Tag: star trek

Friday Nerd Blogging: Presidential Edition

Twitter went nuts when President Obama said he could not get the Republicans to do what is right because of his finite powers, that he could not do some sort of Jedi mind-meld!

He mixed his space franchises–Jedis may have Vulcan-like abilities, but the mind meld thing is of Star Trek.  So, this sent twitter on a wonderful spiral for awhile.

Some of the highlights:

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Arguments for a New STAR TREK Series

Cardassia RuinsBecause “53 reasons” is just plain stupid, and increments of five are basically listicles, I provide three.

1. We are heading straight for maximum Star Wars saturation. Despite its ham-handed didacticism,  Star Trek‘s values are far preferable to those of Star Wars. We cannot allow aristocratic fantasy to bury republican virtue.

2. JJ Abrams is a pretty good action director, but he doesn’t seem to understand the intellectual possibilities of science fiction. At its best, Star Trek has been one of the few non-cable programs to explore those possibilities. And it has almost invariably done so better within the format of episodic television than that of the “major motion picture.”

3. Onward toward the 25th Century! By the third season of The Next Generation, it was pretty clear that the political communities of Star Trek — including the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire — are themselves important “characters” in the franchise. We’ve seen the Federation evolve –and not always for the best — in light of the Borg and Dominion threats; we’ve learned just how much its status as a “post-scarcity society” rests on maintaining a Terra-centric utopia within a much harsher galaxy. We’ve watched the Klingon Empire repeatedly fail to reconcile the theory and practice of honor. Cardassia has broken our hearts time and time again.

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The State of the Art in the Social Science of Pop Culture

Slate posted a piece on the academic study of pop culture.  It found that academics studied Buffy the Vampire Slayer most.  Well, actually, no, it found that more folks studied the Buffy than the Matrix, the Simpsons, Aliens or The Wire.

This led to a Facebook discussion of selection bias.  We can discuss the merits of these five and ponder why the Simpsons did so poorly (perhaps we need a consistent plot progression?), or why the Wire is under-valued yet again.  That the 2nd and 3rd Matrix movies sucked so much that they sucked all the air out of the studying the Matrix enterprise? But what is most obvious is that this “study” is that it ignored the big, enduring elements of pop culture that we have been obsessing about for years/generations: Star Wars, Star Trek (which is tossed off as an side), Lord of the Rings, and, more recently, Harry Potter.  Using just the Berkeley source, Star Wars appears to be ahead of Buffy. 

Using scholar.google:

  • Buffy produces 6k hits; 
  • Star Trek: 30k; 
  • Star Wars: 51k (affected by Reagan’s naming of the Strategic Defense Initiative);
  • Lord of the Rings: 22k; 
  • Harry Potter: 32k.

To get a more systematic view, I used Publish or Perish, which relies on scholar google to build comparisons. If there are over a 100 papers, it just does the stats for one hundred (maybe I am lousy at setting the parameters, but this is a blogpost, not a submission to a journal).  There is plenty of error, of course, but there are some systematic patterns.

Papers Cites Cites per paper Cites per year H index* Most cited piece
Buffy TVS 100 4303 43 269 28 836
Harry Potter 83 6770 81 339 43 1296
Lord of the Rings 100 8339 83 83 33 1961
Star Trek 100 7192 72 153 37 926
Star Wars 100 9915 99 275 37 816
Simpsons 100 3164 32 44 24 507
The Matrix Trilogy 100 973 10 22 14 100
Alien Movies 100 370 4 2 9 54

Star Wars has the most citations but probably the most error given the aforementioned SDI bias.  What this does show is that the classics (old) double more or less Buffy while the new (Harry) has 50% more citations.  In terms of which papers have the most impact on average, again Star Wars  prevails but Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter lead the rest (and probably have fewer accidental cites along the way).  Harry Potter has the highest rate of cites per year since all of JK’s stuff came out since 1997.  This produces the highest H-index.  Buffy performs quite well, certainly outclassing the Matrix because, well, quality does matter after all.   The Simpsons do pretty well.  Aliens?  Scary but not worthy of citations.  Star Trek is a steady performer, among the leaders across the border, and with fewer false positives than Star Wars.  The Wire, well, hard to measure since even restricting Publish or Perish searches to social sciences gives way too many non-The Wire hits (same goes for Breaking Bad and Mad Men).  I guess folks will have to settle for The Wire remaining the best TV program in most folks’ minds and perhaps the best application of social science in a TV show.

