2005-10-30

Spiffy-Tech and the End of the Vs. Debate

As modern technology has improved and we've begun to see some extraordinary things just over the horizon, I've often contemplated the end of the Vs. Debate.

In the not-so-distant future, nano- and other technology advances will bring possibilities largely undreamt of in either Trek or Wars, both of which will rapidly become anachronistic, technologically speaking. The problem is actually going to be worse for Trek, given that there have been so many more hours of it, hours in which technological details have been mentioned. However, it will affect both quite thoroughly.

Take, for instance, simple things like reports. On multiple occasions in Trek, we've seen people tasked with carrying a report to another part of the ship on an electronic padd . . . most notably in "Good Shepherd"[VOY6], but also in TOS (Yeoman Rand) and "Tapestry"[TNG6].

In large degree, this sort of thing was anachronistic when it was written . . . even by TNG6 e-mail was sufficiently prevalent that I can't imagine the writers (even the paper-and-pen Ira Behr) didn't know about it. Certainly it would be more efficient to transmit a report directly to someone else's console or place it on some sort of central shipboard server instead of having some poor guy physically carry a laptop-analogue to another part of the ship.

Of course, we can invent excuses for this sort of anachronism, such as it being a preventative measure against eavesdropping on shipboard signals. Of course, one of the promises of quantum computing is quantum cryptography, which would theoretically make eavesdropping impossible. But, the history of cryptography (not to mention the existence of subspace doohickeys) would suggest that a way might be found around that, assuming quantum cryptography is even employed in Trek.

(Incidentally, eavesdropping-avoidance is why I always liked the whited-out windows on the older physical and low-res CGI models. In truth it was merely because they couldn't show the interiors easily until the CGI ability and budgets got high enough. But personally, I liked the idea of a "white-out option" since, after all, if you're looking at important ship data you'd hardly want to let the enemy simply peek in your window! And just think of the windows of certain quarters on the Enterprise-D that are within line-of-sight of other windows . . . voyeurs would rejoice!)

Similarly, both Trek and Wars have weapons with various sorts of small scope mechanism, little scanners or whatnot with tiny screens, and other similar things. The basic idea is that of hand-held tools that don't obscure the face of the actor. However, even today we're well on our way to tiny hologram generators that would be far more useful than the tiny screen of a tricorder or the vague, zoomless aiming that comes from a handheld pistol or especially a Type I phaser. They could also be used for augmented reality systems . . . or, alternately, a tricorder-like device (using ultra-wideband and other techniques could be worn visor-like over the eyes or as a helmet. Or, as long as we're at it, just go ahead and do a direct overlay-projection into the eye (or from within via nanotech).

Just imagine the difference between traipsing through the woods on some alien planet looking down every few seconds to check your tricorder as you look for some alien object (not to mention lifesigns of your enemies) versus having a display right in front of you that not only gives you a constant reference of which way to head, but will also pull up little target boxes and show you an augmented view of your surroundings with that badguy behind the tree clearly visible. And then, imagine if that were tied in to your weapon so that you could see exactly where you were aiming even if you were aiming from the hip.

Now picture that happening at night.

(Of course, at night and in a situation of stealth I'd rather have a projectile weapon with a flash suppressor as opposed to a phaser or blaster.)

I'm reminded of a paper I recently read that touched on some of the tactical issues regarding the Winter War between Russia and Finland, which (along with the Continuation War) is an often-forgotten conflict from during WW2. In the paper, we hear of how, during the frigid December of 1939, a Russian motorized division (tanks and other heavies) was basically completely wiped out by a bunch of loggers on skis. The Finns, more experienced with dealing with the bitter cold, could approach quietly at night on the powdery snow via their skis and, shooting from the hip with their Suomi submachine guns, pick off the invaders. Naturally, their only real lighting was from the Russian campfires . . . moonlight was generally scarce in mid-December 1939 (-1938 on the chart).

(Though most people in the modern electrified era with its bright city lights have little conception of just how dark night can really be and thus how well one could probably see on a snow-covered terrain reflecting even a moon-sliver's light, it remains true in the final analysis that it was pretty damned dark.)

