Is a "Star Trek" future possible? "You can have anything you want at any time, anywhere, on demand"

Salon speaks to the author of "Trekonomics" about how a post-scarcity, post-currency society happens

Published May 28, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

William Shatner and Tribbles in "Star Trek"   (Paramount Television)
William Shatner and Tribbles in "Star Trek" (Paramount Television)

“Star Trek” has had the ability to provoke obsession and cultish behavior for decades now. The latest manifestation is “Trekonomics,” a new book in which an economic historian looks at the way money and labor – or the absence of both – functions in the world of Kirk and Spock.

The book, by Manu Saadia, focuses on the universe of “The Next Generation” and the movies that began with “IV: The Voyage Home”: In this newer world, scarcity has been replaced by plenty, and currency shows up very rarely. Though people are busy, they don’t need to work. Saadia looks at the causes and effects, exploring issues like free riding, labor, psychology, automation, and even the little bits of capitalism that exist in its mostly post-capitalist world. (Science-fiction fans will enjoy the way Saadia connects “Star Trek” to genre classics like Isaac Asimov’s robot and “Foundation” novels.)

Annalee Newitz, the Ars Technica editor formerly of io9, calls the book “a great work of analysis for fans of ‘Star Trek,’ and a call to arms for fans of economic justice.”

Saadia spoke to Salon from his home in Los Angeles. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I’m especially interested in the way you took “Star Trek” as a sort of utopia when you first saw it. What was it like to see the Star Trek movie as a kid?

It was a complete eye-opener. I was in Paris. I had never seen any science fiction. I had been forbidden to see “Star Wars” because it was too violent. So “The Motion Picture” movie came out in the wake of “Star Wars” and a friend of my dad’s who was kind of a sci-fi fan took me to see it, and I was completely flabbergasted. I was like, “Oh my God! This is where I want to live.”

That’s something that really struck me. It reminded me of [Jacques] Cousteau, but in space. They were all these scientists and awesome people trying to figure out what’s going on in deep space, just like Cousteau exploring the seas. They had amazing machines, and unlike Cousteau, it was in the future, so there was something to aspire to. So it really awakened me to a whole new world and what fiction can do. I was like “Oh, you can do that? You’re allowed to do that?” So afterwards, I started to read science fiction as a result, because I didn’t have TV. “Star Trek” was not on TV at the time in France. It was not something that you would do as a kid, necessarily. It was unpopular. It’s hard for people to remember, especially people younger than I am, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before “Star Wars,” and even at first “Star Wars,” science fiction never really had the status or the cultural currency that it has today.

So that’s really what got me into science fiction. The person who took me to the movie told me, “You see that person? It’s Isaac Asimov, the greatest science fiction writer ever. And here are the books.” Asimov is credited as scientific adviser to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” So that’s what got me going.

Economically, this second wave of “Star Trek” is a kind of utopian world as well. The endless resources make it seem very distant from our world. Could you characterize how the economic relations work in “The Next Generation” and the more recent movies?

“The Next Generation” basically has replicators. They’re like artificially intelligent robots that can produce anything on demand. On the spot, at any moment, whatever you want. It reduces considerably the necessity to work to sustain yourself. So as a result, economic relations in the world of “Star Trek” are no longer based on productive labor in the way it is here. And as a result also, prices have converged to zero because you can have anything you want at any time, anywhere, on demand. There is no scarcity of resources, and therefore all that we know about current economics regarding the allocation of resources, which is properly what economics is about, has disappeared. So it’s completely different and it’s very weird and it’s very provocative when you think about it.

“The Next Generation” started its run in 1987, at the end of the Reagan years and the crazy ‘80s. And here’s something on TV in every living room, it was popular. “Star Trek” is back, and it’s a world where at the end of the first season, Captain Picard has this sort of discourse where he says, “The accumulation of things is no longer the driving force in our lives.” Very strange in the context of the ‘80s.

Well it’s a big change from the original “Star Trek,” where they did have currency. They bought ale and Tribbles. That was a world somewhat closer to ours, economically, right?

Correct. Even though they were officers in Starfleet, they were part of an institution, fictional of course, that’s the dream of 1960s liberalism. It’s a bit like NASA. Scientists, engineers, going into space to do good things and supported massively by the government. So there’s this sort of élan in the original series.

