Friday, March 27, 2009

The Economics of Star Trek

James R. Rummel points out that in the Star Trek universe, there is no money:

That always struck me as being exceedingly odd, particularly when I noticed that people were serving drinks in the space station saloons, and generally doing scut work. What motivated these people to get out of bed and work as servants every day, anyway? Where did the ambition to excel and become a starship captain come from? Why would anyone put on a red shirt and accompany the bridge crew as part of an away team?

Don't think I let this bother me too much. It was just entertainment, after all, and I didn't think it would stand up to too much scrutiny. If it bothered me at all, I just figured that the science of psychology had advanced so far by the time the Star Trek society rolled around that people were conditioned from birth to give their best, even if they didn't get any direct reward from their efforts.

And in a follow-up post, he expands upon this theme regarding the moral corruption that would result from a holodeck:

What would it take to condition someone to the point that they wouldn't want to simply spend all their time in the holodeck, running Roman Orgy v1.0? The methods to alter a human's natural desires to the point that they would shun such fleshly delights in order to strive to contribute to society essentially would warp them into something that I wouldn't even recognize as human anymore.

I left a comment to the effect of my usual interpretation of the economics of Star Trek: they were unrealistic, as they eliminated the first law of economics -- scarcity. Thanks to the replicator, there is virtually no need to manufacture anything. Although there were a few objects, such as latinum or yamok sauce, that could not be replicated, there was essentially nothing that your replicator could not provide for you -- including more replicators.

Commentor Dove took me to task for this assessment:

The higher and less obvious: patterns, designs, inventions. Dropping the cost of manufacturing to zero would do for tinkerers what dropping the cost of distrubution to zero (internet again) has done for writers. You wouldn't see stagnation. You'd see an explosion. The internet didn't leave us merely happy that we could finally get free porn and games. Perhaps for the first little bit, but then it turned tons of people into writers and public intellectuals who otherwise would have led private lives. So it would go with replicators. We might be content with the free food at first, but not forever. Soon we'd be giddy about the ability to design, say, our own working model train sets.

I found this at least partially persuasive. The manufacturing sector might disappear, save for those few items which cannot be replicated, or those protected by replication from proprietary claims, but the maintenance of such machinery and the creative sector would only expand. Tom Paris, for example, became a successful holonovel author. Although early Trek suggested that computers could do all of the necessary creative work, Trek did move away from this position and the ability to create entertaining and effective holoprograms became a prized -- and therefore scarce -- skill.

Likewise for manufacturing. Although a replicator could create anything which already existed, it could not create anything original. And this scarcity would fuel human desire to possess it.

There's no real bottom to human greed for more. More stuff, more experiences, more more. After all, we Americans live in a society where a person with home air conditioning and cable TV is considered poor. This would have been an absurd position fifty years ago.

If members of a society can have any common object in unlimited quantities due to replicator technology, or experience anything ordinary in a holodeck, they will begin to crave the uncommon and extraordinary -- and will be willing to work to earn the money (or credits) necessary to purchase them.

Alternately, there could even be a manufacturing economy for illegal products, such as narcotics (which might be programmed out of replicators) or holodeck programs of highly questionable taste.

Star Trek was not entirely consistent in depicting this economic universe, where there were merchants for everything, from self-sealing stem bolts to clothing. There are some items which cannot be replicated, and occasionally there are energy limitations on replicator systems. But this can be excused for the sake of good storytelling.

I would like to note that although I am coming around to Dove's point of view, we are approaching it from different directions:

On the whole, I think the view that humanity consists of gluttons and hedonists who would do nothing but eat, sleep, and have sex all day if we could get away with it is pessimistic and ultimately degrading. That's an all right vacation, but nobody actually wants that life. We are not our lusts, or not entirely. We are our ambitions, too. Self-discipline and achivement can be expected of us.

Actually, I think that a lot of people, particularly in the first generation of such technology, would do nothing but eat, sleep, and have sex all day if there were no economic incentive to get out, work, and achieve great things.

Quick: how many of you would quit your jobs if you suddenly won $100 million in a lottery? I would, and I have a great job right now. I might follow other ambitions, like get a Ph.D. or get back into art, but in the absence of bills stacking up, I probably wouldn't work as hard to achieve these things.

