Trek Class: Exploring the Information Age from the Final Frontier

By Professor Anthony Rotolo - February 24, 2011

StarTrek.com goes to school… literally. Join us as we welcome our latest guest blogger, Syracuse University Professor Anthony Rotolo, who’ll regularly take us inside his “Trek Class” and invites you to “sit in” via Twitter. 

Star Trek has inspired generations of learners to pursue careers in science and technology. As a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, and an avid fan, I have always appreciated Star Trek for this quality and often found great value in using Trek examples to illustrate concepts in class. It was this practice that led me to develop my new course, "Star Trek and the Information Age," which launched just a few weeks ago.

Popularly known as "Trek Class" (or #TrekClass on Twitter), the course seeks to explore our current society, the “Information Age,” through the lens of the Final Frontier. Using episodes from Star Trek series, we are studying some of today’s most pressing issues, including: essential skills for careers in an information economy, social media and emerging information innovations, balancing an always-connected lifestyle, security, privacy and much more.

As the semester began, I challenged students to think critically about not only the 23rd and 24th centuries of Star Trek, but also what the franchise can tell us about our own world and near future. Quoting Captain Picard, I told the students, “We have no idea what the true facts about us will reveal," as we began our exploration by looking at “historical” depictions of the 21st Century in episodes like “Encounter at Farpoint” (TNG) and “Past Tense” (DS9). 

Just as humanity is literally put on trial by Q in “Farpoint,” we attempted to put our own culture to the same test. Perhaps it is not surprising that many students were not convinced that humanity as we know it would fare well under such scrutiny. Digging deeper, however, we focused on specific aspects of the “post-atomic horror” (circa 2079), attempting to find contemporary connections. 

One interesting discussion emerged around chemically altered or enhanced soldiers, which are described in the episode as common in our “future.” After examining information on current “supersoldier” research, which intends to collect and leverage information about a soldier’s performance, the potential benefits and risks became a concern among students.

Similarly, the Bell Riots of 2024 serve as an eerie reminder that our world may not be so different from the near future portrayed in "Past Tense." Examining a scenario where entire populations are disconnected from society as a means of addressing social issues, students immediately drew connections to the current uprisings throughout the Middle East. 

Much like residents of the episode’s “sanctuary districts” are kept from accessing “the Net” to tell their stories, students pointed to the government shutdown of the Internet in Egypt as an attempt at the same type of control. Discussions of global connectivity and Internet governance emerged, as well as an examination of the current debate over Net Neutrality (which I will share in greater detail in a future post).

These discussions have laid the groundwork for a semester of exploration that has already proven both valuable and sometimes unpredictable. For example, while examining whether Data, an android, is a sentient being (“The Measure of a Man”), the discussion turned to the book Data cherishes as a keepsake from his captain, and whether printed information will persist into the 24th Century. As the Enterprise-D battles the Borg (“The Best of Both Worlds”), students considered how Borg technology compares to proposed smart grid technology, but also related the power struggle between Commander Riker and Lt. Commander Shelby to the clash between Baby Boomers and the so-called Millennial workforce to which they belong. And when Captain Picard questions his high-tech life after being assimilated and rescued from the Borg (“Family”), we questioned our own hyper-connected lifestyles as well.

I will share many of these discussions with you through a series of upcoming Trek Class posts, but there are also a few ways you can join the conversation through the social media components of the course. 

First, I invite you to participate in our real-time Twitter chat as we watch the featured episodes each week. This takes place every Tuesday and Thursday at 2:00 p.m. (EST) using the hashtag #TrekClass

In addition to classroom discussion, students are also contributing to a collaborative blog called “The Collective,” a reference to the Borg hive mind – or, what I call “the ultimate social network.” You can find the beta version of The Collective at TrekClass.com, where you can comment on the students’ thoughts and even post reflections of your own. Many students are experiencing Star Trek for the first time and could benefit from your knowledge.

My students and I look forward to meeting many of you online, exploring these important topics and also celebrating the continuing legacy and cultural relevance of Star Trek. Look for future Trek Class posts here as well, where we will boldly go where no class has gone before.

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Anthony Rotolo is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool), where he teaches courses on social media, real-time information and Star Trek. Anthony is also co-founder of enormo.us, a storytelling company that specializes in social media consulting, interactive content and animation. For more information, check out http://rotolo.syr.edu 

 

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