Now, nearly 50 years after the birth of Star Trek, I decided to speak with Manu Saadia, author of his upcoming book Trekonomics. Currently available for pre-order on Inkshares (which you can use Bitcoin to purchase), Trekonomics is Manu’s attempt to help people better understand why the universe of Star Trek is subjected to such a radically optimistic background – that is, to understand the economics behind Star Trek!
“Star Trek does not owe its enduring popularity and its place in our collective imagination to its aliens or to its technological speculations. What makes it so unique, and so exciting, is its radical optimism about humanity’s future as a society: in other words, utopia.” – Manu Saadia
Hello Manu. It’s a pleasure to finally speak with you. Let’s start this off with a question of what it was about Star Trek that caught your interest to the point that it convinced you to write a book about that fictional universe?
Hey B.J. The pleasure is mine. Like most things these days, the idea for the book originated online. Back around November 2013 writer, VC and online marketing guru Rick Webb published an essay on Medium on how the economics of Star Trek would work in real life at some point in the future. This launched a larger online discussion with people like Matt Yglesias (then at Slate) and economics professor Joshua Gans chiming in. As a fan of the show and a lifelong student of science fiction, these were the kind of stuff that had been bouncing around in my head for a long, long time.
Later that year I was having a beer with my next door neighbor. He is not just any neighbor though. His name is Chris Black. He was a writer and co-executive producer on Star Trek: Enterprise. He wrote some of the most gripping and thoughtful episodes of the series (“Carbon Creek” for instance).
So we got to discuss the economics of Star Trek, and whether he knew of a book about the topic, given that everything has been written about Star Trek: religion, philosophy, political science, physics etc. etc. Star Trek writers are the #1 fans of the show. They stay current with the scholarship. Chris mentioned an old book by David Gerrold, writer of “The Trouble With Tribbles,” and one of the greatest scifi masters of his generation (he hosted the Hugos this year). Beyond Gerrold’s, Chris couldn’t think of any substantive book out there that tackled the in-universe economics of Star Trek. So in a nutshell he said ‘why don’t you write it?’ (Not his exact words but you get the idea).
That’s for the anecdote.
The most serious part is that I was a bit dissatisfied by the tenor of the online discussion Rick had started. To his credit he was really trying in earnest to make it work with the policy tools we have now, today. My problem with that approach to the economics of Trek is that it is almost too pragmatic. It is definitely worthwhile and ultimately more correct and potentially fruitful – but on some level it shortchanges the show’s vision. I wanted to take Trek at its own word: where Trek said ‘no money’ then why not try to figure out how that would actually work. Let’s try to make the effort of taking Roddenberry’s and the writers’ and producers’ intent seriously. Especially because Chris had told me that, yes, maintaining the integrity of Roddenberry’s social and economic vision was a huge part of the show’s writing process. The main Starfleet characters could not have petty conflicts precisely because they lived in a world of satiation and economic safety, from the time they were born. Their psychology was fundamentally different from ours because of that. This was really important and enforced in the writers’ room. These were foundational parameters of the show if you will.
Incidentally, that is one of the reasons I’d always been fascinated by the Star Trek: these people all seemed unburdened and happy and rational. This was really an effect and a function of their (fictional) social context. Economics was the only way to explain why Picard and his crew are so damn perfect. In more ways than one, you cannot really make sense of Star Trek, and make sense of your own love of the show, without understanding its economic underpinnings.
So there you have it. That is why I wrote the book. It’s a contribution to fandom lore, a way to give back to the community and the people that have nurtured me throughout my life. It is an acknowledgement and a tribute to people like Chris Black, Roddenberry, Robert Justman, Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Michael Okuda, Dorothy Fontana, David Gerrold, Ira Behr, Ron Moore, etc. etc. It is important to name at least some of them – I am really standing on the shoulders of giants.
