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ICONS ARE BETTER #58: THE TRICORDER

There is a moment in every episode of Star Trek where someone – originally Mr Spock, but in later series, whoever is the designated Sciencey One – will need to find out a Science Thing.

They’ll pull a scanner of some kind, and wave it over the mysterious cosmic goo on the strange planet, or crystalline space mineral, or alien stone tablets, and there’ll be a ping and they’ll say, “I’m detecting deposits of diazoic tritonium, captain.”

And this’ll be incredibly important – though why that was detectable without picking the stuff up, but wasn’t detectable from space will never be explained – but it’ll further the plot as well as adding to that magical property that makes great Sci-Fi great, the “sense of wonder”. Pretty much every Sci-Fi show has a similar MacGuffin.

I always wanted a tricorder: some handheld device that tells you how old a tree is, or how much petrol’s left in the car, or where your keys are, or where the aliens are really hanging out (in the Cabinet, obviously). It’s a human thing to want, ever since Sherlock Holmes waved a magnifying glass around and generally barged into other people’s business. And dowsing rods are still a thing, though they’ve had to jazz it up a bit.

But – maybe we do have tricorders already? When we’re trying to plot a route across town, or magically summon a car to pick us up, or speak to someone a thousand miles away, what are we holding? When good music comes on in the office (rarely) and I want to know what it is, what device do I wave at the speaker?

What are you probably reading this on?

Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The next time you have a Tricorder Moment, consider – the sense of wonder is in your hand.

James Mitchell – Planner