Sunday, April 02, 2006

Houston, Narcissism Base Here: Tinkerbell Has Landed

I've been a card-carrying Trekkie since grade school. The other night I was watching an episode I've seen many times before, and a few things struck me. First, the creators of Star Trek were incredibly prescient; they conceived of things like computer speech recognition and flip-phone communication devices decades before these became reality.

But I'm also fascinated by the contrast between television in the mid-1960's and today. Forty years ago, science fiction and space travel constituted an entire genre of popular TV. Shows ran the gamut from the seminal Star Trek to the campy Lost in Space, but at their core these were forward-thinking and boundary-pushing. A consistent theme was the potential the future held; the present represented limits. Today not only do we wallow in the present, we celebrate it (and ourselves) through reality TV. And the future? You mean, like after so-and-so gets kicked off the island, the Bachelor hands out his last rose, or Trump chooses his next apprentice?

Ditzy blonde comparison: in the 1960's, Jeannie's "master" in I Dream Of Jeannie was a NASA astronaut who worked at Cape Kennedy ("master" was indeed appropriate, as the term symbolized the primacy of science and progress even in the context of high camp). Today, Paris Hilton's constant companion is an expensive miniature dog she adorns with sweaters and mittens and calls Tinkerbell---a fairy-tale name from childhood when we had no commitments, responsibilities, or goals.

Leadership has much to do with this, of course. JFK set the tone for the 1960's early in that decade with his stated goal of a lunar landing, and science became a national obsession that permeated popular culture. We are what we watch, and contemporary television is just one manifestation of the Bush administration's jingoism and dumbed-down anti-science obstinance.


Anonymous Antonie said...

That is, of course, a large part of the problem. We are not focused on what will get us out of our problems.

In our high schools, star athletes are revered like gods, and kids interested in science and technology are nerds. As a result, most parents try to push their kids into sports instead of trying to find their personal strengths.

In business, especially public companies, the focus is on the next quarter or the next year. What kind of R&D can produce results in a quarter or even a year?

And on TV, don't look for anything serious. Even the history or discovery channels approach their topics from a popular point of view.

What kind of action should our government take? China is getting good results from rigorously selecting talented kids at a very young age, separating them from their families, and putting them through many strenuous years of education and training. I'm not sure this is desirable or feasible in the United States. But surely our administration, which has made marketing and spin an artform, could come up with some idea to make science and math more attractive.

4/02/2006 6:13 PM  
Anonymous Nate NC said...

Don't pin me as a "Simple Life" fan, but I tend to disagree with your positive spin on the '60s view of technology: that in the future we'll all live in space towers like the Jetson's or fly around in cars a la Back to the Future. This view, maybe best captured by "Futureland" in Disney World (built in the '60s), is just as escapist and unrealistic in finding solutions to our problems as today's reality shows. I find that this view ignores the environmental and social limits of the world (will we really be making it to Mars once the oil runs out? Would anybody actually WANT to live like the Jetsons?)instead of finding real answers. Most new technology has been on the micro level (internet, portable electronics) rather than the macro level, like those old shows seemed to imagine.....maybe this make me too liberal to be reading your blog.....

4/02/2006 8:10 PM  
Anonymous Jones said...

Interesting. I was just thinking about what I perceive to be a different effect of the Bush presidency on pop culture: The enormous leap in TV shows, even ads, that are violent, arrogant, cruel, heartless and macho to the extreme.

4/02/2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger Arcanum Veritas said...

I tend to think Bush is in fact a sign of the vapid times, not an inspiration to them.

The fact that Joe Public doesn't seem to care that Bush has mortgaged their kid's future and removed all responsibility from his actions (or inactions) ... Is it still spin when your audience is a comatose couch potato.

4/02/2006 9:36 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Wohlmut said...

Trekkie here as well... All throughout both Gulf Wars, as our generals (and their armchair equivalents ) bragged about how the latest super-satellite GPS missiles could blow a zit off of Saddam's face without mussing his mustache... and how this war, just like the last one, was going to be the VERY FIRST 21st century war, where we expected no civilian casualties at all on either side... I kept thinking of the classic Captain Kirk speech, "You've made war so neat and painless that you have no reason to STOP!" (From that old Star Trek episode, "A Taste of Armageddon", where two planets waged a virtual war with computers and then the people who were declared casualties marched calmly into disintegration chambers. The war had been going on for 400 years, but, said the leader of one planet, "The civilization goes on!") We haven't achieved that level of technology yet, but so long as gullible people believe the war will be completely painless, they will be more inclined to consent to it. The ultimate goal, intentional or not, is to make constant war an accepted fact of everyday life.

