Computer Interfaces in Star Trek’s “Assignment Earth”

I was watching classic Star Trek with my son a few days ago when I came across this scene, from Assignment Earth, which is set on Earth during the 1960s (when the original show aired). This episode featured the adventures of a human raised by apparently benevolent aliens who want to stop Earth from destroying itself.

As a kid I remember being thrilled at how much NASA footage they worked into the episode.

At Computers and Writing 2015, I will be presenting a paper on 20thC imaginations of futuristic composition practices. I will discuss the onstage depiction of an artificial office worker (as depicted in the 1920s play Rossum’s Universal Robots, which introduced the world to the word “robot”), the pitches of Dictaphone salesmen, and various repreentations of futuritic writing in Star Trek, as it developed over several decades.

One of those Star Trek iterations happens in a scene where agent Gary Seven dictates his reports to what looks like an ordinary typewriter that does the tying for him.

The episode depicts Seven leaning back, hands casually behind his head, but more importantly not anywhere near the keyboard, as he dictates his report. (There is a control panel on the desk to the right of the typewriter, but I don’t believe its function is ever demonstrated.)

The episode was designed as a pilot for a new TV series that was not picked up, but we can imagine the “dictating a report to tidy up details” scene to play much the same function as Kirk’s “captains log” voiceovers.

His relaxed pose as he dictates reminds me of the “lean back” attitude I can adopt when I am marking papers on the couch or browsing with my iPad.

The episode also introduces a little flashing green cube that, through voice interface, accesses a hidden main computer to answers questions. The characters interact with the little cube through asides, while they are talking to each other (or, to herself, for the benefit of the TV viewers).

The little cube interfaces with a bigger machine housed behind a swinging wall — a set piece that I remember really impressing me when I was a kid (even if I immediately recognized the re-arranged components from the M5 computer, which appeared in a different episode).

By pushing down one of the pens in his pen-holder, Seven can turn his traditional office into a mainframe room. Fortunately for us our computers are much smaller, but a destkop workstatation still takes up room. A roll-top desk, or a desktop-replacement laptop serves much the same function.

The little flashing cube on Seven’s desk, while apparently not portable, does blend in with the otherwise traditional decor of the office. Its function, nearly invisile when not active and illuminated, resembles that of a modern handheld, which is designed to be ubiquitous and relatively inconspicuous.

The contrast between Seven’s completely nonchalant use of the technology, and the comic frustration of his human assistant Roberta (played by a very young Terri Garr) dates this episode, as much of the technology that Roberta finds so baffling seems perfectly ordinary to us. (Or even quaint… does Agent Seven really need a typed copy of the memo he’s dictating for his off-world alien leaders?)

Of course all three devices have audio interfaces mostly because it’s such a convenient way to handle exposition in a TV show, but in retrospect we see in this episode a prefiguration of the technology setups many of us have.