I just finished reading a book called Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. As the name suggests, it’s look at the economics portrayed in Star Trek’s science fiction world.
Now I’ve read a number of books like the popular Philosophy of… series that purport to analyze the ideas and themes of works of genre fiction, and quite frankly most of them are fluff. They seem like the kind of thing where a publisher said, Hey, this series has a fanbase that’ll buy content. Let’s pay a few professors to slap together some Subject 101 essays that are vaguely related to the most popular scenes and catchphrases. And, sure, I’ll buy that kind of thing sometimes when I’m in the mood for something light. But Trekonomics is a book of a higher order.
You can tell that Saadia is not only a serious fan who knows the canon very well, but also an economist seriously interested in exploring the concept of a post-scarcity society like the one in Star Trek. He asks questions about how a society and human motivations function when everyone’s material needs are met, what becomes valuable and worthwhile when no one needs to ever work, and whether our own real world civilization is ever likely to become such a utopia. Star Trek is of course a singularly optimistic and thoughtful body of work, and Saadia digs deep into what it has to say about our future and our present.
So this book has had me thinking a lot about the idea of post-scarcity, something I’ve long believed is on the horizon for humanity and something that has the potential to upend everything about the way our society works, very possibly for the better. But one of the really interesting points that the book makes is that we, at least in the first world, in many ways already live in a post-scarcity economy.
Simply put, things are cheap; much, much cheaper than ever before. Food is abundant. I’ve often heard it said that we produce enough food to feed everyone if we would only distribute it properly. And while I don’t know the statistics to be confident that the statement is strictly true, I do know that the last bit, for our society, is the rub. How do we get from having enough to go around to actually sharing it around to everyone? One potential answer is that as the cost of everything trends toward zero, the problem will simply evaporate along with the price tags, but I doubt it will be quite so simple.
Another bit of media I finished recently was a short edutainment series from the BBC called Turn Back Time. The show follows a number of families as they attempt to run high street businesses as they would have operated across a series of historical eras, from the Victorian era through the nineteen-seventies.
I’m a big fan of any kind of living history television program, and this one isn’t necessarily a standout in most ways. But one really interesting aspect of the show is that real modern day shoppers patronize the high street shops, getting a glimpse of what it was like to be a consumer in different time periods. This relationship between shop and shopper, supply and demand is fascinating.
As the show moves through the eras, you get to see how that relationship changes, and the way mass production, standardization, and mechanization supplant community, personal service, and the hand-made. The funny thing is that everyone, shopkeepers and customers alike, laments the loss of those things, but nobody wants to give up the convenience or the price that mass production brings.
So again, mass production and the cost of goods inching ever further downward as technology and civilization pay their dividends. But the incentives of the nineteenth century, to make money and to accumulate goods at the cost of all else, are unchanged and community suffers.
So what’s the through-line here? What am I trying to distill? I suppose it’s the idea that progress is complicated, that the arc of our economic, industrial, and technological history has blundered forward, driven by the forces of capitalism. And while the benefits have been overwhelmingly good in many, many ways, the process itself is unseeing and aimless. Not every outcome is good, and not every good outcome goes where it is needed the most. The invisible hand isn’t the only hand you need at the wheel. But maybe, just maybe, with the right nudges from all of us, the Star Trek future might not be as far off as it might seem.