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Date Published: 10/9/1997
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

The Star Trekking of Physics

Alan Shapiro

In spite of the proliferation of exhilarated technoculture and its multidisciplinary, wired self-image, there remain some straightlaced, uncool tendencies within the techno-elite which boil over at the thought of all this openness to the humanities and the soft. Many scientists and research engineers still disdainfully dismiss as sentimental any point of view which introduces ethical, historical, aesthetic, or semioliminal considerations judged to be extraneous to the arduous intelligence of the scientific work itself.1 But the hard times for these rigorous and increasingly embattled scientific workers are just beginning. It is not easy to be a real scientist when multiplying media (the Internet, television channels like Fox and the Discovery Channel, pseudoscientific publications like OMNI and Discover) are bestowing an aura of informational legitimacy on dowsing rods, creationism, encounters with extraterrestrial life, extrasensory perception, the existence of angels and ghosts, and other occult and New Age phenomena. It is not easy to be a real programmer when amateur software-tweaking has become a far-reaching skill, when Microsoft encourages end-users to learn how to recombine ready-made net-aware objects, and when there are a plethora of software construction toolkits promising "thirty minute learning curves" and "thirty minutes to build your application." It is not easy to be an Internet pioneer or guru when everyone is a networking expert, and when open systems protocol acronyms are recited with the cult familiarity of sports statistics. It is not easy to be a humble, truth-seeking theoretical physicist when every viewer of Star Trek or Quantum Leap has terms like closed time-like curves, phase transitions, and colliding antiparticles flowing from his or her lips.

The languages and themes of science, digital technology, and futurology have passed into our culture's interstitial cracks and intricate, constitutive circuitry. The extrapolated or narrative future has replaced the historical past (which has receded behind museum-piece layers of simulation) as our most fundamental and decisive reference. But this homecoming of science fiction culture has resulted in the criteria for scientific truth being set adrift. Since it is viewer ratings which determine what is shown on television, and sales which determine what is printed in magazines, what is disseminated today has become more of an eagerly consumed Jarryesque pataphysics (rhetoric of imaginary scientific solutions) than a genuine physics. Although astrophysicists, for example, conclude that the probability that we will ever have direct contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life is near zero (although it is just as certain that the universe is teeming with intelligent life), this does not prevent the media from saturating themselves with stories of alien abductions and X-Files, because there is a deep cultural yearning in our time for (virtual) contact with the extraterrestrial Other which transcends all other parameters.

Yet the scientists are among the last to recognize the full implications of the proactive and determining role of science fiction culture. In the reductive, operational view which most scientists persist in having of science fiction literature and media (founded on analytic binary oppositions between hard and soft, fact and fiction, happening and prediction), an ironic, fatal reversal of the terms of who is progress-enabled versus who harbors tender and quaint attachments appears. As science fiction media culture becomes more and more the driving force influencing what gets researched and developed, this fateful inversion of signs renders the hard-nosed scientists and technicians, who refuse to fuse with the soft other espoused by the multi-fashions, into the nostalgic rear guard of sentimentality. These physicists, logicians, and procedural programmers are the last retro defenders of the rigorous paradigms of physical reality, literalness, and sequential algorithms, caught in the wake of the ascension of virtuality, metonymy, and object-orientation. That is, unless they choose the other option of abandoning scientific purism, grabbing one of technoculture's fashionable surfboards, and pulling themselves up to ride the crest of the pataphysical wave.

It must be granted that the scientists' assessment of science fiction as the dual opposite of science fact does assign a significant role to the former as part of a linear movement from fantasy to design to realization. Science fiction, according to this judgment, is an imaginary workspace occupied and utilized by imaginative authors equipped with proto-scientific minds. But it is nonetheless an ambivalent valuation. Science fiction authors elaborate amazing future possibilities, and are revered for serving as beacons who guide and inspire scientists. But science fiction authors are also intellectually weak dreamers, and their products are seen as mere precursors of genuine science. Much in the manner of orthodox Marxists or Althusserians contemplating the writings of Feuerbach and the early Marx, scientists who read or view science fiction are the self-appointed arbiters of which technological inventions can be hailed as conforming to established scientific laws, and which must be discarded as belonging to the category of noncompliant unscientific nonsense. The privileged filtering function of scientist-readers of their preferred literary or media genre is to determine which fantasized future technologies are feasible and can be built by real engineers, and which are to be rejected as hokey or gee whiz bullshit. This sorting process is evidently the most non-textual of reading strategies, where the (un)text is considered as a potentially qualifying technical manual or handbook for the construction of the future. But at a time when the hallowed computer networks have become the redemptive metaphor for every remake grab bag postmodernist theory (Sherry Turkle, Jay David Bolter, Scott Bukatman), then flawed readings (uninformed by deconstruction) are ill-advised.

