“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 post was written by Ben Jones, a sophomore currently taking Trek Class. Ben is studying Broadcast Journalism and Information Management and Technology. He is from Lansing, Michigan.
Growing up, my first experience with Star Trek was actually watching the original six films, and my favorite was always Montgomery “Scotty” “There Be Whales Here” Scott. I don't quite remember what it was that made me decide he was my favorite; probably his bright, funny attitude and the fact that he got to work on all the cool stuff like the warp core. (Scotty might have inspired me to be an engineer if engineering didn't involve so much math.)
The TNG episode “Relics” brings Scotty nearly a century into his future. Times have changed since 2294: The Enterprise has gone through a few letters, ships are faster, and most notably, Klingons are at peace with the Federation. In fact, Scotty never does get used to Worf. However, Scotty is undaunted by the future and is eager to jump right in to life on the Enterprise-D. He soon discovers, though, that the future might just not be as accommodating.
Scotty is fascinated with the advances of the last 75 years, but Chief Engineer LaForge becomes more than a little annoyed with the old man doting around Engineering, getting in his way and giving unwanted, archaic advice. When Scotty warns Geordi that the dilithium crystals are about to crack, Geordi says in exasperation that they reconstitute the crystals while they are in the matrix as if it's the plainest thing in the world. In Scotty's time, it was impossible to reconstitute dilithium, a fact that was a major problem in Star Trek IV. It would seem that the world had left Scotty behind, and all that he loved and knew how to do wasn't for him anymore.
For many Americans in this century, that is a concept that strikes close to home – and close to the heart. The economy is making a major shift, and suddenly the manufacturing jobs that brought income and security to millions of people are disappearing, leaving them behind, with no other skills and nowhere to go. For someone who starting working at the auto plant right out of high school, college was never necessary. Job security was a given and there was no need to fear the future. But now, American manufacturing jobs are vanishing for a number of reasons and the economy is making a major shift into a so-called “knowledge economy” where a college education is an absolute necessity.
This issue is especially relevant in my home of Michigan. Our entire identity was built around the auto industry. Manufacturing was the foundation, heart, and soul of our economy, with cars and car parts being the core. Seeing a foreign car in a Michigan parking lot was – and in many places, still is – akin to Scotty seeing a Klingon in Starfleet. Nothing exemplified Michigan more than the honest, hard work of the blue-collar factory workers and their earnest dedication. And then, the jobs started leaving for other shores. The American Auto began its decline, and with it, Michigan entered its decline. When the industry imploded in the recent economic crisis, Michigan careened into free-fall along with it. Suddenly, Michigan's identity wasn't the proud auto worker, it was the broken and hopeless unemployed families and communities shattered by having the ground pulled out from under their feet. Unlike Scotty, there was no Captain Picard for the millions of jobless Americans to share a bottle of Aldebaran whiskey with. They had to find new jobs or find new skills – or become relics.
In many ways, Michigan is trying to hold onto the past. Bringing new fields of manufacturing to the state has been a priority of the past two gubernatorial administrations – lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels; green energy could be the auto industry of tomorrow. But Michigan is also looking to the future. Job retraining is a major focus in Michigan. Bringing adults who never went to college because they never needed to and teaching them how to be productive in a different world is the only way they will be able to continue making a living. The blue-collar workers have much to teach us; their practicality, ingenuity and industriousness are invaluable qualities that must be preserved and passed down to the next generation, regardless of where the economy is moving.
Scotty was able to use his knowledge – the very same knowledge Geordi dismissed as obsolete – to save the Enterprise. He did, after all, literally write the book on Starfleet engineering. He was also able to rig a transporter to keep a complex organism in stasis for 75 years, something that blew even Geordi away. Just because times have changed does not mean we can allow the knowledge and experience of those who came before us to be lost to time. If Scotty has taught us anything, it's that an old dog can learn new tricks – and that puppies have a few things to learn as well.
Trek Class is taught by Professor Anthony Rotolo at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool). You can follow along with Trek Class each Tuesday and Thursday at 2:00pm EST on Twitter by using the hashtag #TrekClass.