3 Easy Steps to Create Star Trek's Utopian Future at NYC Nerd Nite

Nerd Nite NYC

Last Friday was the 6th season premiere of New York City's Nerd Nite at the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO Brooklyn.

The evening included cool talks by Manish Engineer ($300 Million For a Painting of 2 Guys Playing Cards?) and Rachel Spurrier (Purity Balls: Father-Daughter Dance Meets Abstinence Rally). We were also joined by world renowned harpist Mia Theodoratus and DJ Soul Korea. There was even a dry t-shirt contest.

I had so much fun presenting my talk (3 Easy Steps to Create Star Trek's Utopian Future). My favorite part was hearing from a woman who spoke to me after and said, "I wish I could go back in time and tell the 12-year-old version of me that nights like this will exist in the future - it would have made me feel a lot less weird about being a Trekkie and much more cool." That's the greatest part of Nerd Nite - it's a celebration of everything that makes being a geek so cool.  

Thanks to a generous friend, my talk is now up on YouTube. Check it out if you couldn't make it to the real thing.

For more on the psychology of first contact, read the article that inspired this talk. Be sure to visit a future Nerd Nite in your local area for more cool nerdy talks.

The Top 10 Science Fiction Film & TV Scores from the 1990s

A few months ago I wrote about the psychology of music and started a countdown to the best science fiction music from past decades. Today, I'm continuing this series with the top 10 science fiction scores from the 1990s.

#10: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, John Williams

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Episode I was a disappointment, but John Williams's score is pretty good. There’re some great nods to the original trilogy as well as a breathtaking new Jedi/Sith theme which became the anthem of this new trilogy. Why didn't I rank Episode I higher? There just aren't enough new melodies. Listen to a sample of "Anakin's Theme", "He Is The Chosen One", "Duel of the Fates", and "[REDACTED]'s Noble End" below.

#9: Contact, Alan Silvestri

Contact movie

What I like about Contact is its simple sounds of discovery. However, it's a little too simple and it's very reminiscent of Silvestri's music for Forrest Gump (which is a far superior score). Maybe it's my nostalgia for this film, but I do think it's good enough to be in my top 10. Highlights include "Awful Waste of Space", "Really Confused", "Media Event", and "No Words".  

#8: Starship Troopers, Basil Poledouris


The original Starship Troopers novel has been criticized for promoting militarism, fascism, and racism. The movie maintains these themes but rather than glorifying them it makes fun of them. Basil Poledouris's music perfectly accompanies the movie's satire - it's over the top, militaristic, and sounds like it was ripped out of WWII Hollywood. "Fed Net March", "Destruction Of Roger Young", and "They Will Win" are great examples of the propaganda feel of Starship Troopers.

#7: Stargate, David Arnold


David Arnold's Stargate score is very smooth. It has that classic mix of exploration, excitement, and fear that makes science fiction films so great. While at times it sounds like a John Williams score (specifically Raiders of the Lost Ark), Arnold's use of diverse instruments sets Stargate apart. I really like "Stargate Overture", "The Stargate Opens", "Entering the Stargate", and "Going Home".    

#6: The Truman Show, Philip Glass

The Truman Show

This is a very interesting score. It's the theme to a movie about the world's most popular reality TV show. While it sounds like Philip Glass's music is too emotional, the score is consistent with one of the messages of the movie - TV is produced to make you feel a very specific way about the people onscreen. Listen to the range of emotions in this score with "It's a Life", "Anthem, Pt. 2", "Reunion", "Truman Sleeps", and "Father Kolbe's Preaching".

#5: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Brad Fiedel

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Brad Fiesdel wrote the score to 1984's The Terminator as well as the 1991 sequel. I like the original, but it sounds like it was made on a small budget. With more money and major advances in computer technology, Terminator 2 became one of the best electronic film scores (up there with Blade Runner and Tron: Legacy). What I love most about this score is how it shifts between thunderous action and frightening dissonance. My favorite tracks include "Main Title (Terminator 2 Theme)", "Escape from the Hospital (And T1000)", "Trust Me", and "I'll Be Back".

#4: The Matrix, Don Davis

The Matrix

Like The Dark Knight trilogy and the recent Man of Steel, The Matrix doesn't really have a traditional score. There are some themes that develop over the course of the film, but there isn't anything specific you can hum after watching the movie. Don Davis primarily uses strings and brass instruments to create a frenetic tension during chase scenes and then dramatically extends notes to create a sense of awe as our hero discovers his powers. This gives The Matrix a unique sound and results in a timeless film score. Standouts include "Main Title / Trinity Infinity", "Welcome to the Real World", "The Hotel Ambush", and "Bullet-Time".