Aside from the lesson that Slate does apparently poor pop social science, what can we learn from this exercise (other than my priorities are lousy–I should be doing something other than this–including my summer project of finally watching season one of Buffy)?  That we live in a golden age of pop culture and its over-analysis?  That Harry beats Buffy?  That Dan Nexon should edit a sequel to the previous HP volume?  That Star Wars and Star Trek fans have something else over which to fight?  That the Matrix really did suck?  What conclusions do the readers have?

Of course, one could argue that I have some selection bias myself–that this was hardly a systematic study of pop culture.  There might be other books/tv programs/movies that get more analysis than these.**  But I did do due diligence, web 2.0 style by crowdsourcing first. Certainly, one can do this better if one is writing a dissertation.  And surely someone is.

*  from Publish orPerish: H-index aims to measure the cumulative impact of a researcher’s output by looking at the amount of citation his/her work has received. Publish or Perish calculates and displays the h index proper, its associated proportionality constant a (from Nc,tot = ah2), and the rate parameter m (from h ~ mn, where n is the number of years since the first publication).

** Sorry, Charli, you don’t want to know how BSG did.  Let’s just say, BSG might be able to get tenure but not promotion to Full Professor.


Science Fiction and International Orders

Today at the LSE there are two fabulous (read: fabulously nerdy) events on Science Fiction and IR. Even better, it’s full of ducks! The event was organized by Chris Brown and features Dan Nexon and Prof PTJ.

The first event, chaired by Chris Brown, features three prominent Science Fiction authors: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley, Ken McLeod. The second event features several prominent academics who will be discussing the implications for IR. Chaired by Barry Buzan, it features our two ducks and Iver Neumann.

My only regret is a lack of female voices. So, in an attempt to rectify this, I will (read: attempt) to live-blog these events here at the Duck which start at 1:15pm GMT (8:15am EST – you’ll have to work the rest out for yourselves).

It promises to be an entertaining (read: fabulously nerdy) day! (There may be a pod cast of both events as well. I’ll post ’em if they got ’em.)


Science Fiction, Popular Culture and the Concept of Genocide

Claims of “genocide” abound in policy discourse. So do misunderstandings about the concept.

Some recent examples. In the last two years, Russia claimed that Georgia’s attack on Tshkinvali was “genocide;” US House of Representatives accused Iran of inciting genocide in response to Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments about wiping Israel (as it is currently politically constituted) off the map; and Gideon Polya apparently discovered a correlation between countries experiencing “war, genocide and occupation” and the failure of those countries to win Olympic medals.

These examples demonstrate both the political salience of the “genocide” label as a catch-all term for “evil-doing,” and the general lack of understanding of a relatively narrow term which connotes a set of actions aimed to destroy national, political, religious or ethnic groups, not to describe all the other horrors against individual human beings of which Mankind is capable, and certainly not all forms of deadly political violence. At the heart of this misunderstanding is a confusion about the distinction between group rights and individual rights.

Popular culture often doesn’t help. So I argue in my new essay “The Enemy We Seek to Destroy,” just published in Adam Jones’ collection Evoking Genocide. The article analyzes narratives about “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” in the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and focuses particularly on the Federation’s understanding of ethical conduct vis a vis a truly genocidal enemy, the “Borg.”

Excerpts from my essay are below the fold.

Star Trek, a cultural phenomenon that encompasses the original TV series, five spin-off series, ten feature films, and numerous books, comics, games, magazines, and fan websites, has long been understood by cultural theorists as a political commentary on contemporary world affairs. Those of us who have followed it closely see it above all as a morality play. Episodes routinely discuss timeless issues of what it means to be a person; whether good can triumph over evil; the relationship between emotion and reason; the meaning of free will; and the nature of justice.

