Data on Data: Star Trek’s Commander Data Can Kick your Android’s Ass

While Lieutenant Commander Data was cruising around the cosmos at impulse speed, those of us who were Earthbound were still suffering through the awkward teenage years of home computing. We could set our VHS players to record Star Trek: the Next Generation, but it took three hours to program our graphing calculators. But data storage has really been moving forward at full warp speed since the mid 1990s.

When I was a kid, my grandfather would always try to give me $10, which he said would get me as much as he could get for a dime when he was my age. Well, you’ll be able to do the same thing with data storage to your grandkids one day. The exponential growth in overall computing power over the past few decades is nothing short of mind boggling.

“Back in my day, sonny, we had to format our own floppy disks.”

In seventh grade, we would all gather in the upstairs hall in my grammar school on rainy afternoons to play one of two games: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego or The Oregon Trail. I never found Carmen, but I died of dysentery enough times to never want to go to Oregon in real life.

The games themselves were stored on the most up-to-date data storage devices at the time: eight inch floppy disks. You could literally hold these behemoths by one corner and shake them like a Polaroid picture. Each one held a whopping 1.2 mb of information. Yeah, I know, I’m old.

But when I went home on Thursday nights, the most amazing television show I had ever seen came on, and my dad and I were glued to the screen every week. It would all start out with the majestic English accent (even though he was French on the show, because…space?) of Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise.

Then the ship would shoosh past from one side to the other. The actors would start popping up. Picard’s bald head, Geordi’s visor, Riker’s beard, and Data’s gloriously green tinted face.

I’m not sure why I liked Data so much, but he was awesome. The ultimate social misfit, he really wanted to be human, or at least he was programmed to try to fit in as much as possible, but he never could quite understand what was happening.

Data could perform complex mathematical equations with a tilt of the head as a slightly quizzical expression spread across his android face, but he couldn’t figure out why Geordi was upset. One time when that little Wesley Crusher kid messed things up, Data reassembled a key part of the Enterprise’s computer so fast his hands were blurry. But when Geordi and Ensign Ro were out of phase and presumed dead after a transporter accident, Data couldn’t even really cry. He’s just not programmed that way.

He did, however, have an awesome amount of computing power burring around inside all that glowing circuitry just under his synthetic skin. While I was trying to get a floppy disk to make that “whomp whomp” sound we all knew it could, Data was cruising around space with eight petabytes of memory.

Each one of his fingernails had more processing ability than NASA in the 1960s. And it creeped the bejesus out of me every time he pulled back one of those fingernails to access some vital circuit or whatever the writers had devised as a plot point for that episode.

My iPhone could find Carmen Sandiego, Waldo, the Lindbergh baby, and the spec script for 3 Fast 3 Furious in only slightly longer than it would take Siri to understand my mumblings. But Data will always be king of the geeks. I’m not even sure if he had functioning parts or if he was all Ken Doll down there, but damned if he didn’t land a girlfriend. She did get eaten by a trash bag, but I think that had more to do with a contract dispute than android sex.

So geek out all you want while watching reruns of TNG on your iPad (which Star Trek totally invented) but, the really amazing thing is how far we’ve come in computing ability since Brent Spiner first caked on the green makeup and reported to Ten Forward for a blue simulated cocktail served up by Whoopi Goldberg.

The nineties were a strange time, come to think of it. But for those of us who remember, we will always have Data envy. And secretly, deep down, we all still wish we could be friends with Data.

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