In Paramount Picture’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the crew of the Enterprise intercepts a cloud that masks a living machine heading to Earth. The machine’s mission was to contact its human creator with the intent of evolving to a higher state of consciousness.
A lot of people didn’t like this movie because it wasn’t the shoot ’em up they expected. Too much Close Encounters of the Third Kind and not enough Star Wars. But when it came to tone, visuals, musical score, story, and the human message, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the best. In my opinion, they should have ended the franchise right there. The movie’s artistry and adherence to the core meaning of science fiction as a genre leaves it as a standout among the other installments in the franchise.
Looking back 41 years I have come to appreciate the foreshadowing provided in the movie about where American society would sit in terms of human connection both to itself and the machine.
For example, take the notion of a cloud that contained digitized copies of all the information collected during its trek through the universe. Fast forward today to the concept of cloud computing where you no longer have to save data on your computer’s drive but can upload data to and extract data from a group of off-site servers managed by the likes of Microsoft’s Azure or Amazon’s AWS service. I also saw ties between gathering all knowledge available and Google’s mission to do the same thing with the knowledge it collects from consumers using its portal to access data.
In some ways we have become like the doomed navigator Ilya, our data scanned, stored, and in some cases hacked to create digital duplicates of ourselves. Those digital duplicates can also be used today as bots to probe unsuspecting internet users and collect data from them.
As COVID-19 rages through America, watching this movie reminded me of how quickly we are moving toward merging man and machine. Talk of artificial intelligence not only replacing our jobs but used to monitor energy usage, turn on lights, analyze medical data sent from patient to doctor, determine the relevance of documents requested during legal proceedings, or to operate exo-skeletons that enable injured people to walk has increasingly entered our discussions over the past decade. Whether the merger of man and machine results in a higher level of life form I can’t say, but it raises the question of how will we value ourselves as humans working in closer proximity to artificial intelligence.
But what has me intrigued may be the the threat to the “simple feeling.” COVID-19 has people taking wide berths around each other while walking down a side walk. I will never get used to wearing a mask and am irritated when I have to go back inside my apartment to retrieve one because a store will deny me entry if I am not wearing one.
I can also understand why people want to congregate at a bar or on the beach. It is that simple but energizing feeling about being around other human beings, sharing ideas, good stories, and good laughs that draw them together. Spock shares with Kirk the need to fill the empty vacuum that living by pure logic can create. That for all the logic and searching for knowledge, life may boil down to seeking that human element of irrationality and warmth as a complement to logic and its coldness.
Should American society’s controlling narrative accommodate the disconnection that can occur by dampening or extinguishing the simple feeling? Can advanced communications networks and high-resolution video apps replace the handshake or the hug? How long can Americans abide by a Twitter hashtag that claims we are “Alone Together?” We should keep a watchful eye on legislation and regulation that codifies changes in the narrative that results in authorizing a disconnected turn in our human adventure.
We won’t know if Ilia and Decker’s merger resulted in an efficacious balancing of man and machine. Spock’s ability to raise his consciousness to where he further recognized the need to merge his vacuous logic with the irrationality of human emotion allowed him to reprogram his failed Kolinahr experience. Purging himself of emotion wasn’t the answer. Instead, embracing the human element was likely his way of touching the creator, and like V’Ger, raising his level of understanding.
Hopefully COVID-19 and the artificial technologies used to plagiarize the “creator” won’t steer American society further off course.