Sort of, "Those who cannot learn from the past" (meaning, past sci-fi TV shows?) "are doomed to repeat it"... ? Perhaps part of the problem, is that Star Trek and other classic sci-fi shows (as distinguished from the chaff) frequently highlighted the negative implications, dystopias and dark fears of technology. The whole point of science fiction is for the viewer to turn off the TV, close the book or whatever, and think about the implications of a technology before it actually hits society in general. You can't do that quite so much anymore because then you can't run commercials from GE, IBM and Microsoft during the commercial break...

4/02/2006 11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree our leaders lack vision and we are stuck in a time warp, traveling backwards. There is a lot of noise out there, but a rational vision for our entire countrys' future that can be communicated with conviction is not one of them.

There are so many examples from this administration on the attack of science it is scary.

What did the comedian Kathy Griffin say about the southerns she met on her USO trip, something like they are agressive about their ignorance. We've all seen Jerry Springer :-(

I often think large corporations and large amounts of money concentrated puts roadblocks up for our next big advances, ideas, and implementation. People want to hoard the monies for themselves, without giving back, or allowing progress. This is why we are stuck on oil and the combustion engine.

I have a relative that won't allow a TV in their home, and they don't seem any worse for it. We don't plan on converting to digital and when this one dies, we won't replace it.
From a TV point of view, unless all you want to see is sports, golf, home shopping, etc., 24x7, all the good programs on all the various cable and satellite stations could go on one channel.

If Bush doesn't destroy PBS, we still have Nova, Scientific America Frontiers, Frontline, and Now which are very good. At least these programs are shown at reasonable hours. CBS carries Farscape from the Sci-Fi cable station, but they opted for the lovely hour of 1:30 am Sunday morning. God forbid the kids see science and outer space during prime time.
Although have you ever seen Bill Nye, "The Science Guy". I think he has a new show, "The Eyes of Nye".

Today's reality shows remind me of the Romans and the gladiators.

I keep hoping Astin Kutcher swaps sexes on his Beauty and Geek show (girls are the geeks and boys are the beauties). I think Pink is on to something with her song, "Stupid Girls". She makes fun of Hilton and peers.

There are some movies that include technology, like "Proof", "A Beautiful Mind", "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", "Good Will Hunting", come to mind.

It seems today everything comes down to money? Money and marketing, and marketing has gotten way too aggressive and bold. Do they really have to analyze brain waves, to understand stimuli, so they can sell us more stuff that we don't need. Today the aggressive selling tactics border on lying, and if it is politicians doing the selling we definitely know it is lying. We've always had snake oil salesmen, but when did that become the norm. If you talk to engineers they talk about the decreasing margins of risk. Why? Money. I'm sure it is the same in the financal world. When Congress was told by technology companies that they needed stock options to entice technology workers to actually work (which I believe to be a lie), I thought, don't people work for the excitement of the goal. Sure we need wages, healthcare, retirement, but where is the love of the work and contributing to society, our communities. What did Congress do back in the early 90's, they politicize the FASB and made sure corporations weren't required to put stock options on the books.

"The value of a man should be seen in what he gives and not in what he is able to receive." --Albert Einstein

"We live in a world where image has triumphed over substance. Our leaders know the price of everything, but the value of nothing." --unknown

I'm all for capitalism, but in moderation, and not at the expense of our Democracy, an educated populace, or our environment. I'm having a hard time envisioning what someone like Ralph Waldo Emerson would say today. Where are all the great musicians, poets, writers, thinkers, scientisits, philosphers that stand the test of time.

We were watching a commerical for "educational software" (Not Neil Bush's either). And at the end they said they met the guidelines of the new No Child Left Behind Act. We all looked at each other and agreed that kids are going to be worse off; taught to the test.

Bill Maher often says when the topic of President and religion comes up, why can't we have a President for Science.

PS: If you like Star Trek, you might like the book, "The Ethics of Star Trek", Judith Barad, Ph.D. It looks at specific Star Trek episodes in respect to religion, culture, and ethical values. Gene Roddenberry was an exceptional fellow with vision. George Lucas is right up there with him. The book was a fun read, and very relative for today's events.

4/03/2006 12:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When a poster mentioned GW I in this thread, it reminded me of the floating-point arithmetic error in the Patriot Missile that I read about.

.."bragged about how the latest super-satellite GPS missiles could blow a zit off"..

