Originally published on StarTrek.com
“Trek Class” is a course at Syracuse University that examines episodes of Star Trek series to discuss concepts of technology, society and leadership. This series of posts seeks to share some of the concepts discussed in Trek Class with the StarTrek.com community.
New technologies often allow us to be more productive at work and in our personal lives. From the telegraph and telephone to the Internet and Facebook, some of the greatest advancements in history have made it possible to access and share information more efficiently, or connect over great distances to discover new people and ideas.
The same is true for the “future” tech of Star Trek. Replicators and tricorders make it possible for Starfleet personnel to tackle problems that might be impossible for us to solve in the Twenty-first Century. Like the laptops and smartphones of today, these technologies are standard issue for Federation knowledge workers. But these “work” devices are also integrated into our personal lives. We may use the same technology to send a business email while also keeping in contact with friends through social networking and text messaging.
Much like our current technologies, the Holodeck is one Star Trek invention that performs double duty when it comes to productivity and recreation. With its ability to realistically simulate any person or environment, the holodeck is useful for everything from running a diagnostic exercise to taking a vacation without leaving the ship. Captain Janeway took advantage of both aspects of the holodeck, using it to strategize before a Borg encounter as well as finding relaxation and companionship in a holographic Irish town.
Although the holodeck has proven useful to captains and crew, some are still concerned about its impact on productivity and question whether the technology should come with limits. Just as we may wonder whether the tweeting, Googling and Facebooking we now spend our time on might amount to a time-waster, or even an addiction, similar questions are raised about the holodeck.
Lt. Reginald Barclay finds himself at the center of this debate throughout his career. Said to be “addicted” to the holodeck, Barclay struggles to limit his access to the technology with which he is most comfortable. While working on the Pathfinder project, which is focused on locating the missing U.S.S. Voyager, Barclay determines that his best chance at discovering a solution is to create a holographic simulation. This approach, which is unfamiliar to his senior officers, is criticized and ultimately prohibited over concerns that Barclay’s productivity and social life might suffer.
Today, similar scenarios are taking place in corporations all over America. Many work environments have established rules against the use of technologies like Facebook or YouTube over productivity concerns. However, as a generation of new workers emerges with a different skill set and new ways of accessing information, many are finding it difficult to be effective while blocked from their go-to networks. We often hear from student interns that one of the most challenging aspects of their work experience was being “cut off from everything.”
With restricted access at work, many employees turn to their own mobile devices in times of need. Some companies have discovered that their employees routinely access social networks and other forbidden sites from their phones, both for personal and professional purposes. The same is true for Barclay, who circumvents Starfleet’s restrictions on the holodeck in a desperate attempt to apply the tool to his rescue efforts at Pathfinder.
At the same time, Barclay is clearly drawn to the holodeck for personal reasons. He freely admits to Counselor Troi that he feels less anxious when interacting with holographic characters instead of real people. Even though the holodeck is a source of inspiration and productivity for Barclay, there is no doubt that the line between work and play – and even addiction – is a bit blurry inside his simulation.
This raises several questions that are as important now as in the Twenty-fourth Century – Can the same technologies that entertain us also help us do better work? Is it possible to balance productivity and recreation in the workplace? Are we really becoming addicted to technology?
While some researchers still question the concept of “Internet addiction”, Barclay’s struggles may seem very familiar to some of us. One of my students described having similar feelings and ultimately decided to suspend her Facebook account after realizing she was “addicted” to it. Facebook had become a source of distraction while at work and at home, she said. However, the same student told me that other social networks, such as Twitter and YouTube, had remained essential to her ability to find useful information. This example highlights the difficulty in finding balance as new technologies become integrated into our daily lives.
As we strive to find that balance, perhaps some clues can be found in the advice of Counselor Troi and others who seek to help Lt. Barclay. Although we can recognize the value in many of our technologies, their advantages are diminished if we focus only on the virtual. It may not be necessary to block access to our technology of choice – whether Facebook or the holodeck – as long as we remember that what we do in these virtual spaces should always be for the betterment of ourselves, our work and our relationships in the offline world. It was only after Barclay realized this that he was able to apply what he learned inside the holodeck to complete the real-world mission of Pathfinder.
Anthony Rotolo is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool), where he specializes in social media. You can follow along with Trek Class each Tuesday and Thursday at 3:30pm EST on Twitter by using the hashtag #TrekClass.