Sunday, March 02, 2014

Trekanomics: Ubiquity and the Economy of the Future


by William S. Kowinski
Star Trek's history can be divided into three phases: creativity, popularity and ubiquity.  For example, creativity in 1964-69 when the Star Trek series and its stories were being created.  Popularity when they were on the air and especially in the mid 1970s when they became very popular in syndication.  The features and the subsequent TV shows (TNG etc.) were a period of creativity, and of popularity that had its highs and lows.

Then after the 10th feature and Enterprise left the air, the creativity moved to independent films, novels and games until the JJA features and their ancillary comics etc.  But by this time, Star Trek had firmly entered its period of ubiquity.

The dictionary defines ubiquity as "presence everywhere or in many places, especially simultaneously."  A common feature of the ubiquitous is that it becomes almost invisible.  It's so present, so much part of everything that you barely notice it, unless you're looking for it.

So in this past fairly ordinary week or so, there was a news story about a man who resigned from his town council with a letter written in Klingon.  In an email sent mostly to members of a university music department, I got a link to a YouTube video of an opera performed before a screen showing the "Amok Time" episode from TOS.

Then one day I turned the radio on in the middle of a panel discussion.  They were talking about languages in opera for some reason, mostly in a humorous vein.  A woman said that "we all grew up with Star Trek where people from different planets could understand each other."  A male panelist mentioned the universal translator.  A third panelist referred to Klingon opera.

Notice that these are adult professionals, and that spontaneously three of them showed knowledge of the Star Trek universe.  That's ubiquity.  The key phrase is "we all grew up with Star Trek."  Episodes of one series or another have been on television channels for decades, and now are easily available online.  The first ten films are still shown on one cable channel or another every year.   So generations have absorbed the Star Trek universe into their lives.  This is particularly true of those who experienced one or another of the Star Trek series in their youth, and are now well into their adult lives.

We've seen how (for example) Google scientists are consciously trying to design a search system that functions exactly like the Enterprise computer in Star Trek.  So when professionals thinking about the economy of the future, some apply amazingly detailed knowledge of the little that is evident about the economic system in Star Trek.  And at least one finds Star Trek is not only a desirable model for the future economy, but probably an accurate one.

The one provocative and overriding fact of Trekonomics that everybody knows is: there's no money in the 23rd and 24th centuries, at least in the Federation. So one of the first tasks for the TOS crew arriving on 20th century Earth in Star Trek: The Voyage Home is for Kirk to sell his antique glasses and get them some ready cash.

Poverty has been eradicated on Earth. Yet members of Starfleet aren't paid to work, and don't work for pay.  We work to better ourselves and humanity, Captain Picard explains in Star Trek: First Contact.

This concept, which Gene Roddenberry insisted on, was enormously attractive to creative artists on Star Trek, for it spoke to their lives.  "You don't have to work at something you don't like," noted production designer Herman Zimmerman.  "You can find the thing that allows you to contribute and that is what you can do for a living."

Without the anxieties, insecurities, resentments and wasted energies involved when your ability to live depends on working for the purpose of making money (which also means pleasing employers who themselves are at the mercy of unseen others,) people have the time and freedom to delve more deeply and creatively into the work they love, and into their own souls.  They can concentrate also on work that benefits others. "When you take away the need to make a living," said TNG and Voyager producer Jeri Taylor, " a lot of other things are possible."

But what could possibly make this a basis for a future economic system?  And what kind of an economic system is it?

One reason there is renewed interest in this is what a couple of writers have called (in their book's title) The Second Machine Age.  They and other writers (such as Illah Reza Nourbakhsh in a book I like a lot, Robot Futures) see that for a number of technical reasons, robots of one kind or another are about to become an even greater part of our economy as well as our everyday lives.

Though attention has been focused on low wage workers in other countries, industrial robots in the U.S. have already transformed American industry over the past several decades, with economic consequences that include the need for fewer human workers.  These authors suggest we're poised for even greater changes that will affect non-industrial employment.  And talk about ubiquity--that's the apparent future for robotization, which transforms wage earners into "surplus labor"--that is, a lot of unemployed and unemployable people.  This inevitably will put a great deal of pressure on the current economic system.

Pondering this future, The Second Machine Age authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have said: "We can't foresee if it's going to be more like Star Trek, where no one worries about a paycheck and people are freed up to explore new worlds, or more like Elysium, where a small elite works hard to separate itself from the miserable masses."  (Elysium is the 2013 film starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.)

But one writer sees Star Trek as a viable model: Ric Webb in his essay "Star Trek Economics."  One of his starting points is also the coming robot revolution, but he includes as well the concept of the "post-scarcity economy"--when there is technically enough for everybody.  All economic systems that now exist are based on scarcity, he writes. "Traditional economics, of course, deals with the efficient allocation of inherently scarce materials. Post scarcity economics deals with the economics of economies that are no longer constrained by scarcity of materials — food, energy, shelter, etc."

He also finds that in at least some ways we are already in a post-scarcity world. "But we actually have the capacity to feed them, to feed everyone, even now, even if we don’t have the will. It’s not a matter of scarcity; it’s a matter of the organization of labor and capital."

He finds the existing economic systems--capitalism, communism and their variations--to be inadequate to this post-scarcity future in which a great many humans can't make a living because fewer jobs will exist. "Then I got to thinking. Screw the dodgy world of heterodox economics. Let’s go full-on fantastical and look at sci-fi. There IS actually a model out there that deals fairly realistically with a post scarcity economy. Not only that, it actually takes into account the difficulties of migrating from a capitalist society to a post scarcity society incrementally. It’s not just a theory in a vacuum. It’s called Star Trek."

