A Philosopher's Blog

Dark Mirror’s USS Callister: A Star Trek Story

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 3, 2018

Jesse Plemons, right, in the “USS Callister” episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ Netflix

Having grown up on Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, I really enjoyed Black Mirror episode ‘USS Callister.’ Being a philosopher, I rather enjoyed reading various thought pieces on the work and decided to add my own tribble to the heap. If you have not seen the episode, there are obviously spoilers ahead.

Much like the brilliant Star Trek lampoon Galaxy Quest, ‘USS Callister’ begins with what appears to be a Trek clone overstuffed with overacting and delightful cheese. Captain Daly, a Kirk-like figure, leads his diverse and adoring crew in a battle against a Khan like villain (complete with a recreation of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Under the slice of cheese is a true horror: The USS Callister is within a virtual reality game controlled by Robert Daly and the other “players” are self-aware digital clones of his co-workers.

Daly has powers in the game comparable to Charlie X of Star Trek (including the ability to transform a victim’s face into a mask of unbroken flesh) and uses them to control the controls, forcing them to play the game with him. Since Daly’s coworkers treat him rather badly, it is initially tempting to feel some sympathy for him, but it is revealed that Daly cloned and spaced (putting out an airlock without a suit) the son of his boss. Daly also transforms cloned female co-workers into large alien bugs which horrifically retain their intelligence.

Daly seals his own fate when he digitally clones his newest co-worker, Nanette, and forces her to play the game. To make an excellent story short, digital Nanette leads the crew in a successful rebellion against Daly aided, unwittingly, by the original Nanette.

Jenna Scherer, of Rolling Stone, makes an excellent case that the episode is a criticism of the sort of toxic fandom that has spewed its hate at the fact that the captain’s chair has been increasingly available to people who are not straight, white males. I certainly agree that the episode does just that. However, I also contend that it is a Star Trek story, albeit crafted to avoid lawsuits from the corporate masters of Star Trek. I think this might be a point worth making since I see it as important to distinguish the episode’s criticism of toxic fandom from what seems to be a sincere commitment to the values of classic Star Trek. Making this case requires considering what it is to be a Star Trek story.

The easy and obvious (and legalistic) answer is that a Star Trek story is one that occurs within the Star Trek universe as defined by the corporation that owns the property. While legally sound, this is not satisfying from a philosophical standpoint. Setting aside the legal concerns, another easy way to define such a story is in terms of the setting—that is, a story in the Star Trek universe is thus a Star Trek story. That is also unsatisfying—merely having the Federation, Klingons and such does not seem to suffice—for there is more to a true Star Trek story than just the setting, props and inhabitants. There is the intangible “feel” of a Star Trek story as well as the values inherent to such a story. Since an entire book could be written about this, I am forced to stick with a few quick points that are especially relevant to ‘USS Callister.’

One underlying theme of Star Trek is the dual nature of humanity’s relation to technology. On the one hand, Star Trek is fundamentally optimistic about technology—warp technology allows starships to explore the galaxy and advances in technology have freed the Federation from economic oppression. On the other hand, Star Trek also explores the threat technology presents in terms of its potential for abuse. The Borg are, of course, the paradigm example of the dangerous side to technology. While ‘USS Callister’ might seem to be entirely on the dark side of technology, the ending is optimistic—the digital clones are fully people and, at the end, set out to have their own life in the vast universe of the game.

Star Trek, especially the original series, also placed an emphasis on rational problem solving and teamwork. The model was, of course, a strong captain leading a competent crew of decent people. While this is not unique to Star Trek, this model was carefully followed by the episode: as in many classic Star Trek episodes, crew members made essential contributions to the success of the plan—and, of course, the diversity of the crew is a key part of their strength.

Most importantly, Star Trek also advanced a set of moral principles, as exemplified by the rules and laws of the Federation and Star Fleet. In the episode “Captain Daly” speaks of the values of Space Fleet, but often uses them to justify inflicting worse horrors. For example, after defeating a co-worker he has cast as a villain, the “villain” begs Daly to kill him and thus free him. Daly cites the Space Fleet rules about not killing and instead has the “villain” locked in the brig—thus extending his torture. While it is tempting to see the episode as mocking the values of Star Trek by having a Kirk-like figure mouthing them while grotesquely violating their spirit, this is what contributes the most to making it a Star Trek story. Daly is not Kirk exposed. Daly is, rather, another example of a classic Star Trek villain type: a Star Fleet captain gone bad. In ‘The Omega Glory’ Captain Tracey, commander of the Exeter, violates the Federation’s Prime Directive and ends up committing mass murder and fighting Kirk in order to secure what he hopes is the secret to immortality. While Daly is obviously modeled on Kirk, he is most like Captain Tracey: someone who has professed his love for his ideals, but who abandons them for his own selfish desires when pushed into a crisis. Daly thus shows the irony of the toxic fan—they are acting in violation of the very principles they profess to embrace.

Digital Nanette and her fellows, in contrast, act in accord with the classic values of Star Trek—they act with courage and are willing to make great sacrifices for each other. Appropriately enough, at the end of the episode Nanette is the captain of the USS Callister—a position she has earned. While Daly and the toxic fans might fancy themselves captains, they are the villains. Which is, of course, also a feature of classic Trek: the moral lesson.

