Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Technology in Star Trek: the “Whom Gods Destroy” edition

Yes, I said I was done with this series. And I was. But then what should happen? BoingBoing should point us to a Daily Mail (UK) article about a weapon in development by the US company Raytheon. It’s called the “Silent Guardian”:

When turned on, it emits an invisible, focused beam of radiation — similar to the microwaves in a domestic cooker — that are tuned to a precise frequency to stimulate human nerve endings.

It can throw a wave of agony nearly half a mile.

Because the beam penetrates skin only to a depth of 1/64th of an inch, it cannot, says Raytheon, cause visible, permanent injury.

But anyone in the beam’s path will feel, over their entire body, the agonising sensation I’ve just felt on my fingertip. The prospect doesn’t bear thinking about.

“I have been in front of the full-sized system and, believe me, you just run. You don’t have time to think about it — you just run,” says George Svitak, a Raytheon executive.

About 40 years ago, a similar device showed up in Star Trek, first in 1966, in the first-season episode “Dagger of the Mind”, and then in early 1969, in the third-season episode “Whom Gods Destroy”. The latter specifically uses it as a torture device, the character who uses it pointing out that, as it causes “no tissue damage”, it can be kept up “indefinitely.”

If this is real (it is in the Daily Mail, after all, so we’re not so sure), and if, as Raytheon claims, it causes no permanent damage, it certainly could be used for all sorts of purposes, a few of them benign. Most of them, not. Most of them, in fact, are quite frightening. The idea that only the “good guys” will have such a device is quite obviously deluded. And as the reporter points out, the idea that the good guys will always be good is equally questionable:

With the Taser, the rules in place in Britain say it must be used only as an alternative to the gun. But what happens in ten or 20 years if a new government chooses to amend these rules?

It is so easy to see the Taser being used routinely to control dissent and pacify — as, indeed, already happens in the U.S.

And the Silent Guardian? Raytheon’s Mac Jeffery says it is being looked at only by the “North American military and its allies” and is not being sold to countries with questionable human rights records.

Countries with questionable human rights records... like, say, the U.S.?

I am so pleased that we are catching up with that bit of Star Trek technology. So pleased. [And you’ll note that, unlike the rest of the entries in this series, this one does not get the “Whimsy” label.]

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