Spocks and Datas

DataSpock

SPOCK: He intrigues me, this Picard.

DATA: In what manner, sir?

SPOCK: Remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human. I understand why my father chose to mind-meld with him. There’s almost a Vulcan quality to the man.

DATA: Interesting. I have not considered that. And Captain Picard has been a role model in my quest to be more human.

SPOCK: More human?

DATA: Yes, Ambassador.

SPOCK: Fascinating. You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills and no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.

DATA: You are half human.

SPOCK: Yes.

DATA: Yet you have chosen a Vulcan way of life.

SPOCK: I have.

DATA: In effect, you have abandoned what I have sought all my life.

 

– Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Unification Part 2” (1991)

For the socially alienated, such as autistics like myself, the characters of Spock and Data from Star Trek are immediately relatable. Not because of their lack of emotion, but because of their estrangement from their peers. Extraordinarily intelligent, yet unable to understand the motivations or the social and emotional needs of the humans around them. Though full members of their respective crews and fully equal members (eventually, for Data) of their adopted societies, they are nonetheless alone.

But apart from being non-human, the sources of Spock’s and Data’s alienation are quite different. Spock, genetically half-human and half-Vulcan, aspires to overcome the psychological weaknesses he believes his human side burdens him with. Data, the creation of humans, has put himself on a quest to exhibit the qualities of humanity as faithfully as possible. While he may be confused by human weaknesses, he nonetheless wishes to replicate them.

Framed this way, Data may be the more relatable to the socially alienated. Those with Asperger’s like me, for example, are obviously the product of humans, and live and work among other humans, but struggle to make meaningful social and emotional connections with the neurotypical majority. This is painful, and there seems to be no remedy. No matter how hard they try to ape the behavior of neurotypicals, it is just that, an aping. And yet they, we, pine for that connection. For belonging.

spockbrowSpock represents something that I would guess is less common, the socially alienated person who wishes to remain alienated, because to assimilate would be to corrupt oneself, to debase oneself. Surely there are those intellectuals and savants who identify with Spock in this, and surely they too experience the discomfort of alienation. But I suspect that is the Datas among us that are truly suffering from their estrangement.

To the normals and the neurotypicals, I have to assume that these two dispositions, the Spock and the Data, are more or less indistinguishable. Both exhibit as emotionally distant. Both are prone to say things that, to the normals, are considered inappropriate, offensive, or bizarre, despite innocent or benign intentions. Both invite varying degrees of pity or condescension from normals for what they perceive as naivete or “disability.”

For a Data, there is a constant pull toward the group, a tug toward the tribe. The Data will practice the mannerisms and idioms of the normals, and often fail laughably. For a Spock, the social distance is actively maintained. Rather than gravitate toward inclusion, they prefer to observe from a safe and less distracting distance. There is no attempt to do as the Romans do. To the Spock, the Romans are silly.

From my own point of view, to adopt the Spock approach would be a luxury. While I do not believe that a Spock-type never suffers in her alienation, she certainly suffers less. A Spock has already decided that there is little to be gained from full social inclusion, and little to envy from the normals’ mindset. What a relief that would be.

datadanceThe Data, however, is all too aware of the myriad ways she does not match up to her normal peers. She suffers from the humiliation of failed attempts to assimilate, and she suffers from her solitude. And unlike the character of Data the android, Data-types definitely experience emotions, often severely. It is a sisyphean way to live, except that everyone is watching and audibly commenting on how weirdly one is pushing the rock up the hill.

In a previous piece, I chose another Star Trek character as an Aspie-analogue, and reflecting on it now, it seems to fill a kind of middle-ground between the Spock and the Data. I’m talking about Odo. I wrote:

ds9odoThough he takes a humanoid form as best he can, no one thinks Odo, the changeling, really looks like them. He doesn’t understand humanoid behavior, but he does try to map it out in order to follow others’ motivations and how they lead to actions. He is impatient with the things that humanoids seem to find fulfilling and important, which to him seem pointless and wasteful. He comes off as mean when he doesn’t intend to. He craves companionship, but knows he can’t have it. And when it all comes down to it, when he’s tired of pretending to be one of the “solids,” he must — absolutely must — return to his bucket. He must resume his true liquid form, stop pretending, find total solitude, and rest.

If Spock and Data show us two poles of how the socially alienated cope with their weirdness, Odo shows us the consequences of all that work. What does the outcast do after all the failed attempts to commune, or after a day of navigating the incomprehensible absurdities of the normals’ behavior? What toll does it take?

