Friday, September 23, 2016

Oblivion or Utopia: Star Trek and Humanity

Originally published in The Huffington Post on September 8, 2016

Over the years, I have pointed people to a book published in 1955 by Milton Meyer, “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945”, because I feared people in America didn’t realize they were sliding towards the same political cliff. If you want to read more about that book, here’s a good link

But today, it’s not just a political cliff we are sliding towards (as dangerous as that cliff may be). It’s an overall cultural cliff. The social fabric of society is coming apart: Dysfunctional behavior has been treated as “normal” by the entertainment industry for some time (think: Reality TV).

False equivalency reporting has given equal time to climate change deniers and others who live in a fact / science-free world. They are allowed to lie to the American people without anyone pointing out that what they are saying is wrong.

There is a war on science.

There is an assault on reason.

White supremacists are getting interviewed on CNN because they support Donald Trump, as if their viewpoints should be given commentary-free airtime. This is normalizing their beliefs.

The culture of hate is taking over the internet.

This list could be longer, but I trust I’ve made my point.

We are headed for Oblivion. Not just the political but the overall social fabric of society is heading for collapse.

And into the poisonous brew of all-conflict all-the-time comes a new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery.

This is no mere new TV show. This is a critically important cultural development. Here’s why…

The oblivion we are headed for has parallels in the catastrophic situations the crew of the Enterprise faced time and time again. But through the combined bravery and teamwork of that crew - including often remarkable acts of ingenuity by a crew member or the captain himself - they avoided death… and that’s what you and I need to do today! And that’s what I hope Star Trek: Discovery teaches a new generation of viewers (while also reinforcing those lessons in older series fans like me).

There’s a wonderful scene in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan in which we learn how Captain Kirk beat the “no win scenario” of the Kobayashi Maru test while a Starfleet Academy cadet. It’s a test in which all Starfleet cadets normally get to experience the destruction of their ship and the loss of many crewmates because there’s no way to win. But cadet James T. Kirk won.

“I reprogramming the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship,” Captain Kirk tells Lt. Saavik, whose ship was destroyed when she took the test. “I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking… I don’t like to lose… I don’t believe in a no-win scenario.”

Here’s the scene, in which Kirk also avoids a real-life no-win scenario…

Captain Kirk doesn’t like to lose. Well, neither do I!

Oblivion can be avoided now… by us… for real… starting right now!

And – in a case of life imitates art – avoiding oblivion today will also require “reprogramming the simulation”… this time of the world in which we live. It will require we consciously, creatively and pro-actively take control of the design of the human social system in which we live!

Yes, this isn’t a simulation we’re dealing with, but it still involves a programming change… a change in the mental programming we all live with every day in our real lives. We must design a better system… a better frame of reference for the world around us… one that enables us to win… one that enables everyone to win.

I’m a civil engineer, project and program manager by training and profession. And believe me when I tell you that the hard science of sustainable development coupled with the soft science of conflict resolution and win-win negotiations can give us the world of our dreams... the world envisioned by Star Trek... global peace and prosperity for all!

The passengers and crew of the “spaceship” in which we are travelling… not of the Enterprise… but this beautiful living Spaceship Earth (so named by the philosopher Buckminster Fuller but also familiar to visitors to Disney World) can all make it! We can beat the no-win scenario we are being fed today!

I know I’m talking about reality not simulation, but the redesign process ahead of us is remarkably similar to that of a computer game… once you realize just how much control we have over the “software” and the “input parameters” of our world. In his landmark TV series “The Day the Universe Changed,” British historian James Burke said “You see what your knowledge tells you you’re seeing. And when that knowledge changes, for you the universe changes.

This new system starts with us… with how we think. And that starts with the information we take in and cycle back out into our world. We have the power to choose what information we take in on any given day and the power to choose what information we send out to our friends and associates. While the mainstream media may think we mostly want to watch shows that portray dysfunctionality and mainstream press may avoid taking sides when it comes to science and moral values, we can choose to take in information from sources that provide information that helps rather than information that makes things worse and to then talk about that better world information.

And as more of us choose to focus on constructive rather than destructive content, the power of the marketplace will take effect. The Roddenberry Foundation – created by Rod Roddenberry, Gene Roddenberry’s son – recently launched its #BoldlyBetter initiative. The Boldly Better hashtag will be used to help people find information about all the positive, constructive things people and organizations are doing.

I will report more on this initiative in the future. I was at a launch event for this initiative last Saturday…

Of course, those who make money keeping us thinking about competition, hate, and fear rather than cooperation, love, and respect won’t be happy we have made this personal choice. But this is how capitalism works. Those who know that people will want something new, offer that new product or service in what one globally best selling business strategy book calls a “blue ocean” (one devoid of competition… not colored red from the blood in the water).

But this new system also starts with how we all - as one human family - think. We tend to think about parts of the system in which we live. A lot of people specialize in one thing or another. But being a generalist is very important if you’re going to see how all of the parts of the world currently fit together… and how they need to fit together if the system is to function in a way that enables us all to have peaceful and prosperous lives.

In his book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth,” Buckminster Fuller said the most general, “big picture” question we need to ask is “Can the basic survival needs of everyone on Earth be met?” “Can we live in a world of abundance rather than scarcity?” He asked this question because if everyone’s basic needs can be met then the root cause of war… the original reason we started to fight many thousands of years ago… the reason we developed a global culture of separate “tribes” in which it’s okay to kill “the others”… goes away.

And the answer he came up with – from scientific investigation with his good friend Gerard Piel (the founder of Scientific American magazine) – was YES!”

The root cause of war is gone… it’s obsolete.

Engineers see problems as design challenges. And when I think about global peace and prosperity, I ask myself “What kind of social system design – one based on abundance rather than scarcity thinking – could we have?” It’s one heck of an innovation question… and one I think it’s time for us to answer.

Fifty years ago, Star Trek gave us a vision of what humanity would be doing once that answer was found. It’s a vision that inspired a lot of people then and one I believe can inspire a lot of people today.

The Guardian published a generally positive story about Star Trek’s vision this past Sunday. However, this article quotes the author Mark A. Altman, who recently wrote The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored & Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, as “(doubting) whether Roddenberry’s vision still appeals today”. They quote Altman as saying
“For a genre in which dystopian futures and space pulp dominate, one has to wonder whether the thoughtful, cerebral, kinder, gentle Star Trekkian ethos still has a chance to engage and excite new viewers – particularly in light of the tepid box-office reception to the most recent Star Trek [film].” “In the age of political polarisation – in which the echo chamber of social media reinforces one’s own stringent (and often strident) beliefs, in which social discourse has given way to online screaming matches, in which no one bothers to even try and accept the reasoned opinions of others – it’s even harder to believe that the Star Trek future, in which the family of man has transcended its petty differences, is viable.”
I think Star Trek's vision definitely does have appeal today, as a visionary pull for those of us who have hope things can get better because of what we have learned from people like Bucky Fuller… but also for those who are attracted to that future enough to go looking for the answer to the question “Can it happen for real?”

I am thrilled CBS is launching a new Star Trek series! And one reason is that Bryan Fuller, its Executive Producer, gets that we're in very challenging times. In fact, at the recent San Diego ComicCon, he called on all Star Trek fans to become more than fans. He called on us to creatively seek ways to bring Gene Roddenberry's vision into reality today...

So, we have the creative head of the new series urging Star Trek fans on. And I have to imagine that the show itself will be a big help for that reason. And we have the #BoldlyBetter initiative of the Roddenberry Foundation and the work of lots of other creative optimists out there like me.

 Live Long And Prosper, Star Trek. Happy 50th Birthday!

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