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Posts Tagged ‘Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek’

It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

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