Odo shows us. We must return to our bucket, or we dissolve.


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You Choose to Exist Here: Reliving Deep Space Nine

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.10.04 PMDeep Space Nine has always been my favorite of all the Star Trek incarnations. Sweeping in scope, meticulous with character, and challenging my moral intuitions, I got the feeling from the entirety from Deep Space Nine that one gets from a rich and satisfying novel: I felt like a better person for having experienced it.

Occasional viewings of particular out of context episodes aside, I’ve been through the series twice. Once when it originally aired in the 90s when I was in high school and college, probably missing a view episodes due to the ephemeral nature of fixed-schedule TV airings (which seems an absurd way to watch a series now); and in the aughts when I was in my twenties, mostly via torrented downloads on my computer and old-school video iPod.

I am now beginning a third time around, in my late 30s, this time alongside my wife who, while no stranger to Star Trek, never saw DS9. We’ve just watched the pilot episode, titled “Emissary,” and there was something different about it this time, some things I truly didn’t expect.

First of all, I think I expected it to seem more dated and hokey. Instead, it came off as rather mature, far more sure of itself than most TV pilots, and head and shoulders and freakin’ torso over other Star Trek pilots. Jessica, to my surprise, said it seemed a little more mawkish than she expected, but within acceptable parameters (my words, she never talks like that). But not for me. It really held up. I rarely felt taken out of the action by something that seemed forced or overdone.

Also, I know that DS9 has the reputation of being the “downer” of the franchise, the “grim” series, but coming back to it, from the beginning, after all these years, this really was something of a shock. The original series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise all began their runs with heaps of wonder and optimism. (Things of course go badly wrong for Voyager in order to set the stage for the series, but the hopeful “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” spirit was always there.)

The series opens with a flashback to a massacre, and our lead protagonist unable to save his dead wife, and having to abandon his ship to a relentless zombie-cyborg force. Being stationed then at Deep Space Nine, née Terok Nor, we are placed in the midst of an ugly transition out of a brutal occupation. In the pilot episode of a Star Trek series, we are immediately faced with violent, pointless deaths and several characters absolutely spilling over with anger, regret, and helplessness. It’s quite stirring, and it all works.

But there was one part that hit me the hardest, that sunk deep into me, and oddly it’s something I’d almost entirely forgotten about from past viewings.

Toward the end of the episode, Ben Sisko is conversing with the skeptical wormhole aliens, non-physical entities who don’t even experience linear time as we do. They speak to him by taking the form of people in his memories, in the very settings he originally experienced them. So, for example, he discusses how humans experience time with his “son” Jake as they sit by what appears to be a lake, or with his late wife “Jennifer” as they walk down the beach where they met. It’s not really Jake and Jennifer, but wormhole aliens who have assumed their forms, taken from Sisko’s memory.

Somehow, Sisko repeatedly finds himself talking to the aliens amid his memory of the day his wife was killed by the Borg, where he sees his wife, dead, under a pile of rubble, as he’s about to be pulled away toward an escape vessel by his Bolian crewmate. Memory after memory, conversation after conversation, Sisko returns to the place and time he lost his wife.

Throughout their conversations, which are some of the headiest and evocative pieces of dialogue one was ever likely to hear on prime time commercial television, Sisko struggles to explain to the aliens how humans and other “corporeal beings” do not exist in a timeless state, but begin an existence, live their lives through a chain of causal events, and then cease to exist. The aliens are entirely unfamiliar with such an existence, and they ask increasingly probing questions in order to grasp the concept.

One thing doesn’t make sense to them. Remember, they only have Sisko’s memories as a frame of reference. Sisko is telling them that corporeal beings travel along a timeline, and make the best of their lives from one moment to the next, aware that each choice affects and allows the moments to come. And yet, they keep returning to the scene of Jennifer’s death. One of them asks Sisko, “If what you say is true, then why do you exist here?!”

It’s not the aliens taking Sisko to this scene, it’s Sisko taking them.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.12.11 PM“I never left this ship,” Sisko says, a realization dawning on him.

“You exist here,” the alien in the form of Jennifer says, also beginning to understand.

“I exist here,” says Sisko. “I don’t know if you can understand.” He begins to sob, increasingly so as he speaks. “I see her like this, every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her… like this!”

“None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.”

“And I have never figured out how to live without her.”

“So, you choose to exist here,” says the alien, and Sisko nods. “It is not linear.”

“No,” he says, drained, exposed, defeated. “It’s not linear.”

