FaceTime Sucks, or, Beyond STAR TREK’s Controversial Holograms

I’m not writing about Star Trek Discovery week to week because I disapprove of approaching serialized shows that way, but something keeps bugging me. It’s about the hologram communication systems on the ship and whether or not they break canon, and how the show had Captain Pike handwave them away with one line this season. But more than that, it’s about how technology is used in science fiction.

So for those who don’t know: Disco is set about ten years before the original Star Trek, which leads to some interesting aesthetic problems, as the designs and visions of future technology were quite different 50 years ago, when TOS aired. What’s more, TOS inspired a lot of modern tech, so the old communicators look bulky when compared to our cell phones… which were inspired by communicators.

Disco has played perhaps fast and loose with this, opting not to do a retro future but rather show us a future that looks to actually be in our future. One of those things involve a holographic communication system, wherein the people you are talking to look like they’re standing in the room with you. This is not only more futuristic than the flat panel HD screens seen in previous Trek shows, it makes long distance conversations more dynamic.

But this tech does not exist in any other Trek, and in fact it is presented as new in Deep Space Nine, set over a hundred years after Disco. This has pissed off fans, who want everything to line up as if this world were real, and not a bunch of different people telling made up stories. This season the show had Captain Pike, captain of the Enterprise before Captain Kirk, tell his Number One to rip out the holographic projectors on his ship, saying he didn’t like them. They look too much like ghosts, he told her.

This is a jokey way of saying “Sure, the Enterprise doesn’t have holograms in ten years and here’s why.” At first I was irritated by it – this feels like writing over backwards to appease fans who fixate on the wrong stuff. What’s more, I think there ARE holograms on the Enterprise. Watch this video for an explanation that really works for me:

But let’s ignore that. After some consideration, I decided I liked what Pike said for one reason:


Growing up I was promised video phones. They were in every science fiction movie (including Trek) and, like flying cars, were the hallmark of the next step of technological evolution. But here’s the thing: I fucking hate video phones. I have one in my pocket all day, every day and I never use that function. If someone makes a FaceTime call to me I am filled with intense suspicion and resentment; it’s like a violation of my privacy. I’m typing this right now on a machine that can effortlessly do video calls, and yet I try to never, ever use that function. In fact I freak out if the little light next to my laptop camera comes on.

In fact, I have a phone in my pocket that I never use as a phone at all. I almost only sent little notes using my phone, and I try to do voice stuff as little as possible. When I had a landline I was on the phone all the time; these days I may only be on the phone for work or recovery purposes.

The reality of tech is that its existence doesn’t mean it gets used. This should be reflected in scifi; just because a technology exists doesn’t mean anyone wants to actually use it. The holographic tech in Disco is invasive – your entire body is beamed into someone else’s room. No more taking a call on the shitter, or doing a Skype without pants. You have to be fully prepped for every call. Who wants that? Pike’s dislike of the tech isn’t Luddite (as McCoy’s dislike of transporter tech was) but rather quite reasonable.

Technology isn’t just about what can be done, it’s about how it feels to use the tech. Take MP3s for example; MP3 players existed before the iPod, but it took Apple to figure out how to make it feel good to use one. Xerox invented the point and click mouse, and Steve Jobs stole it and made it useable (I’m seeing a pattern here).

Take that with the video above, which argues that the viewscreens in all Trek are holograms, viewable from all angles, and you realize someone decided the way to make holographic communications work was to keep it within a proscenium. This makes the experience of communicating more comfortable and less invasive.

All of a sudden a throwaway line seemingly aimed at appeasing nitpickers becomes a really nice nod to how technology is or isn’t adapted into our own lives. This is the sort of thing that makes a future feel lived in, not designed. Bravo to Star Trek Discovery.

And this is why I don’t write about shows on a weekly basis – this episode aired like five weeks ago and I’ve only just come around on this line of dialogue