Season 1, episode 25: “The Neutral Zone”
Lesson: tech obsolescence only gets faster
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
“Data finds an ancient space module from Earth containing three intact people, frozen for 370 years, all of whom died of incurable diseases and were placed in cryogenic freeze in the hopes that cures might be found in the future. While Dr. Crusher treats and revives them, Starfleet sends the Enterprise to the edge of the Romulan Neutral Zone, where Federation outposts and personnel have disappeared after decades without Romulan contact. Upon their first encounter, Captain Picard learns from the Romulans that their outposts and personnel have disappeared, too.”
Well, I made it to the end of season 1…and it only took me an entire year. Picard would not be impressed.
This episode was all about the speed of tech innovation (and also obsolescence). Data and Worf board an old ship with physical, non-electrical doors and Worf can’t figure out how to open one because he’s never used a handle. They find an “old style disk drive” that’s almost 400 years out of use. And they rescue and revive three people who died 400 years ago and were cryogenically frozen to be reanimated in the future, all of whom can’t get get over the massive changes that occurred in that time span. There’s no rat race and competition for resources now that technology can generate anything anyone would ever want, leaving people to hang out and work on self-actualization while exploring the galaxy.
One of the three humans is characterized as the obnoxious one, and — big surprise — he was a finance guy back when he was alive on Earth. He keeps interrupting the crew while they’re preparing for a tense confrontation with the Romulans, demanding to talk to his lawyer so he can access his bank accounts. Of course, he can’t comprehend that not only his his lawyer long dead, but the firm didn’t survive and the entire nature of human culture isn’t based around hoarding the most wealth anymore.
With this finance dude, the show offers a personal example of the difficulty that humans have understanding exponential change. We think linearly, so it’s almost impossible for us to grasp the feel of change as it compounds on itself. Tim Urban of Wait But Why describes this really well in his post on the AI revolution with his example of a “die level of progress:” how long would a person from a particular past era have to travel forward into the future that she dies of shock and can never learn to integrate into the new culture?
In order for someone to be transported into the future and die from the level of shock they’d experience, they have to go enough years ahead that a “die level of progress,” or a Die Progress Unit (DPU) has been achieved. So a DPU took over 100,000 years in hunter-gatherer times, but at the post-Agricultural Revolution rate, it only took about 12,000 years. The post-Industrial Revolution world has moved so quickly that a 1750 person only needs to go forward a couple hundred years for a DPU to have happened.
This pattern — human progress moving quicker and quicker as time goes on — is what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls human history’s Law of Accelerating Returns. This happens because more advanced societies have the ability to progress at a faster rate than less advanced societies — because they’re more advanced. 19th century humanity knew more and had better technology than 15th century humanity, so it’s no surprise that humanity made far more advances in the 19th century than in the 15th century — 15th century humanity was no match for 19th century humanity.”
Urban references Ray Kurzweil, who’s the person best known for making these points about exponential progress. In his seminal book The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil makes this point for the first 100 pages. Continually. I’m not kidding. He really, REALLY wants you to understand that exponential progress is happening in all sorts of scientific realms, and he has a graph for almost all of them. This is a gif of me flipping through the book; it’s literally the same graph dozens of times:
I had this thought recently while watching The Matrix, one of my favorite movies of all time. It came out in 1999, when I was a freshman in high school, and I was obsessed with it. It blew my mind. I watched it at least 50 times. I always thought it would age well because the concept is so broad and the aesthetic is largely removed from time (e.g., clothes fall into three basic categories: bland business attire in the Matrix simulation, BDSM-y club gear that the hackers and self-aware people wear, and simple rags in the “real world” of Zion; nothing screams “late nineties”).
And it did age well in almost every way, except two. First, the background gadgets that Neo uses look dated, like bulky cathode ray tube computer monitors and Nokia phones with T9 keyboards. Second, some of the CGI looks a little iffy. Bullet time holds up, though. Side note that I had a high school student shadowing a few of us at Accomplice this year, and I made a Matrix reference and he didn’t get it and I was not happy about this new development in the youth of America.
ln sum, The Matrix will live forever and is an amazing movie. Don’t watch the second two, though…the second was cool but the third ruined everything. Just imagine the first one exists by itself. On that point, I’m not sure how I feel about the fourth one that’s coming out in 2022. And hey, because it’s 2019 and the Internet knows all and is stalking us and selling all of our personal data, check out the Nokia ad that showed up when I just Googled “Matrix 4:”
So back to Star Trek, where we learn that the Romulans have possibly forced the conflict to see how far the Federation’s technology has advanced and to display their own gains in the 57 years since they’ve had direct contact. The Romulans show off an advanced ship cloaking device, and Picard grudgingly admits that their tech has come a long way. Thus we have the Romulans and the Enterprise comparing notes on how each other has evolved over 57 years, the three old Earth humans struggling to find their place in a universe 400 years older than they remember it, and me dismayed that a high schooler hasn’t seen a movie that’s suddenly 20 years old BUT STILL HOLDS UP.
In all seriousness, I think the explosive advent of technology is the best reason to be alive today. As long as we remain curious and always learning, we’ll stay connected to the world and ourselves in ways that past generations never could. The challenge is that things could move too fast for our pathetic organic brains to comprehend and we’ll become obsolete. Never let that happen. Never be the 50 year-old who sighs and says “I’ll never figure out this stupid app everyone’s using.” Once you say that, you’ve fallen off the exponential graph. And Kurzweil would NOT like that.