The coming of Borg: You will be assimilated!

The coming of Borg: You will be assimilated!

I love it when popular culture memes slide over into the general lexicon. One such word that seems to be making the transition from fiction to fact is ‘borg’. Just recently, I’ve come across the word a couple of times – not in reference to the Star Trek villains, but as a descriptive word aimed at large companies. Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup, is quoted by Jeff Jarvis in his new book What Would Google Do?, talking about the insurance industry, where he refers to “the corporate borg (AIG)” and “the government borg (social security)”.

Note the small ‘b’. This isn’t a proper noun but a common one, demonstrating the transition from fictional name to real-world concept. But what is a ‘borg’ exactly?

Dictionary.com describes it thus:

Borg

n. In “Star Trek: The Next Generation” the Borg is a species of cyborg that ruthlessly seeks to incorporate all sentient life into itself; their slogan is “Resistence is futile. You will be assimilated.” In hacker parlance, the Borg is usually Microsoft, which is thought to be trying just as ruthlessly to assimilate all computers and the entire Internet to itself (there is a widely circulated image of Bill Gates as a Borg). Being forced to use Windows or NT is often referred to as being “Borged”. Interestingly, the Halloween Documents reveal that this jargon is live within Microsoft itself. (Other companies, notably Intel and UUNet, have also occasionally been equated to the Borg.) See also Evil Empire, Internet Exploiter.

Who is the Borg?

One of the primary concepts of the fictional Borg was that connecting people via technology into one hive-mind was a distasteful and horrific fate. Hence why the threat of ‘assimilation’ was a threat and not an invitation. In the Star Trek universe, connecting a population together as one collaborative entity was a direct challenge to the idea of freedom and individuality. The Borg are portrayed as soulless zombies sharing one mind. Yet the Borg saw this connectiveness as good and wished to assimilate other races, learning from their experience and knowledge to the betterment of the whole.

Yup, you can see where I’m going already, can’t you. We are the Borg – and by jimminy, we want to connect everyone on the planet.

1989 – Year of the Borg

But let’s skip back to a different time, when the Borg were created. Why did the writers of Star Trek see the concept of connectivity and hive-mind as so horrific? What world created the Borg?

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s there was no home internet and no social networking (well, not of the type we now refer to as social networking – people did still talk to each other). Mobile phones were still bricks held by smarmy CEOs rather than teenagers. Text messaging, instant messaging and online communities were ideas from sci-fi. Virtual reality was virtually non existent. Mail was still handwritten and posted. International communication could take days, not seconds. The typical office desk did not have a computer.

Although a technologically primitive time in comparison with today, the pervasive ideology of society was “me – me – me!” The ’80s were a time of record prosperity and materialistic consumerism. Yuppies were on the march. Every transaction started with “what’s in it for me?” and finished with “gimme!”. Society was about individual prosperity, individual wealth, individual achievement and climbing over the person next to you to get to the top. Bush Snr was in the White House, Maggie was in Number 10, after lengthy periods for both parties holding onto government.

It isn’t surprising to me that, in this self-centred world, there was fear that collaboration into a larger community could remove those personal achievements. It is exactly the same fear that fuels distrust of socialist ideals. Why share for the goodness of the whole? This stuff is mine – my ideas, my creative property, my money, my taxes, my everything.

Technology would change all that.

2009 – The Borg is here

Today, the internet has created a social(ist) web. The fundamental principle behind the creation of the internet was the sharing and collaboration of content. Putting that facility into the homes – and even the palms – of the average person allowed a cultural and societal shift greater than anything else in centuries – perhaps ever. In 2009, we embrace the hive-mind. We thrive on collaboration. Wikipedia, Digg, Twitter, online communities, forums and more – are all hive-minds. Wikipedia entries are produced by numerous anonymous contributors; correcting, adding and enhancing the content with no expectation of something in return. Smaller hive-minds exist within the larger ones in the form of company intranets, Facebook groups or niche wikis. The web is a hive-mind and we are all connected. We are the Borg.

And we want to be. We choose to be. In fact, we continue to find ways to make those connections stronger, more pervasive.

But this shift from “me-me-me” to willingly contributing to the greater good has not been accompanied with a loss of identity or individual worth. The hive-mind respects each component. The technology actually allows us to break down faceless corporations and humanise them. We even reward those businesses that do so with more business, as was revealed in a report this month by Altimeter and Wetpaint. CEOs are now blogging in a human voice. Major brands are now engaging with their customers in genuinely human relationships. Instead of stripping away identity and humanity, the hive-mind technology has given it back!

What the hive-mind doesn’t respect is individual materialism, particularly when it comes to creative property. Once assimilated into the hive-mind, your creative property no longer belongs to you. You can still be recognised as the originator of the content – but you gradually lose control over distribution. The hive-mind won’t let you plug in and still operate a “me-me-me” economy where you charge for access. This is the biggest hurdle facing old business models as we move from one world to the next.

What is also interesting is that, just as we have had a mental shift from the individual to the collaborative model, so have our products. Increasingly, products are created that can collaborate with each other. Your GPS plugs into your car to help get you from A to B quicker. Your TV collaborates with your computer to access content and stream video. Your phone collaborates with a bluetooth billboard to download a movie promotion. We are now building devices that work well by themselves, but work even better when collaborating with other tech. How Borgy.

Plus, the obvious collaboration of open source software and the incredible number of apps created by third party enthusiasts for the iPhone continue this trend. Collaboration and interconnectedness now exists at every level of our society, right down to the technology itself.

Don’t be afraid of the Borg!

The transformation of the fictional Borg into the conceptual real-world borg is based on the original idea of faceless, soulless entities (the corporations) seeking to assimilate more and more people. In fact, the fear of Borg turns out to be an outdated paranoia of times past irrelevant to today’s society.

Technology has freed society from an individualist into a collaborative society that views the world very differently. We now increasingly contribute to the whole and greater good, no longer in it for ourselves and may the best man win. Borg is probably not an apt title for those faceless and tyrannical corporations any more. Those corporations betray old-world thinking – refusing to open up to the hive-mind, refusing to be assimilated into our network. If they’re not part of the hive-mind, working alongside us, how can they be borg?

I am borg. If you’re reading this, you are borg. We are borg. Resistance is futile. Lets go do some assimilating!

(Picture is copyright Paramount Pictures. No infringement is intended)