Ignoring the enhanced mobility of the Finnish skiers versus the non-skiing Russians being forced to wade and trudge through the deep powder, there's still the fact that they were firing on the enemy at night in hit-and-run attacks, perhaps even 'ski-by shootings'. The Finns favored shooting from the hip with the Suomi, since even the "smokeless" powder would produce enough of a cloud to foul up one's efforts at aiming from the shoulder pretty quickly. Just imagine how much more effective they could've been even with modern night-vision, not to mention a full augmented reality system like the type described above.

But I digress . . .


In short, the writers were generally bound by the limitations of the technology during the time they wrote (or at least the popular knowledge of it), along with some Hollywood-specific limitations . . . hence all the macroscopic components, handheld devices, and so on. Indeed, one of the great things about television and film is that you can actually show some really cool stuff . . . but one of the perils of television and film is that you can't go on talking about it if you're trying to tell a story.

For instance, imagine if Riker walked into a briefing with his sleeve rolled up, incessantly tapping a finger at his exposed arm. The camera closes in and we see him hard at work pressing padd-like touch-screen buttons and making a video display on his arm change. It would look absurd, of course, but that sort of thing isn't too terribly far away.

That would certainly be one way to have a padd on you while also roaming about on an observation mission of some 20th-Century-or-less society, wouldn't it?

Of course, some of the Trek and Wars anachronisms would be intentional. For instance, there's the 'dataport' as seen on DS9, a device allowing direct neural interface with a computer and even mind-to-mind contact (leading to 'net-girl' non-physical prostitution . . . evidently dataports are more advanced than the Prytt psionic neural transceiver from "Attached"[TNG7]). This concept has appeared elsewhere, of course . . . perhaps the most useful version I know of was in 3001, where Arthur C. Clarke mentions that everyone uses "braincaps" which allow a person to directly access all the information of the world, and are self-aware secretaries besides. I don't know of any current research that will give us something that advanced, but I can certainly understand why a person might not want to have one, and why it wouldn't be a good idea to solely rely on it. (On the other hand, I could get a helluva-lot more work done if I didn't have to type everything out, for although I'm a helluva-speedy typist it still takes time. And of course, it's remarkable how quickly we come to rely on things that start out as merely helpful. Cellphones, anyone?)

But that brings us to my final point for the moment. In the end, one of the things from either franchise that will continue to be relevant (beyond the entertainment value of the basic storylines) will be the Borg. In an age where people could integrate and internalize technology into their person to that extent, the concept of holding on to one's humanity will become increasingly important. Thus, although Trek and Wars tech will probably look pretty backwards in a few years (not counting things like hyperdrive and excessive energy production), the two might yet have a little bit of relevance for the future.

6 comments:

  1. Have you seen Final Fantasy: the Spirits within? they use a holographic padd just like you describe.

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  2. Well, Antimatter systems and even FUSION(!) systems won't be anachrinisms for years. And actually, it goes better for trek: Transporters, feeling holograms, Terraforming, long-range sensors - all this things are completely off -0 rocker for modern science.
    Some things however are only understandable now: why can't they simply have more holodocs? They are copy-protected!

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  3. Anachronistic? In the not-so-distant future? Not likely.

    While it's true that the computer and communication technology have advanced tremendously over the last two decades, I wouldn't say we can completely surpass the Wars or Trek tech level any time soon. In many areas we are still lagging very far behind, and it seems the situation won't necessarily change much in 10 or 20 years.

    For instance, take a look at A.C. Clarke's 2001 and consider the spacecraft Discovery. It's far beyond the reach of the spaceflight technology we have today with plasma thrusters, hibernation, and, of course, HAL. Sure, there's nothing (?) there that modern science would regard as "impossible", but lots of engineering development is necessary before we could even attempt to build a spaceship like that. The best thing we have is still the Space Shuttle, and that isn't much. We're lucky if we have anything like the Discovery before 2050. (Or before 2100, considering the way things are going for the space exploration.)