Upon their escape from Daly’s private game, the crew’s uniforms and the ship are upgraded to a modern style (like that of the new Star Trek movies). While it might be tempting to see this as a condemnation of classic Star Trek, it can be a metaphor of how the moral goodness of classic Trek is still relevant today, though it was clearly best to leave behind the miniskirts. So, it is reasonable to see ‘USS Callister’ as praising the good of Star Trek while, at the same time, criticizing toxic fandom.

 

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Playing with Solipsism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2013
Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.

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Does Socialism Destroy Incentives?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 6, 2010
Donald Trump in February 2009

Image via Wikipedia

Let us suppose that Obama really wants to ram socialism down America’s throat. Is this a bad thing?

It is generally assumed that socialism is bad because…well, because it is socialism. That is something that Europeans do, like eating quiche or losing wars. However, are there good arguments as to why socialism itself is inherently bad?

To keep the discussion focused narrowly, I’ll stick with the stock argument: socialism destroys incentive. If, the argument goes, the state owns everything then people have no incentive to strive and this will result in a wide variety of problems from individual laziness to a general economic decline. Interestingly, the same folks who make this argument also tend to be the same folks who argue against the minimum wage (or at least increasing it).

The argument is usually presented in the context of a form of socialism in which there is no difference in pay or rewards. That is, from each according to his ability and to each according to exact equality. However, this form of socialism is not the only form. State ownership of the economic system does not require that individuals cannot be paid more or less or rewarded more or less. All that state ownership requires is that the state owns the economic entities.

But, one might argue, if people cannot strive to own a company or corporation, then they would have no incentive at all. In reply, the truth is that the vast majority of people have no chance of ever owning a company or corporation. Rather, the odds are that they will be working for a business that is owned by someone else (and these owners are a small percentage of the population). Amazingly enough, these people still work even though they really have no chance of owning a company or corporation. Now, imagine that the state owns the company rather than Donald Trump or Bill Gates. From the employees’ standpoint, nothing has really changed. To use an analogy, claiming that state ownership will destroy incentive is a bit like saying that getting rid of pro sports would destroy the incentive to play sports or exercise. True, there would be some impact. But it would be much smaller than one might imagine.

In response, it could be argued that under socialism there would be no privately owned small businesses and this would destroy incentives. After all, while most people have no chance of owning a corporation (aside from a bit of stock, of course) a person can start his or her own business. Without such an incentive, disaster would ensue.

The same reply can be given as above: again, most folks do not own businesses and really have no realistic chance of doing so and hence most folks are not motivated by this. Rather, most folks are motivated to work because they need the money.

Aha, one might say, under socialism there will be no such needs. People will have all their needs taken care of and hence will have no incentive to work.

In reply, if this were true, then what would be the problem? This would be a “Star Trek” future of plenty and no want. This seems awesome.

But, one might say, this would not be an awesome world. Rather, it would be awful because everything would be crappy. When everyone’s basic needs would be met, the other needs would be left unfulfilled because people would lack any incentive to fill them because they could not make lots of money doing so.

While this has some appeal, it would seem that if people are suffering because their needs are left unfulfilled, then they would have an incentive to act to fulfill them-even if they could not make lots of money doing so. Also, people are often motivated by factors other than money. Think, for example, of all the free stuff on the web that people create and share without the hope of profit. Think, also, of community service and volunteer work. While profit does motivate, there are other strong motivators that would provide considerable incentives.

A final point to consider is the negative aspects of the profit motivation. Folks driven solely by greed tend to lead us into disasters. While a healthy desire for profit can be fine, it must be tempered by other motives as well or such a drive can become monstrous and damaging

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Thoughts on Star Trek

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on May 9, 2009
The original starship Enterprise
Image via Wikipedia

I went to see the new Star Trek movie yesterday. Since it has been reviewed by the professionals, I’ll just stick with making a few comments on it.

Setting aside my long history with Star Trek, I have to say that the movie was quite good. The effects were, of course, the best money could buy. The acting was competent and the actors did an effective job of preserving the original characters while refreshing them. This is a good thing: I have seen fanboys trying to play William Shatner playing Kirk and this is often a grotesque and painful sight. Naturally, a professional actor will do a better job than a fanboy, but an actor playing another actor playing a role is far more suitable for parody (as wonderfully done in Galaxy Quest) than for serious acting.

The story was interesting and kept me entertained. In some ways, it did stick with classic Trek: men in uniform making tough decisions. And, if necessary, dying because of them. However, it generally stayed away from the philosophical depths sometimes explored in the original series. We do see the clash of emotions and logic (emotions win) and the standard revenge motif. The movie also managed to include elements from Trek history (the nasty mind controlling slug, for example) without seeming too forced or silly. It also had some comedic elements-which is something the original series did as well.

Naturally, I do have some negative comments about the film. There are spoilers here, so skip this if you haven’t seen the movie.

