What Star Trek got right about modern technology
As the legendary sci-fi drama celebrates its 50th anniversary, our Agents have been taking a look back at some of its most iconic technologies – and surprisingly, quite a lot of them have come to pass!
Star Trek wasn’t just about interstellar adventures, hair-raising peril and seductive aliens: it was also about the promise of a better world, and a society made free to explore the universe by their advanced technology.
In real life, technology isn’t always quite so helpful. But as we look back on our favourite Star Trek memories, we here at Geek Squad can't help but notice that Gene Roddenberry and crew got quite a lot right about the way we’d use technology in the 21st century.
From ubiquitous pocket communicators to touchscreens on everything, at times it feels as if we’re already living in a science fiction future – here’s how Star Trek got there first!
From the very earliest days, Enterprise crew members were equipped with Communicators, or ‘Personal Receivers’.
These flip-top devices allowed planetary landing teams and explorers to communicate with each other and their home ship, no matter how far away they were – and in some timelines, could even send and receive text messages. Sound familiar?
Yep, that’s right: the Star Trek communicator is clearly the ancestor of the modern mobile phone! Or is it the descendent? In any case, there’s a striking similarity between the iconic 1960s Communicator model and the flip-phones that came to prominence 30 years later.
When Trek first hit our screens, the idea of a pocket-sized universal communication device really was the stuff of science fiction dreams – but a few decades later, we practically take it for granted. But when we stop and think, it’s still an incredible power to have – and it’s easy to imagine that those first mobile phone technologies were directly inspired by Star Trek’s vision.
If the Communicator of 1960s Trek paved the way for the phones of the 1990s, the Trek of the later period had its own powerful influence on mobile tech.
You see, watching The Next Generation again recently, something really stuck out: there’s a touchscreen on everything! The engineering panels, the bridge, even the food replicators in the mess room – all controlled by slick glass panels.
When the series debuted in 1987, this seemed impossibly futuristic – but now it’s part of everyday life. Don’t believe us? Check out the clip above, which shows the beloved Captain Picard using what is clearly, to modern eyes, an iPad.
In an even spookier coincidence, the Star Trek Technical Manual (yes, that’s a thing!) tells us that these devices were called Personal Access Display Devices. However that’s a bit of a mouthful so they were always simply referred to as “PADDs”!
In reality, of course, the touchscreens of the 1980s were primitive ‘resistive’ models. Anything as responsive and precise as an iPhone was practically unthinkable, and as for a colour display? Forget about it.
But Star Trek dared to imagine it – and a couple of decades later, Steve Jobs and co went and invented it.
Phasers to stun
For many fans, one of the greatest features of Star Trek is the humanistic Federation ethos. Gene Roddenberry personally insisted that there was to be no serious conflict between crew members – and in his vision of the future, lethal violence was only ever a last resort.
To that end, the ubiquitous ‘Phaser’ weapons were typically “set to stun” – delivering a disorienting zap that left assailants dazed but unharmed.
Now, even a cursory glance at the headlines will show you that we’re a long way from Roddenberry’s vision of a world where human conflict is largely a feature of the past. But while war and violence continue, there has at the very least been more research into “less-lethal” weapons.
The most notorious of these is probably the Taser, which shoots darts at the target then pumps them full of electricity. This certainly stuns, and it’s generally non-lethal – although it can indeed kill, and its use is increasingly controversial.
Perhaps a Trekkier example is the ‘Long Range Acoustic Device’, also known as the ‘sonic cannon’. These extremely powerful, targeted loudspeakers can broadcast painful frequencies at ear-splitting volumes, and have been used against pirates on the high seas – as well as against peaceful demonstrators on land.
Okay, so that last example isn’t really in keeping with the Federation ethos either. But until we all lay down our arms in a peaceful post-scarcity society, perhaps it’s the best we can do.
Technology never stands still – and as we continue to boldly go where no one has gone before, it’s likely we’ll see more Trek technology become a part of our daily lives.
Right now, it’s still the stuff of fiction, but Russian scientists have declared their intention to make Transporter-style teleportation a reality by 2035. Beam me up, Vladimir? We’ll have to wait and see.
Star Trek’s Warp drive allowed for faster-than-light travel, but it’s long been thought physically impossible to achieve. That hasn’t stopped the research, though – and last year, reports circulated that a team of scientists from NASA may have inadvertently accelerated a sub-atomic particle to faster-than-light speeds. It’s still a long way from the USS Enterprise – but hey, it’s a start.
Finally, we couldn’t publish an article like this without a word on Discovery – the new Star Trek series headed to our screens next year. Set a decade before the original 1960s series, the new show will focus on the early days of the Federation, but we’re certain to see some thrilling new technology to fire up our imaginations.
So, after 50 years, Star Trek continues to inspire – and we can’t wait to celebrate its centenary in 2066!
What’s your favourite Star Trek tech? Share it with our readers in the comments below. And for more great articles from our Agents straight to your inbox each month, get your name down below for the Geek Squad newsletter!