Like many people, I've been slowly rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ever since it popped up on Netflix. And one thing becomes clear: in many ways, 2012 has already overtaken DS9 as The Future goes — barring, of course, space travel and replicators. Culturally, at least, we've zoomed right past Star Trek's version of the 24th century, by the second decade of the 21st.
I've been struck particularly by two things missing from the DS9 universe — one that was unpredictable in the 1993-99 span of the series, and one that was predictable but unattractive from the creators' standpoint. Nobody uses social media, and nobody wastes time. Spoilers ahead...
As I watch everyone interact on the station, the lack of social media sticks out hugely to me simply because it is how so many of us interact with each other now—and especially over long distances. There is no hashtag for DS9 workers to tweet LOLSisko macros or talk to families back home. Everyone uses voice/video communication rather than text despite the security issues this obviously poses (and of course a social network of any kind poses security problems in and of itself, but provides rich narrative opportunities in that arena which I've yet to see explored much) and the fact that we are seeing even now many people shy away even from the telephone when given an alternative. We have the videophones of science fiction past—and no one much cares. We use it sometimes, but it's far more of a pain to make yourself presentable onscreen, get the kids and dogs to leave you alone for long enough to Skype, and carry on an etiquette minefield of a conversation when a quick text or email will do for most business.
This doesn't begin to cover the constant "come here and see this" requests, where said person will not be able to come there and see that due to falling plot. We live in a world already where no one need come and see anything, a quick picture upload obviates the need for O'Brien to come squint at your shit in person. Part of the reason, I think, that Minority Report continues to be a watchwod for interface technology is that it showed a new(ish) way for people to interact with technology. In DS9, instantaneous information tech is available and evenly distributed, but the writers do not live in a world, yet, where anyone has begun to figure out what to do with it. So walkie talkies are still, in 1999, the model for communication. DS9 cares about physical presence in a way we are already beginning to leave behind. Image by Lord Magnusen
All of the episodes involving Jake's incipient writer-hood (besides being pretty weaksauce in general) make much more sense if one imagines him as a blogger rather than an intrepid boy reporter for...a newspaper? Magazine? I find it sort of touching that the kind of 30s reporter that Jake seems to aspire to be is still considered worthy and important—he wants to write our brand of McCarthy/Hemingway realist fiction (when we hear his plots they do not involve spaceships or aliens even though those would be realism for him) and even more amusingly, he's terribly famous in the future he glimpses on account of having published a single short story collection. In fact, the war correspondence he so longs to write—and he believes he is the only one who can write it—would be one of many, many voices escaping from occupied DS9 in the post Arab Spring networked news hivemind.
I do think the presence of a TrekTwitter would be deeply erosive to the power structure on DS9, though I'm not wholly sure that's a bad thing. Everyone in power is good and believes themselves a hero—even when they are deceitful and manipulative it is always in service of the greater good, where the greater good is defined as the survival of the Federation. Can you imagine the subreddit for the station? How many atheists would tear down Sisko the messiah, how every decision would be questioned, mocked, dissected where the actors and the acted upon could see it? Every show of this type has a "view from below" episode at some point—but part of the point of the barrage of opinions and information we now sort through every day is that the view from below is as available as the A narrative, at all times. Image by LedVen/Cheezburger.
But it's not there. At one point someone asks for a high-speed data connection and this is treated as a pretty serious request. But all I could think is: for what?
This absolutely feeds into my second point, which I think is far more endemic to SF in general than simply the lack of anyone predicting Facebook in 1993.
We do see hobbies on the station: O'Brien and Bashir, who are basically married by Season 2, like to re-enact famous battles in the holosuite. Sisko likes to re-enact baseball games. People gamble, they play sports, they play instruments, they buy prostitutes both virtual and real. But the hobby we see most often is reading books (followed by cooking food, which is interesting and I think a right call in a world of replicators—real, cooked food suddenly has a tremendous value and becomes a status-flag) we never see anyone just wasting time.
Battle re-enactments are eminently useful for military officers; likewise strategic sports and even Picard's mystery-solving programs and the crew's bafflingly low-tech poker games, though that's getting further afield than I'd like. Gambling is almost always shown as a social activity (as opposed to online poker) in which many other kinds of important information can be had. Reading books is mentally stimulating and often the books themselves are classics even by our own standards, such as Shakespeare. (Most people, no matter what their profiles say, do not read Shakespeare to unwind. Apparently all Starfleet captains do, however.) In fact, the pastimes we see are very Victorian in nature. They are parlor pastimes: reading, talking, playing live instruments (something we already see drastically less of than even a few decades ago, especially as compared to how many people can play Rock Band vs can play a guitar). It's all over Aubrey and Maturin up in there.