As a young person, and later as a budding human rights theorist, I perceived in Star Trek a commitment to liberal individualism and a respect for cultural self-determination. In that sense, the “United Federation of Planets” – the cosmopolitan organization that dispatches the Starship Enterprise to its distant realms – opposes violations of both individual and group rights. Growing up, the show was a constant touchstone for my emerging ethical and political consciousness. In several episodes, the Enterprise encounters planets where genocidal practices are in place. Each case is treated as the outer limit of the non-interference doctrine (the Prime Directive), which might be read as an early articulation of the norm of humanitarian intervention.

Against this background of appreciation for the show’s moral universe, I later found myself, somewhat to my surprise, disillusioned by a particular episode, one in which the Federation itself contemplated genocide against an alien collectivist culture. The Borg are a cybernetic race who evolve through assimilating organic species, and their technological distinctiveness, into their own cyber-collective – linking individual “drones” to a single collective consciousness. In the fifth season episode, I, Borg, the Enterprise encounters the crash site of a Borg scout ship, along with a lone Borg survivor. At the insistence of the doctor, Beverly Crusher, the drone is taken aboard for medical treatment – although the inclination of the other officers is to shoot the drone, since “the collective will come looking for it.” (In fact, the Borg have engaged the Federation previously, with the goal of assimilating Earth’s entire civilization into their collective. Picard was once abducted by the Borg, which possibly explains his no-holds-barred attitude.)

When the drone recovers consciousness, Captain Picard hatches a plan to introduce an “invasive programming sequence” into the drone’s subroutine. When the drone interfaces with the Borg collective, Picard hopes that the computer virus will “infect the entire collective” and “disable their neural network,” in effect shutting down their brain, and eliminating them as a threat to the Federation. Over the course of the episode, however, the crew is forced to reconsider this plan, as the Borg drone, now severed from the collective, begins to function as an individual, evoking the sympathy of the crew and respect for his rights.

What immediately struck me about this sequence is that, while the characters eventually come to view harming the individual Borg as wrong, the idea of genocide (as a crime against a collective) is never fully critiqued. Most of the officers accept with very little discussion that eradicating the Borg collective as such is an appropriate course of action. Crusher is alone in questioning the policy of genocide. Other officers concur with Picard: “We’re at war”; “They’ve attacked us at every encounter.” But even Crusher appears implicitly to accept the crew’s argument that exterminating the Borg as a collective could be justifiable on grounds of self-defense. Her disagreement focuses on whether exterminating individual Borg non-combatants is ethical. She does not concur with Picard’s argument that individual drones lack rights. Were collective rights her reference point, Picard’s argument about the Borg collective consciousness would not have been “convenient,” but would rather underscore the atrociousness of targeting that civilization-defining consciousness.

Subsequent to this scene, the morality of destroying the Borg collective as such is evaded. The ethical debate in the episode (for in Star Trek, there always is one) centers only on whether the “invasive program” would violate the rights of Borg drones as individuals. Dr. Crusher does argue on behalf of the Borg prisoner: “When I look at my patient, I don’t see a collective consciousness. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and needs our help.” But this is reminiscent of protections for wounded prisoners enshrined in humanitarian law. She also continues to question the ethics of “using” an unsuspecting individual to destroy his people, though increasingly the targeting of “the people” itself is lost in the discussion.

Crusher’s claims are validated as the episode progresses. The drone, now separated from the collective, begins to exhibit individual traits, and becomes increasingly identifiable as a person. Thus, while early on Picard had used classic genocidal rhetoric in encouraging his crew not to become too attached to “it,” he eventually comes to view the prisoner as an individual worthy of respect, protection, dignity, and choice. In many respects, the episode is a study in the power of dehumanization to enable atrocity, and of rehumanization to restrain it. But rather than transforming Picard’s understanding of the Borg collective, this newfound sensibility simply provides him with a different set of concerns to weigh against the supposed moral viability of genocide. The goal of eradicating the collective continues to hold sway throughout the episode, but it becomes difficult to justify forcing the individual drone to return to the collective like, as Crusher puts it, “some sort of walking bomb.”