"On February 25, 1991, during the Gulf War, an American Patriot Missile battery in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, failed to intercept an incoming Iraqi Scud missile. The Scud struck an American Army barracks and killed 28 soliders. A report of the General Accounting office, GAO/IMTEC-92-26, entitled Patriot Missile Defense: Software Problem Led to System Failure at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia reported on the cause of the failure. It turns out that the cause was an inaccurate calculation of the time since boot due to computer arithmetic errors. Specifically, the time in tenths of second as measured by the system's internal clock was multiplied by 1/10 to produce the time in seconds. This calculation was performed using a 24 bit fixed point register."

PS: Anyone notice the number of deaths in Afghanistan is up to 25. With Iraq, I almost forgot about Afghanistran.

4/03/2006 1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill Maher has an awesome perspective on things. He could also be a cunning realist :-)

[Click on Video link to view.]

4/03/2006 1:40 AM  
Blogger Ahistoricality said...

On the other hand, forty years ago you could hardly find a movie that was SF without being pitifully cliched, and now a huge portion of the industry is in special effects, mindbending futurism and fantasy, and the written SF/F of the last forty years is being translated to the "big screen" at a good clip.

Also, a goodly number of the protagonists of crime dramas are technologists, people who get excited about chemistry, gadgetry, new science. I think that's worth something.

4/03/2006 5:10 AM  
Anonymous muddy said...

Did Star Trek predict flip phones, or were flip phones based on Star Trek?

4/03/2006 9:46 AM  
Blogger 277fia said...

Forty years ago, Americans were watching the Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, Mr. Ed and My Favorite Martian. And that says what?

For social commentary, the Twilight Zone wasn't bad. Car 54's episode about urban renewal is a classic.

4/03/2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger Roy said...

Certainly you have to take the splintering of the media into account. All you have to do is watch one day of the SciFi channel and you will see all of the forward thinking your heart desires.

4/03/2006 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well here's an interesting use of pop culture viewing, Billion Dollar Cheney.

4/04/2006 12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From a mass communications student, Shock and Awe

4/04/2006 12:40 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

I don't agree that "we are what we watch!"

What is it about this country? Is the USA nothing more than a sum of its pop culture from the last forty years?

Rational adults, if there are any, do not confuse their own lives with that of a character on a television situation comedy.

I would argue that the people who MAKE the shows might have a problem with their cultural identities. I've worked with them and the problem is not that they consider the shows bad...but that they really, truly consider them GOOD.

4/04/2006 6:48 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

I purchased a feminist magazine that equated the experience of real women with that of the lead characteres in the Mary Tyler Moore show.

Turn off the box, and get a life! (to quote William Shatner)

4/04/2006 6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know Delay resigned in disgrace, to sink into the background hoping things will go away. He attended a gala dinner in his honor sponsored by the Republican Conservative Union.

Who did they blame? The media. But here's the connection to this thread, one woman blamed the script writer for Star Trek.
[Click on the Video]

4/04/2006 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another way of looking at TV sf in the 1960s... "I Dream of Jeannie" was about an imaginary Present where white men were engineers, white women were housewives (even the blonde "Middle Eastern" genie!) and non-whites were invisible. "Star Trek" was about an imaginary Future where men and women of all colors (and sexual orientations, thank you Lt. Sulu!) worked TOGETHER as professionals discovering "new worlds and new civilizations". This is a very heartening idea if you're a not-white, not-straight, not-male person... but quite threatening for the former elite-by-birth caste!

It could be argued that large chunks of the Conservative Backlash of the last 30 years were more-or-less explicitly concerned with returning the "astronaut" slots to the "Masters" -- or else destroying the scientific/technological advances that were perceived as allowing women, non-whites, homosexuals, and other Not-Masters to compete on an equal basis with those formerly ENTITLED to slots in the ruling class. Neither George Bush nor Paris Hilton were ever going to take slots at MIT, but their backers seem determined to make it impossible for any child now growing up in America to do so either. Between destroying the social safety nets, turning public educational systems into teach-the-test obedience emporiums, and "freeing" the public airwaves to least-common-denominator entertainment constructed solely by marketing departments... Maybe it's not paranoia to wonder if they'd rather destroy America's future (guarantee that all the MIT slots go to non-Americans, if they can't destroy MIT entirely) than share any portion of the "Good Life" to which they are "entitled". If this is true, America won't be the first empire that's collapsed because the ruling class chose to take their whole society down the toilet rather than compromise their own luxuries by one iota. -- Anne Laurie

4/04/2006 8:24 PM  
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