(a fan evaluation of the Borg, a fictional cyborg race in the Star Trek universe)
Many writers base their work on what they care about, and science-fiction writers are no exception. The various iterations of Star Trek have perennially given us parables about racism, class issues, medical ethics, war, politics, and many other real-world issues. So, it is no surprise that when Star Trek Next Generation showrunner Michael Piller read Combating Cult Mind Control and met cult expert Steven Hassan to discuss his interest in high-control groups, the result would be one of the franchise’s most iconic races: the Borg. Piller invited Hassan to do a TV series based on his life story. Regrettably, Hassan regrets saying “no” instead of “yes.” On a visit to Los Angeles, Piller invited Hassan to the Paramount set of Next Generation. Hassan met Patrick Stuart (who has just come out with his memoir) as they were filming that day. When he learned he was a cult expert, Stuart had several questions for Hassan. A funny moment was when someone goofed on Brent Spiner (Data) and said Hassan was going to be his replacement. The cast was pleased to give Steven a signed photo.
This cybernetically enhanced Collective is not a species, but rather a multi-species group of various individuals from a cross-section of the galaxy’s population – people who have been kidnapped and altered against their will and then forced, via an implanted neural link, to work for the Collective. They are drones: they have no individuality, no rights, no autonomy, and no say in what happens to them. They are, in essence, the absolute extreme example of what it is to be in a high-control, destructive cult. Although the recruitment into a harmful group bears no resemblance to a Borg assimilation, many former cult members relate strongly to the portrayal of the Borg as all too familiar to what it felt like to be living their lives, not for themselves, but for their organization and its leadership.
With the race to develop robots with superior intelligence and advanced decision-making capacity, experts in AI worry that this technology can be developed to control minds on a massive scale. We already have direct evidence that humans can be radicalized to turn off their critical thinking and mindlessly follow an authoritarian cult leader who wants to rule the world.
As we know, science fiction often predicts a dystopian future, where humans are given neural link interfaces that can not only read the brain activity but also adapt to nudge people to specific experiences, beliefs, and even emotions.
The Borg has become a common trope among cult survivors and even a shorthand way of referring to their former group for some. Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular, frequently talk about the cult as “The Borg.” The arc of rescue and recovery experienced by the former Borg Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager is a fascinating and instructive study for another time, but today, we will be focusing on the Borg Collective as a whole, examining how Dr. Hassan’s BITE Model© and Influence Continuum applies to the level of control experienced by the drones in the Collective.
The Borg and the BITE Model©
- Green means it does not apply to anyone in the group
- Orange means it partially applies
- Red means it applies to all members
- Grey means it does not apply due to the excessive level of control in place (in this case, via the neural interface)
I. Behavior Control
- Regulate an individual’s physical reality – A Borg’s entire physical reality is that of the Collective. There is literally nothing else (except for those able to access Unimatrix Zero, virtual reality, and the internal rebellion of the Borg)
- Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates – A Borg only lives with other Borg and, unless captured, can only communicate with other Borgs. Their neural interlink means they are in constant contact with the entire Collective.
- When, how, and with whom does the member has sex – Borg do not mate, relying on assimilation to add to the group.
- Control types of clothing and hairstyles – Each Borg is dressed by the group in a matching functional one-piece suit. and (apparently) a complete depilatory process is a part of the assimilation process. In addition, severe body modifications, such as ocular implants, cybernetic implants, and limb replacements, are required.
- Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/ or fasting – Upon assimilation, a Borg’s digestive system is modified so that only the nutritive supplements given by the Collective can be taken. A rescued drone will need technical assistance to be given nutrition, and a recovering drone will need medical help to be able to eat again.
- Manipulation and deprivation of sleep – The Collective controls the regeneration cycle.
- Financial exploitation, manipulation, or dependence – There’s no money in the Borg Collective, but labor trafficking is the ultimate financial exploitation.
- Restrict leisure, entertainment, and vacation time – There is no leisure, entertainment, or vacation time in the Borg (again, except for Unimatix Zero, but even then, it’s forbidden, so…).
- Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/ or self-indoctrination, including the Internet – There are no rituals per se, but the Borg Collective’s neural interface means that the Collective is ever-present, with the “voices” – directives, status updates, sensor data, and all the “thoughts” of all the other drones are constant and inescapable – a constant stream of group indoctrination.
- Permission required for major decisions – Permission is not considered in the Borg; the Collective makes all decisions.
- Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative – There are no rewards, and behaviors aren’t modified but controlled via a neural interface. However, for any drone who manages to escape control enough to be able to act independently, the punishment is death.
- Discourage individualism, encourage groupthink – Individualism is impossible; no other thought exists outside the Collective’s groupthink.