Anyone who has ever truly watched Star Trek would notice that one of the most prominent features of its “techno-optimist” universe was its lack of currency, at least in Federation territory. There are currencies introduced elsewhere outside of Federation control, such as Latinum, but we don’t really see much of that until DS9. Would you say that the currency was instead replaced for rank in the Star Trek universe, since it appeared that people were more concerned in building their rank than they were of their financial stability?
First of all, as I explain in the book, the abolition of currency is diegetic. It takes place within the Trek universe’s own chronology. In the Original Series there are mentions of Federation Credits here and there. It’s Nick Meyer and Leonard Nimoy who singlehandedly abolish currency, in STIV: The Voyage Home, at that point Roddenberry had no creative control over the feature films. But he knew a good idea when he saw one. And so he made it into one of the cornerstones of The Next Generation. The absence of currency is kind of the most visible and most immediately striking aspect of TNG‘s Federation. But I think it’s kind of a McGuffin in TV parlance, a narrative misdirection that hides something much more important. It’s not so much the absence of currency in the Federation that really matters, but the absence of work or labor as we understand it today.
That being said, you have to take the absence of money at face value (so to speak). It means two things:
- First, the Federation does not use money as an instrument for price-setting. If you consider that any market is a way to solve imbalances between supply and demand and that prices serve as information signals, then the only logical conclusion is that Star Trek society does not need the signals embedded in prices. It functions with what is called ‘perfect information’ in economics jargon. Society can match supply with demand instantly, without the imperfect mediation of prices. Is that possible in real life? Maybe. If it’s a matter of raw computing power and continuous sensing abilities, from the producer to the final consumer. I am loathe to extrapolate what pervasive networked computing can achieve in the next 50 years.
- Secondly, the absence of money in Star Trek society is also consistent with a world where most things have no monetary value. Think about it this way: if you have replicators that can make almost anything on demand, from medicine to food to clothing and toys, it’s really hard to conduct any form of purely economic activity which involves constraining supply or extracting monopoly rents on scarce goods. Note, however, that in the hands of the Ferengis, replicators are in effect cash or rather Latinum ATMs – i.e. free money. So this also suggests that, at some point, there was a deliberate political decision, within the Federation, to turn replicators into non-rival, non-excludable public goods. In that sense Star Trek‘s vaunted post-scarcity appears to be a policy choice rather than a natural consequence of technological progress. And therefore you could argue that Star Trek‘s supposed technological optimism is above all political.
Do you believe this kind of space-venturing, post-capitalist society will be how our own future will develop, economically speaking?
Personally I go with the show: I think it’s a matter of policy and political choice rather than an issue of technology. It’s equally plausible that we may end up in a world that more closely resembles what Neil Stephenson described in The Diamond Age – where machines similar to replicators exist but the designs, the apps if you will, are controlled by a minority.
Would you say that you’re hoping your book will somehow inspire people to start thinking about the future in a more Star Trek-ish way – in terms of optimism, philosophy, technology, etc. – or is your intention elsewhere?
When you write science fiction or about science fiction, you inevitably invite speculation. You try to shift readers’ perspectives. You try to present alternates and prototypes. That is what got me into scifi as a kid. Scifi is the literature of change – that’s how Asimov described it. It may be our best analytical toolbox to understand the world we live in, our own collectively-generated social reality. Our everyday cognitive experience is one of constant change. It’s what Alvin Toffler famously called ‘future shock’ – a state of mental paralysis in the face of an overload of external stimulation. So that is what I am trying to do, first for myself, and hopefully for the readers.
Also keep in mind that Star Trek is very anomalous in all of science fiction. It goes against the main strain, the post-apocalyptic and the dystopian. Star Trek is anti-Victorian, anti-Frankenstein. It’s very unique (Asimov is the other main proponent of that type of scifi, and Asimov exerted a direct and profound influence on Star Trek).