In fact, it seems that the ability to view the drone as worthy of rights at all is contingent on viewing him as distinct from the Borg, rather than as an individual of a sentient race that ought not to be exterminated on principle. This is perhaps best exemplified by Picard’s statement, when he finally concludes that it would be wrong to bring the plan to fruition: “To use him in this manner would be no better than the enemy we seek to destroy.” Destroying the enemy “as such” is not questioned – only the use of a sentient individual as a tool for this purpose. This is thoroughly inconsistent with the rules of war in liberal international society, as well as the rules of engagement in the Star Trek universe. There, one does not seek to destroy one’s enemies, but merely to defeat their military forces, and perhaps transform them into allies.

To my mind, the Borg episodes in general, and this one in particular, engage a range of ethical questions relating to the concept of genocide (or xenocide?). First, are genocidal strategies appropriate against an enemy bent on committing genocide themselves? That is, is genocide justifiable if committed in self-defense? If so, what is the burden of proof for demonstrating that defense against genocide is impossible with less draconian methods?

Second, if an entire society is mobilized (as the Borg arguably are), does treating that society as a military objective constitute genocide, or would it be consistent with the laws of war that permit targeting military objectives? (That is, is it only genocide if the targets are non-combatants, or is the reference point the existence of the collective entity itself?) Are the laws of war obsolete when defeating an entire military would, essentially, require the destruction of an entire society? Is destruction of a civilization as such acceptable, even appropriate, if the destruction takes place through non-lethal means and is carried out so as to liberate “oppressed” individuals from a cultural context inimical to their own individual freedoms? And how should a military officer respond, when given a command that could be deemed profoundly unethical?

“I, Borg,” and Star Trek more generally, offers an opportunity to meditate on these issues. Indeed, as a multimedia phenomenon, it promises (and often delivers) a careful, nuanced grappling with some of the important political problems of our day. In this instance, however, I think the show missed an opportunity to educate viewers about the nature of genocide both as concept and as crime: as something distinct from war, and from questions of individual human rights. Apparently, even the most liberal ethical narrative can accommodate genocidal thinking within certain parameters. This should give us pause.


Spoiler Alert: My Take on the New Sar Trek

It’s not going to get on anyone’s list of top ten IR movies, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean I’m disappointed, exactly… more like a little shell-shocked.

Lawyers, Guns and Money doesn’t have a peekaboo function, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, so my reactions from seeing the film only once so far are hidden safely below the fold.

Foreign policy subtext – decidedly post-Global War on Terror. The original Federation always was presented as a metaphor for liberal internationalism ala Western Hemispheric U.S. hegemony; during the Cold War this meant as opposed to a totaliarian Klingon empire (read, U.S.S.R. / “Islamofascism”); the spin-off series’ kept this up to some extent with various other collectivist threats to secular humanism, the scientific progress valorized by space exploration pitted against the forces that would pull humanity back into the Dark Ages. But in this new variation Starfleet is explicitly described in UN-esque terms, as a “humanitarian, peacekeeping armada,” and the only enemy in sight is someone angry at the absence of (human?) security for his own people.

Battle scenes – awesome. The producers have learned a lot from Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars about how to make ships look as if they can actually maneuver in space / how to think about what space environments can actually do to human bodies (if not what black holes can do to flimsy starships).

Suspension of disbelief – required. Anyone familiar with Star Trek will immediately recognize the multitude of chronological errors, gaps, and inconsistencies in character development. (Like how Chekov isn’t supposed to show up until the second season of the classic series. Or how Spock was supposed to be serving under Pike during this period, not writing simulations at Starfleet academy.) Of course, the screenwriters explain much of this away through a plot twist in the end.

Even so, they can’t rely on that for everything. Since when, for example, do pregnant family members travel on starships with their husbands? I’ll tell you since when – since Galaxy class starships were introduced in the 24th century. Not early on, 35 years before the classic series. And how about the fact that Spock, while capable of love affairs, would never ever ever have one with a student, simply for ethical reasons?

Ultimately, the movie has been created not to satisfy the curiosity of older Star Trek fans but to rebrand the Trek universe to appeal to a 21st century crowd – one with a greater insistence on glamorous battle-scenes, a more human-security focused foreign policy imaginary, a post-feminist gender sensibility, and little pickiness about getting (fictional) facts straight. This is what makes it cinematically brilliant, but also why a few of us may leave theaters slightly shell-shocked this month.


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