- Impose rigid rules and regulations – No rules and regulations are necessary, as all actions are completely controlled.
- Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning, cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding – Although there are a couple of instances of torture, behavior is often controlled directly through the neural interface. See point #11.
- Threaten harm to family and friends – For the most part, the transactional manipulation of a threat – i.e., do this for us or we will do this to you – is missing, as all friends and family will be assimilated, and threats are irrelevant. However, the Borg Queen has resorted to this tactic at least once.
- Force individual to rape or be raped – Sexual assault is not used in the Collective; instead, Assimilation ensures universal forced celibacy and sterilization, a horror in itself.
- Encourage and engage in corporal punishment – See point #14.
- Instill dependency and obedience – Obedience is ensured through neural control, and the drone is absolutely, even medically, dependent upon the Collective.
- Kidnapping – The first step of assimilation is an act of kidnapping.
- Beating – See point #11.
- Torture – See point #11.
- Rape – See point #16.
- Separation of Families – Families are routinely assimilated, separated, and sent to different posts, including ships or settlements.
- Imprisonment – Every Borg drone is essentially imprisoned in whichever cube, sphere, or world they are on.
- Murder – A drone is deactivated – murdered – by the Collective immediately after it ceases to be of use.
II. Information Control
a. Deliberately withhold information – All Borg drones automatically know all information available to any Borg.
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable – Acceptability is irrelevant. c. Systematically lie to the cult member – Lying is not possible; see point #1a.
- Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media – See point #1a.
b. Critical information – See point #1a.
c. Former members – Former members, for the most part, keep themselves away. Still, in the case of those who have had a chance to return, there was surprisingly open dialogue (though only with the Queen), with no apparent restrictions on addressing any of the collective.
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate – Drones, when not working, are regenerating.
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking – A Borg is connected constantly with the Collective through the neural interface.
- Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines – Everything that is Borg is to be followed and obeyed. Everything, not Borg, is to be assimilated.
a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible – See point #1a.
b. Control information at different levels and missions within the group –See point #1a.
c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when – The queen is not seen to limit information from any of the Collective.
- Encourage spying on other members – Every thought of every drone is instantly known to the entire Collective and is accessible by every drone.
a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member – The Collective is the ultimate buddy system.
b. Report deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership – See point #4. c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by the group – See point #4.
- Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies, and other media – The constant thoughts of the entire Collective go way beyond any propaganda.
b. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources – See point #1a.
- Unethical use of confession – Confession is irrelevant. Sin is irrelevant. The Collective does not care what you did before your assimilation.
a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/ or dissolve identity boundaries – Sins are not necessary, as there are no identity boundaries to disrupt or dissolve.
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution – Forgiveness and absolution are irrelevant – and thus, never given.
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories – Memories are repressed, or at least so minimized as to be considered irrelevant.
III. Thought Control
- Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality as reality – The Collective’s reality is the only reality
b. Instill black-and-white thinking – Although there is no binary thinking, there is only the Collective and everybody else, being a drone or being dead.
c. Decide between good vs. evil – Good and evil are irrelevant and, therefore, are not addressed.
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders) – Anyone not in the Collective will be assimilated, ignored, or destroyed.
- Change the person’s name and identity – A drone’s life as an individual is over. They are stripped of their former identity and given a Borg’ designation’.
- Use of loaded language and clichés that constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts, and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzzwords – Although there is loaded language, the neural interface assures that there is no independent or critical thought. Platitudinous buzzwords are irrelevant.
- Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts – Good or bad thoughts, proper or improper, are controlled via the neural interface.
- Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking, and even to age regress the member – The neural interface does all the necessary altering; critical thinking and mental age are irrelevant.
- Memories are manipulated, and false memories are created – See Information Control, point #6c.
- Teaching thought-stopping techniques that shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
e. Speaking in tongues
f. Singing or humming – Due to the neural interface, none of the above is necessary. See point #4.
- Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism – See point #4.
- Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed – Critical questions require independent thought – see point #4.
- Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful – Alternative belief systems – and any other issues the Borg does not wish to discuss – are “irrelevant”.
- Instill a new “map of reality.” –The neural interface assures an entirely new reality.
IV. Emotional Control
- Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/ or needs are deemed as evil, wrong, or selfish – All emotions are irrelevant; there are no emotions in the Collective (except for the Queen, who has displayed rage when thwarted)
- Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt – The neural interface blocks all feelings and emotions.
- Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault – Blame is irrelevant.
- Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
a. Identity guilt
b. You are not living up to your potential
c. Your family is deficient
d. Your past is suspect
e. Your affiliations are unwise
f. Your thoughts, feelings, and actions are irrelevant or selfish
g. Social guilt
h. Historical guilt – A drone doesn’t feel guilt; all guilt is irrelevant.
