Sunday, May 18, 2014

Our shadow, the Borg, and the ruthlessness of efficiency

During my graduate school days--which featured 1,000 pages plus of assigned reading in history each week--I used to fall asleep watching late-night reruns of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" after returning home from evening trips to the gym. (Given the circumstances, you'll understand that curling up to a good book was not my way of unwinding back then.)

Starfleet meets its shadow

Recently, I've taken another look at some of those episodes that I mostly dozed through in the mid-1990s as well as episodes of other Star Trek spinoffs. What stands out is how much the Borg, a collectivist race of ruthlessly efficient drones seeking perfection (as they define it), fit perfectly as the shadow side of the United Federation of Planets, presumably the good guys.

What comes into relief through this fictional contest is that it really represents an unconscious internal struggle in our modern culture; the Borg are the shadow side of our post-Enlightenment society.

Let me back up for a minute. When I say shadow, I am referring to a concept first coined by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung to denote that part of our personalities that we do not like and therefore do not identify with. It's the part that often wants to do socially unacceptable things, and sometimes does them without us even being aware of it. This is a key idea. We tend to avoid being conscious of or owning negative tendencies in ourselves, often to the point where we project those tendencies onto others.

Our own faults, when manifested in others--or more likely, when we imagine them in others--seem absolutely clear to us in them. It is the basis for the biblical saying, "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye." And, there is the schoolyard version: "I'm rubber, you're glue; everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you." In short, this is what Jung means by projection. It happens in societies as a whole as much as it occurs in individuals.

I mentioned that we are a post-Enlightenment society, meaning, of course, that our dominant values derive from The Enlightenment--a very broad historical era lasting from the late 17th century through the 18th century--which revolutionized thinking in all areas of human endeavor including politics, science, economics, and the arts, and emphasized empirical investigation and rational thought. So, what did this era teach us that generates this shadow side we don't like to acknowledge? It taught us that nature is imperfect and can be improved and that there is no end to the improvement we can bring to nature and to ourselves through rational thought and efficient management.

All of this seems quite a good thing to the modern mind. And, human history as a story of perpetual progress has gone along swimmingly from the time of the Enlightenment until relatively recently.

Now, faced with the deleterious effects of the growing human footprint on Earth--particularly, climate change and the rapid and exponential depletion of renewable resources such as soil and fish and of nonrenewable resources such as metals and fossil fuels--we are finding that our notions of efficient and rational management are being challenged.

Let us think for a minute about the fictional race of the Borg. The Borg say they assimilate entire cultures and incorporate their technological and cultural distinctiveness into the Borg collective. But the visible result is a society of uniformly unthinking soldiers who simply do what they are told by a cruelly calculating, all-seeing consciousness. There is no rainbow of colors representing the diversity that has been assimilated, only the monotonous black cube-shaped (read: rational) ships and the black and metallic gear worn by the crew.

Let us consider also why it is hard to distinguish the Borg and the Federation, particularly its quasi-military and scientific arm, Starfleet, from a structural standpoint. Starfleet claims to operate peaceful vessels of exploration. But, these vessels carry deadly photon torpedoes and powerful ray-producing phasers, one or both of which are used in nearly every episode (but only for defensive purposes, of course).

With a couple of notable exceptions the Starfleet crew members we encounter dress in virtually identical uniforms (except for limited variation in color) and take orders from a captain and ultimately from Starfleet headquarters. While not exhibiting what the Borg call the "hive mind," these crew members strive for maximum coordination in their action.

To us the Borg seem hideous with their biomechanical and bioelectrical implants used sometimes as weapons. We find Starfleet characters more acceptable only because they wear their technology on the outside--an array of weapons, sensors, long-range scanners, and medical marvels--all designed to give them the reach, the power and the precision that the Borg embody as fully integrated human-machine hybrids.

Both societies, however, exemplify the "homo colossus" that Overshoot author William Catton Jr. says we have already become. The Borg bring to the fore the menacing character of this hybrid being. Starfleet characters--because they do not visibly integrate their technologies within their bodies--tend to disguise this menacing character.

The Borg's explicit mission is to assimilate other cultures. Starfleet aspires not to interfere in the developing cultures of others as enshrined in the so-called prime directive. But, again and again Starfleet crews violate this principle of non-interference. (And, of course, the show would be deadly dull if the characters followed all of Starfleet's rules all the time.) Also, recall that the Federation is an ever-expanding galactic empire incorporating new civilizations within its fold--albeit willingly we are told.