I've had days that were bad enough that, if given a choice, I'd walk into a holodeck and never leave. And I bet that a lot of other people would do likewise. Dove is too optimistic about human ambition.

Other articles on the economics of Star Trek:
The Marxism of Star Trek
Star Trek and Money
The Political Economy of Star Trek
Eidelblog: Star Trek economics


rocksalive777 said...

The replicators also seem to be limited by size. Assuming the largest replicator was the size of the Empire State Building and had enough power, it would be limited to producing something the size of a Constitution-class ship.

Anything larger would require assembly, which means workmen would be required.

Labor, both in assembling star ships and day-to-day maintenance of the computers, would remain scarce, and perhaps the basis for the economy.

No, what I'm more worried about is the androids. They, if anything, would have been the ones to destroy the economy.

John said...

Excellent point, Rocksalive. A replicator could build parts for a larger implement, but not assemble them.

Of course, one might be able to place the replicated materials in a holographic matrix and let holograms assemble them. Late in Voyager, the Federation was domestically producing portable holographic generators (such as the Doctor's kinsmen slaving away in mines).

Then it would simply be necessary to tell the computer to create holograms to assemble the components.

And then someone needs to program that powerful computer. Which produces scarcity, and therefore demand for unusual computer programming skills.

Of course, that's fairly late in Trek, and human assembly was the norm for the bulk of The Next Generation and DS9 eras.

I wonder how much of the holographic worker market was fueled simply by the Federation's staggering losses in the Dominion War.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, the entire Star Trek Universe is just a holodeck simulation.

Less flippantly, "Singularity Sky" by Charles Stross is a great story that deal with the matter (ha!) of matter replicators, although he calls them "cornucopia machines", which is an awesome name for such a device.


striatic said...

there probably is no "scut work" in the federation.

the people who are serving drinks would just be the types of people who want to be as social as possible, with as many people as possible, and working in a bar affords them the opportunity.

the aura of the "real" would still be compelling. plenty of people of means in our contemporary times purchase works of art because they possess an aura of the unique and authentic.

that's something difficult to create artificially in a holodeck, be it an object or a social interaction.

human imagination needs to be provoked and inspired, and that wouldn't happen in a holodeck only world. it'd grow as stagnant and predictable and boring as television. at some point people want something original.

living in the holodeck might be fun at first, but eventually it would be more boring and more predictable than going out into space and finding unknown, surprising things. that's where the real rush, the real addiction would be.

the reason most characters on star trek aren't addicted to the holodeck [although it is implied that some, like Barclay, are] is because the addiction to the unknown and thrill of discovery is more compelling.

Anonymous said...

I think that if you work for Star Fleet, you get access to the best housing, and get to use holodecks. I'm not sure that everyday people even get access to them. Who knows though.

Anonymous said...

I think the scarcity issue is still part of the equation. There are only a few holodecks (one or two) on the Enterprise-Galaxy class. And the crew was huge. Time had to be scheduled. And that included simulations that were actually needed for the ship's actual work. Same with replicators. There were a lot of them, but they were really small. Voyager implied that they required a lot of power and that mean more anti-mater for the reactors - again scarcity. There will always be something people need/want that is scarce.

Anonymous said...

Finally, someone with a BRAIN talking about this stuff. I've often thought about those problems myself.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem here is the assumption that the human race is mired in its basest desires of greed, money, sex etc. The way we behaved 1000 years ago is not how we behave today and it won't be the way we behave in 1000 more years.

Can we try to believe that we get rid of a lot of our problems by finally remembering the bad behavior that caused bad results and evolve so that we could use the holodeck as a pleasant diversion away from the enriching lives that work provides?

If you want to think about economics in today's terms you're going to get today's answers of greed and corruption.

Frankly, I like the idea that humans will grow so tired of what greed begets us and end up with a more enlightened race. Shame we can't evolve more quickly...

Anonymous said...

