Star Trek Computers Aren’t All That Retro
Last month we talked about Star Trek: The Original Series miniskirts, how they came to be and what they signified. While researching the paper that eventually turned into that post, I found out some interesting things about technology too. Most sci-fi isn’t actually futurist, meaning it doesn’t actually attempt to predict the future in an accurate way. Most sci-fi is designed to make a social statement by taking a situation to an extreme, or to explore possibilities by asking scientific what-if questions, or both. It’s not meant to be a “history of the future.”
Star Trek did those social things, and fantastically well. It’s famous for them. However, it also turns out that Gene Roddenberry, creator and showrunner of Star Trek, was an enthusiastic futurist who wrote papers on the future of technology and was invited to lecture at NASA as well as several universities and colleges. While Star Trek was first and foremost a fantasy of space travel, Roddenberry was interested in presenting concepts he actually found workable and likely to exist in the future. One of his most important ideas was the Enterprise’s central computer, described in this pre-production memo:
More and more I see the need for some sort of interesting electronic computing machine designed into the U.S.S. Enterprise, perhaps on the bridge itself. It will be an information device out of which April and his crew can quickly and interestingly extract information on the registry of other space vessels, space flight plans for other ships, information on individuals and planets and civilizations, etc. This should not only speed up our storytelling but could be visually interesting.
The final version of the computer was not a physical object on the bridge, but could be accessed from several bridge stations, personal interfaces in crew quarters, and from other locations. Like most science fiction creators, Star Trek writers did not predict the rise of the internet, touchscreens, or even modern Graphical User Interfaces, so characters frequently refer to “tapes” and even use paper printouts for analysis on occasion.
The attitude toward computing is old school too: Computers are for math and for looking up information in databanks. While monitor-like screens offer books for business or pleasure, no one on the Enterprise bridge is playing Galaga or IMing their friends — not even anyone in the rec room. Computers, or rather THE computer, are for professionals, and information comes in discrete chunks that the computer can receive, provide, or compare.
Still, though, it’s worth noting that crewmembers have the advantage of a practically-infallible voice-control capability, so anyone can ask the computer for that information without a specific skillset. Plus, the central computer that can be accessed from multiple locations is actually a very important step toward the internet or a basic computer network. This is one of several cases where Star Trek directly influenced the course of technology, since Bill Gates has pinned his inspiration for personal computer operating systems on those shown in Star Trek.
The colorful, unmarked squares referred to as “microtapes” are often mocked for resembling floppy disks, but actually predated them, since even 8-inch floppy disks were not produced until 1967. The concept of removable storage was itself new at the time. Likewise, teleconferencing was hardly common in 1966, but is used about as often as voice intercom onboard the Enterprise, and is the default method of communication between space ships. The large, flat viewscreen at the front of the bridge has even been called a precursor to modern plasma screens, and while the technology used for such a thin screen was never described on the show, it fits perfectly into Star Trek’s sleek, ultramodern, seamless aesthetic.
Finally, a word on communicators. In function they resembled radios more than phones as we think of them today. You can’t leave a voicemail on a communicator, there’s a system of shared frequencies rather than individual numbers, and ALL you can do is talk on them. but as with Bill Gates’ computers, flip-phone inventor Martin Cooper has cited Star Trek communicators as his direct inspiration. Flip-phones and the idea of portable connectivity eventually led to modern smartphones: the ultraportable, ultrapowerful information innovation that Star Trek supposedly failed to predict when it “left out” the internet.
I used to laugh because Star Trek thought it was so futuristic, using floppy disks and computers without screens. Turns out I was all wrong: Star Trek wasn’t mimicing old stuff and hoping we wouldn’t notice, it came first and helped create the technological landscape we live in today!