October 13, 2015

Debating the 'Star Trek' economy

Economists Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong debated aspects of the hypothetical economy of the Star Trek universe at the New York Comic Con this past Sunday.

“I would argue there’s a dark side to the abundance there,” said Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist.

One conundrum: While the “replicators” of “Star Trek’s” future may be able to produce all the food, clothing and other material goods everyone would need, they wouldn’t be able to provide vital services. Probably robots or some other form of artificial intelligence would do that. But if those servitors are sophisticated and intelligent enough for the wide variety of those tasks, aren’t they really sentient beings, and wouldn’t we be enslaving them?

“A world in which you have servitors that give you everything you want is a world in which it’s very hard to tell the difference between those servitors and slaves,” Krugman said.

Krugman is touching on (perhaps not knowingly) the ST: The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man" where it was debated whether Commander Data was a machine or a sentient being with the same rights as everyone else.

In my view, if we develop the technology to make replicators, it's fairly safe to assume that robot-assisted medical technology will be around too -- and by "robot" I don't mean something with the self-awareness of Data.

DeLong says that in Trek society,"people wouldn’t work because they needed to, but because they wanted to." Which is accurate -- in the TNG episode "The Neutral Zone," Picard lectures a thawed-out late-20th century business mogul on how, since material needs are no longer an issue, people strive to "better themselves." Indeed, service in Starfleet seems to be just that.

However, I don't see a substantial number of people willingly putting their lives on the line in the service of Starfleet (granted, it's not an actual military organization, but is equipped to serve as such -- and has to, at times) if they have just about anything they desire for continued leisure right at their fingertips.

Author Manu Saadia says that the "ultra-achieving" one percent is what we see on Star Trek, adding Starfleet would be "a strict meritocracy, 'extremely harsh and cutthroat.'” There is some basis for that assessment; in TNG's "Coming of Age," we see the sort of character testing that would get a company sued for workmen's comp or other injuries/psychological damage today.

It's true that there would be people who would quickly bore of such endless excess relaxation and might want to join up and explore the universe, but really -- would you ... if you could just spend all day in a holodeck with a replicator??

Posted by Hube at October 13, 2015 04:39 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I was never a Star Trek fan but in a universe of largesse the normal would be of boredom which would probably quickly turn to violence and rampant drug use because the inhabitants would want to "just feel something"

Posted by: Arthur at October 13, 2015 05:00 PM

I would. A lot of people are more motivated by accomplishment than gain once they have an acceptable level of provision. A lot are not.

Posted by: David at October 14, 2015 08:30 PM

Referencing star trek without linking to the appropriate SF Debris review? For shame, Hube!

Nah, just kidding, he still hasn't gotten it all reuploaded yet. Which is a shame because a big question of your point on sentience is holograms and Chuck had a video essay on this which seems to still be pending restoration. Anyway, it was examined with TNG's Moriarty and Voyager touched on this with the Doctor and his desire to become an individual while so many "copies" ended up as miners.

Star Trek is always best when it asks the trickier "what if" questions and made us look at ourselves.

Posted by: Nate Winchester at October 16, 2015 10:32 PM

Remember, Commander Sisko's father still ran a Cajun restaurant in New Orleans.

Posted by: Dana at October 17, 2015 09:39 PM

Would he really have done that?? With PITA customers nagging him all the time? ;-)

Posted by: Hube at October 18, 2015 05:09 PM

Don't forget about ol' Barclay. He was a Starfleet officer but so socially awkward and shy that he got lost in holographic fantasies rather than deal with real people.

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