Webb notes that while the Trekanomic future isn't pure capitalism, it isn't communism either (a charge that gets raised in the perennial debates on various Trek sites.) "The Federation is clearly not a centrally planned economy, and therefore obviously not communist. Individual freedom of choice is very obvious."

After discussing various issues that follow from the Trek dictim that money doesn't exist, he concludes: "Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor."

Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible? I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek."

Webb goes on to discuss a continuing relationship between energy and economic value but his point remains this: "I believe the federation is a proto-post scarcity society evolved from democratic capitalism. It is, essentially, European socialist capitalism vastly expanded to the point where no one has to work unless they want to.

It is massively productive and efficient, allowing for the effective decoupling of labor and salary for the vast majority (but not all) of economic activity. The amount of welfare benefits available to all citizens is in excess of the needs of the citizens. Therefore, money is irrelevant to the lives of the citizenry, whether it exists or not." 

In some sense, Webb suggests, people probably still get paid for their work but  "you take whatever job you want, and your benefits allocations are adjusted accordingly. But by and large you just don’t care, because the base welfare allocation is more than enough."

Webb finds ways within this system to account for Sisko's restaurant, the Picard winery, Quark's bar, latinum, etc.  He summarizes: "The thing I love most about this theory is that it seems plausible for our future."  Money as currency "slowly fades into the background" and "From there, perhaps a cultural shift takes place as we realize that 'everyone in a job' isn’t the same as a full economy, and we start to look for models beyond capitalism that aren’t all communist hoo-ha."  He concludes:

"I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It’s real. It’s a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else." 

It is worth mentioning that Trekonomics, even as vague as it's expressed in the stories, was not just some fairy tale that emerged from GR's wishful thinking.  It was a response to economic discussions that were very current in the 1960s.

For example, one of the people who pointed out that the post-scarcity world already existed was John F. Kennedy, who said so in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 1960, given in a stadium in Los Angeles within miles of where GR lived.  He said so again in some of the first lines of his Inaugural Address, as he expressed the living paradox of the age: "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

In his nomination acceptance speech JFK referred specifically to the "revolution in automation."  Automation was the name given to the changes in industry and other businesses due to robots, the first computers and other machine systems.  It basically meant machines doing what human workers used to do.  Forward-looking economists and others were concerned about where it would lead, and how the economy and society could deal with its effects, chiefly "surplus labor" and the inability of a growing number of people to work and thereby earn a living. Apart from the stark human consequences, this was particularly acute in a consumer economy, which depended on people with money to spend.

One widely discussed partial solution in the mid 1960s came to be known as the "guaranteed income" (also called the Guaranteed Minimum Income and Guaranteed Annual Income.) Economist Robert Theobald, author of Future Conditional, edited a book of essays on the subject in 1966 called The Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution? It advocated the idea from economic, political, institutional and psychological points of view. Psychologist Eric Fromm called the guaranteed income the key to the transition from a pre-human to a fully human society. Other books explored the moral dimensions. We're talking facts and figures, studies and complex argument.

Something like this almost passed Congress during the Nixon administration.  Even today, variations are under discussion, with new names such as the "Citizen's Dividend" and the "Basic Income Guarantee:" " an unconditional, government-insured guarantee that all citizens will have enough income to meet their basic needs." There's a U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network with a website, academic papers and an annual Congress. The 12th was last May in New York (a joint project of Basic Income Canada Network and the U.S. network.) The 13th joint confab is scheduled for June in Montreal, perhaps to prepare a proposal to the Canadian government.

Now there's some question in my mind that the future will remain on a "post-scarcity" track.  Even in Trek, there was a period of chaos before the transformation, with a decrease in human population.  The chief barrier in our future is the climate crisis and its consequences, which could include such dire effects as famine, plagues and nuclear war, up to and including near extinction by the 23rd century, but which will almost certainly disrupt the international economy and the easy access to global resources even in this century.

Still, even without replicators and warp drive, Trekanomics offers not only hope for a better world but a rough blueprint.  And the Trek mythos is so widely known that it is a focus for a real discussion by professionals as well as everyone else on the way forward to a better future.

3 comments:

Adam said...

Fascinating post -- very well argued, and VERY thought provoking.

I remember reading in an interview with Gene Roddenberry that he felt that a great deal of individual potential is currently being wasted because so many people are working in jobs they don't love. And that if people had their basic needs met, they would gravitate towards the work they really wanted to do, and be much more productive workers because they loved what they did. I have heard cynics say that if people were freed from work they would just watch more TV. I'm more optimistic -- I think most people feel a drive to accomplish something, but this drive is beaten out of them over time because they can't take the disappointment of failure in a system that is designed to keep them working for someone else.

Tao - Fortress Geek said...

Funny, was having a discussion with my wife about automation about this and I referenced Star Trek's economy as a hopeful option. I'm not sure it's a viable option, but I'm hoping it is. As more jobs disappear due to automation, we need a model that doesn't require everyone to work and that still feeds everyone.

Captain Future said...

Thanks to both of you for reading through this long post and commenting. Adam, if you check back here, I wonder if you can remember where that Roddenberry interview was.
Tao Fortress Geek, it's heartening that while today's economists seem mostly oblivious or just don't get it, you stated the problem in a sentence.