“Losing that sense of individuality is almost worse than dying”

2 Sep

When it comes to the Borg Collective, not all will be assimilated.

No one knows that better than Captain Jean-Luc Picard (aka Locutus of Borg).  I’m pretty sure no one has revealed the true futility of assimilation better than Picard, who managed to escape and regain his individual identity.

Of course, there are other reasons Picard is the greatest of all Star Trek captains (he can quote pretty much every work by Shakespeare, in its entirety, off the top of his head… and to quote the Picard vs. Kirk page of the eminent Uncyclopedia, which is much more reliable than Wikipedia, I assure you: “To which captain would you entrust the safety of your daughter?”)– but this ability to regain his sense of self after assimilation is probably the foremost.    And until Hugh, he was the only one who could make that claim.

I’d never seen the Star Trek: TNG episode “I, Borg” until I watched a rerun yesterday night– the basic plot amounts to this: a wounded member of the Borg is discovered on an otherwise uninhabited planet, its spacecraft having crashed and killed all of the other members of the Collective inside.  The crew saves him, takes him back to the ship, and plans to “infect” him with what is essentially a computer virus—when he, designate “third of five,” is reabsorbed, the virus will infect the entire Borg (and hopefully destroy it). 

That’s the plan, at least, until members of the crew begin to grow attached to Third of Five, who wants a name (they call him “Hugh,” derived from “you”), discovers that his feeling of isolation is loneliness, and grows very attached himself to Geordi, a friend rather than fellow arm of the Collective.  Even a skeptical Whoopi Goldberg is convinced of his, for lack of a better word, humanity.  Picard, however, is adamant that the plan must continue.  He does agree, however, to meet with “Hugh” face to face and test his supposed growing individuality.

Maybe it’s just because it was very late at night, but I was incredibly moved by this scene, and thrilled that I had unexpectedly stumbled onto an example of popular culture which so overtly celebrates individualism.

Not only that—it celebrates egoism.

Egoism is defined as: “an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.”  It’s most prominent contemporary proponent has been, of course, Ayn Rand, who firmly believed that “Man is an end in himself.”  You have value as an individual, not as a member of any “Borg Collective.”

“I, Borg” parallels Ayn Rand’s Anthem rather closely in this respect—as Prometheus’s “eureka moment” is his discovery of the word “I” (he had, like Hugh, previously been using “we” and “us” exclusively), Hugh’s use of the singular first person pronoun is an epiphany for himself—and proof to Picard that he is not Borg after all.

Hugh’s new vocabulary is a signal of his similarly new egoism—he realizes that people have the right to make their own choices, and in their own interests, and not be sacrificed to any greater good.  Example: Picard insists that even Geordi must be assimilated, and Hugh responds, confused, “He does not wish it.  He would rather die than be assimilated!”

Earlier in the program, Geordi had made the comment that “losing that sense of individuality is almost worse than dying,” and he’s absolutely right.  Why is the Borg the most frightening enemy in all the Star Trek universe?  Why does the Borg strike such a chord of horror in viewers?  It doesn’t kill; it doesn’t torture; and it claims to be doing what is best for all life forms.  And still, the Borg Collective sends a shiver down our spines.

It’s because it’s close to home.

Okay, so technically it’s way out in space, but the parallels to modern politics and culture are readily apparent.  Star Trek: The Next Generation was developed in 1987—the Borg is easily the futuristic, alien specter of the Soviet Union.  Geordi’s comment about assimilation being worse than death, after all, has much in common with another anti-Communist novel: George Orwell’s 1984.

[Spoilers below]

When I first read the book in high school, I thought that the scene with the cage and the rats and poor poor Winston’s very exposed eyeballs was as bad as it could get— there’d bee a quite dramatic build-up to “Room 101,” after all.  It was supposed to be the place where your worst fears, your worst nightmares, became real.  And yet, that wasn’t the end.  That wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, torture and death.  After all his resistance and insistence that whatever the Party could do, they couldn’t touch his mind and his sense of self, the last line of the novel was:

“He loved Big Brother.”

The ending of “I, Borg” is no less horrific, and for the same reasons.  In this case, the viewer is left without knowing whether Hugh is absorbed successfully into the Borg or manages to “infect” the Collective with his newfound individual identity.  He says: “Captain… I do not wish to forget that I am Hugh.”

De-individuation is the most horrible future novelists and television producers have given us.  We recognize that.  We hate Big Brother and we hate the Borg.  We want them destroyed!  Nobody, after all, likes a Hive Mind.

So why do we accept it in politics, culture, and society?  Modern culture gives us the ethos of self-sacrifice—your money should be commandeered to help someone else; what you want isn’t important when compared to what everyone else needs; the “common good” comes before your individual good; and of course, the government knows what’s best.

I very much hope that we get to the point where our future compares with that of Captain Picard and his crew, who have a system of values which not only tolerates but celebrates the word “I.”

In the words of Hugh: “Resistance is not futile.”


One Response to ““Losing that sense of individuality is almost worse than dying””

  1. Queen of Guy Town September 22, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    Hey! I always thought Picard ran a rather loose command. It’s amazing he was captain for 7 years. But you remind me of a favorite episode and I think I better appreciate why (I liked it).
    – From a girl from catholic high school (in the 70s) who had a star trek nick-name in high school – how hot is that?

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