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Intelligent Machines

Of Trek and TiVo

Modern gadgetry looks like something from Star Trek. But it usually works like something from Gilligan’s Island.

Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, which first aired in 1966, drew inspiration from a century-old strand of technological utopianism in American science fiction. Writers like Looking Backward author Edward Bellamy had long envisioned improvements in communications and transportation as a way out of the economic injustices and blighted environments of the Industrial Revolution and a means toward perfecting society. Star Trek was nothing if not optimistic about technology; each week, the captain and crew trusted their lives to the miracles of modern science. True, there were hints of something darker (the uppity computer gods that Kirk disconnected, for instance), but in the end, Scotty and his engineers set things right.

Enterprise, which debuted this fall on UPN as the newest entry in the Star Trek franchise, has a fundamentally different vision. Its crew copes with bleeding-edge technologies: they don’t trust the transporter not to scramble their molecular data, the torpedoes miss their targets, the shields are on the fritz and the computers make crappy food. Starfleet is now a paternalistic bureaucracy. In short, the message is, we have seen the future and it doesn’t work.

Why the change? In the 1960s, faith in technological progress came easily, since most of the equipment was still in the hands of the guys in the white lab coats at NASA and MIT. And Starfleet embodied the idealism of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. Today we live, day in and day out, with technologies that have been shipped before being adequately debugged, which can shut themselves down or wipe our e-mail archives without notice. The newer the technology, the less likely it is to do what it promises, and as for getting reliable service, forget about it.

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The MIT Media Laboratory still trots out the old technological utopian line with its promises of “things that think”-smart gadgets in the service of humanity. But a lot of the rest of the country fears machines with minds of their own. In our heart of hearts, we assume that any computer that can speak to our vacuum cleaners may also cut off our oxygen supply and shove our pets into the trash compactor when we aren’t looking. Twentieth-century literary luminaries James Thurber and Robert Benchley often depicted modern technology as a hostile intruder in our homes. At best, it’s a clumsy visitor: I can’t help but think of Rube Goldberg when I look at the toppling tower of black boxes (my VCR with its blinking lights, my CD player, my digital recorder, my digital cable box, my surround-sound speakers, various videotapes) next to my television set and alongside the various remotes.

It’s hard to take seriously the original Star Trek’s technological utopian premise when contemporary devices-some inspired by the series itself, some even used to watch it-are totally unreliable. Improvements in communications technologies, indeed! There are at least three problems. First, the new machines are still buggy when they reach our hands. How many of us have to shout into our cell phones, which often look suspiciously like Star Trek’s flip-open communicators, but with a much more limited calling area? Second, the companies that send us these gadgets never quite seem to know how to set up a customer service department equipped to deal with the bugs as they emerge. And then there are the design errors that make you wonder if the machines’ engineers had a Vulcan or Klingon customer in mind rather than a human being. Why are the media devices that we mostly use in darkened rooms always black? Why do they put all the useful information-the model number, serial number, even the phone number for customer service-on the bottom of the VCR?

Consider the sad tale of my TiVo digital video recorder, which I bought with the highest optimism that it would transform television as I knew it. I could preprogram it to tape all of my favorite shows; I could watch whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. In reality, it took Philips six months from the date of purchase to get me a workable unit, six months of dealing with 45-minute service calls, six months of performing silly rituals like wrapping my unit in tinfoil to see if the infrared detector was really working, six months of shipping defective units back and forth since they can’t seem to check them out before sending them to dissatisfied customers. I felt totally alone, since so many friends swore by their TiVos, until I visited the company’s help page and found that the largest single category of helpful advice was postings by customers who had received more than two nonworking units. And then, no sooner did I get my unit working than my cable company went digital. The two digital boxes have real difficulties communicating with each other and thus will randomly decide to record the wrong program.

TiVo’s other promise was that its intelligent agents would monitor my taste and surprise me with programs they think I want to see-which turned out to be a bit like having the cat drag home a dead mouse. This so-called smart agent, for example, never bothered to ask what languages I speak and so brings me Russian-language soap operas. If it only shipped with a Universal Translator, I’d be in great shape!

So as I sit in my living room wondering whether my TiVo is going to catch the broadcast beams and knowing full well that I am pretty much on my own if problems strike, the more pessimistic vision of technology in Enterprise seems about right to me. Just once I’d like to buy a new gizmo and not feel like I had to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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