I remember reading somewhere, long ago, that Sub-Saharan Africa is the only major continental area that had never independently invented the wheel. I don’t know where I read that or if it is technically true, but it was probably some historical text that listed the justification for slavery of Sub-Saharan peoples on the basis of their intellectual inferiority. I’m not going to go into that because, if you think about it, “not” inventing something that is “not” needed is no sign of inferiority. You have to figure that if they’d needed wheels, they would have come up with them. I remember watching “Shaka Zulu” when it was on TV and even considering the probability that it was embellished here and there, a cursory reading of the history of that era shows the Zulu, along with a lot of other tribes in Africa at the time,  were anything but stupid – they made some brilliant innovations and adaptations to their environment and lifestyle. Anyway, that’s not where I’m going with this – I’m going to relate it all to Star Trek.

I was a big fan of science fiction when I was a kid. Still am, to an extent, but that’s another story. I used to watch Star Trek like a thirsty man drank water. It’s kind of an extension of my fascination with sociology and human nature. All the myriad of possibilities of the future are boundless but the truth is, many off those possibilities will wither on the vine and only the strongest will survive.

Let’s look at electricity, for example. Thomas Edison thought direct current (DC) electricity was the wave of the future. Nikola Tesla disagreed. Tesla thought alternating current was the way electricity would be transmitted in the future. One of them had to be right, and one had to be wrong. Thank God Tesla prevailed. I will try not to get too technical here but suffice it to say that if Edison had prevailed, we would have a standard of living right now of about 1955. The transmission and distribution of electricity would have been so prohibitively expensive that many of the innovations we have enjoyed over the last century or so would have been stymied or not made at all. So, to be where we are now, we had to come along the path we did. One way led to prosperity and phenomenal innovation; the other would have led to baby-step advancements and technology would have advanced at half the rate for the last 100 years. We would be thrilled with things in 2009 like transistors and touch-tone phones. For the love of God…

I’ll get to Star Trek in a minute…

Let’s pretend we have cameras set up around a tribe of hunter-gatherers in a jungle in South America somewhere. We pretty much know that for them to advance to an agrarian society, they have to discover and implement concepts such as ‘division of labor’ and ‘currency’. Suppose we could see inside the head of a particular member of this society and we notice he has dreams of airplanes, cars, and computers. He would be a visionary, of course, but we would know it would all be for naught. You can’t have innovations like cars until you invent chariots and you can’t have that until you invent the wheel. Even with the wheel, you cannot engineer even a basic “car” without the concept of “zero”. You may be interested to know that by some accounts, “zero” is only about 1200 years old. Without zero, very few complex calculations can take place. Without complex calculations, engineering complex machinery is impossible. So, no matter how visionary our ersatz aborigine may be, we would shake our heads in dismay that he would never see his fantastic visions realized. This implies there is a certain “schedule” of events and innovations necessary for a civilization to get from point A to point B.

I’m gettin’ there…gimme a little bit more time…

The thing that muddies the water is that so many innovations that seem critical at the time either run into a dead end, or they turn out to be worthless. Couple of examples:

  1. The ship sail. The ship sail got us from drifting lazily along atop a log on a lake or river to navigating the oceans  and exploring and populating the lands of the Earth. It was a phenomenal innovation that allowed us to populate and exploit all the resources our planet had to offer. But it’s played out, now. Nothing we do that will take us to the stars is  based on an improvement to the ships sail. Now to all you REALLY geeky ones out there that might read this with an “AHA!” on your lips regarding a solar wind sail – forget it, that is functionally just an interesting idea and doesn’t even hold a candle to ion drives as they exist today (especially the Hall Effect drives – but that’s for another post).
  2. Betamax. I mean really, what do you want me to say here? Even vinyl records and 8-track tapes led to more sophisticated products. Betamax? Not so much. It was a technologically incompatible species that hit the extinction wall like so many Dodo birds.

So, how do we know if an innovation is the precursor of our future or the next Betamax? We don’t…but the Vulcans do. Looking back over our history and the varied civilizations that developed in isolation all over the world, we know a lot of the things it takes to get from cave man to business man. We see what is absolutely necessary and what is extraneous.  So it leads to reason that a race a hundred or so years more advanced than us could look at where we are and give a good estimate of about how many years behind them we are.

The premise of Star Trek was that 400 years from now we’d be traveling the galaxy with warp drive and transporting all over the place with phasers and no money but some really bitchin’ 60’s style mini skirts for the women folk. They will still have computers and  and walkie-talkies but no cell phones. So, as a kid, I used to wonder what inventions and concepts were essential for a civilization to get from cave man to Captain Kirk. They made reference on the show about the Magna Carta and the US Constitution as if one followed the other and without very similar concepts, civilization would stagnate. They spoke of how the Vulcans realized the Earthlings were ready for contact with another species from another planet because of their development of warp drive. Without warp drive, and considering the vast knowledge of the more advanced species, they knew there would be no way for a planet to reach out to the stars and meet other cultures by accident. I believe the premise was that Earth had developed warp drive earlier in relationship to our humanitarian development than other species – that’s why we were still driven by emotion unlike all the really advanced guys.

They even mentioned music. Some music seemed to be common across the divide of time and space. You can imagine that “do, re, mi fa, so, la ti, do” would be, but they even mentioned certain snippets of rhythm and certain multi measure passages. A very good example is Pachelbel’s Canon in D. A super duper example of this is a pretty funny video on YouTube:  I hope that worked.

Anyway, as you can see, there are a lot of things that may be required for a civilization to advance from point A to point B. It may not be obvious why a particular new thing is essential and some seemingly essential things may turn out to be moot points. Who knew that when Alexander Fleming left a window open while developing cultures of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (Staph, as in Staph infection) and some bread mold spores from a baker down the street blew in and landed in his Petri dishes that he was revolutionizing medicine and drop kicking us 100 years in the future with the development of penicillin and antibiotics? Fleming saved 100 million lives with that accidental discovery but as part of the Stimulus Bill of 2009, $3.4 million was allocated to build a culvert under a road for a turtle crossing. That is illustrative of tons of money and effort spent trying to solve a small problem while some of the biggest problems are solved by happenstance).

So the Enterprise is going into orbit around some Class “M” planet and Lt. Uhura swings her hot little legs around and tells Kirk, “Judging from the old style radio transmissions, number and type of satellites in orbit, and what the Universal Translator gives us that is in the radio transmissions, I would estimate this planet’s technological advancement to be circa mid 1960’s.” That kind of stuff used to just floor me with the possibilities. Do all civilizations advance along a certain loosely defined time line? Even technological advancements of a whole planet? Are there “Stages of Development” that we have to go through as a species just like as a child to adult? If so, are we wasting time trying to find a “magic bullet” to use as a universal vaccine for viral infections and perhaps Cancer much like a 5 yr old boy straining to grow a mustache or is it the next logical step along our time line?

What did we spend an inordinate amount of time developing that will go to waste? What is some undergrad discovering this week that will launch a thousand starships 100 years earlier than we should be able to?  And given the advancement from animal skins to natural fiber to synthetic fiber for clothing and the subsequent increasing ease in care of that clothing, did the Vulcans have ironing boards or did they develop a perma press synthetic clothing fiber before they learned to give a damn about creases?