks and map out possible futures. Technology is no instrumental actor, but a partner sometimes equally as alien as the Klingons. In Star Trek, it even has the capacity to suddenly come to life, as technology does again and again (the Nomad probe from TOS: "The Changeling", Data in The Next Generation, the Exocomps in TNG: "The Quality of Life", the Enterprise-D itself in TNG: "Emergence", and the Doctor over the course of Star Trek: Voyager).

Ecology always defines the relationships between forms of life. So what is the ecology of humans and non-humans? To investigate other minds futher, what is a machine ecology like? Star Trek often rests on technological instrumentalism as a prerequisite to a future utopia, that things are neutral and only serve the wishes of their users. But more often than not, we are at war with things, in our uncertainty and inability to relate to their capabilities. Graham Harman and object-oreinted-ontologists argue that things “retreat” from knowability. As the future becomes discovered by predictive analyics, the new undiscovered country is not ahead of us, but all around in the things and technics we depend on for survival. Must we have "faith" then, as Spock impores to Valaris?

Later in the film, Kirk laments his son's death at the hands of Klingons. "I've never trusted Klingons, and I never will." Can we trust the Internet of Things, if it hacks us? Do we have faith in the news, despite the renewal of interest in techniques of propaganda (something Ellul warned us of)? If things have a mind, what is it to psychoanalyze the machine and its course in history? Are they as insecure of their persistance as we are of each other?


Hi Nathanael, Thank you for your post! I like the way you point out how "Star Trek often rests on technological instrumentalism as a prerequisite for a future utopia," a viewpoint that often reinscribes human dominance over the non-human as a condition for social and cultural progress. I am wondering though how you would fit the franchise's treatment of the Borg into your criticism? The Borg seem to be the most often returned-to case of an ecology that traverses the human(oid) and the nonhuman, but unlike the utopian aspirations of Starfleet, the Borg Collective typically plays the role of Starfleet's dystopian opposite, embodying a mode of existence that is horrifically devoid of free choice. The way the Borg are treated by Star Trek, in general but with a few exceptions, seems to suggest that the confrontation between predictive analytics and the human might be staged in terms of a conflict between freedom and coercion, rather than between uneasy partners or allies. Do you see Star Trek as providing a viable framework for thinking our own technologically mediated present and future, or is it limited by its instrumentalist view of technology?

Hi John, Thanks for the reply! It's interesting to compare the attitudes about technology that the federation and the Borg both represent. The instrumentalist view of the federation seems argues that technology is controlled by people. The Borg are a good example of what people usually talk as technological determinism - as discussed by philosophers like Langdon Winner and in a good deal of neo-luddite literature. The key features of this view is also a sort of dialectic belief in the progress of history towards an ending, or "perfected" technologies which are improving upon one another, and their social autonomy. Related is Winner's view that there is a sort of "technological imperative" - or that in order to have a car, you need an engine, roads, infastructure, the petroleum industry - and that things are dependent on and precipitate each other. The problem is that both views (instrumentalism and determinism) rely on a belief that these things are neutral - a wheat thresher has no inherent values in it any more than a gun or a nuclear bomb. Andrew Feenberg makes the case that value-laden perspectives involve critical theory (where technology is still controlled by humans, and that we have a choice in deciding alternatives to different ways of being), or "substantivism" (where means and ends are linked in autonomous systems. I think that Star Trek teats all technology in the instrumentalist way, even though the Borg are a spectre of determinism. Think of Seven of Nine and all the countless uses for nano-probes that Voyager comes up with. While the borg want to assimilate and add technological distinctivness to its own its always the hive mind (or the Queen) motivating this, not explicitly some sociotechnical system (Q even calls the Borg "the ultimate user"). Now we could argue that group consciousness is a unique example of things having minds or a hybrid kind of mind (the very point a cyborg), but the case I made here was that humans are just as much cyborgs. I am wearing glasses to see this, I am using a keyboard and a computer to communicate. Some people wear pacemakers and fitbits, and I'd assume most of us wear clothes. Does this make us cyborgs? If we expand our definition of technology to include all tools, sure. Does it change our minds and our consciousness? This is the problem I have - I think we can make the case for a sort of dynamic between people and "things" or technology (particularly if we think of language as a tool). But the point is that in Star Trek, it's "the human spirit" or "inalienable human rights" as Checkov puts it, which are motivating people to do things. Non-humans are only respected in Star Trek when can communicate a case for their right to exist. The cybernetic components of the borg are just body parts, and they seem pretty stupid when not hooked up to a pitiful organic. The Borg may be cyborgs, but their minds are entirely human/oid, and not machine. Maybe this is why Data and Lore were so fascinating to them.

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