In previous viewings, this scene was meaningful, but to the extent that it was a character I was interested in coming to terms with something painful. It did not truly resonate with me.

Now, as I approach 40, with a wife and two children that I love beyond measure, and with an ongoing struggle with my own post-traumatic stress, I understood.

For so long after I was attacked, I existed there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, with the sounds of footfalls running toward me, of the blows to my head and body, the impact of the concrete, the vertigo of the stumbling walk home. I existed there.

I existed in the throngs of middle school classmates joyfully mocking me, I existed in the oppressive air of the abuse and scrutiny (real and imagined) of my preteen and teenage years. Decades on, I stayed there.

And much to the sadness and frustration of those who loved me, but couldn’t understand, it was not linear.

I suppose I simply hadn’t yet lived enough to truly understand Sisko’s journey before. It’s amazing to me now, to think that this profound, climactic lesson of my favorite show just flitted away in previous viewings. I’m so glad I came back to it now to experience in earnest. I wonder what else Deep Space Nine will show me this time that it couldn’t before.

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Animals Declared “Sentient” in New Zealand: Hard Questions Sure to Follow

Now who's sentient?Photo credit: quinn.anya / Foter / CC BY-SA

New Zealand has passed an amendment to its animal welfare law stating that animals are “sentient beings,” and the amendment seems to strengthen some measures that define how or in what situation an animal can be used for various purposes, such as medical experimentation. That’s good!

Though it’s not clear from the bill itself (as far as I can tell) what it means by “sentient.” No language in the wording of the bill spells it out, nor does it specify which animals possess sentience. The little bit of bloggy news coverage I’ve seen (all of which might as well be copy-and-paste jobs of each other) suggests the simple definition of the ability to percieve things, having feelings, and the ability to suffer. That doesn’t help me, really. I don’t mean to presume that this hasn’t been flushed out by the relevant parties, I have no idea, but I sure as hell don’t think I could say for sure to what degree, say, a mouse feels or suffers versus, say, a chimpanzee.

Because there has to be degrees of sentience, right? If sentience were a binary thing, then we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands, with trillions of members of millions of species all now declared to have “feelings” and “perception” just “like humans.” So I have to assume that New Zealand is not now offering asylum to fruit flies or making illegal the squashing of ants. We can be mostly certain they don’t have “feelings” (like, I dunno, jealousy?), but don’t ask me whether or not they “suffer.”

I don’t mean to make light of this, truly. I do think this is a good thing, but it strikes me as vague and ill-defined. The group Animal Equality (equality? really? you sure?) calls it a “monumental step forward for animals,” and I think that’s overselling it. We’re not talking about personhood, but rather what sounds more like a general sense-of-the-government quasi-resolution kind of thing, saying that we all need to be way more mindful about how we treat the other animal species we share the planet with, particularly those we breed and harvest and manipulate for our benefit.

That stipulated, its very nebulousness may be its saving grace. By virtue of being vague and undefined, it may force some very difficult and very necessary conversations, questions, and debates. For if there’s a questionable practice that seems to inhabit a grey area, or something being done to an animal whose “sentience” is not terribly clear, this new law may spur some very crucial arguments. Regardless of how those arguments are resolved, the conversation about our fellow creatures is suddenly elevated, given more gravity. All parties, then, get the benefit of having thought harder and longer about something we’ve had the privilege to take for granted since we first started domesticating.

One small step further, if you’ll allow, because with this discussion I can’t help but be reminded of the hearing over Data’s personhood on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard tells the Judge Advocate General:

[T]he decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?

The bill specifies animals, so this line of thought is probably moot for the news at hand, but think of artificial intelligence. At what point to we consider a machine or some software to be capable of “perceiving.” Don’t they already? When do we consider them to be “feeling”? When they tell us? When do we consider them to be “suffering”? Ever? As long as that’s never written into their programming?

One day, and maybe one day very soon, we’re going to need some law for that. And unlike animals, the artificial intelligence might ask us for it.

Patrick Stewart and the Shame of Bullying

Image by Shutterstock.
I was rather moved when I saw this tweet yesterday.

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It’s already heartening to me to see celebrities that I highly respect stand up for a cause that feels so personal to me, to see smart and powerful people acknowledge that the torment that so many kids endure at the hands of their peers is genuinely damaging, and a crisis worth mustering resources to stop.

But he didn’t just support the cause. He owned up to his own culpability. I’ve done some Googling around, and not found any instances of Stewart elaborating on his tweet (“at times I was a bully”), so I can’t say just how much of a bully he was or wasn’t. Did he tease once in a while? Join in when others started taunting someone else? Or a prime source of harassment? I don’t know. But that doesn’t really matter.

