Essays on Technology and Culture

Star Trek, Cyberpunk, Douglas Adams, and Our Technology Future

This tweet has been circulating for a few years, but it remains relevant to technology discussion today, if not moreso.

Unlike so many people I follow online, I never came up on Cyberpunk. When it comes to Sci-Fi, I grew up on Star Trek—specifically The Next Generation. This might be why, when it comes to technology, there’s still some optimist under my cynical surface. You just need to scratch hard. Though later series and movies would muddy the waters (in a good way), Star Trek retains a utopian view of technology. Not one where technology undoes all human foibles, but where it helps us usher in a more peaceful world, free of material want, and with the freedom to seek fulfillment among the stars. Technology is the vehicle through which humanity’s better nature manifests into the universe.

Instead, I see technology turned against our better natures. Whether it’s governments and corporations alike spying on us through our communication tools, attempts to shove more consumer garbage down our throats, or just predicting our wants before we know we want something for the benefit of a corporate partner, I get mad. Can you blame me? This is not the future I signed up for, but as one of my favorite bands put it, “The future that [I] anticipated has been cancelled.”

So, we get the Cyberpunk future, with all the exploitive techno-capitalism, environmental disasters, and crappy music, but none of the cool fashion. At least we also don’t have to carry around as much gear. If this is the sci-fi view of the world you grew up on, I suppose it’s easy to accept it. While I read a bit of cyberpunk literature as a teen and young adult—Neuromancer and Snow Crash, specifically—I didn’t fall in love with the concept. Likely because I wouldn’t be the elite hacker, slashing his way through cyberspace, merely an office drone at one of the MegaCorps. Maybe there’s a story idea there, though.

But, the Cyberpunk dystopia is hiding its true face behind the lofty utopian rhetoric of the Star Trek future. Not that this is anything new, of course. Utopian rhetoric has been the marketing methodology of new technology for centuries. Which is why, I suppose, if there’s any Sci-Fi that truly reflects the state of technology today, it might be the other major Sci-Fi influence of my adolescence: Douglas Adams.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas extrapolates a view of technology that’s much the same as we have today: a bunch of pie-in-the-sky utopian promises that never work as advertised. This holds true whether it’s robots with “Genuine People Personalities”, or food synthesizers that analyze your body’s dietary needs and your brains desire before spitting out something “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” Hell, “Share and Enjoy” may as well be the slogan for Facebook, if not The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

The great thing about Douglas’s view of technology is that it adds the right spice of cynicism to my utopian Star Trek dreams. Even if we get our post-scarcity utopia of starships and matter replicators, they’ll probably still hang, and take every other system down with it, if someone asks for a cup of tea. But to get there, we need to decide which future we want. And we need to see past the doublespeak and false utopian nonsense spouted by Valley douchebags seeking another round of funding for their newest startup that promises to make your life easier by letting you pay someone to do menial work at a lower pay rate.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still gunning for the Star Trek future. The only way it arrived, however, was after political turmoil, and brutal war that left the planet devastated. Perhaps we must go through the cyberpunk future, the dystopia, and the horror, to reach the technological utopia on the other side. But if we can skip to utopia—or at least make the dystopia short—why shouldn’t we? Where’s my generation’s genuine Sci-Fi optimism? It sure isn’t coming from Silicon Valley.

Also published on Medium.