The inflection point, that I see at least, is in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the whales movie. It’s an amazing movie, a beautiful movie. They go back in time to San Francisco in 1984, 1985, and they have to deal with money and they don’t know how to do it. Because they have to get whales on board and bring them back to the 23rd Century. There’s this very funny scene where Captain Kirk, William Shatner, takes Dr. Gillian Taylor, the female protagonist, to dinner. Of course she thinks he’s a weirdo and she’s like, “Don’t tell me you don’t have money in the 23rd Century,” when the bill comes. And he smiles and shrugs and says, “No, we don’t.” The whole movie is so remarkable because it’s a little bit like “Gulliver’s Travels.” It’s a way to expose our foibles and the weirdness of our current life through the eyes of a comparatively more developed and enlightened people who are rendered almost hapless by the way things work in our own world. It’s a very 18th Century movie. That’s what I like about it.

This might not be a fair question, because science fiction is always more about the present than it’s about the future — I think it was Ursula Le Guin who said that. But to what extent does the world of “The Next Generation” seem plausible to you?

To preface my answer, I would say “Star Trek” is one of the very few science fiction universes that actually tries to deal with the future, especially “The Next Generation,” because you have a consistent and coherent depiction of how society would work, and it’s very similar to Asimov in that sense. As for the plausibility, one thing that strikes me — the replicator is a very important machine in “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” and the subsequent series, but you’ll notice also that there are other alien cultures in the galaxy that use the replicator, but they make you pay for it. So with the same technology you have two different economic systems and two different cultures. I’m thinking specifically of the ignoble Ferengi, the traders and capitalists of the galaxy.

What it tells us, and what the “Star Trek” writers are trying to tell us through this, is that a post-scarcity or a post-economic society is actually a policy choice. That is something I find very eerie. Two different cultures have the same technology: one makes you pay for it, one doesn’t. So it is plausible, not so much because of technology, but because of policy choice or not. In the real world, we do have some systems and technologies that actually function like the replicator. The do not produce the same things, but I’m thinking specifically of GPS, which is a public good, or Wikipedia or the internet. There are technological public goods in the real world, and that is something I find very striking.

A public good is a well-understood and researched economic object. So this is not even something that breaks what we know of economics. This is something that we’re comfortable using in our everyday life. GPS costs what, $1 billion a year to maintain by the Department of Defense? And there are like three billion GPS receptors active in the world today, and it creates enormous wealth for some and it also is incredibly useful.

You say that “Star Trek” is rare among science fiction for looking seriously at the future. Is that because “Star Wars” is set in what we’re told is the past?

I don’t want to diss “Star Wars.” I love “Star Wars.” But “Star Wars,” in a way, is much closer to us in terms of the kinds of emotions and character dilemmas that it presents. In a way, a lot of the later “Star Trek” protagonists are very alien to us. They are very noble and almost inscrutably good people. People diss “Star Trek” by saying they’re all boy scouts and too altruistic and it couldn’t work or it’s not realistic. That’s the point. They are consistent with a world that has overcome or has decided to overcome scarcity. They’re worried about other things than us.

“Star Wars” not so much. “Star Wars” is, in fact, about ourselves. That’s why it’s so popular, because it talks to us on a very primal level. The kids love it, and I understand that.

Your point is that the world of “Star Trek,” the world of plenty, without currency, changed social relations. People live in a very different way.

It changes social relations. We know that empirically. The absence of poverty removes a lot of psychopathologies. That is something we know empirically from the real world. So yes, plenty will profoundly change the way people relate to each other and the kind of society they build and try to maintain. That is the lesson of “Star Trek.” “Star Wars” is not a world of plenty.

And that’s why I say “Star Trek” looks to the future in that sense, or tries to give an account of the future. Not much science fiction tries to do that in earnest. That is the achievement of “Star Trek”: to speak about the future from the standpoint of the future. And it’s a very particular future. The future that “Star Trek” speaks from is the endpoint of the industrial revolution, when machines have finally replaced human labor entirely.

It’s an optimistic view of what machines and automation could do for human society.

What we could accomplish with technology. I think that’s the other thing. The world of “Star Trek” doesn’t come into being as a sort of natural result of technological progress. It is what the people in that universe decide to do with that technology that makes a difference. It’s a policy decision.

Technology, in and of itself, cannot change the world. The famous example, and this is going to get a little nerdy, the steam engine was invented by a Greek mathematician in the 1st Century. There was no point in using a steam machine then because they had slaves. It was used as a prop for theater and entertainment as a result. Hero of Alexandria.

So technology is adapted as a response to social demand. That’s my point here. I think it was Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, who said that the future is either “The Matrix” or “Star Trek.” Well, he’s got a point there. We have to make decisions.

One of your key points is that we could have a world closer to that of “Star Trek,” but we’d have to make very different choices as to what we value and what kind of society and economic structure we want.

Yes. I would say I’m trying to advocate for a more deliberate political response to technological change, and based on empirical data and empirical knowledge. That’s the gist of the book.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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