Listen, ever since I got out of that environment, I cannot recall a single instance of anyone – anyone – admitting they were a bully, to any degree. I may have heard from people I didn’t go to school with some minor variation on “Yeah, I teased some kids, but that’s just kids being kids.” But I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “I was a bully and I am ashamed of it.”

And I’ve certainly never heard it from any of the people who tormented me. And there were lots of them, but not a one has ever said anything. I do not expect and never have expected them to.

But here we have Sir Patrick Stewart, one of my heroes, as both an artist and an activist, actively working to combat bullying, and saying flat out, “When I was a child at times I was a bully – and I’m ashamed.” He’s saying I did it and it’s not okay. It’s not just kids being kids. And he didn’t just say he regretted it, or that it was a mistake. He feels “ashamed,” he carries the feeling with him today.

Maybe it’s silly that it means so much to me that he’s said this. But it really does.

Thank you, captain.

Sisko’s Restaurant and My Blog: The Star Trek Economy is User-Generated

If you’re deeply into Star Trek, as I am, you’ve wondered what the hell people do all day. Not the folks in Starfleet of course, but, well, everyone else. We are told that within the United Federation of Planets, or at least in Terran society, there is no money, and people labor merely for self-improvement and scientific or cultural advancement.

Rick Webb has written a really fascinating piece trying to suss out the economics of the Star Trek universe, making sense of some seeming contradictions (such as “Federation credits” and human-owned private property) and delineating basic needs that are nearly-infinite (food and wealth on Earth) and those that are perhaps less so (the energy and material required to construct a fleet of starships). This analogy, previewing the meat of his explanation, gives the gist:

Imagine there’s some level of welfare benefits in every country, including America. That’s easy. That’s true. Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor. Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible?

I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek.

You should really read the whole thing.

Anyway, Matthew Yglesias doesn’t agree with everything Webb has written (though I don’t think even Webb believes he’s got it all figured out and totally correct). He concentrates on the question posed at the beginning here about what the hell people do all day since they’re not compelled economically to have a job. But then again, we know that some people do have “professions” outside even the straight sciences or the arts, such as Ben Sisko’s dad Joseph who owns a restaurant and Picard’s brother René who owns a vineyard. So, why would they if not to make money? Yglesias writes:

So what do the producers of scarce goods do? Well, presumably they’re giving a lot of stuff away. Friends and family get bottles of wine. Perhaps you send a case or two to some particularly admired athletes or scientists or other heroes. Maybe artisanal wine just isn’t that popular in general. And maybe you barter some bottles for other artisanal goods. Maybe you have a friend who hand-carves furniture. But at its most fundamental level, it’s a gift economy. The point of running your restaurant or your vineyard is essentially to show off your mastery, not accumulate wealth. There may be some more-or-less formal exchanges, but the key point is to get the output into people’s hands and not work so hard as to make yourself miserable.

I think he’s trying too hard. Think about it; what is it I’m doing right now? I’m blogging, for nothing. I try every day to post a new piece, some short and ill-considered, others long and (I hope) worthy of digesting. But I do it all for no expectation of compensation. Now, I would very much like to be compensated (and you can donate to this little enterprise here!) but because I enjoy it, I do it as much as my time and energy allows.

And if money were no consideration at all, I’d do a lot more of it. But here’s the key: it wouldn’t be exclusively for my own private satisfaction. I’d hope that folks would read what I write, engage with it, and discuss it with others. I’d hope that people would listen to my music and podcasts, and that they too would get a shot at making their own tiny dents in the universe. There’s value, scarcity, because while “writing” is overly-abundant, the writing of Paul is scarce. It comes from a single and mortal source, giving it value.

So I’m saying that the economy of Star Trek is a lot like that of the user-generated ecosystem of today’s Web.

Joseph Sisko didn’t open his restaurant so that he could be the only person to eat there. He wants people to come and enjoy themselves, to talk about the place, talk to him, and spread word of what a great place it is. This is important: with ubiquitous teleportation technology, having a brick-and-mortar restaurant is as “placeless” as anything on the Web. Anyone can come on any night from anywhere on Earth, and beyond! On a whim! Joseph Sisko gets to share his work with the literal world.