Both the Borg and Starfleet are out to rationalize and improve the universe wherever they go. (It turns out that like the Earth, the stars, too, are imperfect.) But, viewers, not surprisingly, do not identify with the rationalizing process as envisioned by the Borg.

As with the fictional Starfleet we modern people have high-minded ideals: tolerance, diversity, freedom of choice, and provision of the material means for a dignified life for all (that is, all beings classified as people). But, our methods for achieving these ideals are like those of the Borg: the assimilation of everything we can exploit in the biosphere.

As with Starfleet we say we respect the individual and therefore respect the right to privacy. But we are moving ever closer to surveillance technologies that may some day rival a starship's ability to identify the life signs of a specific, identifiable individual while in orbit around a planet. With that kind of power, it's hard to imagine anything resembling privacy in the fictional world of Star Trek.

And, as I walk down any city street today and see all the people with earphones and headsets, I wonder if the Borg hive mind has already arrived. The National Security Agency need only tap into the inherent two-way communication abilities of those devices to give us the practical contemporary equivalent of a Borg drone's totally exposed existence.

One thing that makes us prefer Starfleet characters over the Borg is their resistance to absolute efficiency and perfection. One Borg character who becomes a crew member in the "Star Trek: Voyager" series (after her separation from the Borg collective) is constantly disappointed by the inefficiency of humans, by their failure to seek out perfection. And, viewers will find themselves championing the Starfleet characters against the perfectionist Borg on whom those viewers project their own perfectionist and efficiency mania.

Recently, a friend pointed me to a story about a wireless hardware engineer who set his mind to solving what he perceives as the "food problem." His solution would make a Borg drone squeal with delight--if Borg drones could actually do that.

This entrepreneur is launching a supposed complete nutritional drink that is touted as a total substitute for a regular diet. He has researched what the human body needs and has put it into a single liquid formula aptly named Soylent (after the film "Soylent Green" in which the population eats a food product similarly designed to give them complete nutrition). He believes Soylent could bring down the cost of feeding the world, make balanced nutrition affordable and reduce the time people spend getting, preparing and eating food. What could be more efficient?

Even the writers of the Star Trek series couldn't bring themselves to do what this current-day entrepreneur proposes. Starship replicators may synthesize food from the basic building blocks of the universe, but they synthesize it into salads and steaks and chocolate ice cream.

We moderns are both Starfleet and Borg without realizing it. On the surface we speak of pluralism, diversity and individual freedom. Underneath we are a ruthless homogenizing force that seeks maximum efficiency. Efficiency is our version of perfection, and the drive for perfection by definition is unitary rather than multivariate. There is only one state of perfection. And, so all that is not perfection or tending toward it is eventually driven out.

This is the opposite of what nature teaches us. Nature seeks to maintain diversity (and its inherent redundancy) as a bulwark against the unexpected, as insurance that some species will survive in an ever-changing biosphere. Nature doesn't know what will be perfect for tomorrow's conditions, so it does not strive for perfection. This diversity isn't efficient in the sense we moderns think of that term. But it is far more resilient and survivable, and it has a much, much longer track record than our human idea of efficiency.

The shadow side of our culture acts as it does out of a ruthless rationalism that prefers efficiency in production above harmony with the natural world that sustains us. And, the more we ignore the shadow side and merely pretend to be advocates of diversity and tolerance (forgetting that we need to extend these to the nonhuman world), the more potent that side will become. Evil men in history usually imagined they were doing good. What they were really doing is ignoring their own shadow side and that of the nations they led, projecting that shadow side instead on their perceived enemies.

It is a difficult thing to accept our limits and our inherent negative traits. But, if we know the evil that we are capable of, if we incorporate the shadow into our conscious lives, that tends to put a brake on our efforts to "improve" the people and the world around us. It makes us more thoughtful as we contemplate the possibility of unintended consequences. And, above all, it makes us humbler.

Humility, however, is the last thing on the mind of most Starfleet crew members, Borg drones or nonfictional modern overly-confident humans. But it is the trait we need in abundance if we are to survive on the transformed planet we have now created.

Image Source: CBS Entertainment

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

1 comment:

P Baker said...

“Neither blindness nor ignorance corrupts people and governments. They soon realise where the path they have taken is leading them. But there is an impulse within them, favoured by their natures and reinforced by their habits, which they do not resist; it continues to propel them forward . . . He who overcomes himself is divine. Most see their ruin before their eyes; but they go on into it.” [Leopold von Ranke]