I should also mention that the soundtrack is outstanding. I played it nonstop back in the summer of 1999. I especially love Propellerheads's "Spybreak", Rob D's "Clubbed To Death", and Rage Against The Machine's "Wake Up".

#3: Star Trek: First Contact, Jerry Goldsmith

Star Trek First Contact

Jerry Goldsmith’s First Contact score makes me believe that we can actually achieve Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future. The music is tender and has an inspiring melody. It also became a fitting theme to the cinematic adventures of The Next Generation. “Main Title/Locutus” integrates Goldsmith’s old and new Star Trek themes while “Welcome Aboard” and “First Contact” setup the most important event in Star Trek's history – the first meeting between humans and aliens.

#2: Gattaca, Michael Nyman


Gattaca is one of the best science fiction films of the 1990s and Michael Nyman's score is deeply moving. "The Morrow" introduces you to the melancholy world of Gattaca. "God's Hands" is a beautiful theme about familial love. The film's message of triumph over adversity is highlighted in "The One Moment". "Becoming Jerome" is surprisingly playful. "The Departure" takes the story into a fitting end. Most film scores transport you to another time or place. Gattaca is one of the few scores that turns your attention inward, creating a state of personal reflection. 

#1: Jurassic Park, John Williams


Jurassic Park holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I remember watching a movie and completely suspending my disbelief. For those two hours, I felt like I had just visited Jurassic Park. A big part of that was John Williams's score (the other half were the special effects which still hold up to this day). Williams created a score that is very intricate. It seamlessly lifts you up and then slams you down, draws you close for intimate moments and then zooms out for more awesome sights, all while maintaining a cohesive theme that never feels redundant. The whole album is worth the investment but my favorites are "Journey To The Island", "Welcome To Jurassic Park", "Dennis Steals The Embryo", and "High-Wire Stunts".

Honorable Mentions

I liked The Rocketeer and Independence Day, but they didn't have enough variety. Apollo 13 would make my top 3, but it's science fact not science fiction. Batman Return almost made the cut, but it's too dark for my taste.

Notable Exceptions

A TV series! My 2000s list had 2 TV shows, but nothing from the 1990s made the top 10. There were some stellar TV themes from this decade (like seaQuest DSV, The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager), but the shows themselves didn't have enough consistent good music to get onto my list. 

Next time, I'll look at the best science fiction music from the 1980s - the decade home to many of my favorite movies of all time! 

First Contact with Aliens Could Bring Peace, but We Might Kill Our Extraterrestrials Guests

Vulcan First Contact.jpg

Today is First Contact Day. Well, it will be in 50 years.

According to Star Trek canon, on April 5th, 2063 humans make first contact with an alien race - the Vulcans. This is the moment that leads humanity out of the rubble of World War III and into the utopian future of Star Trek. Counselor Deanna Troi summarizes the importance of this event in this clip from Star Trek: First Contact:

"[First Contact] unites humanity in a way that no one ever thought possible when they realize they're not alone in the universe. Poverty, disease, war - they'll all be gone within the next 50 years."

So, with a half century to go, what would it take to make Star Trek a reality? The psychology of first contact indicates we need to do 3 things – end prejudice, foster cooperation, and develop empathy for aliens.

1) Ending Prejudice.

Our first challenge is overcoming bigotry.

Our first challenge is overcoming bigotry.

We can't work together if we hate each other. So step 1 in creating Star Trek's utopia is ending prejudice.

The problem is humans are wired with a self-serving bias - we really like ourselves and the groups we belong to. Think of it as a psychological immune system - we take credit for good stuff ("I was promoted because I'm smart") and blame others when things don't go our way ("I didn't get promoted because my boss is an idiot"). When you combine this with the ingroup/outgroup bias (see my post on jocks and geeks), it's easy to understand why we can be so closed-minded to people who seem different from us.

How can we eliminate prejudice? After reviewing over 500 studies on the topic, researchers have identified three necessary ingredients for tolerance:

  1. Learn about the other group.
  2. Make contact with the other group.
  3. Develop empathy for the other group.

This is exactly what happened in the United States after desegregation - when Blacks and Whites were allowed to interact with each other, friendships eventually developed and groups became less scared of each other.

First contact alone wouldn't end prejudice. Look at District 9 - just because we meet aliens doesn't mean we stop being bigots. In Star Trek, first contact occurred after decades of a genocidal war that culminated in a nuclear holocaust. The planet's cities and governments were destroyed. It's likely that the horrors of global devastation led to a period of increased empathy for one another. When you combine that with a lack of nationalistic identity (since there're no governments), it makes sense why a post World War III Earth was ready for tolerance.

2) Cooperation.

Working on large goals, like preparing for the first warp flight, helps people overcome their differences.

