Who Built the Federation’s Weapons?

In a provocative (and somewhat curse-filled) argument Shlok Vaidya makes a very interesting point about the “ethics” of design. In discussing an article about how it is unethical for someone to design a product of some kind that might be used for evil (using the AK-47 as an example) Vaidya says:

Designers build things. And some, with courage, build them even though they’re complicated, trusting designers that follow them to improve upon the design, to make what is complex simple, to shake out what is necessary and what is not. But, and this is what pissed me off the most, if you listen to Monteiro, the cavalry will never come. The approach of giving up, opting out, or, frankly, being a coward and not tackling the big problems – things like survival in war – reduces the field of design to pretty fucking pixels on a fucking screen.

Of course, this makes me think about our most popular utopian science fiction universe out there: Star Trek. Most popular conceptions of Star Trek, as an imagined future, suggest that it is a hopeful vision of humanity, one where greed, poverty, disease, and war have been abolished.

In the television shows about Star Trek, humans are presented as, for the most part, enlightened and self-improving — a kind of Marxist New Man, where people don’t have wants and all they do is for their own inherent value as humans. Of course, that is a myth — a malignant one, as later seasons of the show suggested (through groups like the Maquis rebels or the spooks of Section 31).

But here’s the thing: the Federation is nevertheless presented as a utopia. It’s unclear how that utopia works, especially since people can apparently run restaurants despite there being free limitless food from replicators, become tailors despite computers able to manufacture custom fitted clothes to order, and merchant pilots despite there being no economy and no currency. But all the characters on the show routinely refer to life there as utopian, free from want, almost boring in its comfortable luxuriousness.

(As a side note, one of the few believable occupations people would take up is blogging/journalism/writing, since MANY people would happily work for notoriety if their basic life necessities were covered by an post-scarcity economy… which of course begs the question of why there aren’t many more such muckrakers in the Star Trek universe?)

Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Up until the Dominion War, the Federation did not have any warships in its vast fleet of spaceships; while sometimes an alien race would remark upon how heavily armed supposedly peaceful exploration vessels were, their purpose was not for waging war. A unique ship prototype, the Defiant, had to be rushed into development to counter the Borg, and later classes were more or less explicitly military in nature.

So what kind of Federation citizen, in the midst of all of this utopia and star-faring exploration and self-betterment, decided they wanted to design incredibly powerful weapons that could destroy planets?

It’s a germane question to the issues posed by Vaidya, above: I accept his conclusion that war (or perhaps conflict more broadly) has been one of the primary drivers for design and innovation in our history. When you remove that conflict, what is left to drive innovation? I suppose you could make an argument that the Federation actually did not innovate very much, that they set about building better mouse traps while the mice evolved into tigers or something, but that’s beside the point. Before all of those insane conflicts came about, and despite the war and long cold war with the Klingons, the Federation was building terrifying weaponry.

I won’t go into the silly technical manual details of the actual weapons on Star Trek ships; in the shows, they are routinely used to destroy huge masses, to manipulate stars, to vaporize the surface of planets. These are immensely powerful tools, and it is inconceivable that a genuinely peaceful culture would create such things.

The response, which Jean-Luc Picard said once, was that one needs these weapons for self-defense; and if you go out into the universe, it’s best to have powerful weapons to defend yourself.

That is a cop-out, however. And the rapidity with which the Federation was able to reorient itself onto a war footing in Deep Space Nine suggests that the implicit militarism of Starfleet was not as implicit as the TV shows implied.

Of course, Star Trek is a universe of many shows, and now an action film franchise, and big explodey things are an easy way to convey conflict which is the lifeblood of storytelling. It just strikes me as interesting to consider the moral stature of someone who lives in paradise and thinks to devote herself to building what is in effect a doomsday weapon, ostensibly for self-defense.

Can you imagine such a thing? There is nothing inherent to pacifist cultures being incapable of fighting; Sweden, for example, is not remotely warlike as a country (ahem, anymore) yet they are a major exporter of weapons and weapons platforms. But Star Trek is meant to be an idealized society; Gene Roddenberry originally did not want the characters to ever argue on The Next Generation, as he thought humanity would have evolved out of arguing. Yet, despite that his vision for the future featured primarily a military organization that roamed around pointing horrifying weapons at everyone it met, and then marveled that not everyone it met was friendly in response.

Realistically, the Federation scientists and engineers who build quantum torpedoes and hand held matter vaporizers that they know will be used to completely disassemble a person atom-by-atom have a reasonable and explicable motivation for doing so: they are patriots. That is, they believe in their society and thus want to build things that could be used for horrific crimes because that will help defend their society. It is a contradiction of everything we’re told the Federation stands for: peace, coexistence, tolerance, mutual understanding are not compatible with a ship boasting a dozen torpedo launchers. But that contradiction is at the heart of so many things we face today, including the desire to leave the world a better place despite trying to defeat several organizations that are hellbent on destroying it.

Does that mean one opts out, “goes Galt” in some humanistic way, to avoid being implicated in the ugliness? That strikes me as naive in the extreme. If the Federation felt that way then they’d never have been able to defend themselves from the Founders, or the Borg, or the Cardassians, or the Romulans, or the Klingons. Even in utopia, you cannot escape conflict and death, ugly horror and violence, no matter how hard you try to engineer it out of your society.

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