Q&A: Star Trek’s ‘Data’ on autism, space travel, and the link between humanity and technology

brentspinergoogleglass

Brent Spiner, a.k.a. “Data” from Star Trek, tried out Google Glass for the first time on Wednesday at the Museum of Flight. Spiner was in town supporting Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign.

He didn’t realize it at the time, but when Brent Spiner portrayed an android named “Data,” during 177 episodes of Star Trek, he was an inspiration for those suffering from autism and Asperger syndrome.

Often struggling to understand human emotion, “Data” was one of the few characters on TV that people with autism or Asperger syndrome could relate to because he was trying to understand feelings and humanity in the same way they did.

data

Brent Spiner played “Data” on Star Trek. From Flickr user T.

Spiner, who was in Seattle on Wednesday to support Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign, said nowadays he’ll have adults come up to him during Star Trek conventions and thank him for his work.

“One man told me that I was the poster boy for kids with Asperger’s,” he said. “It really knocks me out when I hear that.”

The only time that Spiner caught wind of this while acting on Star Trek was when the respected Dr. Oliver Sacks dropped by the studio trailer looking for Spiner. Sacks would later write a book about autism that mentioned a patient who could only relate to “Data.”

“I just think how lucky I was because I didn’t have anything to do with it. I just showed up and played the part,” Spiner said. “It wasn’t like I was trying to do that; it was just a tangential thing that happened to be bigger even than entertainment.”

We got a chance to talk more with Spiner about his Star Trek days, his favorite apps and his thoughts on Google Glass

GeekWire: What made you decide to come to Seattle and help out Planetary Resources?

Spiner: Peter [Diamandis] called me and asked me to get involved and I thought it was interesting. He first told me about Planetary and what he does with looking to mine asteroids for valuable materials. Then he mentioned this telescope, and then he mentioned it would be available to schools and they were looking to create curriculum for high school students to be able to use the telescope and explore space in depth in a way that no one has been able to do before. That sold me, given that I’m a father of a soon-to-be 11 year old.

I think we all have to pay attention to education and the future for our kids. As we adults destroy the planet, it’s the one our kids will be left with and we better educate them so they can fix it all because we’re here messing it up.

brentspiner21

Brent Spiner, right, speaks to the Planetary Resources staff and volunteer cohort with the company’s co-founder Peter Diamandis.

GeekWire: Since we’re here talking about mining asteroids and thinking about what’s in outer space, how did your time on Star Trek influence how you think about the future?

Brent Spiner and Peter Diamandis speak with Bill Nye, another Planetary Resources supporter, over Skype on Wednesday.

Brent Spiner and Peter Diamandis speak with Bill Nye, another Planetary Resources supporter, over Skype on Wednesday.

Spiner: Reallythe biggest influence Star Trek had on me is that I got to meet a bunch of really cool people. That’s all it really did as far as I’m concerned. It was a wonderful part to play, a really sweet job to have and the gift that keeps on giving. But it was a job. I was an actor. I went home, I learned my hard lines, I had to get up and go put that makeup on every morning and I was there 16 hours a day for ten months.

It wasn’t like when you sit in your living room and watch the show and go, ‘Wow, I dream one day of being an explorer of space.’ No. I didn’t even watch the show. I’ve seen 20 episodes and we did 178 of them. How are they? I hear they’re good. And I’m particularly good, right? (laughs).

Seriously though, it was a job, I was an actor and I still am. I don’t have any real association with it beyond what anybody else does. It was the part I played. If I had done Western for seven years, it doesn’t mean I’m a cowboy now. It’s just fiction.

The biggest value to me is that other people really enjoy it and want to watch it. It’s not for me. We didn’t go to work everyday so we would love astronomy and become astrophysicists — it was so other people could enjoy it and so it could inspire them, not us. What really changed my perception more than anything is having people with autism and Asperger’s tell me that “Data” was the only character they could relate to.

GeekWire: I just saw you trying out Google Glass for the first time. Since you did play an android on TV, what do you think about augmented reality and all this new technology?

Spiner: I’m not one of those people who says, ‘No, I won’t read on a Kindle. I like how a book feels.’ Well, yeah, books are beautiful and I love them too. But reading is reading. Before books, people told stories. They had people who went from town to town and built a fire and got in a circle as the person would tell stories. And then when books came to be, those storytellers kind of went away.

It is what it is. Humanity and technology grows the way it grows. Trying to stop it by being a ‘I like things the way they were,’ type of person is shortsighted. There are always advantages and disadvantages, and who knows what we’ll evolve into as humans.

spinergoogleglass

Brent Spiner tries out Google Glass for the first time.

GeekWire: Speaking of gadgets, what kind of phone are you using and what are some of your favorite apps?

Spiner: I’m a real geek and I don’t use an iPhone. When I look around at most geeks I know, they use Android and regular people use Apple. My Blackberry is my primary phone, but I’m going to have my number switched to my Galaxy S3. I still haven’t quite gotten totally familiar with it.

With the Blackberry, I don’t use any apps. On the Samsung, I have Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, but I never use it because I’m a vegetarian. Assistive Light, I think, is a really good app (turns app on, shines flashlight). Look at that, that’s really good. I do have Twitter and Daily Finance, which is not very good.

But I have an iPad, and that’s where I use apps. Muddled is the one I use most. I have 100 games because every time my son downloads something, it comes to my iPad. But the only one I play is Muddled. And you know what, I don’t even use a computer anymore. Just the iPad and the phone. They do everything.

Was this even part of the interview? I mean, that’s fine if it is. You’re getting to know me, the real me. That’s what you do, right?”

Previously on GeekWireNo Google Glasses allowed, declares Seattle dive bar