Mutiny and Modernism

October 20, 2010 - capitalism / experience / history / information technology / myths / post-desktop / remix / star trek / user interface

The morning watch was come; the vessel lay

Her course, and gently made her liquid way;

The cloven billow flashed from off her prow

In furrows formed by that majestic plough;

The waters with their world were all before;

Behind, the South Sea’s many an islet shore.

The quiet night, now dappling, ‘gan to wane,

Dividing darkness from the dawning main;

The dolphins, not unconscious of the day,

Swam high, as eager of the coming ray;

The stars from broader beams began to creep,

And lift their shining eyelids from the deep;

The sail resumed its lately shadowed white,

And the wind fluttered with a freshening flight;

The purpling Ocean owns the coming Sun,

But ere he break– a deed is to be done.

. . .

Excerpt from “The Island,” in The Works of Lord Byron, vol. 5, (1904)

Pitcairn

In 1787, a three masted sailing ship was refitted, named “Bounty” and commissioned to transplant breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, in hopes that the plant could serve as food for workers enslaved by the British empire. As the crew spent months on Tahiti preparing the plants for transport they “went native,” getting traditional tattoos and otherwise “interacting” with the local population. Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian married a Tahitian woman.

After setting sail with the potted breadfruit plants on board, Christian mutinied about 1,300 miles west of Tahiti. Christian and his men sent Captain Bligh and those loyal to him adrift on the ships launch.  After a failed attempt to settle on Tubuai, Christian, his crewmen, and the accompanying Tahitian men and women (some of whom were kidnapped) eventually ‘found’ Pitcairn Island and settled. They burned their ship in Bounty Bay, January 1790 and evaded discovery by the British navy until 1814 at which time only one of the mutineers was still alive.  This is, at least, the story that is told about the mutiny on the Bounty.

Today, about 50 people live on Pitcairn Island and the majority are descendants of the original Bounty mutineers (and the Tahitians or Polynesians who were married to mutineers or enslaved by them or both). After a mission arrived in the 1880s, much of the island population was converted to Seventh-day Adventism. The island has no airport or seaport and one small harbor visited a few times a year by boats from passing or chartered cargo and passenger ships. When, in the late 1990s, several male islanders were convicted of sexual abuses the British government set up a prison on the island to hold them.

And now, 221 years after the mutiny on the Bounty, an iPad has landed on Pitcairn Island. It’s owned by Andrew Randall Christian, a seventh generation descendant of Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers who seized command of the boat from Captain Bligh.

Andrew Christian offers web design services on the island, and the pacific island state has .pn domain names for sale. The island does have phones via satellite communication, ATVs, one paved road and other modern technology, but  even so there is something worth noting, it seems, about the arrival of this device in such a “remote” place. This exemplar of modern consumer technology, a stand-in for everything current in computing, has arrived on an island in the sea, a location with a great deal of myth-power. The island is the setting for an archetype of mutiny which has been represented and remixed in literature, poetry, music, film and science fiction.

Bird of Prey "HMS Bounty"

In the fourth film of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a Klingon Bird-of-Prey (an alien warship) commandeered by James T. Kirk (Captain of the Enterprise) is given the name “HMS Bounty” by Leonard McCoy (physician and friend to Kirk). Kirk seizes the Klingon ship while rescuing his friend Spock (the alien science officer) and once he has saved him Kirk and his crew decide to return to Earth in order to face the charges against them. In the previous films, Kirk had stolen and subsequently destroyed his own ship (the Enterprise). En route to their trial, the effects of a mysterious alien probe on Earth leave the mutineers the only hope for saving the planet. They must travel back in time in search of a humpback whale (a species extinct by their time), because only the whales can communicate with the alien ship in Earth orbit. While in the past (1980s USA), they are faced with the problems of navigating a society that “still uses money” and two of the team are mistaken for “the enemy” (read as Soviet in this Cold War era film) by the crew of a US military nuclear aircraft carrier; the USS Enterprise, of course. While the similarities between Kirk’s crew and the original Bounty mutineers are minimal, a more interesting connection can be woven between the Star Trek franchise and the arrival of the iPad on Pitcairn Island.

Klingon Bounty

The Star Trek television series brought early examples of an iPad-like device into American homes in the late 1960s.  An electronic clipboard (below) showed up in the original television series (1966-1969), with what may have been the closest thing to a touch screen available at the time: a ‘magic slate’ (the childhood pressure writing tablet that is erased by lifting up the top layer).

