Money is one of humanity’s most clever and enduring technologies. It is a brilliant way of transferring value across vast distances and decentralizing our economy. Barter makes sense on a hyperlocal, neighbourly scale, but you can’t run a vast industrial economy on it. As Niall Ferguson chronicles in his excellent The Ascent of Money, increases in numismatic sophistication were vital in increasing the range of trade and our abilities to innovate and provide services to citizens. So it seems a foregone conclusion that we are stuck with money, that we’ll never be rid of it. Yet Star Trek, particularly in its 24th century form, proposes to do just that, at least within the Federation. Trekonomics is Manu Saadia’s attempt to understand how (or even whether) this could work. This is not a deep examination of the workings of the Federation’s economy itself, so much as a meditation on how we might apply the ideas of trekonomics to our own policy-making. In so doing, Saadia follows in the footsteps of Trek itself, which is not about presenting viable predictions of the future of our species but telling stories about our species in the present.
Saadia’s timing could not be better. Obviously, the book is coming out during the fiftieth anniversary year of Star Trek. On a wider note, this book is quite pertinent to conversations happening around the world with regards to the economy and work. As automation, in the form of algorithms and robots, replaces many jobs once done by humans, and as an aging workforce retires slowly, younger people are left to wonder exactly what they’re meant to be doing when it comes to work. Holding down a career for life is not a realistic option for many of us. The world of work is changing, thanks both to changes in technology and policy. It behoves us, therefore, to examine our assumptions about capitalism and consider what alternatives might be available to us.
Trekonomics works because the Federation is a post-scarcity society. That is, everything that one might need to survive is available in abundance, at practically zero cost. The replicator is the poster child of post-scarcity and, of course, is a sufficient condition for a post-scarcity society. Saadia is quick to point to contemporary 3D printing as an example of proto-replicator technology (and no, he’s not saying we’ll inevitably have actual replicators, but 3D printing itself is pretty darn amazing). However, he makes a salient observation towards the end of the book that leaves us with a lot to think about: in Star Trek, the replicator comes last. It is the culmination of Federation progress. It’s not present in the 23rd century, where humanity is already well on its way to post-scarcity and the enlightenment that supposedly accompanies it. In other words, the replicator is sufficient but not necessary, and Saadia argues it is the result of other developments rather than the cause of those changes.
This is central to Saadia’s thesis: technology alone is not enough to tip us over into a money-less, post-scarcity utopia. Saadia does not put much store in the Singularity or the idea that technology is somehow inherently liberating or democratizing. He notes the massive potential of technologies like the Internet, but he points out that it is only a force for good if we make it so. He cites GPS and the Internet both as examples of positive externalities, public goods provided by the US government at not extra cost. GPS is an excellent example, because it’s something that has so quickly become embedded in our everyday actions. Yet the US government could easily just turn the system off.
Technology alone is not enough. Its advancement must be accompanied by progressive policies. In particular, Saadia points to eliminating poverty as a crucial step towards a trekonomics future. Poverty actually changes people’s behaviour. Saadia observes that there is a clear difference between the behaviour of the 23rd century Starfleet officers and the 24th century ones, with the latter all acting more like Spock—more rational, more civilized, more fair-minded. I happen to be watching an episode of TNG as I write this: “Force of Nature”, S07E09, which Saadia uses as the example of this. Picard and the crew are eminently rational, able to consider possibilities that undermine their beliefs in the harmlessness of the Enterprise’s mission of exploration, simply because it is their job to keep an open mind.
Saadia contends that as our technologies and policies improve our access to necessities like food, healthcare, and decrease our need to work, this will actually change our behaviour and outlook as a species. This might seem strange at first, because there is a very romantic notion that humans are humans are humans across all of time and space and that we somehow possess an intangible, indomitable spirit that will never be altered or crushed by our circumstance. But it has happened before. Our transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies, culminating in urbanization, has changed the way we think and act and operate. As Saadia puts it, “culture is our killer app.” It is itself a technology that we can innovate and iterate through policy and philosophy.
If I haven’t commented much on Saadia’s exposition of the economics of the Federation or other species, it’s simply because there isn’t much in here that is new to me. When you’ve watched Star Trek as much as I have, you’re pretty familiar with it from all angles. Saadia speaks of the shows in the cadence of a rugged fan like myself, off-handedly but accurately summarizing entire species’ contributions to the show or whole themes of episodes. If you choose to read this book for no reason more than that you like Trek, you still can’t go wrong. Saadia keeps the economic terms light; indeed, I suspect that anyone with the more-than-passing knowledge of economics that I possess would be able to offer a deeper critique of those aspects.
Still, Trekonomics is not meant to be expositional so much as aspirational. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the otherwise somewhat indulgent chapter on the science-fictional influences on Star Trek. Saadia uses Star Trek to point to how we can explicitly envision and shape our own future. This is an empowering idea, but it is not a foregone conclusion that we can make such a change. To be sure, even with advances in technology, it will be a long time before we can get rid of money. I think it’s very easy to be sceptical that we will ever reach that point, to be worried about free riders, etc., in such a system. But we need to recognize that this scepticism is an internalized artifact of growing up within capitalism. That doesn’t guarantee that we can successfully replace capitalism with something else—but given capitalism’s flaws, I don’t see that we have any other moral option than to try. Treknomics is a passionate, Trek-filled reminder that we are capable of doing better. If we want to.