Trekonomics: Where no man has gone before

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In Star Trek’s economy, poverty, hunger and money have all been eliminated. Its portrayal of post-scarcity economics prompts a questioning of fundamental accepted notions around work. By Lee Williams

A famous person once said:

“A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

Unfortunately they were talking about the 24th century, not the 21st, for this was Captain Jean-Luc Picard, commander of the USS Enterprise.

In the Star Trek universe, the Federation – the political union of planets which Picard serves – has eliminated money as well as hunger and poverty. It has essentially solved what is called the ‘economic problem’ – the distribution of scarce resources. It has achieved this mostly through the ‘replicator’, technology that rearranges atoms and molecules to create anything the user desires, from a pork chop to a spare part for the Enterprise (although Picard seems to use it mostly for tea – he takes Earl Grey, hot).

It’s easy to see how a post-scarcity society could come about when everyone has a replicator in their living room, but what about our own world? Can we envisage a time when we have eliminated poverty, hunger, money even?

Some people, like futurist Jack Uldrich, can. They even think it might be just around the corner. Uldrich points to the exponential improvement in computing, robotics, data storage and other technologies, blazing a trail towards a near future of almost unimaginable knowledge and capabilities. Two of the technologies at the vanguard of this charge – and the two best bets for our own version of a replicator – are 3D printers and nanotechnology.

“Both of these trends are real,” says Uldrich. “Just look at the price of 3D printers – ten years ago, $100,000; five years ago, $10,000; two years ago, $1,000. This year a 3D printer is going to be available for $299 in the US.”

It’s not just the price that’s improving but the capability of the technology. There are now 3D printers that can print up to 60 per cent of their own components, according to Uldrich – a short step away from fully self-replicating machines. And it’s not just gloopy bits of plastic these machines are printing. “We’re also learning how to print things out of 160 different types of material,” says Uldrich. “General Electric already has a working model of a 3D printed aircraft engine part. Will that technology stop there? No. It’s going to get better and become more affordable. Is it within the realms of possibility that we could 3D print food in the future? The answer is yes, it’s a theoretical possibility.”

But for Uldrich, it is the convergence of a number of exponentially increasing technologies such as AI, robotics, 3D printing and nanotechnology, that holds the really exciting potential. “Most people agree that Gutenberg’s printing press was a revolutionary device,” he explains. “It changed the arc of human history. But what was Gutenberg’s genius? Not that he created that out of thin air. His genius was that he took four existing technologies – a wine press, moveable type, ink and paper and converged those to create a revolutionary platform. Here’s where seven to nine million people on the planet who suddenly have access to education and diverse ideas come in – some of the things they’re going to come up with are going to blow us away.”

As optimistic as it sounds, Uldrich’s view of human progress might be too conservative according to some. Author and entrepreneur Manu Saadia believes that the post-scarcity society is already upon us. Saadia is the author of ‘Trekonomics’, a guide to the post-scarcity economics of the Star Trek universe. He points out that vast swathes of our economy used to be monetised but now, thanks to technology and the internet, are essentially free. “The greatest thing when I was a kid was my parents saving a lot of money to buy me a ten-volume encyclopedia,” says Saadia. “But today my kid just goes on Wikipedia and that’s free and as good, if not better.”

Another example Saadia gives is GPS. This satellite technology was once super expensive, the preserve only of governments. Now everyone carries a version around on the phone in their pockets, an essentially zero- cost service. The internet is awash with similar services which create hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of value every year essentially for free. “A lot of the economy might be escaping the realm of market exchanges,” says Saadia. “There is an embryo. For a long time, both might co-exist, which is what’s happening now.”

If, as Saadia and Uldrich believe, a post-scarcity world is almost upon us, the most interesting question might not be how it will be achieved, but how we will cope with it. Will we all turn into overweight, out-of-work consumption junkies, lounging around all day, rather like the humans in the Pixar film, ‘Wall-E’?

Saadia doesn’t think so, and here he thinks Star Trek might be prescient for another reason – the people in the post-scarcity Federation still work, they’re still motivated and happy. “What happens in Star Trek,” says Saadia, “is that competition is no longer about the accumulation of wealth and things but it’s about reputation – human capital – the competition is to increase your reputation vis-à-vis other people, to be the number one in your field. Labour will probably end with automation but work will never stop, that’s what Star Trek shows.”

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Photo credit:Kreg Steppe from  Flickr

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