OS PADD

Decades later, in Star Trek the Next Generation (1987-1994), a new version of the device became ubiquitous in the series. In nearly every episode of the re-invention of the franchise, crew members are shown working on a “PADD” (Personal Access Display Device), seen here in the hands of Captain Jean-Luc Picard played by Patrick Stewart.

Picard and PADD

The PADD was only one example of the widespread use of touch-screen technology in the new Star Trek universe of the late 80s, early 90s. After his work in the mid 80s on displays in Star Trek IV, Michael Okuda was put in charge of designing the displays for the Next Generation beginning in 1987.  The images Okuda designed for the PADD screen represent the graphical user interface (GUI) of an omnipresent, wirelessly networked and embedded supercomputer that monitors and manages everything occurring on the starship Enterprise.  This new iteration of the Enterprise, an enormous space faring vessel sent out to explore the universe, was once again named after a long line of non-fictional sea and space-faring ships (from the Nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, to NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise). The touch-screen aesthetic and representations of the GUI on this imagined future Enterprise, came to be known as “okudagrams” after their designer.  I remember, around this time, getting a new microwave with a touch-pad, and thinking how futuristic it was because of the similarity to the touch-screen controls on the Enterprise. Although the microwave controls were simply flat pressure buttons and not a touch-screen, the aesthetic clearly echoed the okudagrams.

PADD

And now, with Apple’s iPad, a real touch-screen PADD is available as a consumer computing device. On the Enterprise, crew and civilians interacted with their computers socially through spoken commands and holographic simulations, and through touch-screens always within reach. Like the PADD of Star Trek, the iPad is wireless with access to vast networks of information, and it’s possible to use your voice to communicate with it, or use the iPad to augment reality. Kueger Systems, Inc. has written an application that allows users to read internet content in a GUI based on the LCARS interface of the okudagrams: LCARS Internet Media Reader for iPad.

In referencing mutiny on the Bounty, Star Trek IV calls on an historical event, an archetype of romanticized mutiny in popular culture, and weaves that myth into an intergalactic adventure back to the ocean of the past to save the Earth. Time travel is occurring on multiple levels here. With the PADD and touch-screen surfaces of the Next Generation, the franchise later imagined a post-desktop model of human-computer interactions and contributed to the aesthetic and language of ubiquitous computing. Now a product of that imaginative universe of speculative fiction is in the hands of a direct descendent of the the Bounty mutineer.

Think different.

Clearly the capitalist mode of production had a role to play in bringing about this encounter between the mutineer’s descendant and the iPad, but consider also that the personal computer was a product of the 1960s counter-culture revolution. Personal computers are children of psychedelic culture and the resulting mind-states, and the internet is a daughter of DARPA. The iPads parents are both Hacker/Hippies and Four-Star Generals from the armies of Wall Street. Consider also that Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek didn’t originally imagine the Borg (an army of collectivist cyborgs bent on assimilating the universe) as an enemy but as a utopian society; an ideal for humanity to aspire to.  Consider that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., said in reference to his time as a student (at my own alma mater Reed College) that the courses in traditional calligraphy offered at the time were an enormous influence on his design of the first Macintosh computer.  Cyborgs, calligraphy, hackers, communism, psychedelics, marine and intergalactic mutineers, whales and time travel… What is all of this, and what does it all mean?  Perhaps there isn’t “meaning” to be written, but instead there are relationships to describe, interactions to explore and stories to tell.

Reading David Harvey critiquing the “contrived depthlessness” (Jameson’s language) of post-modern cultural production (The Condition of Post-Modernity, 1989), I’m struck by the ways in which one can locate depth by including more layers in the analysis, by exploring more dimensions, and allowing for more historical time.  The PADD is part of our mythology of technology, progress, and the future, an ancient story older than writing – and the iPad is equally product of and contributor to that myth. Technology is embedded in a mutually shaping exchange with our mythology, our narratives about technology seem to produce technology as much as the capitalists’ desire for surplus drives the advancing of technology and expansion of production.

And so to the claim of a post-modernity limited to merely surfaces, I respond by peeling back and shuffling layers and drawing them out to see what stories we can tell. I contemplate my position as a former “Reedie” (like Jobs), a descendent of Sir Henry Morgan (a pirate), an Apple technology worker and a trekkie/trekker (a fan of Star Trek) as well as an anthropologist and a scholar of religion and technology.  And from that position, I reflect on Andrew Randall Christian, seventh generation descendent of the original mutineer of the Bounty, sitting on Pitcairn Island, iPad in hand, watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage home.

TNG Cast Sailing The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation in Generations (1994)