Design Fiction Chronicles: The Interlaced Histories of Star Trek & Mobile Phones

Star Trek Communicator

A mobile phone, functional of course, designed by colleague Andrew Gartrell.

Sunday April 26, 16.56.56

In slightly delayed commemoration of a rather enjoyable Star Trek movie, I share this bit of design work done by my colleague Andrew Gartrell, together with a posse of model makers, a functioning Communicator, an object in conversation with the future fiction of The Old Star Trek. It’s a fantastic bit of craftsmanship. It’s important that it works (as a cell phone..), of course, and that it accents itself with a variety of Star Trek signatures, such as chip-chip-chirp birdsong for the clamshell opening, a great Star Trek background screen, appropriate LED annunciators, etc.

The object emphasizes the interminglings of fact/fiction, real/novel stories and the points of entry provided for entering into the construction of futures and their stories. I’ve made this point along with others about the role of design, science, fact and fiction in creating opportunities to imagine and test possible futures through “props” and “prototypes.” I see this object (and others) operating in this way — providing a chance to enter into and participate in the construction of new, hopefully more habitable worlds.

The Star Trek Communicator is often quite deliberately linked to some motivations for the creation of the normal, human cell phone communicator. This point is made in the fun, campy, docutainment film “How William Shatner Changed The World”, which I highly recommend. It shows the many ways that people and objects have been shaped in various ways from the science fiction of Star Trek, including this fellow from Motorola, Martin Cooper, presented as the father of the mobile phone, who happened upon an episode of Star Trek that got him thinking.

A designed fictional electronic schematic for a Star Trek Communicator (TOS), done by draftsman Joseph Franz for his New York Times Bestseller (1976, along with Helter Skelter!) book, “Star Trek: Star Fleet Technical Manual”.

Making things, drawing them, are ways of imagining and linking those imaginings to their materialization. Without prioritizing what kinds of materialization happen, the point is that the fiction inspires. All of these things are, in many ways, similar to what Joseph Franz did when he constructed the Star Trek Technical Manual — it’s as much an exploration of the corners of the Trek world that did not enter the teleplays directly as it is an expression of the curiosity and passion of fans to help make that future imaginary world. Why?

Because of all the usual reasons that people follow their curiosities. Because there is something in that world that they want to extract and explore and perhaps bring into their own quotidian existence. To think and reflect, inwardly as well as materially, by making things and hammering and sketching-to-think. It’s one of the powerful effects of a good story, perhaps in particular a good visual story.

Why do I blog this? Well, the movie came out — the latest Star Trek. It’s quite good; doesn’t plod. Is well-played, dramatic and didn’t feel gratuitous. Plus, Andrew made this spectacular functional-model which, along the way, helps me to think about some things I enjoy thinking about. I think a Tricorder is in the works…

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