Technology has long been a key part of the adventures we see in Star Trek. Throughout the franchise we’ve seen examples that depict the benefits of technology and the ease with which it can be utilized as a tool and for entertainment, but also stories showing its limits and dangers. Star Trek‘s philosophy on, and use of technology has grown and evolved over the course of its 50+ years of existence.
Several early Trek episodes drew inspiration from Henry David Thoreau, featuring Walden-esque debates over transcendentalism – specifically focusing on the role that technology plays in our every-day lives, or the faith we tend to put into computers. One specific episode that I’d argue places these themes at its forefront is the Original Series episode, Court Martial. In this episode, Kirk is put on trial for the negligent death of a crewman. The morality play comes along when Kirk’s lawyer, Samuel T. Cogley (played with eccentricity by character actor Elisha Cook Jr.), calls into question the validity of official testimony from the ship’s computer.
We’re given the first taste of Cogley’s philosophy on technology early on during a conversation between him and Kirk:
COGLEY: I’ve got my own system. Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.
KIRK: And what would be the point?
COGLEY: This is where the law is. Not in that homogenised, pasteurised, synthesiser. Do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books.
KIRK: You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who’s escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.
COGLEY: Right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
KIRK: I’m afraid so.
Similarly, the crux of Cogley’s defense of Kirk at the end of the trial rests on the idea that human rights should be placed above those of a machine. He argues that Kirk’s greatest accuser – a key piece of the prosecution’s case – is the computer log of the Enterprise, and legally Kirk has a right to face it:
“The most devastating witness against my client is not a human being. It’s a machine, an information system. The computer log of the Enterprise…I speak of rights. A machine has none. A man must. My client has the right to face his accuser, and if you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the level of the machine. Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us. I ask that my motion be granted, and more than that, gentlemen. In the name of humanity, fading in the shadow of the machine, I demand it. I demand it!”
While Trek is often known for showcasing moral and philosophical ambiguity, Corby’s speech is meant to make a much more straightforward statement of the superiority of man over machine.
Now given this commentary on man v. machines, let’s contrast Court Martial with a later episode, The Measure of a Man, from Star Trek‘s second iteration (third if one counts The Animated Series), The Next Generation. The Measure of a Man tells its story also through the lens of a courtroom drama, yet this time the trial centers around the question of sentience and rights of the android officer, Lt. Commander Data. In this episode, a representative from Starfleet attempts to make the case that because Data is a machine, he is property of Starfleet and thus can be procured for research and experimentation purposes despite Data’s personal unwillingness. Captain Picard, taking on the role of Data’s defense, argues that Data meets two of the three criteria used to determine sentient life (intelligence and self-awareness), and argues that no one can truly prove the third – consciousness. In this, Picard makes the case that despite being a machine and being referred to as artificial, Data represents a unique life-form, and Starfleet’s acquisition of him would be a violation of his personal liberty or his right to exist.
While Court Martial presents a much more concise assertion that our trust in machines could lead to the degradation of human rights, The Measure of a Man paints a much more nuanced picture. Arguably the two are asking different questions – the former looking at dependence on technology, and the latter digging deeper into themes of artificial intelligence, non-human ethics, and slavery – but looking at the two side by side shows us the philosophical evolution of the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: The Original Series dedicated several episodes to the narrative that machines are something to be wary of, and the episodes that delve specifically into the concept of artificial intelligence tend to make a point that A.I. cannot live up to what humanity already is (e.g. the episode, What are Little Girls Made of?). But as the franchise grew, the writers made points to depict these concepts as significantly less black and white as they were once portrayed – demonstrating deeper thought and an evolving philosophical mindset. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued to build on themes of artificial and/or mechanical life, especially through the development of Data as a character, and Star Trek: Voyager carried on the torch with the holographic character, The Doctor, as well (not to be confused with the Time Lord).
In a way, by highlighting challenging moral themes surrounding the concepts of technology and A.I., Star Trek drove greater societal conversations about non-human ethics. Specifically, The Measure of a Man has frequently been used in academia, inspiring academic papers, research, and even being utilized in computer ethics courses. Having the benefit of over 50 years of content creation, Star Trek has been poised with a unique opportunity to serve as an example of how popular culture can be a force for intellectual thought.