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The Real-World Star Trek Would Be Far From Utopia

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I realize this isn’t exactly on the leading edge of financial advice, but to a life-long Star Trek fan, Noah Smith’s Bloomberg article Star Trek Economics: A Future Free of the Dismal Science, which ran in ThinkAdvisor.com on August 7, simply requires comment.

The focus of Mr. Smith’s article is the “replicators” that appear in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series. These replicators, as Smith puts it: “are machines capable of creating essentially anything from pure energy.” In the show, the only replicators we see appear to be about the size of a large microwave in crewmembers’ living quarters, and, if memory serves, are primarily used to create exotic drinks and meals, and the occasional musical instrument. Presumably there are larger replicators, which create the parts to more important things, such as starships, etc.

The result of this advanced technology, according to Smith (and Star Trek characters themselves) is that “Scarcity—the central defining concept of economics—seems to have been eliminated. So let’s think about the economics of Star Trek. What we’re really thinking about is how to get to economic utopia.”

For Smith (and others he references), that means everyone on Earth will have a basic income that would allow us to lead lives of leisure. “The rise of new technology means that all the economic questions will change,” he writes. “Instead of a world defined by scarcity, we will live in a world defined by self- expression… …there seems no obvious reason why people couldn’t get their self-worth from artistic self-expression, or from hobbies. We will be able to decide the kind of people that we want to be, and the kind of lives we want to live, instead of having the world decide for us.”

Having followed Star Trek through most of its iterations starting with the original series in 1966, I’ve had ample time to consider many of its philosophical ideas, including its economics. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that, like many utopian models, the realities of their implementation would be vastly different from the results anticipated by Smith and others. 

For instance, regardless of how “magical” the replicators might sound to us now, they are still technological devices. If we’ve learned anything over the past 10 years or so, it’s that technology, no matter how beneficial, is rarely as user-friendly, or as reliable, as we’d like it be. So somebody has to maintain these devices.

Yet one thing we didn’t see on Star Trek were the harried engineers scrambling to keep up with backlog of malfunctioning replicators, nor annoyed crew members clamoring for service: “Hey, Scotty, you said you’d fix my replicator three days ago…” And not once did we see Kirk or Spock on hold with tech support…

Of course, there are much larger societal issues, too. For instance, while most people might not have to work, the people who build and maintain these replicators would almost certainly become the new aristocracy: for without them, we’re all back to working for a living. The imagination staggers at the kinds of things they may want in return for keeping those horns-of-plenty delivering.

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Then there’s the question of who would get these replicators. The utopian model posits that everyone would get one, but I’m not so sure. There may have been a lot of replicators on Star Trek, but there were very few Starships capable of destroying entire planets. Given what we’ve seen of human nature so far, do we really believe that some of the folks who control the Starships won’t try to control who gets the replicators?

And there are potentially even darker sides to this “utopia.” The Internet is a prime example: rife with pornography, child pornography, character attacks on school children, investment scams, etc. One has to wonder what some of the least moral of us would do with a device that could create anything. Guns? Bombs? Poisons? Drugs? The idea of a “controlled” substance or device would be a joke. 

Finally, the biggest problem with this “utopia” is also the most important, as we are already wrestling with it in American and in various places around the globe today. In a society where technology maintained and managed by a relatively small number of people can provide for the needs and wants of everyone, of what value is the vast majority of the population to the people in charge? Far fetched?

I’ve heard a number of economists maintain that the real problem in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East is that their huge wealth is dependent upon a relatively small number of technicians who keep the oil flowing. As far as their governments are concerned, the rest of their populations are unimportant—and they’re largely treated accordingly. Perhaps it’s not so surprising why some of them want to blow things up.

With our technology advancing at a staggering rate, how long do you think it will be before the majority of our population is equally superfluous? Many of our manufacturing plants are already automated with robots. Unmanned drones fill our skies and attack our enemies. Computers now do the jobs that millions of clerical people used to do.

To my mind, the real model that Star Trek offers for the future is probably Commander Data: the technologically advanced robot Star Fleet officer. Given that he’s faster, smarter and stronger than anyone else on the Enterprise, one has to ask: why are any of the other crew members human?

Which suggest (to me, at least) that technology will far more likely result in the future of Star Wars than Star Trek: Armies of millions of robots manning fleets of starships, directed by a small number of ultra-wealthy and powerful humans to keep the rest of the largely unnecessary human population under control. May the Force be with us.