Humanities on the Edge Article Review: Siva Vaidhyanathan


Or, What Do You Do for Fun in the 24th Century?

Last summer, I attempted, and aborted, a rewatch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I love the show, so my abandonment mostly has the demands of grad school to thank, but since my viewing I’ve been mulling over some rather puzzling issues in it.

I found myself with some possible answers after reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Rise of the Cryptopicon.” In the essay, Vaidhyanathan suggests the cryptopicon as an alternative to Foucault’s Panopticon. It’s a more accurate model, he claims, to describe the current “information ecosystem of massive corporate and state surveillance” (para. 17). To compare the two one need only visualize them: the Panopticon is originally a prison design in which jail cells surround a central watchtower, from which it is impossible to hide. The appropriate visual analog for the Cryptopicon is a computer, or rather a whole network of them, to which our own personal computers are indissolubly yet invisibly linked. As Vaidhyanathan says, “the Cryptopicon is not supposed to be intrusive or obvious. Its scale, its ubiquity, even its very existence, are supposed to go unnoticed” (18). The prisoners in the Panopticon know how they are being watched, and they self-regulate out of fear. Under the Cryptopicon, subjects do not necessarily know how or the extent to which they are under observation; rather, “we simply know that we are . . . [and] we seem not to care” (19). And the problem is even more insidious, too: there is no fear of the suppression of subjects’ creative abilities or powers of expression. Instead, subjects become increasingly comfortable with all aspects of their lives being tracked, such that “they will gladly sort themselves into ‘niches’ that will enable more effective profiling and behavioral prediction” (19). Data collection is rampant, and we know that we are being watched—how many times have I joked about the “creepiness” of finding ads on Facebook that match books I looked for on Amazon earlier the same day?—but, still, indiscriminate data collection by tech companies provides benefits to us. Indeed, as Vaidhyanathan says, “Many strong incentives (convenience, efficiency, connection, pleasure) militate in favor of tacitly accepting the status quo of maximum surveillance by as many people as possible” (34). It’s useful to be connected, and thus to be watched: there’s little doubt of that. It’s less clear why we might want to opt out. Last year, for example, sociologist Janet Vertesi detailed in an article for Time an experiment to hide her pregnancy from Big Data. As the article demonstrates, to hide much of anything of one’s digital life is, simply put, really hard. Who wants to stockpile gift cards in order to buy anonymously on Amazon? Why bother? As Vertesi also points out, consistently engaging in “secretive” practices—protecting one’s privacy—comes across as suspicious, even criminal behavior.

One of the primary concerns of Vaidhyanathan’s essay is with the effects of the Cryptopicon on personal reputation. Most of us have probably felt an occasional pang of fear wondering if some embarrassing photograph or ill-considered Facebook status could somehow emerge through a Google search. The whole history of our lives online remains largely hidden, a vague, mysterious threat. This seems to be almost an inherent aspect of having a social life on the Internet: again, we know our data is being tracked, but we remain unaware of the extent to which it is and lack a clear understanding of how it works. Against the abundantly clear incentives to remain linked in, Vaidhyanathan calls for better information. As he says, “The state . . . needs to mandate a default ‘opt-in’ status that would require firms and governments to convince us we should be watched and tracked because there would be some clear reward” (34). Young people, he points out, are figuring out how to do it. But for now most of us lack understanding of how Big Data works and how it might affect us.

I’d like now to turn to a discussion of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Vaidhyanathan concludes his essay by suggesting that film and literature can take us toward some understanding of the consequences of massive surveillance and tracking. Echoing this, I’d like to present TNG as a test model. I want to suggest that the protagonists live within a kind of Cryptopicon. In it, subjects seem not only to function but thrive under conditions of comprehensive surveillance and absolute transparency.

The relative absences of money and popular culture within TNG’s world struck me the most when I tried to watch it last summer. Their absences are, compared to our lives now, conspicuous. Within the United Federation of Planets, the protagonists’ governing body, it appears that artistic/cultural production has essentially ceased and money is obsolete. Certainly, I can resolve both of these issues with an extradiagetical explanation: Especially in its early seasons, TNG is primarily an action-adventure drama. The narrative has concerns other than exploring characters’ hobbies and interests, or twenty-fourth century art and literature, or the future-history of economics. Still, the notion of the Cryptopicon serves to explain in an intradiagetical way—and in a more interesting way—the absence of these things, so essential to life today.

We learn in the first episode of TNG that the starship on which most of the action is set is, in contrast to the ship in the original series, designed to accommodate civilian crew members (that is, officers’ families, including children). It has a bar and a school and recreational holodecks; it’s a both a battleship and a luxury liner. And yet what luxury might look like in this century is completely puzzling. The protagonists of TNG, mostly officers, never kick back and relax. Novelist Catherynne M. Valente has written an insightful post on social media and time-wasting (or the lack thereof) in another Trek, Deep Space Nine. As she reminds us, the world of Star Trek (or at least the planets aligned with the Federation) is supposed to exist in a “post-scarcity” economy, in which goods and services are universally accessible. She writes, “Wasting time and/or fucking around would be a lot of what people did with their lives. It's a lot of what we do now, and we're not even close to post-much at all. No one is frivolous in the future. No one exhibits poor or even mediocre time management. All are paladins of self-organization.” Besides characteristic pastimes or preferences, which we occasionally observe—Deanna Troi loves chocolate, Beverly Crusher is fond of theater—the characters simply go about their lives, which is to say, go about their work. A handful of civilians recur throughout the series. But they, too, function almost entirely in terms of their occupations: Guinan is a bartender, Keiko a botanist. Nobody shows much more than a casual interest in art, and there are no representations of contemporary (twenty-fourth-century) art in the show.

