Are we heading for Darmok?

20 Jul 2015

When I recently came across a news article 1 (a distinction the piece of writing hardly deserves) that began the description of the complex communication process between the New Horizons space probe and Earth with the heading “A 3-Billion-Mile Snapchat”, I had to ask myself: is this what journalism is now? And then I was reminded of Darmok.

Darmok 2 was a notable episode of the science fiction TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise encounters an alien species–as they usually do on a weekly basis–whose utterances don’t quite translate well when run through the ship’s Universal Translator. The aliens, called the Tamarians, are heard to utter such seeming nonsense as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”(now a famous phrase) and “Temba, his arms wide”. It is later discovered that the species verbalize concepts not by assigning words directly to them, but by using metaphors (or more accurately analogies 3) that represent the concept.

In other words, rather than using an abstract word to describe something, they use a noun that represent an actual instance of the concept. For example, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” seems to translate to “friendship through shared hardship”, or more roughly, “camaraderie”, Darmok and Jalad being two warriors that defeat a beast on an island called Tanagra. It seemed the Tamarians, while not having a label for the concept “camaraderie”, were universally familiar with the story of Darmok and Jalad.

Or, perhaps the Tamarians did once have a language like our own, where abstraction was normal. Perhaps they went through a period (not unlike the period we are going through now) where the majority of their population’s attention span and mental capacity was diminished by progressive watering down of information that their communications networks were trying to get them to consume. Perhaps Darmok and Jalad were not warriors at all. Perhaps they were part of Tamarian pop culture, two characters in a motion picture.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But the number of times I have seen headlines like “Minority Report like interface”, “Terminator 2 like liquid metal”, “Iron Man like exoskeleton” in respectable online news outlets in recent times, gives me pause.