Design and Star Trek Dan Hon’s Hallway Track 006

After going to the beach at Torrey Pines I came home to attend a thought-provoking video meeting. It was Dan Hon’s Hallway Track 006: Star Trek and Design with two very thoughtful designers, described on the event page thusly:

Lisa Maria Marquis is an information architect and author, as well as a trekkie obsessed with “Space Seed,” Garashir, and not having to bring your own costumes to the holodeck.

Dylan Wilbanks is a longtime user experience designer and director in the enterprise software world. He once gave a conference talk framed on “Cause And Effect” and will recite Sisko’s “I can live with it” speech at an Arby’s of your choosing.

The conceit of the “Hallway Track” events is that they are a replacement for the part of conferences that is often the best part–the conversations in the hall between panels and the show floor.

I enjoyed it immensely.

I will talk about what I got from it but I feel a need to ponder how I came to enjoy the Star Trek lore so much. Please accept a small digression of memory.

Star Trek has been a cultural force all my life. My grandfather, Tata, Jesus Silva loved the show and watched it in syndication, so I’m sure the first time I ever watched it was in the big-family setting of the Silva household. That household mostly liked movies on tv and soap operas and anything where Frank Sinatra showed up. But if Tata liked Trek then onto the gigantic wide-dresser tv with a vinyl turntable built-in Trek would go. In syndication, naturally.

I didn’t watch the cartoons. I watched Kirk and Spock and McCoy. “The Original Series.” I was 10 when I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture–1980. And I remember vividly when Fed Mart was going out of business in 1982 in Clairemont here in San Diego there were plenty of Star Trek MEGO figures on the shelves as part of that final going-out-of-business sale. I bought some.

I remember looking forward to The Next Generation caming out in 1987. My friend Chris and I eagerly kibitzed on what it would be like. By that point we had talked about the science of faster than light travel and parallel dimensions and time travel and we HAD PLENTY OF OPINIONS, OKAY. Even decades later we can go into starship design and inertial dampeners and warp fields. And as kids who liked to draw, and as men who like to draw, we were sure to put a critical eye on whether what would come out with was “correct.” But we both enjoyed it. We watched. We exchanged letters and among the topics we corresponded on were whatever the latest Trek was. I have 35 years experience talking in detail about Trek.

35 years.

Thanks for letting me take that digression, I appreciate that you’ve made it this far, I well know your time is valuable.

The Hallway Track event was filled with designers. And when I say designers I believe I mostly mean user experience and visual design. And it was fascinating to hear their thoughts on Trek from that point of view. I am a software developer, often working on the frontend of things. That means I understand how design folk think. The main thing that the assembled group of 20+ people reckoned with was how design would be practiced in a post-scarcity environment. Which is to say: no money. Trek is a utopia of freedom and plenty. The characters in the Federation can go anywhere, learn anything, do anything. They are able to make their way up that Maslow hierarchy of needs and reach self-actualization. If that is the place you live, how does the practice of design change? When digital designs don’t need to generate ongoing revenue, when ARPU is not a measure the UFP cares about, how does design work?

It’s fun to think about a better world. But when a fictional world has to create serial stories one eventually will run out of imagined better worlds. The present is a much easier place to set a story. As William Gibson said on Fresh Air in 1989:

“…while there’s a convention in science fiction that one is writing about the future no one can really write about the future and I think that science fiction novels, by and large, reflect the decade that they were created in. You know the fifties SF, you look at it and it’s the fifties. And I started doing the kind of work that I’m doing because I wanted something that reflected the seventies and everything I was reading that was being written seemed to me to reflect the sixties.”

In 1995 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine set episodes in their past: 2024. That’s 29 years ago they wrote about the year I’m writing this in. I am sad to report that the homelessness and poverty and overall precarity that was imagined are still with us. So an exchange like this, about a fictional slum / ghetto is a bit creepy to read given all US urban centers currently have multiple encampments of poverty-stricken people.

Commander Sisko:
By the early 2020s, there was a place like this in every major city in the United States.
Dr. Julian Bashir:
Why are these people in here? Are they criminals?
Commander Sisko:
No, people with criminal records weren’t allowed in the Sanctuary Districts.
Dr. Julian Bashir:
Then what did they do to deserve this?
Commander Sisko:
Nothing. Just people, without jobs or places to live.
Dr. Julian Bashir:
Ah, so they get put in here?
Commander Sisko:
Welcome to the 21st century, Doctor.

The Bell Riots were a breaking point–a violent overthrow of these enforced slums. In the story, they will arrive in future September 2024. That’s a real date a few months away as I write that. Our time contains violent threats and unrest. As did the 1960s.

We do not have freedom from want. The socialist utopia of Trek is as far away for Americans as it was in the 1960s.

It was terrific to hear the Hallway Track group grapple with how do we get to that great future world. Capital still rules the day, we still have poverty and disease and the US still lacks a basic right to health care.

When Chris and I would talk about trek we worried more about the speed of light than anything. Though we definitely anticipated a violent 21st century. We presumed that a US-Soviet nuclear war would affect us. And we hoped that we would make it through. That’s also how William Gibson thought of it. I’ll again quote William Gibson in 1989:

Terry Gross:
“Your book is set after the wars, what wars did you envision and what were they fought over?”
William Gibson:
“Well that’s a very optimistic little piece of trickery on my part because I wanted to be able to write about a future, and I wanted to be able to say `Well it’s there.’ So I posited as a piece of background information one very, very brief nuclear exchange that results in the whole world saying `Oh no we’ve got to get rid of these things’ and then it’s, you have a future. But we should be so lucky, probably.”

I’m reminded of the memetic formulation of:

Step 1: Do a thing
Step 2: ???
Step 3: PROFIT!!!

Getting to that Trek future is the thing we all want. Not for profit, but for the kind of ability to do what we please and act as we please and not to be hungry or cold or sick or lack for help or education. We want to get that better life for ourselves and our children. It’s worker rights: unionization and organization has to be a part of it. Free healthcare and education has to be part of it. Rethinking how capital and money works will be important.

When Trek first made the scene we hadn’t landed men on the moon. We were still poised for nuclear war. Civil rights were not fully enshrined for all in the US. We still don’t have that fully. And enough people don’t want that that they managed to elect a US President. It’s a disheartening time. But as always, the difficulty is also a kind of opportunity for us all.

It’s not easy to live in those question marks. Time to turn them into concrete steps.

Thanks Lisa, and Dylan, and especially Dan for organizing the Hallway Track event.

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