Star Trek and Tech – Chasing The Final Frontier

Star Trek Discovery arrived on our screens last month, the first time in a decade that we have been graced with a new Star Trek television series. The reviews so far have been a little bit mixed; with some complaints that the Klingons look like gilded space orcs, but let’s be honest; the new show could be nothing but Wil Wheaton wearing stripy pyjamas and people would still watch it. Because Star Trek is more than just a television show, it is a part of our culture.

As anthropologists, we have a keen interest in the way that culture shapes technology and nowhere is that more obvious than when it comes to Star Trek. The little nerds of the past grew up to be the designers and tech geniuses of today and there is a clearly visible line between the inspiration of Star Trek and the new technologies that have been developed since the USS Enterprise first took flight.

The most obvious connection is between the “Communicators” that the crew of the original Enterprise used and cell phones. Martin Cooper, a designer at Motorola cited the communicator as his whole inspiration for the creation of the cellphone. It didn’t take long before the “flip-phone” was the go-to design. There really was no logical reason for a mobile phone to flip open like that except to emulate the experience of being in Star Trek.

Illustration by Simon Wood

Illustration by Simon Wood

The “Viewscreen” on the bridge of the Enterprise featured prominently in almost every episode, and you are probably reading this blog post on one of the resulting pieces of technology. While plasma screen technology was around since 1964, the popular interest in the technology didn’t take off until after Star Trek. Better flat screens allowed for miniaturisation, leading to laptop computers, tablets and smartphones.

However, the Star Trek version of the iPad didn’t show up until The Next Generation – which coincidentally just turned 30 years old – but the “Padd” was so ubiquitous in the series and its design was so eye-catching that it isn’t surprising that the Amazon Kindle and many other eReaders were inspired by it. Interestingly, Star Trek also predicted that adoption of eReaders wouldn’t destroy the print medium, with many of the main characters still reading hardbacks.

The diagnostic “Tricorder” used by medical staff in Star Trek inspired a competition just this year to create a portable device that could be used to scan patients and ascribe treatment. The tablet style DxtER was declared the winner in August and received a massive grant to begin development and production.

And while Teleportation technology has not come to fruition yet, its close cousin the “Replicator” has provided inspiration, over and over again. The original version provided the crew with food and helped to inspire the microwave oven, but as it was revealed that the Replicators could be used to manufacture other items, technology has raced to catch up – 3D printer anyone?

The list seems to be endless, but the last one that needs a mention is voice recognition technology and AI. Neither of these then fictional technologies were unique to Star Trek, but it is difficult to imagine that when Alexa, Siri and all of the other personal assistant bots were being designed, the dulcet tones of Majel Rodenberry’s computer voice weren’t echoing in the creators’ minds.

The influence of Star Trek on our culture and our technology is far from over, but if there is one thing that the show has taught us about the future, it is that boldly going where no-one has gone before is a part of human nature.

Technology Architect

Sutherland Labs
Profile Image - Mike Lewis

View other blog posts by Mike