Steering toward the post-economic Trekonomics of Star Trek
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Manu Saadia’s book, Trekonomics, edited for style and format.
We owe a lot to Star Trek. Star Trek has made the world a better place. You cannot say that of many other TV or film franchises. As far as changing the world goes, Star Trek stands alone.
Star Trek famously inspired Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola to create the first cell phone, because he wanted a personal communication device that would work just like Captain Kirk’s. Star Trek: The Next Generation showed the first instance of software-defined, touch-sensitive contextual user interface, also known in plain English as the iPhone. Ion propulsion, telepresence, portable diagnostic sensors, non-invasive medical imaging and surgery, transparent aluminium, natural language human-computer interaction and translation, cybernetic prosthetic implants: The list of Star Trek speculative technologies that turned into real-world innovations goes on and on and on.
It never ceases to amaze me that mere TV entertainment, and of a sub-genre widely regarded as juvenile, if not downright unserious, could spur such world-altering feats of engineering. And that is before even considering the most profound of all Star Trek speculations, the one thing that has gotten the least attention by virtue of being the most obvious, and because it is much harder to recreate in a lab or to release as a product.
I am talking about Star Trek’s vision of a future that is at once tolerant, egalitarian, rational and altruistic. I am talking about the economic system that makes Star Trek society so appealing and thought-provoking that all fans, more or less, secretly long to time-warp to the 24th century: Trekonomics for short.
Trekonomics is a rather perplexing form of economics because, in the Star Trek universe, most if not all of the real-world necessities that condition economic behaviors are, well, no longer necessities. That is why trekonomics is post-economic. In Star Trek, currency has become obsolete as a medium for exchange; labor cannot be distinguished from leisure; universal abundance of almost any goods has made the pursuit of wealth irrelevant; superstition, crime, poverty and ill health have been eradicated. For all intents and purposes, the Federation is a paradise. As Captain Jean-Luc Picard tells Ralph Offenhouse, a denizen of the 20th century awoken from his cryogenic (and philosophical) slumber by the Enterprise crew: “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” (ST:TNG 1x26, “The Neutral Zone”).
The term ‘economy’ comes from the Greek ‘oikos,’ which means ‘house’ or ‘household,’ and ‘nomia’ which means ‘rules.’ Economics is therefore the ‘rules of the household’ or household management and by extension, the art and science of managing, producing and exchanging resources as a society.
Simply put, economics exists because goods and resources are never in infinite supply. As a result, both individuals and society as a whole must make choices regarding the allocation of said limited goods and resources. These choices can be made through multiple mechanisms such as prices, markets or central planning. But form or system notwithstanding, the fateful fact remains that choices have to be made. This is precisely what John Maynard Keynes called “the economic problem” or, in the words of another famous Englishman: you can’t always get what you want.
The point is, despite our many achievements, we have yet to overcome the existential problem of resource allocation and subsistence. We have mitigated it through technological advances, and made it much less of an immediate, literal concern through markets and trade. But we haven’t solved the quandary of rational distribution and universal access to what Aristotle tersely called the good life.
So why does trekonomics matter so much? Because it’s all about change. Good science fiction like Star Trek can be great fun. Yet, at the same time, it is deadly serious. Its central purpose is to explore the changes that lie ahead of us. What are the economic, social and even psychological consequences of technological change? What will happen to us humans in a world that runs on automata?
In that respect, I believe there is a lot at stake in the discussion of the economics of Star Trek. Science-fiction and economics share an oft-overlooked kinship. Both are preoccupied with change, and predictions about change. The future is their province, but not just any future: the future of society. One approaches it through mathematical tools, the other through narrative flourish. Both, however, derive their conclusions from careful observation of the world as it is. And both usually fail. As Nils Bohr once said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. But the very manner in which they fail is what makes them both so interesting.
Economics is the one single area of the Star Trek canon where full suspension of disbelief is not required. I’d go as far as to propose that all Star Trek technological wizardry and technobabble amount to is a McGuffin—a massive narrative misdirection. They handsomely reward the audience’s suspension of disbelief because they are as compelling and fun as they are totally impossible. By pushing the envelope on the squarely impossible, Star Trek makes it that much less difficult for the audience to accept and take for granted the part of it that is, in fact, possible: economics or rather, trekonomics. Replicators, transporters, warp drive? Not a chance—nope, zero, zilch, nada, nil. No one would love it more than me to be proven wrong on these ones, but the energy required to bend the basic laws of physics is exponentially higher than the effort necessary to steer humanity towards trekonomics. As a practical goal, trekonomics is just much more attainable than faster-than-light travel.
To me, the greatest sense of wonder I experience from Star Trek comes not from the warp drive, the stars, new life and new civilizations, but from its depiction of an uncompromisingly humanist, galaxy-spanning utopian society. It is that very same sense of wonder about our potential for social and economic improvement that got me into science-fiction in the first place.