To the earlier comments:

With replicators replicating replicators to assemble the parts to a large item would this not be in a way what the borg have become? They are all virtually cogs to a machine that works simultaneously, and eventually with all the replicators they would need a CPU. Sooooo maybe Borg are a future view and result of humans.

Sam said...

There was an episode where the dealt with holodeck addiction in TNG. You can see how society treats you if you become addicted to the holodeck and how it really limits what you are able to do and achieve.

James R. Rummel said...

Anonymous left a comment...

"I think part of the problem here is the assumption that the human race is mired in its basest desires of greed, money, sex etc. The way we behaved 1000 years ago is not how we behave today and it won't be the way we behave in 1000 more years."

The only difference between then and now is technology. Any serious student of history will tell you that we haven't changed, just the methods used.

"If you want to think about economics in today's terms you're going to get today's answers of greed and corruption."

So there isn't any greed and corruption in todays world?


Anonymous said...

There was always 'Better Than Life' in Red Dwarf

Anonymous said...

The main article makes the assumption that people work for monetary reward alone.

People are by nature social beings. At one point during our evolution, being an outcast meant certain death. Barring a few outliers, we have been conditioned for millenia to seek approval and social power. In our society, money grants both and may have arisen as a symbol of work done for the community. Granted, some people will abandon power for approval or approval for power, but the rule still applies.

In a society lacking the symbol of social investment and sway that currency has become, one could only gain social approval and power via their achievements or cunning. Remaining competitive also remains important, as there are still jobs that need to be done in the Star Trek universe and rejection from those would probably garner as much stigma as getting fired does today.

Jessica said...

As a life-long trekkie I admit the show is extremely unrealistic and there are a couple of short-comings such as when they are traveling through space at warp speed how they don't hit anything? It's hard to create alaternate universe without running into a couple (or a lot) of mistakes.

I'm not sure but I seem to remember that the replicators run off of rashens of some sort. I think it's just meant to reassemble material the ship already posesses into a form something more desired. So... it's not really creating anything out of thin air, it's just reassembling it. Like a dishwasher washing dishes for you- only it assembles proteins for food and material for items etc...

In Voyager the captain becomes romantically involved with a fictional man on the holodeck. At the end of the episode she realizes that this isn't nearly as satisfying as human contact- which I think was a way in which the creators of the show wanted to get the point across that the holodeck is meant for entertainment, not as a replacement and while some people might be more enthusiastic it is in no way a replacement for anything especially human contact. I would compare it to role play video games.

Anyway- interesting post. There's so much to work with between the books and shows and even the movies however disappointing they may be to some trekkies. You can look at things like this from different points of view:

1.) something to be enjoyed and not over thought.

2.) something to inspire thought and individual imagination/ creativity in answering unanswered questions.

3.) something to be critisized and torn apart as being a realistic scientific proposal which should be challenged and dismissed.

haha good luck :)

Urbane Legend said...

The existence of the replicator in the Star Trek universe presents serious problems to the whole enterprise (no pun inteded. Well, OK, maybe). Any culture suffiently advanced enough to be able to synthesize materials in such a fashion would not need to build spaceships or weapons. The replicator sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of Trek tech.

Anonymous said...

Interesting enough issue, but what has always bothered me the most is the transporter technology.

It disassembles down to the atomic level and then reassembles you elsewhere.

Surely such technology could be used to eliminate disease and aging? Simply scan a person in, isolate disease changes based on previous healthy patterns, replace, rebuild. Same thing for aging.

The only thing that might pose a problem would be dealing with brain issues, wince reverting to previous brain patterns would destroy memories.....

Anarkissed said...

Truly no healthy human chooses to sit idle for long. Pleasures once they become commonplace begin to pale and take their place alongside other activities. Consider the person in an ice cream or candy shop who still enjoys candy but rarely in fact partakes of it. I am certain there will always be persons (I'm one of them) who take pleasure in making things clean and nice again after the rafts of humanity have flooded through and left their mess behind. I had such a job and my compensation was insufficient to impell me to work. Rather it was the pleasure of setting things right coupled with knowing I was needed. When the people after whom I cleaned stopped showing me respect and instead treated me as though I were lower in social status, that is when I quit. Without cleaners people soon discover just how lowly they themselves are, surrounded by their own produced filth. Then someone comes along who's actually willing to take the time and effort to make things nice again, and they appreciate that person, thank them, and smile to see them. After some years pass and the memory of what it was before has faded, they begin instead to see the scut worker as less because of the nature of the work. That is when better pay may be the only way to retain such workers. In the future perhaps we'll have learned to teach people a more egalitarian outlook and to appreciate even the garbage men, grease monkeys and toilet scrubbers as persons of value. They are the wheels upon which civilization glides, after all.

