Providing for Care : What the Starship Enterprise teaches us

I’ve been thinking about care work and technology lately, and last week, I gave this talk at Open Source Bridge, here in Portland. I’ve been posting my notes in a series: here are Part I and Part II. This is Part III.

Subscribe to my Tinyletter to get Part IV in your inbox, and occasional updates on this project and other things I’m working on.


Moments of tenderness between Kirk and Spock, while Bones tries to figure out where his caregiving responsibilities lie

Now that I’ve talked about care ethics and politics, I want to talk a bit about their poetics. Let’s think about how care gets recognized or made invisible, how care figures into all sorts of jobs, and how management, governance, and other aspects of business, technology, and culture either prioritize or neglect care. I want to push for an understanding a larger continuity of care work, and especially in understanding who is doing the caring, and how we value or devalue that.

So, I turn to television. After all, art serves as a backup when life is challenging. Who among us has not turned to their favorite book, comic, tv show, movie, or game when the world has felt alienating and cruel?

So I’m going to present a few examples from classic television: From Cheers, to Star Trek, to my favorite TV show of all time, Star Trek: the Next Generation.

It’s a bar called Cheers - they literally sell good feelings

One example that illustrates these crucial relationships that scaffold care is from the TV show “Cheers”, which was on the air from 1982 to 1993.

Maybe some feminist cultural theorist has already written about this, but “Cheers” is all about the intersection of capitalism and care. It’s set in a bar that calls itself “Cheers”, where, as they claim, “everybody” (the staff and patrons), knows your name. And to look back at it, the show does a pretty great job of illustrating how the service economy relies on various gendered representations of care.

Let these men mix you up some cheer.

We have 80s hunks like Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson, whose characters have forsaken more physical pursuits (like professional baseball), in order to make their living taking care of people. We have the female Cheers personnel exploring the limits of giving out care: Diane would rather be writing poems, Rebecca would rather be in charge.

And then we have Rhea Perlman’s character, Carla, who is older, quote-unquote-ethnic, and to put it nicely, put upon by caregiving responsibilities. Her character is a showcase of the unseemly, impolite aspects of nurture and care: she has eight children, by several different men. (Perlman’s own pregnancies were written into the show’s storylines — Carla was pregnant on the show during three separate seasons.) She lives in a neighborhood that’s considered rough, and the pack of rowdy kids and unreliable men in her personal life are a source of both petty drama and comic relief.

We learn that Carla is brusque and she is competent, without a doubt, in terms of care. So much, that the patrons of the Back Bay bar where she works are seen as milktoast and inoffensive. Carla’s work off the clock in taking care of her family and her community makes her work in the bar seem somewhat less valuable. If fellow barmaid Diane is a “poetess” and Sam wishes he was still pitching for the Sox, this makes their work seem more noble, more of an achievement.

Yet, Cheers very deftly shows that everyone, in order to fulfill the promise of the service economy, has to perform care work, and that care work is the backbone of consumer experience.

And it’s all very funny to think about this considering who all was working on this in Cambridge at the time: Carol Gilligan, Arlie Hofschild, Sherry Turkle. The 1980s were a heady time for questioning a lot of assumptions about gender, class, and work.

To boldly go where no man has gone before

Next, let’s look at the classic television show, Star Trek, which aired from 1966 to 1969, also interesting times in history.

The premise of the entire Star Trek franchise is, by its own admission, one that balances humanistic virtues with futurist/utopian visions and, by doing so, frames our own limitations.

In first iteration of Star Trek, we had a crew of mostly men, of various races and species, tunited by the governing body Starfleet, traveling around the universe both exploring and ostensibly trying to create peace. Of course, in the 1960s, when the series first aired, these weren’t easy questions for anyone.

Another girl, another planet

One of the central dynamics in the original Star Trek was in men (ostensibly heterosexual, although many have made convincing counterarguments to this point), isolated in space, trying to care for each other, and also prove all sorts of masculine imperialist things. There are lots of physical fights, lots of debates about the triumph of logic.

Moreover, there is tenderness mainly in the militaristic sense: our heroes are eager to have hasty romances with other civilizations, and these are wrapped up quickly, left behind, urges satisfied. The crew are removed from their homes and families of origin, and if they have children or parents or lovers or friends outside the ship, we rarely see them. There is business to be done.

The caregivers on the Starship Enterprise are largely invisible and automated, and the characters who do caregiving work are characterized as masculine and undemanding, despite their roles.

Scotty, who is responsible for getting people to and fro, literally making sure no one gets left behind, is charmingly brusque and an ethnic other. He fixes things, holds things together. Fixing things, as Deb Chachra notes, is vital work, but it “isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.”

Bones, the ship’s doctor and Captain Kirk’s sentimental confidant, is a balance of both caregiving and also the appropriate level of mid-century man feelings: very few. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a”, is Bones’ catchphrase. His care work is very conditional.

