Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
One of the major reasons given for Star Trek’s appeal is that it offers hope and an optimistic view of the future. Bah, humbug, I say! Nostalgia and rose-coloured glasses tend to make the past seem more appealing than the present, so I propose a similar effect caused by wistfulness and Geordi’s VISOR appliance that also tend to make the future seem more appealing than the present. Please allow me to elaborate on why I think the future portrayed by Star Trek is not “this side of paradise.”
I have been reading several books of late dealing with the topic of happiness. Apparently, scholarly institutions have now made happiness studies part of the curriculum. I suppose everyone would have an interest in happiness, because happiness is a state of mind that everyone wants to be in by definition. I like to think that I suffer from anhedonia which is a condition that prevents the experience of pleasure. Now I admit that I do experience momentary lapses of happiness, but if there were a way for me to prolong the experience, then I would go out of my way to try.
The vain part of my psyche tells me that there is a nothing in a book that could help me find happiness, but my curious part tells me that maybe my common sense is overlooking something that might have a bearing on my happiness. I’m sorry I have to say that I haven’t really learned anything from the books I’ve read so far. I guess happiness studies might fall into the category of research into things that are self-evident. The consensus among what I’ve read is that happiness may be attained only by satisfying three requirements: maintaining a comfort level that may be achieved through monetary means, being entertained through some form of play possibly involving stimulants, and having a purpose in life.
Examining the first requirement, the statement that money can’t buy happiness must be qualified, because someone without money to purchase a meal would surely be less happy than someone who doesn’t need to worry where his next meal is coming from. That is to say, there is a maximum monetary amount that varies by individual beyond which having more money will not make the individual any happier. But if a person has less than his required maximum amount, then accumulating more wealth will make the person happier.
Now if we take a look at Star Trek, there is no money in the 23rd century, or at least that’s the excuse Kirk used when he travelled back to the 20th century and made his date pay for the pizza. If we think about having no money, then maybe energy and resources are so abundant that anyone on Earth or a starship really can have anything they want by simply replicating it. We never see panhandlers in starship corridors (yeah, I know, there wouldn’t be panhandlers on a 20th century aircraft carrier either) or space stations. The only panhandlers on Star Trek were seen when the crews traveled back in time. Hunger has supposedly been eliminated in the 23rd century. With replicators, I guess farming skills and fertile land are no longer required. Okay, I’ll concede that there are no unhappy, hungry people in the 23rd century.
I wonder if being able to have anything you wanted would eliminate the human compulsion to collect and value material possessions. Even now, people value originals more than reproductions. If a replicator could reproduce an original exactly, would an original be devalued? We all know how worthless a Certificate of Authenticity is. But I think a replicated object can be detected through some quantum measurement, though I don’t know how I got that notion.
I wonder if worthless money would make gambling no longer addictive. Would adults still enjoy playing games of chance without a possibility of reward? Deep Space Nine had a casino run by Quark, a member of a race, the Ferengi, whose bible is referred to as The Rules of Acquisition. This should tell you that the Ferengi value greed as a desirable behaviour. The currency of value was gold-pressed latinum because it couldn’t be replicated. Quark was constantly seeking profit. Given that humanity has eliminated greed by the 23rd century, this raises the question of how humans and Ferengi could possibly interact. If a Ferengi immigrated to Earth, then how would the Ferengi deal with having anything he wanted?
Actually, there were some greedy humans depicted in Kirk’s time like Harcourt Fenton Mudd and the Space Station K-7 bartender who was trying to make a profit from selling tribbles. Because greedy people can never have enough, I don’t see how a greedy person in the 23rd century could be happy. On Voyager with the starship separated from the rest of the Federation, resources were limited. So they used the euphemism of accumulating and spending “credits” for stuff like holodeck time. I think the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had the concept of credits as well. I have no idea how someone got credits and if they got distributed evenly. Come to think of it, I wonder what Kirk and crew used for payment when they went to Federation planets for libations with alien women.
Concerning the topic of war that tends to disrupt people’s lives and make them unhappy, I have one observation. Even if humanity learns to appreciate each other and avoid conflict through negotiation, Star Trek shows us that there will be plenty of alien races out there for us to be at war with.
As for the second requirement for happiness, the Original Series made a point of giving the crew shore leave in order to relieve the monotony of being aboard a starship. We’ve seen the crew relaxing in a recreation room. For the first movie, the recreation room became a recreation deck. We’ve seen the crew playing games including 3-D chess and musical instruments like the Vulcan autoharp. Alcohol is still a favourite intoxicant with alien beverages like Romulan Ale adding to the variety. We don’t see any recreational drugs being used, but I think this is an artifact of our current culture that sees chemical stimulants as being bad.
