Friday, April 26, 2013
The Original Inspiration
As other sites cover every publicity tremor in advance of the new Trek movie, I continue to be impressed by the continuing power and presence of The Original Series and The Next Generation. Frankly I had expected that once the first JJA movie came out, the new actors would quickly replace the first TOS actors in general consciousness, but that has not happened. At all. Fascinating.
Also fascinating is how TOS continues to fuel the future through those still working to create it. There are lots of examples of technologies that were imagined in TOS and are in the works or have since been realized in daily life. Every once in awhile as I stride confidently towards a closed supermarket door, I remember how amazing the idea was for a couple of decades of doors that whoosh open when you approach them.
Some innovations (like the flip phone) even borrow a Trek look. But I ran across an instance that is even more direct in Trek inspiration, in this Slate article on Google that carries this subtitle: Google has a single towering obsession: It wants to build the Star Trek computer.
The writer, Farhad Majoo, begins by noting that he heard people at Google refer to the Star Trek computer in 2010 in reference to their Android phone, but filed away the reference as just another publicity metaphor. "I dismissed it as a gimmick to attract media attention for a struggling brand. Not that he was totally wrong—in 2010, asking your phone to search for something, rather than typing in your query, was pretty cool. It just wasn’t Star Trek-cool."
But he kept hearing Googlers talk about the Star Trek computer, and he kept dismissing the importance of the reference. "After all, Google is very likely the nerdiest large company on earth; of course its employees like Star Trek." And then: "in March, Amit Singhal, who heads Google’s search rankings team, gave a talk at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival—and Star Trek took center stage. Singhal told the crowd that the original series was one of his favorite all-time shows, and he longed to one day meet William Shatner, “as long as he doesn’t sell me a hotel room.” Then Singhal added: “The destiny of [Google’s search engine] is to become that Star Trek computer, and that’s what we are building.”
Now it seemed serious so Majoo went to Google and they confirmed it. “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building,” Singhal told me. “It is the ideal that we're aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.”
The idea, Majoo writes, is to redefine "search engine" towards the Star Trek computer model of high order interactivity so it converses with you. It will answer your questions, rather than show you lists of places where you can look up the answer.
Another article, this time in the Guardian by Tim Adams, comes to the same conclusions. It quotes Amit Singhal, "Google's Mr. Search": As a boy in India, "I watched way too much Star Trek, to the extent that I could remember episodes by heart...and I deeply believe now that shaped my thinking. The fascination with flying through galaxies and talking to a computer that could answer any question was always there for me." The analogy of search is "the dream has been the old Star Trek one of providing the right answers to what you think you want to know even if you don't know quite how to phrase the question."
It's not as clear to me as it seems to be to Majoo and Singhal that the Google vision really matches up with the Star Trek computer. For one thing, I don't think the Star Trek computer requires as much personal information about Captain Kirk as Google wants to collect in order to respond to users. But that this is an aspiration for this huge and influential company is notable.
Now if only an institution with those kind of resources would focus on creating a Star Trek universe beginning with a peaceful Earth united in solving its greatest problems. On this topic, LeVar Burton was (again) eloquent at the TNG reunion at Comicon Toronto: "I was happy to be part of Gene's vision because it is one where unity is achieved, where people stop competing and begin cooperating a bit more, and that's a very valid way to look at the future. If it's true that a lot of the technology invented for the purpose of Star Trek storytelling is now part of our everyday world, then why cannot that philosophy sort of seep in? As you dream so shall you be--this is an experiment, you all."