First, it did what might be considered the unthinkable: by changing the “past” it has effectively made it so that the original series episodes did not (will not) happen. As such, all the Star Trek “history” is now “incorrect.” On one hand, this can be seen as a good thing-they can create all new stories using the original characters. On the other hand, it seems wrong to sweep aside forty three years of established Trek material. The movie could have easily been written in a way that the original timeline was preserved. Changing things in this manner is like changing a book-it alters an established work (or works) of art and this is not something to do lightly-even to make money. Also, as a side point, destroying Vulcan radically alters the Star Trek setting. Doing this would be like having Gondor or the Shire destroyed in a re-written version of the first book of the Lord of the Rings.

Of course, since there are at least two more movies planned, perhaps they will restore things to the original timeline.

Second, the movie also violated what the series established about rogue time travel: there are people in the more distant future who deal with that sort of stuff. Surely some rogue mining ship captain destroying Vulcan would have attracted their attention. It also violated the usual Trek convention: time travel always ends with things being restored to what was supposed to happen.

Third, the movie made use of time travel. While time travel can be cool and an effective story device, it always bothers me. After all, it tends to create some rather serious plot holes. The biggest is, of course, that if time travel is accepted in the fictional universe, then people can always pop back a bit earlier to undo what was done. For example, the Federation could send a battle fleet back to meet Nero when he first came back. Or, to be more cost effective, they could just have someone kill him when he is a kid. Or, to be nice, they could pop ahead (or back) with Spock’s ship and save Romulus. Once time travel is in the mix, then things quickly get out of hand. After all, you need a reason why the universe is not constantly being changed by time travel.

Fourth, Nero’s motivations seemed a bit absurd. As far as I could tell, he wanted to destroy the Federation to protect Romulus from danger. Laying aside the obvious paradox (if he succeeded in saving Romulus, then he would never have been shot back through time to save it), his actions made no sense. Based on what he said, he had read history. As such, he would know that without the Federation, the Dominion would have crushed the Romulans. Also, without the Federation, the Borg would have also assimilated the Alpha Quadrant. So, in destroying the Federation, he would end up causing the enslavement or assimilation of Romulus. But maybe he planned to go get the Dominion, the Borg and everyone else, too.

Another obvious problem is that Nero had Spock’s ship in the past-he could simply go to Romulus and give them the ship-thus the ship would be on time for the super nova and Romulus would be saved. Of course, the paradox would arise again: if Romulus is saved, then he would not go back in time and he would not have that motivation to attack the Federation. So, either Nero is a idiot who cannot see the obvious or he is just a psychopath who likes to have an excuse to commit mass murder. As such, he is less interesting than the character of Annorax in The Year of Hell. It is interesting that the plots are quite similar: both involve men in giant ships trying to set things right by changing the past through time travel.

Fifth, there are some minor weak points in the plot. For example, when Spock was dropped off on the ice planet, why didn’t he walk to the Federation base right away? As another example, if Spock had the fastest ship that could be built, how did Nero catch him? As a third example, if they could beam aboard Nero’s ship, why didn’t they just beam stacks of armed photon torpedos into its key systems? Of course, I’ve long had that problem with Star Trek: transporters plus bombs would be an amazing weapon-just knock down the enemy shields, then beam a nuke into their bridge.

All that said, the movie was fun and keep me entertaining the who time. In the end, that is what really matters when it comes to a summer movie. Right?

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Star Trek Movie

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2008

The new Star Trek movie comes out on 5/8/2009. Like many fans of the original series, I’m both stoked and worried. Stoked that a new Star Trek movie is coming out. Worried that it will either suck like the hard vacuum of deep space or desecrate the series in new and terrible ways.

The latest trailer looks awesome. But, it is very action heavy, which makes me worry that what made the original series so great will be lost in the flash of special effects and space battles. Not to say that I do not like space battles, but that I expect more from Star Trek.

Now to be a Trek dork: in the trailer, a young Kirk is shown masterfully driving a car (well, masterfully driving it off a cliff). However, in the original series, Kirk was a horrible driver (“Piece of the Action“) because he had never driven a car before. But, the movie looks like it might kick ass, so I’m willing to supress the geeky nit-picking.

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Finnish Sci-Fi: Star Wreck

Posted in Humor, Science by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2008

While Finland is generally not regarded as the sci-fi capital of the world, a rather impressive work of sci-fi parody has emerged from that land.

The film is a an amazing parody of two great sci-fi franchises:Babylon 5 and Star Trek. While the production values of the live scenes are not up to Hollywood standards, the animated space battles are equal to anything I’ve seen on TV. Seeing Federation star ships going phaser to laser with Earth Force ships is sure to give any true nerd a spockgasm of geekish delight.  The film is also pretty damn funny.

The dialog  is in Finnish, but subtitled versions are available. You can download the film (via bit torrent or direct download) for free or buy the disks on the website.

They have truly reached the heights of nerdtasticness by also releasing a role playing game based on the film’s universe.

I have long suspected that Finland harbored some great and powerful nerds. Some years ago I received an email from that fine country asking if my Call of Cthulhu adventures could be converted to Finnish. I was all for that-madness should be shared.