    Now, compare the Discovery with NCC-1701--or with any Trek or Wars starship, for that matter. There's a huge gap there. It may well be that systems like the warp drive (or hyperdrive) and the transporter are categorically impossible to build; perhaps the laws of nature simply do not allow them to work. The person who wrote the previous comment put it well--we won't even have useful fusion reactors for decades! Let's not get too cocky.

    Even though this is a little off topic, I can't resist commenting on the paragraphs that have to do with the Winter War. Being Finnish and having served in the Finnish Military as a conscript myself, I found some of the statements slightly inaccurate. Shooting from the hip with the Suomi was indeed common among experienced submachine gunners, but the smoke generated by the gun was never a major issue, a fact that remains true with practically every modern infantry firearm. I have fired continuously with both the Finnish RK62 assault rifle (essentially a modified AK-47) and the KvKK62 light machine gun, both of which have a rate of fire comparable to that of the Suomi. Furthermore, the cartridge they use is considerably bigger, containing a lot more powder and packing more punch (the Suomi is, after all, a 9mm weapon). I have never experienced any kind of trouble aiming because of the smoke. There are several accounts of machine guns firing until their barrels almost melt because of the heat, and even then the smoke has been virtually negligible as a hindrance. (The opposite, however, was true for the old blackpowder MG's of the late 1800's.)

    It's also worth noting that the Finns can't see better than other people in the dark ;-)... If the Finnish troops had had night vision systems back then, chances are everyone else would have had them too, bearing in mind how the Finnish Military has always suffered from the lack of modern equipment. That would have effectively negated most of the advantage the Finns enjoyed. However, I think it's time to digress...

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  4. I've been pretty consistent that not all Trek and Wars tech would be surpassed (some is patently absurd, after all), so my apologies if I was unclear this time out.

    As for the Suomi issue, I was going by what I read online from experts and others, with pictures. Perhaps the powder from your weapons was different than what was used circa 1940?

    And no, Finns can't see better in the dark, nor was I attempting to suggest such a thing. However, anyone who is in the woods and lit only by a sliver of moonlight will have an advantage on approach toward someone whose eyes are adjusted to campfire-light.

    In any case, thanks for your lengthy reply.

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  5. One of the challenges about writing science fiction is not about what new technologies exist in the fictional world, but what real-world technologies would be obsolete in the fictional world.
    For example, shovels have not become obsolete even though thety predate Christ. Copper wiring is still used to transmit electrical power to modern computers.
    Keyboards have not yet become obsolete even though they have existed for over a hundred years.
    What present-day technologies would become obsolete either in the Star Wars universe or Star Trek universe?

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  6. @Sailersaturanmoon12 The vary notions of interstellar space flight and terraforming becoming anarchistic. Why would you send humans off into space in a massively expensive ship to completely restructure a star system when you could shoot off swarms of self replicating robots with human DNA which could enter a system and proceed to modify the Humans to fit the planets at an infinitesimal fraction of the cost?

    As far as 2001 tech there is absolutely NOTHING in 2001 that the USA could not have done at the turn of the millennia had we had the political will to do it (with the notable exception of cryofreezing crew) Our computers blew HAL away. The ISS masses close to what the Discovery and is nearly as long and much wider. Plasma and Ion engines were already in space and to be honest most Hybrid cars has more band width then the Discovery.

    As far as transporters holodecks and alien monoliths go ppl will remember them in much the same way as we think of those quaint 19th century pictures of Victorian gentleman loading into cannons to be shot at the moon in open air space trains,. in short cute and totally impossible.

    As far as Finns shooting from the hips, I use to do biathlon ski shooting and allot of survival hunting in the UP of Michigan. It is Really hard to keep your balance and shoot from a standing position on skies. At short ranges it would make sense to keep moving and fire from the hip and with training I could see it being possible. I mean I have hit rabbits from the hip at short ranges with a .22. Im sure some one with a sub machine gun could hit a man sized target quite a bit further away

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