Is the Borg the Ultimate Social Network?

By Professor Anthony Rotolo - July 11, 2011

 

“Trek Class” is a course at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies titled “Star Trek and the Information Age.” The course examines episodes of Star Trek series as a method of introducing concepts related to technology, society and leadership in our world. This ongoing series of posts seeks to share some of the concepts discussed in Trek Class with the StarTrek.com community.

For many, life in the 21st century is defined in part by constant connectivity. Mobile devices and social media such as Twitter and Facebook contribute to an “always on” lifestyle of real-time information sharing. This has had a tremendous impact on our world, allowing us to connect with friends and family, facilitating collaboration across distances and even spreading the seeds of social change throughout regions of the globe. 

However, the ability to share information quickly and easily has also helped to increase the feeling of “information overload” felt by a growing number of people. With our mobile devices competing for our attention at the dinner table or as we drive our cars, it is no surprise that some are concerned about living such a connected life. Still, it seems many are unwilling to disconnect, or even unable. 

When considering the challenges of living in an “always on” society, Star Trek may not initially seem like the best example from which to draw conclusions. There doesn’t appear to be a Federation equivalent to Facebook. We don’t see anyone tweeting from a PADD while vacationing on Risa, and no one is ever complaining about the number of unread subspace messages in their inbox. In fact, humanity in Star Trek’s 24th century seems to have no problem handling the daily flow of information.

It is possible to imagine that we, too, might be able to solve these challenges in a few hundred years, but it seems as though Star Trek has left us guessing as to how this might be accomplished. However, the franchise may still have something to tell us about our hyper-connected, socially networked world. Perhaps the lessons we’re looking for are not found aboard a starship… but instead a Borg cube.

The Borg is a connected lifestyle taken to the extreme, but functionally it is not unlike some of our own technologies. Through social networks like Twitter, for example, we seek to share our thoughts and ideas in real time. We can track trends and even make decisions based on the wisdom of the crowd -- a practice known as “crowd sourcing.” The Borg operates in much the same way, except that participation in the Collective is not voluntary.

With its relentless pursuit of technological perfection and forced assimilation, the Borg represents the fear that technology may ultimately overtake humanity. Among the human values most at risk from the Borg are individuality and creativity, making its collective consciousness, or “hive mind,” its most terrifying aspect. Although we may hope to achieve some of the benefits of the Collective with our own social networks, most of us are unwilling to give up the freedom to disconnect. 

Whether or not our tweeting and texting will turn us into drones is impossible to say, but Star Trek shows us that stepping away from the connected life can have its benefits at times.

After his assimilation and subsequent rescue, Captain Picard had his own feelings of information overload. Beyond the need to cope with the trauma of the experience, Picard found himself overwhelmed with the voices, or information, that had been flowing through him while linked to the Collective. Life aboard the Enterprise, even with its less intrusive information environment, suddenly seemed overwhelming. To recover, Picard returned to his family vineyard in France – a location free of technology where he could clear his head.

In his book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, author William Powers points to Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus to show the value of disconnecting in this way. In the story, Socrates leaves the hyper-connected city of Athens to spend time in the countryside debating an idea with his friend Phaedrus. This “disconnected” experience proves enlightening for Socrates, much like Picard’s journey to the French countryside is for him. It is ultimately this brief period away from his technological life that allows Picard to appreciate the value of reconnecting aboard the Enterprise.

However, choosing to disconnect may not always be easy. Just as Seven of Nine experienced panic and even medical complications after her link to the Collective was severed, we may experience our own difficult reactions. Fortunately, few of us will suffer such severe effects from powering off our phones, but we may indeed feel anxious, distracted or even helpless when disconnected. This might be because we fear missing out on important information, or because we are dreading the number of messages requiring a response once we return.

If you are one of the many living a connected lifestyle, these concerns may indeed be valid. Finding time to disconnect may hardly seem worth the effort, especially when you will be heading right back to the “hive mind” all over again. But like Picard after his trip home, you may also find a new appreciation for the connected life you’ll be returning to.

When it comes to balancing a connected lifestyle, resistance may be futile… but even a Borg drone needs to regenerate sometimes.

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Anthony Rotolo is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool), where he specializes in social media. A new semester of Trek Class will begin meeting on August 30 at 5:00pm EST, when you will be able to join the class discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #TrekClass. Until then, Professor Rotolo will continue to share concepts and reflections from this semester’s class on StarTrek.com.

 

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