And so for René Picard and his vineyard (before, of course, the events of Star Trek: Generations). René, being a proud and meticulous man, may have even taken pleasure in the simple maintenance of his estate without ever feeling the need to share it with anyone outside his family. But he had access to the whole of the Alpha Quadrant. Had he wished, he could have, as Yglesias puts it, shown off his mastery throughout the galaxy, thanks to transportation technologies of the time. It’s as though one could sample his wine by popping a URL into a browser.

As much as I enjoy writing, and would have almost certainly tried to make a career of it no matter what, it is the advent of the Internet and ubiquitous and free or cheap publishing platforms that have allowed me to do what I do at this site. Whether or not people read and engage with my work is another matter, but the point is that they are able to, from wherever they are, at any time. And I do it without pay. As I said, I’d rather get paid, surely, and it would improve my output in terms of both quality and quantity. But on the Federation’s Earth in the 24th century, I wouldn’t need to worry about that. I could devote my energies as I wished. So would it be in Webb’s analogy of every American getting $10,000,000 from birth. In those situations, some would run restaurants, some would join the military, some would be artists, some would be explorers, some would be scientists, and some, perhaps many, would do nothing at all. And that would be okay, too.

 

Star Trek’s Human-ish Aliens, Vindicated

He has a hat, so I can't tell if he's an alien. But he does have a bumpy nose, so.

He has a hat, so I can’t tell if he’s an alien. But he does have a bumpy nose, so.

The aliens of Star Trek get a bit of grief for looking suspiciously like homo sapiens. I can tell he’s a different species because he has very slight ridges on his nose! She’s clearly an extraterrestrial because she’s got dots on her. And of course he’s an alien! His ears point up, and who would wear their hair like that???

So fine, it’s a fair cop. But let’s be fair, TV budgets are not limitless (particularly for shows for the relatively small nerd demographic), and I suspect audiences would have some trouble relating to, say, an amorphous blob or an intelligent jellyfish-type thing. I have always given Star Trek a pass because I know that a big reason the aliens that normally appear can’t be so alienating to viewers that they put too much of a burden on storytelling. Villainous or intentionally-bizarre creatures like the Crystalline Entity are of course the exception, in which they are alienating by design.

And really, Next Generation-era Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, and others, are really well designed, even if they are a little too humanoid for some.

Fortunately for Trek apologists like myself, there may be some sound justification for the franchise’s aliens looking a whole lot like human beings. George Dvorsky at io9 explores the idea that in order to achieve anything like a technology-wielding civilization, even an extraterrestrial species might do well — and indeed, may even need — to be very much like us.

First of all, they’d likely need to dwell on a planet’s surface; not swimming in the water, and not wafting about in the atmosphere (thus ruling out the whole intelligent jellyfish thing):

[It’s] very unlikely, says [Fermilab physicist Don] Lincoln, that technically advanced civilizations like ours could have developed on a planet without land masses, like a so-called water world. He believes it’s unlikely that intelligent dolphins will ever develop the technology for spaceflight. “There could be alien cavemen underwater,” he says. “But truly, you can’t smelt metal.”

I’d say that’s this is a) a point in favor of Trek-type aliens and b) a big let-down for believers in mer-people. All those metal tridents and whatnot? No way. Sorry, King Triton. You don’t get to exist.

But here’s the kicker, and it has to do with something called convergent evolution:

If [the alien species is] terrestrial, it would likely have to face the same sort of evolutionary pressures that our ancestors did. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all intelligent civs are descended from primates. But they may all take similar paths on their evolutionary journey, a well-documented phenomenon evolutionary biologists refer to as convergent evolution — those cases in which organisms not closely related independently acquire some characteristic or characteristics in common; mutation in evolution may be random, but selection is not.

Examples include physical traits that have evolved independently (e.g. the eye), ecological niches (e.g. pack predators), and even scientific and technological innovations (e.g. language, writing, mathematics, the domestication of plants and animals, and basic tools and weapons). Looking off-world, it’s not unreasonable to think about similar examples of convergent evolution; there may be certain ecological and sociological niches that are not Earth-specific or human-specific and are archetypal throughout the universe.

And only recently, of course, we learned from the Kepler spacecraft that there may be billions of Earth-like worlds in our own galaxy alone. And if they really are quite Earth-y, there’s every reason to believe that their creatures might evolve to use brainpower and technology to dominate their environment. For that, they’ll need things like grasping digits, limbs to carry them from place to place, light and sound-detecting organs, etcetera.

This is not to say they’d be bipedal with two eyes and ears (or speak English or be able to procreate with other alien species), differentiated from humans only by crazy skull protrusions , but it might mean that they would not seem quite as alien as we presume. They might even make for sympathetic characters in a space adventure story.