I decided to dust off my copy of the Star Trek TNG Technical Manual, and see what it had to say about the famous communication devices and “exposition boxes” that became as much a part of Star Trek as Klingons and transporters. By what I read, I’m pretty certain they will never exist.
“But Joey! We’ve surpassed comm badges already! They’re called cell phones, and you have one! How can you say they don’t exist?” Well, that depends on how we define “communicator”. A thing that lets someone else who has a thing talk to each other? Sure, cell phones fit that role in the broadest mindset. However, dig just a little bit deeper and you’ll likely agree with me that they are likely to forever remain a plot device, rather than actually existing.
Let’s start with the most obvious example of this: Neither Kirk, nor Picard, nor Sisko pay a Verizon bill, and Janeway was too far away to do so. While cell phones require the PSTN to function, communicators and comm badges clearly do not. Even if we get as close as currently possible – fully decentralized, open source, peer-to-peer voice communication software, the call is still being carried by one’s ISP, rather than communicating directly between the initiator and recipient.
According to the technical manual, the maximum range of a comm badge is 500 kilometers. Even if we cut that down to 100km, that’s still beyond the horizon of virtually any planet that could be landed on by an away team without the gravity being a crippling problem, meaning that communicators can punch through at least some of the curve of a planet. By contrast, current technology would require roughly 5,000 watts of FM transmission power to achieve something even remotely close without a line-of-site, something very seldom seen between sections of an away team engaging in dialogue. Now, to be fair, it’s highly irregular for parties to be more than a mile or two away from each other when using communicators, but while some high quality Motorola walkie-talkies might get a mile range, they require both batteries and antennas which each exceed the size of a comm badge. Moreover, communicators and comm badges only experience static when relevant to the plot – literally no cell phone owner can say that they’ve been able to thoroughly avoid dropped calls or audio dropouts.
Let’s assume that the range issues are addressed by way of “subspace”; the magical portion of the space-time continuum that powers both warp and communications in the Trek universe. The next massive concern is how communicators decide the recipient of the message. When Kirk says, “Kirk to Enterprise”, does everyone in the ship hear it? Just the bridge? Furthermore, the “Kirk to Enterprise” is frequently heard by the recipients. Even if the computer onboard the ship is ascertaining that the message is for them, do away team communicators have that same ability to discern? Ultimately, the future has no concept of ringtones, except one time toward the end of the Voyager episode “Future’s End, Part 1”. The rest of the time, the message is heard ‘on speaker’, making that scene rather strange. In another episode of Voyager, Chakotay calls “to anyone who’s left”, as the ship has been largely taken over by aliens. How does the communication system know to reference explicitly Starfleet crewmen, and do so ‘on speaker’ without the hostile aliens hearing? I hear you all saying, “It’s just a plot device”, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t jive well with the notion that cell phones are akin to the communicators in Star Trek. The amount of technology required to facilitate communication between the communicators, over great distances, establish the recipient, do so without static or interference, and perform all of these tasks without a communication infrastructure beyond the devices themselves, is far beyond anything we presently possess.
Let’s then discuss tricorders, devices that have a sensor for basically-anything, and a tiny display that makes it nearly impossible to display the results which is only eclipsed by the minuscule size of the controls. Sure, today’s phones have gyroscopes, ambient light sensors, cameras, compasses, even temperature and pressure sensors, but how accurate are the readings? Enough for a racing game, sure, but does anyone use the onboard sensors for measuring with scientific accuracy? No, they do not. Would anyone be comfortable with a doctor taking measurements with an iPhone rather than dedicated tools? That’s unlikely as well. There is still a world of difference between the capabilities of a tricorder as a scientific measuring instrument, and the capabilities of current smartphones. As a counterargument, however, it’s surprising how infrequently (if ever) data communications between tricorders and/or the ship itself are used. If the comm badges in TNG are able to communicate 500km, shouldn’t tricorders have some circuitry of that nature implemented as well? They really should be better at that, and there are no shortage of moments where data transmission or nonverbal communication would have been helpful. I’ll close that thought by addressing the idea that my thoughts on that front only stem from pervasive text messaging that was not prevalent at the time of TOS or TNG. To that, I will say that the inclusion of a small CRT display in TOS implies an intended output, and by TNG, there was no shortage of text-based communication happening over BBS systems, IRC, and Usenet. The idea of transmitting messages that way was far from foreign.
The next time you’re watching an episode of Star Trek and think that their handheld devices already exist in more usable ways, the deeper implications illustrate that there is still plenty of work to be done to achieve the levels of functionality we see used to advance the plot.