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In Star Trek, people are often handed PADDs (Personal Access Display Devices) holding various bits of information and told to take them to one place or another, which seems awfully inefficient. Why is it done that way? Specifically, I know it happens a lot in Voyager. (Sometimes, people enter information into a PADD and then take it elsewhere themselves, but for the purposes of this question, that is essentially the same thing.)

I am not talking about instances where people take data someplace where there is no computer terminal available, to work on it (for example, sitting in the mess hall writing a report or pouring over sensor data to the tune of a pot of coffee or tea). Sometimes, even with computer terminals being ubiquitous, wanting to work in a place where there is no computer terminal readily available is perfectly reasonable.

They have the ability to transfer information from one computer terminal to another (I don't know how many times it's said on the bridge to "transfer the coordinates to the helm", and occasionally entire function areas are transferred between workstations), and essentially everything is connected to the same (set of) computer core(s) anyway, so how come the transfers shown as people carrying PADDs around aren't done by just tapping a few controls?

Is it only Plot Device, or is there an actual in-universe explanation that I simply fail to see?

  • 3
    Why do people carry around iPads or Android tablets? They're all really just playing a 24th century sequel to Angry Birds. It just looks like they're working. – BBlake Nov 30 '12 at 12:59
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    In the future, a federal judge ruled that not only did Apple have patents on tablets with rounded corners, but that all humans were obligated by law to buy one. Every subsequent copyright extension just pushed that mandate farther into the future until, in the 24th century, no one even remembers why they must have one with them... – John O Nov 30 '12 at 17:49
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I'm going to disagree with Stefan and offer a counter answer from the opposite perspective.

TNG's technology level when it comes to computers is similar to our own now. As is almost always the case, they under-estimated computers... Or did they? We are reaching the limits of what can be done with 2D silicon wafer chips. We've already reached the limit on individual clock speeds of processors. It will take new kinds of technologies before we can begin again with the growth of the past.

Let us assume, then, that we can't. What if quantum computers prove impossible or impractical? What if the raw computer power never gets more than 2 or 3 times better than we have now? What would our devices look like? A lot like how they are used in TNG.

Everything that can have a computer in it, will. We see this in the general modularity of components in the show. Random assortments of uni-task devices being combined to perform new tasks. Taking a phaser and some other doodads and making a force-field. Creating a tractor beam from spare parts.

Networking, wired and wireless will become adhoc and ubiquitous, transfer of data can be done seamlessly between all devices. Everything is compatible because it is all based on 200 year old standards.

PADD - the future of hand-held, ebooks and ipads:
enter image description here

The future of laptops and desktops are a combination of the two:
enter image description here

And the core computer, obviously is a mobile data-center and super-computer with huge volumes of data. Probably many petabytes or more. Where we can expect the PADD to handle a few TB and the lap/desktops to be able to hold 10-100 TB.

Reading, listening, watching can all be seamlessly transitioned between as the codecs are hundreds of years old and the ship's main core is powerful enough to do the transcribing with high accuracy, possibly on the fly.

So why carry around PADDs? Why do we carry around iPads and Laptops rather than emailing data to people? Why do we still meet in person and work in cohabitation when skype exists? Because it is communal and social to do so. The PADDs are an excuse for human contact, something it is well-known we need to function properly as an animal.

Can they just send the data over the network from terminal to terminal effortlessly? Sure, and in all high-tension moments in the show that's exactly what you see them doing. They don't run PADDs during a fire-fight. They only run PADDs when things are calm and during day-to-day interactions.

I find that completely reasonable.

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    I totally agree; the human interaction is very important. If it weren't for PADDs, the non-battle scenes of Star Trek would be the captain checking their e-mail. – CamelBlues Nov 30 '12 at 18:23
  • Honestly, I don't quite see how "They only run PADDs when things are calm and during day-to-day interactions." really disagrees with "It is basically a plot device to have more activity happening in scenes." It seems like both of you are saying roughly the same thing, but in very different ways: it creates activity where otherwise there would be none (visible on the screen, at the very least, which is what really matters in movies). And I for one will often send off an e-mail to a colleague and then walk over to their office to discuss the particulars. One does not preclude the other. – a CVn Nov 30 '12 at 20:51
  • That said, I'm giving this +1 even if only for the "What if quantum computers prove impossible or impractical? What if the raw computer power never gets more than 2 or 3 times better than we have now?". – a CVn Nov 30 '12 at 20:56
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    @MichaelKjörling The fundamental difference is that my answer gives an in-universe reason for PADD running, and the other claims the reason is as a plot device which is an out of universe reason why they would do something antithetical to logic. I am claiming it is logical that they would run PADDs in absence of being a TV show and Stefan claims it is an illogical practice but convenient for story lines. These are opposite opinions. – DampeS8N Dec 1 '12 at 4:10
  • @DampeS8N Humans are illogical. Get used to it. ;-) – a CVn Dec 1 '12 at 14:54
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It is basically a plot device to have more activity happening in scenes.

If you look at TOS and compare the technology there with what we have today then you will probably observe a dozen oddities. That is without wondering why the Captain takes his most senior and irreplacable officers into unknown and highly dangerous situations, why none of the computers have fuses to stop people being electrocuted, none of the seats have seat belts to prevent people being thrown around, why no matter how badly damaged the ship gets the artificial gravity always works (apart from once in Voyager and one of the films), people wander on and off the bridge and do not get me started on the teleporters!

If you included WiFi, a realistic command structure, military protocols, realistic physics etc the feel of the show would be drastically different. It is just meant to be a science light adventure show.

The later serieses tweaked this and introduced more science into things but they had some Star Trek traditions that required inclusion, such as teleporters, almost indestructable main characters etc.

  • Did you mean once in Enterprise? I don't recall artificial gravity failing in Voyager, but there was that shower scene with Captain Archer... – Izkata Nov 30 '12 at 12:58
  • No, it was in Voyager. Tuvok began floating and the tapped his com badge and reported that artificial gravity had been compromised. I have not seen Enterprise (not a single one although I have heard it is good). It was in the episode Prototype but the wiki entry mentions 3 other times too along with some examples from different serieses – Stefan Nov 30 '12 at 13:04
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    @Stefan in that case there's probably at least two incidents in Voyager, because at one point Janeway asks for a damage report and Chakotay responds with saying that among a few other things they temporarily lost artificial gravity on one deck and a crewmember hit their head because of that. Of course, it's fascinating that the artificial gravity always points in the same direction, regardless of one's location within the ship, but that is quite unrelated to the question. – a CVn Nov 30 '12 at 13:10
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    "If you included WiFi, a realistic command structure, military protocols, realistic physics etc" you get (the rebooted) Battlestar Galactica :) – Binary Worrier Nov 30 '12 at 13:17
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    @Stefan Gotcha. Checked the episodes listed on Memory Alpha: In Prototype, Kim mentions that A.G. was lost on Deck 8 (not 6, Memory Alpha is wrong on the episode page but correct on the A.G. page); in Prey is when Tuvok starts floating; in The Haunting of Deck Twelve it's mentioned in a list of other issues. The Enterprise one was much more visual, would explain why I remembered it and none of the others. – Izkata Nov 30 '12 at 13:46

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