Holdecks, rooms capable of generating any scenario one might imagine, would appear to be the most exciting possibility for recreation. But characters regulate their use of it, too: the proper programs are intellectually stimulating. Valente notes that the heroes “even in their VR fantasies practice for things they will have to do in real life or, admittedly quite realistically, have space holosex.” That latter point is true only for the show she discusses, Deep Space Nine, which features a considerably rowdier cast, a mix of officers and civilians aboard a rather seedy space station. When characters use the holodeck on TNG, they typically run into negative consequences: the programs malfunction. In “The Big Goodbye,” when Captain Picard indulges in his preferred holo-program, basically an interactive mystery novel, it stops working such that he can’t leave, and he and others find themselves stuck in a situation in which they may actually die. Characters who use the holodeck for baser purposes are repellant, weird: in “Hollow Pursuits,” lowly lieutenant Reginald Barclay enacts his fantasies of being a hero and a ladies’ man. (Let’s be honest: if holodecks were real, they’d get the most use playing out fantasies of all kinds, from revenge to sex. Ethically questionable, probably, but totally understandable.) His behavior disconcerts his fellow crewmembers to the extent that it’s referred to as an addiction and he is all but ordered to desist. After doing his work and saving the ship from an engineering emergency, he’s thanked warmly, seemingly received by his fellows as being like them. In the end, he deletes his holodeck programs; now that he’s a normal member of the crew, doing his job as he should be, he doesn’t need his immature fantasies anymore. His reception as a capable worker allows him to overcome his deviance.

That Valente refers to crewmembers’ self-organization is significant: they regulate themselves. But, I would argue, they do so not because of admirable self-discipline, but because of the starship’s cryptopic organization. Anyone may discover the location of anyone else at any time: the computer can detect crewmembers’ locations. I wonder if this constant accountability is part of a (fictional) culture in which it is impossible to extricate oneself from one’s work. It’s also notable that in the episodes in which characters do consciously leave the ship, they often encounter some sort of punishment for it. When Captain Picard journeys to the “pleasure planet” Risa in “Captain’s Holiday,” he is caught up in a heist involving criminals from the twenty-seventh century. The culture of constant tracking and total transparency encourages subjects to regulate themselves more and more, to the point that they want to work all the time, and even when off-duty they feel inclined to engage in the blandest pastimes possible.

As for sorting themselves into consumer niches, that’s unnecessary. Today, in terms of surveillance, the distinction between government and commerce can be hazy. As Vaidhynathan explains, “The line between ‘state’ and ‘commercial’ surveillance hardly matters anymore, as state security services regularly receive significant data sets on people’s movements and habits just by asking for them or by licensing the data on the open market” (24). While he points out that citizens need to be aware of how information flows between firms and governments, and of policies that might influence that flow, he also points out that “free speech has not disappeared or been noticeably diminished” (25). The danger is less an immediate cessation of free speech than a more subtle impetus toward greater self-regulation. In Star Trek, commerce and the state seem to be one. We’re reminded several times throughout the course of the show that in the Federation “want” is an obsolete concept. It’s not entirely accurate to say that money itself is obsolete within the Federation: continuity errors prevent one from making such a definitive claim. Occasionally characters emphasize that Federation citizens have progressed beyond the need for money and stuff. In an early TNG episode, “The Neutral Zone,” Captain Picard explains that Federation culture has eliminated the need for accumulating possessions. Elsewhere, however, people refer to or are actually shown engaging in transactions. But given the lip-service paid to this post-scarcity culture, the show pushes us to accept that vision of the future. Free speech does not appear to be hindered, but we don’t get many dissenting opinions. In this utopian future, where there is no want and everybody ably and affably does their work, it seems, they can enjoy free speech. But there’s also no reason to question the very comfortable status quo.

Indeed, food, clothing, and recreation are all provided for and funded by the governing body. Other alien races do demonstrate a devotion to commerce, which marks them as inferior or backwards. The Ferengi, in particular, possess an absolute dedication to the increase of capital; an obsession with money is in fact their core “race trait.” The show provides various other signs that the Ferengi are somehow a backward, under-developed species. For example, the Deep Space Nine episode “Ferengi Love Songs” reveal that Ferengi women are not allowed to earn a profit or even to wear clothes. The Ferengi, then, are grotesque, irritating, and immature as a species. They serve as foils, throwing into relief the advanced nature of Federation culture. My point is that there is no distinction between commerce and state in TNG, and we rarely hear voices of dissent. People are happy to be watched, to be tracked. Unwittingly of course, TNG presents us with one possible outcome of a cryptopic culture, in which citizens regulate themselves to the point of being exemplary, unceasing workers. State surveillance comes with the territory, and if someone acts too erratically—acts too human—everyone else goads them into obedience. It’s a clockwork crew. Perhaps this sort of dehumanization is the real danger of massive surveillance.

In “The Naked Now,” one of TNG’s first and silliest episodes, a bizarre alien virus infects the crew, causing them to behave basically as if they were intoxicated. In one scene, an unnamed crewmember dances through the hallway. In a way, it’s a touching moment, as though she feels free to dance only under the influence of a mind-altering infection. One gets the sense that an artistic impulse may thrive in the twenty-fourth century, even if, of course, once the illness subsides, duty calls, and the stifled dancer has to go back to work.

- Dan Froid

Works Cited

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “The Rise of the Cryptopicon.” The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). Web.

Valente, Catherynne M. “Why doesn’t anybody use social media on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?” io9.com. Gawker Media, 9 Feb. 2012. Web.

Vertesi, Janet. “My Experiment Opting Out of Big Data Made Me Look Like a Criminal.” Time.com. Time Inc., 1 May 2014. Web.

#humanitiesontheedge #danfroid

Recent Posts