Omnipresent cyberspace culture and the high-velocity mediascape are outrunning the poor scientists and their charming devotion to a corpus of objective, immutable laws. It is henceforth the culture of hyperreality, speed, and recombinant commodities which will determine which "truths" scientists will keep their sights on, which projects they will work on, and which technologies they will bring to fruition. Certain key technologies, like faster-than-light speed and time travel, are being desperately sought by our millennial culture. But it is ironically the scientists and technicians who have been holding us back with their insistence upon old-fashioned truisms like Einstein's general theory of relativity. This counterproductive outlook is illustrated in the qualified negative verdict which theoretical physicists, including the original scientific heroes Stephen Hawking and Laurence Krauss, deliver regarding the (im)practicability of some of Star Trek's most important technological devices, including the transporter ("beam me up, Scotty"), the warp drive accelerator, and wormhole time travel. It is, indeed, fascinating that Krauss continues to be pessimistic about these technologies, despite the fact that his book, The (Pata)Physics of Star Trek, is the new prototype for mutating the laws of physics in submission to the vanguard models of science fiction culture. The import of this fatal pact with consumer culture far outweighs the book's stated purpose of using Star Trek as an "entertaining" pretext for educating the public about physics.2

The transporter, for example, is looked upon as being an unworkable technology, because it involves an unruly de-materialization of an individual's atoms at a source location; passing of these atoms through walls, outer space, and countless physical objects; and re-materialization of the same atoms in a strict physical and anatomical configuration at a precisely designated target location. How could atoms possibly be manipulated in this way? How could the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which decrees that the degrees of certainty to which I can know the position and speed of given quantum particles are inversely proportional to each other, possibly be overcome? How could the "binding energy of matter," which holds all elementary particles together, possibly be overcome without requiring that the matter be heated into a stream of quarks at a thousand billion degrees? How could the effects of electromagnetic forces, gravity, and wind on the re-materializing atoms possibly be handled? The transporter is rebuffed for being in violation of the laws of physics, but this repudiation merely reveals a picturesque affection for molecules as opposed to bytes, and a nostalgia in advance for current definitions of what a human being is whose days are already numbered.

The transporter will be practicable in the twenty-third century at the latest because some of our definitions of what a human being is (our relationship to our bodies, to our irreducibility, to our symbolic doubles, to our deaths) will change. Since android "bodies," unicellular genetic cloning, and audiovisual digitization of memories will all be possible (as is universally conceded), it will merely be a question of accepting "death" one single time when the initial clone of myself (the model) is manufactured. This "death," moreover, can be fortuitously rationalized as the price to be paid for the acquisition of a useful and generalized cybernetic prosthesis.3 After that, a server application running on the transporter's parallel processors simply does concurrent loads of three modular software objects: my genetic data and core memories, the vectors of my desired target location, and the polled micro-encephalogram of my buffered (unstored) memories and real-time intentions, emotions, concerns, and organ coordinates. The program then parses the various input data streams and synthesizes a formatted output data stream which it passes to the abiogenetic sub-system along with instructions to propagate another metabolic unit of the "me" series.

In his vigorous marketing promotion of The (Pata)Physics of Star Trek in media interviews and online chat sessions, Laurence Krauss repeatedly claims that he gives high priority to the digital information or bits explanation of transporter technology. But a fair reading of the book's transporter chapter indicates that this is not at all true. Aside from two paragraphs, Krauss' discussion is entirely about the physical or atoms explanation of transporter technology. The two paragraphs on bits beaming were penciled in as a nod to the fashionable Wired and Being Digital zeitgeist. Wired itself went for the bait, publishing the transporter chapter in its November 1995 (Media Lab) issue under the title "Beam Me Up an Einstein, Scotty." In the two Negropontean paragraphs, Krauss rejects the digital transporter for two reasons. First, because it would necessitate a physical hard drive five thousand light-years in diameter to store the data of a single individual's sub-atomic configuration and probabilistic particle motion vectors. Second, because the energy released in vaporizing the source location "individual" would be the equivalent of a thousand hydrogen bombs. Krauss predictably poses the data storage problem on the incorrect (atomic) level of analysis. He neglects to consider that all the needed information already exists at the level of the genetic code written into every cell of my body. At the end of the twentieth century, the Human Genome Project is conducting the first scanning and recording of this chromatinic data, and what will have to be accelerated for the digital transporter to work is the process of instantaneous industrial abiogenesis. The discardable clone can also easily be disposed of in a low-grade combustion and aeration procedure.