Nobody sits around and plays Farmville. Nobody gets embroiled in a flame war concerning the portrayal of Klingons in human vids or just sits and watches vids with their feet up. Nope. The brave men and women of the future read (super old) books, talk to each other face to face, and even in their VR fantasies practice for things they will have to do in real life or, admittedly quite realistically, have space holosex. There is no WoW. There are no video games at all unless they are evil ones from Risa that will suck out your brains.
Because of this, and because of the lack of a social network, it is possible to be alone in the Star Trek world in a way which I would have to deliberately take action to achieve in my world. Even when we are alone, most of us check a number of communication vectors and leave them live—Twitter, email, text messages, Facebook, our blogs, Reddit, news feeds. We are a baby hivemind spinning our training wheels. To be alone as profoundly (to me) as Sisko, Kira, and the rest often are, I would have to make a decision to shut down all of those streams. (And I do that sometimes. But it's a choice. The Internet is always on. Actually, in my house we have 19th century nights where all the power and screens are shut off and only pre-electricity activities are on the table. You know, reading books, playing live instruments, talking, cooking, playing cards. It's a bit hilarious that those nights are the closest thing I can get to living on DS9.) Image via SciFun.
Sidebar: Interestingly, the whole notion of the Great Link seems to present a very high-level version of that interconnected, networked state, much like Asimov's Galaxia. This is a concept that used to horrify me, being a good 14 year old "rugged" "individualist" American. But now I live in the baby-version of that world, where I can plug into the world's thoughts at will. It's addictive; very hard to unplug once you're there. And the Great Link is a wholly, constantly networked culture—even their bodies are open source. They do not need to eat or work or sleep or have sex or die. When they're not getting up in the Alpha Quadrant's grill, they simply are.
And in terms of DS9's universe, the Great Link is at best squicky and at worst an abomination. That connectivity, that lack of need, is presented as a big part of their Otherness, the reason that not only are they bad because they engineer species and want to fight the Federation, but that their being is essentially suspect. Not like our upstanding heroes, who never waste a moment, never let a consideration of others get too much in the way of Doing the Right Thing.
Anyway. I know wasting time is not necessarily narratively interesting, (though it can be. How one wastes time says a lot about a person) but Star Trek is at least in lip-service a post-scarcity world, and the Federation is not at war until Season six. Wasting time and/or fucking around would be a lot of what people did with their lives. It's a lot of what we do now, and we're not even close to post-much at all. No one is frivolous in the future. No one exhibits poor or even mediocre time management. All are paladins of self-organization.
Wasting time has a unique pleasure (some call it slack) that we as humans are kind of addicted to. We're starting to do it collectively on our social networks now, to waste time in a connected way. The universe of DS9 is culturally incredibly old-fashioned — all the aspects of life that were important to a 19th century officer can be found in spades, both in-show and in a meta-sense. In a world with faith in its higher-ups, as Star Trek purported to be, it is terrifying to see the paladins playing WoW. They should be defending justice even in their sleep — and this too is a very old idea.
Much continues to be made of the fact that we now have Star Trek pads, ubiquitous, available, and to be honest, better than those on the show, which showed piles of them required to convey basic ship business. But more than the pads, in fifteen years or so, we've leapfrogged the social norms of Star Trek on the back of the Internet. It's amazing to me just how quick the transition was—of course we're still in it—and that more recent Star Treks have not and probably will not engage with this new reality either.
Star Trek is a butterfly in a glass. It is no longer meant to predict or exhibit the future, but to quietly stand for the world of the past, as much as the Shire ever was. It's not exactly revolutionary to say that about Star Trek, but DS9 still gets props for its realistic portrayal of war (I actually think the war bits are sort of trite and easy — the Dominion is never for a moment meant to be seen as having a point or being in the right) and grittiness, since of course grittiness = quality in terms of much contemporary media.
But it strikes me that, though she wears a pretty technodress, underneath it all, DS9 is Grandma telling us kids how it was in her day, and that no matter how many fancy doodads we get, her day will go on forever.
This article by Catherynne M. Valente originally appeared over at Charles Stross' blog.