So Star Trek deserves a hearing. It can tell us stuff about the world that we rarely hear from science fiction and popular culture in general. It can help us to better understand our own condition, which I believe is above all determined by how the market economy functions. I have no real agenda beyond that.
I mean in truth I am fairly pessimistic about our prospects. For instance, the challenges of managing global negative externalities such as CO2 pollution are largely intractable. It’s the kind of problems of global governance that cannot be solved without adverse effects to many, many people and economic and State actors. We are probably in for a rough ride, and even more so for those of us who did not have the luck to be born in a rich and democratic country.
On a personal level, I also wrote the book to fight off fear and depression. It is very unlikely we will avoid 3 degrees of warming in the next century. That means Miami and Bangladesh, among others, will be under water. Wiped out. Global warming is like nuclear war without the nukes. There’s no technological singularity or trans- or post- humanism that will change that. We can install as many solar panels and wind turbines as we want, and we should! Hell, we may even stumble upon fusion in the coming decades. But the fact remains that we are already on a path to 3 degrees of warming. The weight of the past is already baked into the future. Hopefully we can find ways to mitigate these coming dislocations. And good economic policy can indeed move mountains. But Star Trek? On a good day, I have some hope. But when you spend time researching these things, there are very few good days.
In many ways, we’re heading towards a Star Trek future. Most of that universe occurred in the 24th century, but a lot of the technology we saw in that universe has either already been created or is in the process of being created within the 21st century! What do you think that entails for our future and how might you envision it for the 24th century – economically, socially, etc.?
This is something I’ve been wrestling with. I believe the 24th century will look like Deep Space 9. There will be portions of humanity that live in opulent, rational and well-governed political entities. It might not be the U.S., by the way. It is more likely to be located around China, Korea, Japan and the Russian Far East. Say, Khabarovsk and the Sea of Okhotsk – if only because of climate change. And then there will be competing powers, some obsessed with making profits like the Ferengis, other authoritarian like the Cardassians, and others religious fanatics like the Dominion. In a sense, the future may look a lot like the present. Think about it this way: today’s dominant countries are very much the same as 300 years ago. The U.S. come out of England and Northern Europe, and China and India were the biggest economic powers in the world up until the 19th century. If you take the long view, you have to admit that political and economic power have huge inertia. Change over time is very gradual. At least that’s my opinion.
The other thing is space, the final frontier, etc. I don’t really buy that part: by the end of this century I think it is projected that 80% of humanity will live in cities. There is a reason for that.
The benefits of urbanization are just too enormous to pass up. Historically, cities and networks of the cities have been the engines of growth and progress. There’s a spatial logic at work here: easy and safe communications between densely populated urban areas foster exchanges of goods, of people, and of ideas. So settling a far away colony on Mars or a bunch of habitats in orbit is not a recipe for prosperity for these space-based outposts. Without fast and reliable means of exchange, I don’t see how these settlements could take full advantage of the network effects and of the endogenous dynamism of Earth’s great cities. As economist Robin Hanson hinted in a famous paper, autarky does not work. It never has and it never will. So maybe we’ll build space elevators like those described by Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars Trilogy. That is how he disposes of the problem of autarchical development – you’ll notice though that he was very aware of it.
I think we have enough on our plate already. I think colonizing the solar system might be inspiring as a vision, but it’s largely misguided. The starship is Earth.
Lastly, as we ask everyone we interview, is there any final advice that you’d like to give to our readers?
If you’re fascinated by the future, read as much history and economic history as you can. That’s why so many economists are science fiction fans. It’s not about the gadgets or the technology. It’s about the analytical framework – mostly, economics – that allows you to understand how society reacts to technological change. Economics and science fiction have the same objective: extrapolate plausible future outcomes from the empirical observation of present and past social processes. And if I were to give a few names off the top of my head: Braudel, Fogel, Kuznets, Polanyi, Pomerantz, Schumpeter, Smil.
Photo Credit: Star Trek