Why Does the NSA Control Center Look Like the Bridge From Star Trek?

Growing up, I fell in love with Science Fiction watching reruns of Star Trek, the version now known to fans as “The Original Series.” The storylines and (then state of the art) special effects hooked me early on, but it was the interplay between William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and DeForest Kelley's Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy that kept me watching decades later. So many movies and so many spin-off series later, Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild continues to meld with the minds of those who watched it as youngsters. I thought of all that when I read journalist Glenn Greenwald (he of the Edward Snowden NSA revelations) reveal that National Security Agency chief General Keith B. Alexander hired a Hollywood set designer to make his NSA command center, dubbed the “Information Dominance Center,” look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, complete with oversized view screen, computer stations, captain’s chair, and sliding doors with the signature Star Trek “whoosh” sound. Aside from the impracticality of the idea (and potential tax dollars wasted), what does it mean that the NSA control center looks like Jean-Luc Picard’s workplace (shown above)?

If you don’t believe me, look for yourself at what are purported to be pictures of the actual “Information Dominance Center” (scroll down). General Alexander not only indulged in his Trek fantasy himself, but invited congressional visitors to sit in the captain’s chair and watch a presentation on the big screen. “Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,” Greenwald’s source quotes a retired officer in charge of VIP visits. How far this “boys with toys” scenario played out is unclear, but I can’t believe that nobody let an “Engage!” or “Make it so!” pass their lips. Rumors of Redshirts providing security remain unconfirmed (mostly because I just made them up).

A lot has been written about how Star Trek influenced the course of technology. A lot of what we use in our everyday lives today works and looks the way it does because some Sci-Fi writer or prop master dreamed it up for the show. So, it’s understandable that General Alexander would tap into the futuristic cache of Star Trek to underscore the futuristic technology behind the NSA’s surveillance programs. But what confounds me in this borrowing is how General Alexander seems to miss the entire point of the series. Looking back at Roddenberry’s vision now, it’s impossible to miss the ultimate liberal, hippie utopia—not just races and genders, but whole alien species working together to promote peace and understanding throughout the universe. Nichelle Nichols wore that short skirt and go-go boots as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, communications officer, not as symbols of sexism, but as symbols of strong women with the freedom (which “Uhuru” means in Swahili; “Nyota” means star, by the way) to make their own choices. Roddenberry looked around the racial and sexual landscape of America in the late 1960s and created the world he hoped would someday rise from those ruins.

Perhaps Alexander watched the landmark episode “Mirror, Mirror” and came away with the wrong lesson. In that 1967 episode, the crew beam down to a planet containing rare, valuable natural resources. The locals refuse to accept Kirk’s offer. Just as he’s about to beam back to the ship, Kirk turns to the locals and tells him that he has the power to force them to give in, but would never use it—something they should consider when choosing whom to deal with. As Kirk and the landing party return to the ship, a malfunction swaps “good” Kirk and crew with “bad” Kirk and crew across parallel universes. Good Kirk finds himself face to face with amoral, evil Spock, who you know is evil because he has a goatee. The evil universe is full of cutthroats hungry for power and a pervasive paranoia where nobody feels safe. Good Kirk learns that Bad Kirk (also trapped, but in the good universe) owes his status as captain to a device called the Tantalus Field that allows him not just to spy on his enemies, but also to make them disappear with the push of a button.

Try thinking of the Tantalus Field’s ability and not think of the recent Snowden revelations or of push-button assassinations via drone warfare. And, yet, here’s the NSA adopting the Star Trek flashy exterior but none of its moral core. I don’t consider myself a “Trekker” (or the more nerd-laden term “Trekkie”), but even I see the disconnect and, even worse, the misconnect. Are we all just trapped in the “bad” universe, where someone can call a center to spy on innocent people with total disregard for their rights the “Information Dominance Center”? I wonder how many congresspersons sat in that captain’s chair and ordered phasers or photon torpedoes in jest, forgetting that the show was all about exploring, negotiating, and uniting diversity while respecting uniqueness, not about bombing. If none of them did, you might as well have Bones lean over the Constitution and say, “It’s dead, Jim.”

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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