Working on large goals, like preparing for the first warp flight, helps people overcome their differences.

Having developed empathy for one another, the humans of Star Trek started to work together on big projects - ending poverty, eliminating diseases, and exploring the final frontier.

This type of collaboration is very hard for us to do. Our history is full of "tragedies of the commons". If no one person is responsible for a resource, we deplete it (think of climate change or the shared candy bowl at work). This gets back to the self-serving bias - we do what's in our best interest, not the group's. The same is true of the prisoner's dilemma - even when it is in our best interest to work together, most of the time we don’t.

Is there any way humans can overcome our biases and collaborate on a large scale? Yes, absolutely. It requires regulation, small social groups, clear communication, superordinate goals, and reinforcement.

To overcome common pool resource problems (like poverty), some type of regulation is required. For example, a small portion of the world cannot be allowed to use the majority of the planet's resources. It’s hard to imagine global regulations being implemented now, but a unified world government, like what emerged after Star Trek's World War III, could make it so.

Large social groups also need to be broken down into smaller ones. This builds empathy and a better use of resources. Maybe the few humans who survived Star Trek's nuclear holocaust became accustomed to living in small groups and shared what they had.

Trusted communication between groups cuts through the prisoner's dilemma (just like the hotline between Moscow and Washington during the cold war). I have no clue how they managed to do this in Star Trek after World War III – Earth had limited infrastructure and no governments. Maybe the Vulcans lent humans communicators?

Requiring groups to work together and accomplish superordinate goals is one of the best ways to reduce competition. This was famously demonstrated in Muzafer Sharif's robbers cave study - groups of boys who hated each other learned to get along when they had no choice but to cooperate. Remember how connected the world felt when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon? Now imagine a space project that requires participation from the whole planet. Working on such a project could easily unite humanity (especially if we've just discovered the existence of alien life). 

Lastly, cooperation and responsibility must be rewarded (just like H.O.V./carpool lanes). While the possibility of advancing science, developing new technologies, and improving quality of life sound great, psychology maintains that people do what is in their best interest, not what is in the best interest of groups. Somehow, Star Trek figured out a way to encourage people to "work to better themselves". This is the key ingredient to creating a utopia. Just meeting aliens won't encourage us to work together - we need concrete rewards for cooperating.

3) Empathy for aliens.

Who doesn't like a Vulcan? They look and talk just like us. 

Who doesn't like a Vulcan? They look and talk just like us. 

Humans are far from united. We fight about race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, region, and lots of other stuff. Whenever we experience conflict, we unite against common enemies (e.g. usually the folks who aren’t like us). If aliens come along, make humanity feel more united, and we learn to cooperate on a global scale, then it's going to be VERY easy to see aliens as our common enemy.

This actually happened in the Star Trek mirror universe - instead of welcoming Vulcans with open arms, Zephram Cochrane looted and plundered their ship.

Anytime we see someone as less than human, we do really bad things to them. That's the first job of war propaganda - to dehumanize your enemy.

The only way to prevent us from hurting our alien visitors is by developing empathy for them. Our best hope would be finding a way to communicate (but a universal translater is about as unrealistic as a Heisenberg compensator).  

Star Trek gets around this issue because Vulcans look a lot like us (and they somehow speak English). The aliens we’re likely to meet probably won’t look like Vulcans. Think of the prawns from District 9 or some of the strange deep-sea creatures we’ve found – that’s what aliens will look like. This is bad news because the less an animal looks like us, the less empathy we have for it (which is why we kill insects without thinking about it).

It's possible, but not likely.

The EU is one model of a  Star Trek  future. 

The EU is one model of a Star Trek future. 

It's completely possible that in the wake of a global catastrophe, humans may overcome our differences, develop empathy for each other, and collaborate on big picture shared goals. We've actually done this before. The European Union was created in the wake of World War II as an attempt to escape nationalism and force economic cooperation. For the most part, this federation has succeeded.

The problem is motivating people to cooperate and developing empathy for aliens. The EU functions because there are strong economic incentives for countries to work together. Star Trek throws all those incentives out the door (literally – there is no money in Star Trek). Without rewards, people continue to do what is in their best interest, not the group’s. Lastly, if we can’t find a way to talk to extraterrestrials, we're not going to develop empathy for them – in fact we might kill them.

I remain an optimist. There’s a chance that our scientific findings, developed in a world where no other intelligent life exists, just won’t apply to a post-first contact Earth. Meeting aliens might cause us to feel, think, and act radically differently. We have to wait and see. 

September 16, 2013 Update: To see a live version of this talk, check out my NYC Nerd Nite talk: 3 Easy Steps to Create Star Trek's Utopian Future