Krauss confesses that he was never very interested in Star Trek until recently, when he suddenly spent every night for months viewing decades' worth of episodes (in an intense conversion experience). This headlong Trekkian and video-on-demand rush is a crystalline example of the power exerted by pataphysical science fiction culture over serious scientists: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Krauss also engages repeatedly in a thinly-disguised plea to Paramount Studios to fulfill his fondest wish by inviting him to appear on a Star Trek (Deep Space Nine or Voyager) episode, like his colleague and friend Stephen Hawking before him. Such an appearance would presumably confirm Krauss' media celebrity and immortal place in the pantheon of original scientific heroes all at once. It would conclude his star trek. Hawking has already appeared in the role of a hologram of himself on an episode of The Next Generation, engaged in a holodeck poker game with the android Data and holograms of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Hawking's scene curiously resembles the final pages of A Brief History of Time (1988), where Hawking presents brief, hagiographic biographies of the pantheonic original scientific heroes Galileo Galilei, Newton, and Einstein. What Hawking "demurely" implies but does not say is that he himself is the fourth language-free genius and partner of this cosmic hagiocracy.4 In his foreword to The (Pata)Physics of Star Trek, Hawking describes the outcome of the holodeck poker game in an incredible Freudian Witz: "Unfortunately, I never collected my winnings... I contacted Paramount Studios afterward to cash in my chips, but they didn't know the exchange rate." This witticism is intended to play on the notion that there is no known conversion between United Federation of Planets currency and US dollars. However, the surface meaning of the quip is called into question because Captain Picard often states that the motivation of money has ceased to exist in the twenty-fourth century, and because the poker game is only taking place in Data's virtual reality fantasy. Hawking's Witz can be read as an indirect expression of his desire to redeem the chips of his newfound media stardom, won at the expense of the simulacra of Newton and Einstein, for a "real world" elevation to co-equal status with the author of Principia Mathematica and the formulator of the theory of relativity.

Some might argue that biodigital cloning was not what we had in mind when we first saw Federation officers getting beamed back and forth between starship transporter rooms and the planets below. But this is what happens throughout the history of technological inventions. It was so with transportation and with telecommunications - so why not the same with teleportation? Technologies never exactly accomplish or fulfill the dream which inspired their invention. They simulate the dream's realization and, in their effectuation, alter definitions of the human, thereby changing the rules of the game as to what it is possible or desirable to invent next. This regressive anthropo- historical process of accommodation (dromological progress, as Paul Virilio calls it) is at least as important as the vaunted chronography of technical progress. The ancient dream of men to fly like birds with wings was never achieved, and physicists would have pointed out that it was aerodynamically impossible. We succeeded at flight by consenting to ride in moving vehicles initially designed for war and territorial surveillance. We are flown more than we fly, just as in our automotive vehicles we are driven more than we drive (this will reach its pure form in microprocessor- and satellite-controlled "free flight" air traffic and the computerized car). The automobile was imagined as a more efficient replacement for the horse-drawn carriage. But it became a prolifically serialized and differentiated consumer fetish object, an imploding matrix of twisted metal and torn flesh at the scene of highway accidents, and the contradictory catalyst of both the cult of speed and the "gridlock" congestion and inertia of cities. The transportation revolution conquers distances, but it also degrades the reality of expansive physical space and transforms our perception of landscapes into a kind of cinematic panorama of framed images.

