“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 series of posts seeks to share some of the concepts discussed in Trek Class with the StarTrek.com community.
April 5, 2063, known as First Contact Day in the Star Trek universe, marks the date of Zefram Cochrane’s first successful warp-speed flight and the beginning of humanity’s journey beyond Earth’s solar system. When representatives of the Vulcan people noticed Cochrane’s warp signature and landed at the launch site to initiate first contact, humanity became aware of other life in the galaxy.
Although we know that humanity’s struggles with poverty, war and other societal ills were not immediately overcome, First Contact Day marked the beginning of a chain of events that eventually addressed these issues and laid the foundation for the United Federation of Planets and the ideals that so often define Star Trek in the minds of its fans.
In celebration of First Contact Day, I invited Rod Roddenberry, son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, to connect with Trek Class and share his unique perspective on his father’s work and its impact throughout the world. Rod’s conversation with the class was thought provoking, insightful and occasionally hilarious (such as when Rod admitted to having Star Wars birthday parties as a child, much to the dismay of his father).
Reflecting on his experience growing up around Star Trek and witnessing its impact on fans and culture, Rod told the class that he most values the stories of fans that have felt inspired by Star Trek to overcome challenges or disabilities. He recounted some of these stories from memory and explained that each demonstrates how the message of Star Trek remains as relevant today as ever. When asked about the impact of Star Trek on the science and technology community, the class agreed that the franchise appears to have significantly inspired the creation of Trek-like gadgets visible around us today – from iPads to mobile phones Rod pointed out that some Trek technology, which had not yet been realized in our world, might have even broader implications – even leading to a First-Contact-like moment for our own society.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking concept Rod raised for the class was along these lines. He asked students to consider the events that might follow the invention of a replicator device similar to those depicted in Star Trek. Rod challenged the students to imagine how our society would react to technology that had the potential to eliminate hunger, material desires or even the need for money itself. “Would there be a period of chaos?” he asked, “and would people eventually decide to work for the good of society?” as we know to be the case on Star Trek’s future Earth.
Telling the class that he believed such a result was possible, although admittedly after a period of chaos – “everyone who wants a Lamborghini would go out and get one,” he joked – he asked the students to challenge his assertion. What followed was a thoughtful assessment of how college students, at least this group of students, view their world, and the type of leadership that will be required if we are to hope for our own “first contact moment.” Students in Trek Class were ultimately divided on this question. Some believed, like Rod, that humanity would be capable of rising to the opportunities this breakthrough would offer. Others remained firm in their belief that self-interest, pettiness or laziness would prevent many in society from contributing in a world without the financial motivation to work.
It may be impossible to know exactly how events would unfold, but my students and I would like to know how you would answer Rod’s question --
How would our society react to the invention of a replicator?
I invite you to post your thoughts on this in the comments section below, and I will even include some of our responses in a future class discussion.
On behalf of Trek Class, I want to thank Rod Roddenberry for leading us in a truly valuable discussion, which allowed the class to see that the distance between April 5, 2011, and April 5, 2063, may seem immense, but it is perhaps not so great after all.
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.