- Instill fear, such as fear of:
a. Thinking independently
b. The outside world
d. Losing one’s salvation
e. Leaving or being shunned by the group
f. Other’s disapproval – A Borg drone does not experience fear. See point #2.
- Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are a horrible sinner – See point #2.
- Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins – There is no such thing as sin to a Borg drone.
- Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority – Phobias do not exist in the Collective; see point #5.
a. No happiness or fulfillment is possible outside of the group – There is no happiness or fulfillment inside OR outside the Collective.
b. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc. – Although drones separated from the Collective can survive, it is a hellish existence, as the drone misses the voices of the Collective. In addition, complex corrective surgery is necessary to remove the neural implants and turn the drone back into an organic individual.
c. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family Those who leave must escape far away enough to keep from being re-captured and re-assimilated.
d. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll – Those who leave are irrelevant; no framing of how they “fell short” is ever needed.
e. Threats of harm to ex-members and family – Although rare, the Queen has resorted to this tactic at least once – see Behavior Control, point #15.
The Borg and the Influence Continuum
Individuals – there are no individuals in the Continuum, just drones.
Authentic Self vs. False (Cult) Identity – drones take on the Collective identity and have none of their own.
Unconditional Love vs. Conditional “Love” – love of any kind does not exist in the Collective.
Compassion vs. Hate – compassion and hate do not exist in the Collective
Conscience vs. Doctrine – conscience is irrelevant. The Borg doctrine – the search for perfection – is all-encompassing.
Creativity and Humor vs. Solemnity, Fear, and Guilt – the Collective has no fear or guilt. But everything is very, very solemn.
Free Will/ Critical Thinking vs. Dependency/ Obedience – There is no free will or critical thinking; every drone is obedient to and completely dependent on the Collective.
For Leaders: In my opinion, the Queen is a problematic ret-con (she didn’t exist until they wrote her into the movie First Contact and consequently used her in Voyager). She is the all-powerful leader of the Borg.
- Narcissistic and possibly Psychopathic
- Elitist and possibly grandiose
- Power Hungry (she has power over all the drones and seeks to assimilate any lifeform that will help her achieve her goal of “perfection.”
- Sometimes, she is Secretive and Deceptive to outsiders, but all Borg drones know everything she knows (this has been used successfully against her).
- She claims and (through the neural interface) asserts absolute authority over all drones.
Egalitarianism vs. Elitism – Before the Queen, the Borg were completely egalitarian, making them, in my opinion, even more horrific, as there was no figurehead in control.
Checks and Balances vs. Authoritarian Structure – All Drones are in a Collective structure after the Queen. Functional hierarchies within small working groups exist, but no drone is superior to any other drone.
Informed Consent vs. Deceptive/ Manipulative – Consent is irrelevant, and no deception or manipulation is employed (usually); people are assimilated by force of technology and turned into drones.
Individuality/Diversity vs. Clones People – drones have no individuality; they are all the same.
Means Create End vs. End Justifies Means – the Borg search for perfection justifies their practice of kidnap, torture, assimilation, and genocide.
Encourages Growth vs. Preserves Own Power – The only “growth” encouraged is the growth of the Borg drone population. The power of the Borg is preserved over all else.
Free to Leave vs. No Legitimate Reason to Leave – an assimilated Borg has no will and so does not “want” to leave until disconnected from the Collective for enough time that they begin to grow/ recover their own authentic self.
Conclusion and Aftermath
The most interesting part of the Borg is the element of control exerted by the fictional technology of the neural interface – although these controls cannot be put in place in a real-life group, it is fascinating to see how they supplant many of the manipulative practices: the practices that are replaced by the neural interface, such as controlling emotions, threatening punishments, and most importantly, providing incorrect/ warped information, are stereotypical procedures for most authoritarian groups. Due to the neural interface, the Borg Collective does not need to lie, threaten, or use emotional controls, but any cultic, high-control group does need to do so. Thus, any row marked grey (does not apply due to excessive control already in place) is likely to be a standard practice in any abusive group.
The most important part of the cult experience is what comes afterwards: the healing and recovery the individual goes through. Patrick Stewart modeled this struggle in the episode “Family,” as his character, Jean-Luc Picard worked through the complex emotions involved in reclaiming his authentic identity and fully shedding his Borg identity of “Locutus.” Actress Jeri Ryan took the longer route with her character’s recovery from the Borg, closely mirroring the battle facing those born or raised in a cult; although her character had the birth name of Annika Hansen, she created her own authentic identity apart from the Borg but still retained her Borg designation of Seven of Nine. No matter how long it takes or what a person’s life looks like after escaping their own version of the Borg Collective, the work is well worth the trouble and the life that follows is all the more rewarding for having left an authoritarian group.