The dream which inspired the invention of the telephone was that of being in two places at once. The telecommunications revolution "fulfilled" this dream of spatial co-extensivity also by using a "vehicle" or "communication vector that is inseparable from the speed of its transmission"5. What telephony actually accomplishes is the enactment of action-at-a-distance where I intervene in remote situations through use of the techno-corporeal proxy of my reproduced analog or digital voice. Of course, the technical progress of telecommunications (video teleconferencing, appearance of a virtual reality hologram of myself at the remote location) is in the direction of suppressing the artifice of representation (the illusion) in favor of a disillusioned simulacrum of (hyper)really being in two (or all) places at once. In other words, it is the movement from the use of partial and differentiated proxies or prosthetics towards increasingly integral and seamless ones, finally culminating in the generalized prosthesis of the clone. Now the indispensable role and destiny of Star Trek's transporter in the history of vehicular technology becomes clear. With transportation technologies, space is reduced to nothing (temporal distance - three hours to Chicago - replaces spatial distance), and I take my body along with me. With telecommunications technologies, time is reduced to nothing (replaced by real-time or instantaneousness), and my body "stays with me" locally and is represented by proxies remotely. Teleportation technologies are the synthesis of these two forms of speed vehicles. They reduce both space and time to nothing, and present the solution to the problem of how can I both take my body along with me and be represented remotely by my deputies or surrogates. This combination affords great advantages to the teletraveler. Since the transporter is, strictly speaking, no longer a vehicle (the cloned "body" is the vehicle), the era of speed-induced accidents is brought to a close. In this sense, the frightful images in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock of a transporter mishap, where the "passengers" arrive looking like melting ice cream sundaes, are false. Teleportation technologies also provide the user with a full evanescence which was partly presaged in the answering machine and voice mail. Seeing the transporter in the historical context of being the synthesis or ultimate convergence of the transportation and telecommunications revolutions furnishes us with a cogent explanation accounting for the widespread fascination with beaming. The closest equivalent in the vernacular for "beam me up, Scotty" is "get me the hell outta here," a facetious utterance articulating the wish to be bailed out from (the) difficult circumstances (of contemporary life). In varied situations, "beam me up, Scotty" can be a request for information, an expression of the desire to be propitiously abducted by alien beings, or revelatory of the obsession to leer as long as possible, Thanatos-like, at the wondrous technology-actuated possibilities of our own disappearance.

Is this "modest proposal" of digital teleportation as chimerical and fantastic as Jonathan Swift's eighteenth century satirical presentiment of Soylent Green (the use of humans as food)? It is clear that no great leap out of being as we know it will be required to consummate a clone-owned world. This sublime dystopia is already well under construction in transitional, incremental stages, thanks to being digital. The resolute, willful "I" goes online and touches base with its differentiated, cloned subsidiaries: role-playing avatar and MUD agents; "seeing machine" video camera agents; feedback probe and sensor agents; limited-task newsreader, meeting scheduler, group organizer, and workflow agents; customized knowbot information agents; sports gambling RealAudio game announcer agents; personal digital assistant agents; and artificial life trained-English butler-insects of the genus esse digitulos. Those who will to the power of teleportation will steadily hone the perfection of their autonomous, synthetic, cloned agents. These agents will become my best friends and confidants, the ones on which I depend for survival and profit, and whose intelligence and activities I cultivate around the clock. Despite the slogans about the joys of decenteredness and multiplicity, or the operative myth of soft intermingling with models and objects, this is a world of loneliness without other people. There may be fusion with simulated others, but there is no recognition of others, no real others at all, and therefore no real own self. Later on, the end of life occurs, but does not matter. Life's termination disturbs no one, because what I have left is the immortality of my teleportable clones. Then even the assuredness of whose will is in charge, the mortal or the immortal, will come into question.


1. Ellen Ullman, "Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life" in James Brook and Iain A. Boal, eds., Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.

2. Laurence M. Krauss, The Physics of Star Trek (foreword by Stephen Hawking). New York: Basic Books, 1995.

3. Jean Baudrillard, "The Hell of the Same" in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. London: Verso, 1993.

4. Marc Silver, "Strategies of Self-Concealment in the 'Hard Sciences'", in Forms of Argumentative Discourse. Bologna: Universita di Bologna, Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Straniere Moderne, 1996.

5. Paul Virilio, "The Last Vehicle" in Looking Back at the End of the World (Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf, eds.) (translated by David Antal). New York: Semiotext(e), 1989; p. 113.

Alan Shapiro is a software developer who lives in Frankurt, Germany. He also taught sociology for several years at New York University. He has published essays in Semiotext(e) and And Then. He is writing about the virtuality syndrome, the gambling boom in America, and fatal theory.
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