This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
Is there a correlation between increased surveillance and decreased creativity and expression?
This is one of the central questions among the countless themes explored throughout the Star Trek episode, Return of the Archons. The episode sees the crew of the Enterprise coming upon a planet (Beta III) where another starship, the USS Archon, was reportedly lost 100 years ago.
Captain Kirk and his team of wayward heroes soon find the inhabitants of the planet, the Betans, living in a 19th century style Earth-like society, with the caveat of being governed and ruled over by a totalitarian state. The Betans are policed by cloaked “Lawgivers,” and forced to obey the rule of law under their leader known only as Landru. Through this strict interpretation and implementation of rules and laws, the Betans live in a world that is crime-free, yet also devoid of basic freedoms such as culture and expression.
The episode served as an allegory for many themes. The most apparent of which being a parallel to the Vietnam War. The Betan society is meant to be reminiscent of the Communist values of state control and suppression, whereas Starfleet presents a kind of moral superiority, valuing personal liberties, innovation, and freedom.
One could also argue that this episode was meant to serve as a critique or cautionary tale of a societal devotion to organized religion, or literalist interpretations of religious texts. Throughout the episode, Landru is presented as a God, and the Betans must act in strict accordance with his decrees and laws at the expense of their own personal freedoms and free will. Ultimately, Kirk defeats Landru (who we find out is a machine) with “human illogic,” which could be seen as humanity triumphing over a tyrannical deity, not unlike the allegory presented throughout Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. For this reason, it has been criticized by some as an attack on organized religion.
The religious and philosophy scholar, Michael Anthony Corey, thought of it in a different way. In his book, Back to Darwin: The Scientific Case for Deistic Evolution, Corey tries to address a major complaint of belief structures – the idea that if God is all-good and all-powerful, then there should not be evil or bad things in the world. Ultimately, Corey points to this episode of Star Trek to argue this point. He uses the events in the episode to explain that if God restricts humans from doing bad, humanity would have to be pre-programmed to lose all autonomy. Humans would also “lose the most precious aspect of [their] humanity, as well: [their] spontaneous and uniquely human personality characteristics.” Like in Return of the Archons, in exchange for a seemingly utopic culture, humans would give up their freedom of expression, creativity and free will.
While these allegorical points are interesting and important to consider when thinking about this episode, I’d like to come back to the question I asked above: Is there a correlation between increased surveillance and decreased creativity and expression? Obviously we see a society devoid of creativity depicted in Return of the Archons, and it doesn’t take much to recognize that totalitarianism and dictatorships hurt the arts. Viewed from a more nuanced perspective, does our society’s knowledge that we are being increasingly monitored through our internet and/or phone activity by governmental organizations such as the NSA and various corporations gathering data, hinder our collective creativity and promote more active self-censorship?
The overwhelming consensus is that it undoubtedly does. In 2013, the literary advocacy organization, PEN America partnered with independent researchers from the FDR Group to survey over 500 American writers on this very topic. Their findings show that, of 520 writers surveyed, in response to greater knowledge of mass surveillance, 28% have “curtailed or avoided social media activities,” 24% have “deliberately avoided topics in phone or email conversations,” and 16% have “avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic (source: Chilling Effects: NSA Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor).
According to T.A. Ridout’s 2014 article, Surveillance and the Creative Mind, the suspicion of being watched or monitored is enough to inhibit the very thought process behind creativity. The FBI, suspicious of his potential ties to Cuba, monitored Ernest Hemmingway for long periods of time towards the end of his life. Knowledge of his surveillance, apart from potentially contributing to his death, affected Hemmingway’s ability to continue his creative work. Also, during the 1950s Red Scare, we saw countless writers, actors and artists self-censor out of fear of being labeled a communist or a communist sympathizer. For example, author John Steinbeck was criticized and even targeted by the FBI for this very reason because of his literary descriptions of poverty in America.
In Return of the Archons, the Betans have lost nearly all of their individual autonomy. Their passions and innate desires have been suppressed to such a point that Landru has carved out one time of the year to let it all out: a time the Betans call “Red Hour,” in which no laws are enforced. Effectively, this classifies Beta III as a Purge Planet (Rick & Morty, anyone?). The intense suppression and its effects in Return of the Archons are meant as a hyperbole, but the data above shows a very real cautionary tale. At some point, we must ask ourselves which ideals we place more value upon, our freedom and expression, or security and fear?