By the time of the Next Generation, alcohol has been replaced by synthehol. Synthehol has the intoxicating effects of alcohol with the added benefit of allowing the imbiber to shake off the intoxicating effects at will! This is ideal for the type of situations where the crew is celebrating in ten-forward and a Borg ship happens to show up. The crew could immediately sober up and take their stations.
Reading books has retained its romantic appeal through to the 23rd century with classic authors like Dickens and Shakespeare still having their influence. I find it hard to believe that television is not watched on starships. Voyager had movie nights, but I wonder if that was only because there was time to kill on the trip home. As for video games, in The Search for Spock, there was a holographic table-top video game in a bar. In The Next Generation, a whole episode was devoted to a special alien video game that was projected from a head gear device, and the episode seemed to be an indictment of the addictive, unproductive quality of video games. Perhaps we are supposed to believe that video entertainment has been superseded by holodecks.
A holodeck first showed up on the Star Trek animated series. A holodeck is a spinoff of transporter technology like the replicator is. Basically, a holodeck tricks you into believing that you are in any environment without the need for any special eyewear or hardware attached to your body. It can also simulate life forms. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more. I am almost willing to concede on the basis of holodecks alone that Star Trek’s future is worth waiting for. Unfortunately, if you spend all your time in the holodeck, then you’re more than likely not satisfying the third requirement of happiness.
The third requirement of having a purpose in life is something we usually associate with our employment. No one really knows why humans are here on Earth, but everyone can point to what they do for a living as an accomplishment even though many people don’t find much happiness in what they do for a living. Supposedly, everyone in the 23rd century is free to pursue whatever hobbies or goals they desire. (I’m guessing that all undesirable jobs have been taken over by robotics.) But in any pursuit, there is always failure, and I can’t imagine failure making someone happy. Then again, a person can’t be happy all the time, because how can an achievement be satisfying unless there is some effort involved and a chance of failure? And how about those pursuits that might infringe on someone else’s happiness? As a silly example, what if a person wanted to perform brain surgery, but was unable to become competent enough to perform it. I imagine that person would be unhappy.
How about if someone wanted to be a starship captain? The Next Generation episode “Tapestry” even showed how unhappy Picard would have been as an ensign who had no chance of being promoted if he hadn’t been a risk taker. It might be trite to say about human endeavour, but you can’t have happiness without unhappiness. I suppose anxiety and frustration may not necessarily be viewed as unhappiness inducing. Kirk would often wreak havoc on paradisaical societies run by a computer. He would give speeches about how mankind was meant to get down and dirty, and not just in the sexual sense.
Another aspect of having a purpose in life is the spiritual component. Present day surveys show that religious people are happier than non-religious people. The creator of Star Trek had contempt for religion and was a humanist. Humanists don’t have the wacky notoriety that Scientologists have. From my understanding, humanists believe humans will be able to solve their problems through technological means. That is, we can achieve what we want without resorting to prayer.
I think a large comfort that religion provides is giving humans hope for what comes after death. The only time I can remember where human mortality was a real concern in Star Trek was in the movie Generations where Picard finds out that both his brother and his brother’s family have died in a fire. Since Picard has never had sex, I mean, since he has never created any offspring, we find him reflecting to Troi on the possibility of his branch of the Picard genetic line ending with him. In the same movie, Kirk also finds himself pondering his existence with the possibility of his retirement from Starfleet. Ultimately, he gets swept up in a false paradise, and it takes Picard to shake Kirk out of his retirement reverie even though Kirk seemed quite happy in retirement. Apparently, we don’t need religion to be happy. We just need to keep busy exploring and saving the universe.
As per my usual mode of extemporization, I’ll provide a glib summary. If you can’t find happiness in the 21st century, then you probably won’t be able to find happiness in Star Trek’s future. If Star Trek can provide any inspiration, it is to provide characters that we can use as role models to help us envision the noblest qualities of humanity. And in our emulation of those qualities, perhaps we can find happiness in the here and now.
For further reading about happiness, I recommend:
- Gilbert, D. (2006), Stumbling on Happiness, London: HarperPress.
- Hecht, J.M. (2007), The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong, New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
- Layard, R. (2005), Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, New York: Penguin Group.
- McMahon, D.M. (2006), Happiness: A History, New York: Grove Press.
- Yutang, L. (1937), The Importance of Living, New York: Quill.