What would the world look like if everybody had everything they wanted or needed?
Next year marks two big anniversaries of storied attempts to answer that question. 2016 is the 500th anniversary of Utopia, the book by Thomas More which sparked an entire genre; it is also the 50th anniversary of Star Trek.
The best part of these anniversaries is that we’re finally beginning to see what Utopia looks like. Not just in theory, but in reality. 500 years ago, it was impossible. 50 years ago, it was a dream. Today, it’s here. It’s not everywhere, of course. But we can see it in enough places that it’s worth revisiting the world of Star Trek, just to find out what we need to do next.
Even though Star Trek is mostly famous for its flights of technological fancy, the most interesting part of its universe is its economics. Which is why I’m incredibly happy that Trekonomics, the book I’ve helped to crowdfund* over at Inkshares, has now reached its goal of 1,000 preorders, and will officially be published in hardcover in 2016. As it turns out, the collaborative publishing platform couldn’t be any better suited to the subject matter. Much like the Star Trek universe, the Inkshares platform is a place for individuals to show off what they’re capable of, and to be rewarded on a meritocratic basis. The decision as to which books get published is made by a large number of readers, not by a small number of publishing executives.
Trekonomics is not an obvious book. Economics is the study of resources under scarcity, and there’s basically no scarcity in the Star Trek universe. Thanks to the Replicator, a magical machine which can deliver anything you want, on demand and on the spot and without any kind of monetary charge, people in the Federation want for nothing.
But it turns out that if you want to understand normal economics–scarcity economics–then one great way of doing that is to come at it backwards, through thinking about a universe where scarcity does not exist. And one great way of thinking through the implications of such a universe is to be forced to write hundreds of episodes of a TV series, each of which needs some kind of conflict and some kind of resolution.
In the world of Star Trek, the Replicator doesn’t just kill economics as we know it today; it also represents the natural endpoint of the Industrial Revolution. The Replicator obviates the need for humans to work, and satisfies all the basic needs of 24th century consumers. It is Star Trek's way of telling us that in the future, human labor can be entirely replaced by machines.
Can be, but won’t be. Because humans have a need to work at something, and if they’re not working for money, they’ll work for something else. In the Federation, that something else is reputation.
To be sure, there are billions of largely-unseen Federation citizens who aren’t all competing, aggressively, for highly prestigious jobs working as starship captains. Still, Star Trek is not Wall-E: if you give us everything we could ever want, we don’t devolve into a race of overweight couch potatoes. Instead, we build a series of social structures where positional goods are based on reputation rather than money.
Those social structures are, now, taking form at unprecedented scale. Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter—people pour hundreds of hours of very high-level work into these platforms, generally for zero monetary reward. And in doing so they create huge amounts of value for the world at large.
At the same time, the amount of money that we need to spend in order to feed and clothe ourselves has never been lower. In much of the developed world, basic calorific and shelter needs have been taken care of, with their costs converging to zero. In dozens of countries, we have largely solved the physiological needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, and indeed the safety needs one level up. Extending that security to all citizens is a matter of political will, not a question of adequate resources.
And so middle-class Americans, just like the average citizens of Star Trek, ask themselves–what do I do with my life? To a large degree, the current answer is that we accumulate positional goods–things we can have, which other people can’t have. But in Star Trek, such things have lost their importance, partly because almost anybody can have anything they want, instantly, for free. So individuals concentrate instead on building a strong reputation.
Post-scarcity economics, then, does not mean cornucopia: it’s not an abundance of everything. People can accumulate vast quantities of goods, but they don’t, because there’s no point. (Just as there’s no point in accumulating a CD collection, were you to have a free, lifelong Spotify subscription.) Instead, post-scarcity is an attitude. Positional goods become occupations: In Star Trek you are drawn to accumulate honors and recognition. Above all, you accumulate reputation instead of money.
The main thing we need to achieve, then, if we want to get to Star Trek’s version of Utopia, is not technological advancement, so much as it is a social compact. We need to move to an almost childlike attitude to objects, where we don’t judge things by their cost, and where we don’t particularly value possessions, even as things of great value can be used by anybody.
The good news is, we’re getting there. And not just with websites like Wikipedia.
Look at the way in which health and agricultural technologies have spread worldwide at minimal cost, with massive positive effects. Or look, more prosaically, at GPS. In 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet fighters after it had gone lost over Soviet territory. As a result, Ronald Reagan made GPS freely available to civilians, with no idea of the ultimate consequences of his decision. Today, the free availability of the GPS constellation has made an incredible array of services possible, at no direct cost to users. Technologies like Uber, or self-driving cars, would be unthinkable without it. And the marginal costs of maintaining the system are tiny.
In other words, we now have a prototype of the post-scarcity world, where close-to-free services delivered by smartphones are available to anybody–even (especially) Syrian refugees. When Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees tweeted that refugees were welcome in Germany, thereby changing the course of the refugee crisis, it felt to Trekkers like something Captain Picard might do on the Starship Enterprise. It’s very rational policy, after all: the Germans need more young people. And it’s deeply human, too, rooted in a principle of equality, where the amount of money you have, or the planet (or the country) that you come from, doesn’t matter.
If you squinted, Germany looked a bit like Star Trek’s Utopia. At least for a few weeks.
*At Inkshares, you can set up a “collection” of books, essentially endorsing them to your followers. Trekonomics is the first (and, so far, only) book in my Piper Text collection. The money from selling the first 1,000 copies will be used to pay for editing and printing the book; after this, the author, Manu Saadia, gets most of the proceeds of any new book sold, Inkshares gets a smaller slice, and I get the smallest slice of all.