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Review: William Shatner, techno-idiot

By L.D. Meagher

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(CNN) -- Captain Kirk has a secret.

As he stands on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise and orders all manner of 23rd-century technology against whatever is threatening the Federation this week, he is faking it. In truth, the man who wears Kirk's face is completely at sea when faced with anything more complicated than a toaster.

"Heeeeeeeeelllllllllpppp!" Shatner confesses in "Star Trek: I'm Working on That." "That's generally my first reaction when digital technology and I come face-to-interface. Well, truthfully, I don't usually scream out loud. It's more like a muffled whimper. But no matter how much I hide my sniveling, I am certain others around me notice the symptoms of the digiphobia that afflicts me. I break out into a cold sweat. My eyes grow big and white. My hands fumble for a book or newspaper, something ... old-fashioned."

Despite this infirmity (or because of it), Shatner sees himself as the perfect guide for a journey into the technological future. His latest non-fiction book raises the question: How close is the world of today to the world envisioned by the creators of "Star Trek"?

The answer, it turns out, is surprisingly close.

Engaging journey

Shatner and science writer Chip Walter plunged into the techno-maelstrom raging in places like Silicon Valley and MIT to see where the leading edge of technology is.

The exponential increase in computer power is just the beginning. "Trek"-ish devices like warp drives, holodecks and androids are, if not on the drawing boards, on the minds of the men and women charting the technological future.

They're even working on transporters and nanites, the molecule-sized machines that once infested the Enterprise and keep the Borg functioning.

By turns playful and crotchety, Shatner proves to be an engaging host for the journey. He gains entrée to some of the palaces of high technology because he is, after all, Captain Kirk.

Looking at the future

Some of the researchers building "Trek"-like gadgets today were inspired by watching him on television and in movies over the years. Although he professes a profound ignorance of science and technology, he does manage to translate extraordinarily complex concepts into language most people can understand.

"Star Trek: I'm Working on That" is far from a comprehensive survey of the state of high tech. It is, however, a serviceable introductory course on what might be awaiting us in the not-too-distant future, and raises important questions about whether humans are smart enough to control the technology we are on the verge of building.

Shatner is occasionally preachy, often humorous and always inquisitive. That, at least, he's not faking.

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