Jason M. Barr December 17, 2017
One day soon man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future, and those are the days worth living for. –Edith Keeler in The City on the Edge of Forever (OS:S1:E28)
The Star Trek series is so fascinating because it unabashedly presents a utopian image of the future. This vision, first presented in the original series created by Gene Roddenberry, a known secular humanist, was then extended in the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (under Rick Berman’s role as executive producer).
Through the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise (classes A through E), we see what might be in store for us: that homo sapien sapiens can dispense with its baser instincts of greed, selfishness, and conflict (at least within the human community); and live in a world where material scarcity is eliminated. Life is simply a journey for the pursuit for knowledge: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations….
“To boldly go where no one has gone before” is, at its heart, a call for humanity to explore itself, and seek what might be possible for our modern society a century or two hence. But, lest we forget, utopia requires an economic system: a means by which goods and services are allocated in a way that frees us from harmful competition and the drudgery of the rat race.
Enter Trekonomics, a book about the underlying economics of the Star Trek universe. It nicely parts the curtain, if you will, and shows the economic superstructure of this future. As such, it offers a lighthearted challenge for us to wrestle with the economic elements that will one day make up our future, and some of which are already here.
The purpose of the book is to explore how Star Trekkian society holds together without the neo-classical economic world we take for granted. Saadia’s main argument is that we can understand this economy as comprised of four basic differences than our own: (1) the end of material want made possible with zero marginal cost of production and transportation; (2) the near-elimination of money; (3) the end of the labor-leisure trade-off; and (4) the benign exploitation of computers and technology.
But Trekkies be warned: the original series (OS) makes nary an appearance. The Star Trek economy of interest here is that of the 24th century, of Picard and Sisko; not that of the 23rd, of Kirk and Spock. In this regard, the presumption is that the OS is simply a halfway utopia, a kind of stepping stone to the real one, since there is still money—Federation Credits—to buy tribbles, for example.
This assumption is done for expedience because the technology of the 24th century is seemingly more advanced, and the “Economic Question” comes up relatively more frequently in Next Gen and DS9 (but which also features the latinum-lusting Ferengi, Quark). But, nonetheless, it was the OS that made the idea of utopia possible and it would have been nice to see a greater exploration of the foundational economics.
So what is in store for us in the 24th century? Captain Picard, who travels back in time in First Contact, summarizes it best:
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.
Lily Sloane: No money? You mean, you don’t get paid?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. Actually, we’re all like yourself and Dr. Cochrane.
The disappearance of money is really a bi-product of the elimination of material scarcity. The replicator, Saadia argues, obviates our need to work and trade (though Deep Space Nine seems to negate this idea, as its existence near the stable wormhole makes it a classic port city). Without these needs, money and labor (i.e., utility reducing actions that buys leisure and goods) becomes redundant. Without labor, employment is voluntary, and social status and the respect from colleagues become the new currency. The desire for good reputation, Saadia argues, is the glue that binds society together.
Throughout the book, we get to understand the world of Picard, et al. without money or want, but, ultimately, the book is unsatisfying in that it only provides interpretations of what happens on the Enterprise and DS9, using the standard concepts taught in Economics 101. It makes little attempt to explain the inherent paradoxes or contradictions in the system. Let’s face it, we can only obtain the good life if we eliminate the unintended consequences of our actions. The road to utopia is littered with failed experiments big and small, from Socialism to the bevy of 19th century utopian communities.
Here Star Trek proves more useful than Saadia lets on. The original series is filled with warnings. In The Cloud Minders (S3:E19), for example, a work-free utopian society exists above the clouds, while the laborers are enslaved in the mines below; in Return of the Archons (OS:S1:E23), the society is dominated and stultified by a computer designed to protect it. In Let that be Your Last Battlefield (OS:S3:E15), a technologically-advanced society cannot stop from destroying itself because of petty, meaningless racism. Or in The Ultimate Computer (OS:S2:E24), the harmful effects of AI are on full display when a new computer program causes the Enterprise to fire on other Federation ships as means of self-protection.
If we are to achieve utopia—where each individual is free to pursue, and achieve, a meaningful sense of well-being without harming others—then we must resolve the inherent paradoxes in any proposed system. Take the key question that we are only now beginning to face: the obsolesce of labor itself, as computers and robots make humans redundant.
In Star Trek, with no money or want, no one need not bother working in the cramped Jeffrey Tubes, mine for dilithium crystals, or empty the septic tanks on the Enterprise. Furthermore, even though the replicator produces food and clothing, there are things that people still want that the replicator cannot produce, such as Chateau Picard, yamok sauce, or space exploration more broadly.
Yet, the 24th century Federation prohibits robots from doing this production. But a future where no one needs to work produces a dilemma in that we cannot have both voluntary labor and unpleasant chores. If full automation frees everyone from drudgey, what then? Does everyone become an artist, vintner, scientist, philosopher, or space traveler? What if people simply refuse to make productive use of their time? The rest of society cannot move forward.
Another alternative might be that everyone must do the crappy jobs for a while, as a form of public service, but this brings us back to the socialism problem, where people under-provide labor because there is no compensation proportionate to effort. To be ordinary in the future may well be a curse.
We must also remember that the world of both Kirk and Picard is of the other side, if you will. Not discussed in Saadia’s book, but implicit in the franchise, is that the road to utopia only emerges from the wreckage of human society. The various crews are constantly referring to the sordid and deadly events of human history, whether it was the Eugenics Wars or World War III. It was only out of this destruction that humanity finally got its collective act together. (Or rather, as is made clear in First Contact, warp drive was created by Zefram Cochrane during the post-apocalypse simply because he wanted to get laid.)
Economists are wont to point out the robustness of democratic-capitalism—that it is capable of self-correction in times of trouble; the Great Depression and World War II were followed by the New Deal, the United Nations, and the rapid advance of the standard of living; resource scarcity is met with substitution and new technology. But, as the Trump Presidency illustrates, we are not out of the woods; the party in power seems determined to create class warfare and sow seeds of distrust among nations and ethnicities. Climate change presents another possible existential threat; while AI and self-aware machines still remain an unknown challenge.
While Trekonomics does not address these issues, the book offers an interesting perspective and is worth reading for that reason. It provides an attempt to build a bridge between the dismal science and the imagined future. The next step is for social scientists and policymakers to seriously consider how we might achieve this world.
Researchers can learn a lot from science fiction, which represents a form of social and technological simulation. Science fiction writers seed ideas, and inspire us to materialize (or avoid) them. The original series, for example, is credited with giving rise to the cell phone and the iPad. Scientists today are working on tractor beams and tricorders. 3D printing is a primitive replicator.
But, just as importantly, science fiction is nothing if not the exploration of the unintended consequences of our actions. Through science fiction, we can envision utopia and the economic ideas that can create it, as well as the accidents that may enslave us in dystopia. In other words, we could imagine a world where science fiction writers and social scientists collaborate and learn from each other as a way to promote new, workable ideas. Trekonomics is a step in that direction.
Now the challenge for social scientists and policymakers: engage, and make it so!
 Editorial Note: Though the Skynomics Blog is primarily focused on tall buildings around the world, I take a broad interpretation of this concept. Skyscrapers are built in an attempt to satisfy our needs and wants, and thus affect the quality of life and well-being. The fictional world of Star Trek is an imagined built environment and, as such, is worthy of discussion in this blog. Would it be a stretch to say that the U.S.S. Enterprise is a form of skyscraper?