The Matter of Concern: Replicator as Logistical Utopia
by Matthew Hockenberry — New York University
January 05, 2017 – 17:58
Star Trek imagines a logistical future that appears to be radically utopian. It is the future of a galaxy connected by starships traveling at warp speed, of planets connected not by roads or by skyways, but by the (supposedly) safe and simple energization of matter from one place to another. But while the transporter might stand as most enduring image fit for this future, I invite the examination of a more mundane object of the show’s logistical world—the replicator. Based (as much as anything in the Star Trek universe) on the logical implications of transporter technology, the replicator offers a site of examination for the show’s strangely unsettling material culture, one where personal possessions are reduced to the potentiality of patterns and the odd archaeological interests of Federation captains.
From the first appearance of pre-replicator productive technologies like the food synthesizers of the original series, the idea of matter materialization has proven amazingly versatile, providing explanations for ideas about the material reality of the holodeck, offering plot points for anything from mysterious viruses to alien artifacts, and (of course) serving as a site for character communication and development. Though its primary purpose seems (on screen at least) to be limited to the production of food, replicator technology comes in a variety of different forms each fit for different purposes—with sizes and specifications appropriate for producing anything from bodily organs to starships. But while there should (presumably) be no distinction between replicated objects and manufactured ones, the presence of an aura attached to "real" (read: non-replicated) materials seemed to become more pervasive as the technology (and the universe) progressed. Not only do characters increasingly claim to be able to taste the difference between the made and the materialized, but spaces like DS9’s replimat and Voyager’s galley come to evoke the nostalgic (but anachronistic) constraints of the sorts of gathering places common to more primitive modes of distribution.
In many ways, the replicator has served as a mirror not only of an utopian optimism for the potential for logistical technologies like 3D printing, synthesized foodstuffs, and automated assembly, but—as it surfaces fears of supply chain contamination through pattern corruption or as it collapses complex histories of colonialism and global exchange into casual demands for instantaneous delivery—deep-seated doubts about what the ultimate implications of those technologies may yet prove to be.