Meanwhile, we have Spock, who is half-Vulcan, half human, and advocates for logic and empiricism above all else. He’s cold and unfeeling at times, advocating for things that seem like objectively the best solution, and thus brings out the feelings of others. He’s tender at times as well, and well, this is the subtext that fuels many homoerotic readings of the show.

Of course, the most prominent female cast member, Uhura, the ship’s communications officer, works in the background, making sure that the ship’s leaders can connect with those they encounter, running systems to smooth out those intercultural edges. She works hard, keeps her head down, and doesn’t voice many opinions. She is wise, we learn, but she puts up with a lot and keeps a lot to herself.

TNG

❤❤❤

Fast forward to 1989, and we see a different ethic of care in place on the Starship Enterprise, one that is problematic at times, but tries.

We have a cast that includes more women in the highest ranks on the ship, and we have a somewhat nuanced exploration of the relationship between gender and care.

This includes the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, who despite such a menacing name is maternal and tender. She has a young son, who relies not only on her, but on the ship’s Captain, the erudite and sensitive Jean-Luc Picard, for care and guidance. There are children aboard the Enterprise, along with partners and families, older folks who need different types of care.

We also have the glorious Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor, who gets referred to as “An Empath” due to her ethnic makeup. She does not cower in the presence of feelings, rather she calls them out! She’s mostly a good cop, and defers heavily to the rank and file, and gets the crew out of feelings-heavy jams on a regular basis. She’s very patient, inhumanly patient, with the grumpiest, most selfish, most uncaring characters. She rarely disagrees outright with anyone. Imagine how exhausting her life must be!

Lwaxana knows what’s up and is not here for your shit.

This is made apparent during cameo appearances from Lwaxana Troi, Commander Troi’s mother, played by Majel Barrett, who in real life was married to Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator. Due to her racial origins, Lwaxana is all empath. She is here to talk about feelings, in a way less diplomatic and deferential way than her daughter.

There’s a pretty clever joke here: Majel Barrett is also ALSO the voice of the Enterprise’s computer, the endlessly capable AI that controls the ship. Ha ha ha: the fantasy of neutral, cool and collected artificial intelligence, of empathy on demand is interrupted by the reality of a volatile older woman in a caftan!

And there’s also a really interesting theme on ST:TNG, about what artificial intelligence is for, and about the role of feelings and experiences in relation to AI and virtual reality. How much did I cringe, as a kid, watching TNG when Commander Riker, the ship’s chronically thirsty first mate, would retreat to the ship’s holodeck to enact his romantic and sexual fantasies?

Drink a beer, Commander Riker, you are thirsty.

In these scenes, the care work of listening, of flirting, is enacted by an algorithmically precise projection. On the one hand, what does it say about allocation of resources: does everyone on the ship get their harlequin romance fantasy time on the holodeck, or did they all decide it was worth it just to keep Riker busy? On the other, is virtuality a way to contain that urge to seek out short-term companionship? Is it better for everyone that this exists, and said thirsty officer uses it responsibly? Is the future of military sex trade in virtual worlds?

Free Geek, y’all

Then, we have, the beloved Data. Oh how I love this guy! He’s a computer that tries so desperately to learn human emotion, only to fail in frustration. Data is the recipient of a sort of care: people explaining other people to him, and he’s sometimes a caregiver, albeit a limited one. We’re treated to a storyline every now and then about how he’s seen a lot over the years, and how the data that Data carries is full of trauma, of other people’s memories, how he’s one of a kind.

Care and Honor with Worf and Alexander

Of course, if I was wiser, I would have made this whole talk about Star Trek and care ethics. We haven’t talked about the Borg, Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Guinan, or Q, or Worf. But you can find me later if you’d like to discuss these things. But, as I’d like to conclude, the show does an amazing job of exploring the complexities of this, steering us away from making easy assumptions but still eager to peel back the surface a bit more.


Aristotle defines the relationship between ethics and poetics as illumination: one way we recognize human values is when they are explored, illuminated by, art. (He was talking about the Greek dramas, I’m talking about UHF television.)

Just like service design plays a role in making technology tools seem slicker than they are, there’s a level of design and of organizational-level management implicit in all of these depictions of care. Someone in power, and probably a group of people in cooperation, had to prioritize or de-prioritize care. Sometimes this is deliberate, other times it’s a matter of accepting a certain undefined set of principles. Who does what jobs? How are these jobs and the people in them credited, resourced, compensated, cared for?

It’s also worth thinking about that the folks who have looked at applications of care ethics in management and applied ethics have done so with a top-down approach, advocating for care ethics analysis of corporate policies from the executive level downward. Which, sure, that sounds like a good idea, but who here has the authority, the power, to institute it?

Is there another way, to foster and enact care ethics in technology at the community level? Is there a solution to engineer and design? I’m both skeptical and hopeful.