Nik said...

When I come home from my job of developing software, I start developing software. For free, that is. Look at the whole free software movement. Thanks to the internet replication and distribution is essentially free. But that is not enough to get developers to stop working. The status quo is never good enough, and man wants to create. The only difference is, we don't strive for cheaper products anymore, only for better ones.

If I won the lottery right now, I'd certainly quit my job. But I wouldn't quit my profession. I'd just work on software that interests me more.

Of course, there is a large number of people that would do nothing with their lives. (Guess what, there already are!) But I'd bet there is a large number of people who like (or almost like) their jobs. They would gladly do it even if they're rich, maybe just on their terms, with fewer hours, less labor and a different boss.

What motivates already rich CEO workaholics? Wikipedia contributers? Blood donors? Doctors Without Borders?

Anonymous said...

Its sad that you can't imagine a world where people are not motivated by money. Money is the least motivating thing for me. It is however a limiting thing. With no limits imposed by money then I could do so much more, there would be no end of things I'd want to do, and if I could do them I would. Whether its learning or creating, helping others.

That said people are different, there may be those who would just decide to be lazy just have sex and relax. And they may well exist in the Star Trek universe just the show doesn't focus on them. Instead it focuses on those who are motivated to do stuff. So in the Star Trek Universe I'd be a captain of a star ship and you'd be a earther living a pointless life of hedonism. Which existance is more valid? Who would make that choice?

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that no one dared utter the word "communist" but kept going on about how humans can transcend their greed.

There would still be an economy after replicators. You need someone to make replicators, you need someone to maintain them and even then, the show ignores such things as "would it cost more energy to replicate a loaf of bread than to make it the old way?". As a proud proponent of ignoring science for the sake of story, Star Trek does not seem to bother with this problem.

Guess what people, America's favourate sci-fi vision of the future is written by a communist!

Just take a look at the show. There is no money. The Federation's government is strong and effects people's daily lives. You easily got Picard to rant off about the absolution of possessions.

Take a look at this article: it examines the show trough the communist manifesto.

This is from a person that comes from an ex-communist country. I don't hate Star Trek, I have no love lost for communism, but come on people, stop blabbing about transcending greed and selfishness and realize what's really going on.

Unknown said...

I certainly do not have as complex ideas as the people who have previously commented on this post before, but I always saw the holodeck as an extension of video gaming; therefore, there are people who can take and leave video games, and there are those become addictive (like Barclay).

I can't say that I've seen that much Trek but holodeck time always seems limited - I imagine there aren't enough holodecks to go round. And in terms of working for money, I can only go on what I've seen on DS9; but there is definitely some idea of profit there, not just for the Ferengi but also for those working for them.

Unknown said...

It is true that dropping the cost of manufacturing to zero would do for tinkerers what dropping the cost of distrubution to zero (internet again) has done for writers.
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Anonymous said...

Star Trek is always going to be a lightweight universe that contradicts itself too much to stand up to any scrutiny of this depth. If you want a proper discource on life in a post-scarcity utopia that deals with absolutely every aspect of every point raised in this blog, read the "Culture" series of novels by Iain M Banks.

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Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one brought up that after few hundred years of parents cherry picking genetic traits, maybe there was only people left that were in their dna motivated to learn and succeed without immediate monetary reward.

I have a video on my youtube that shows an implant, existing today, that will activate the pleasure center of the brain of a rat. The video shows the operator first showing a route through a maze and then the operator controlling the real living rat through the pre-defined course.

The point is, brain traits could be through long perioid of cherry picking be altered in such way that the human pleasure center could get as strongly activated from say cleaning the toilet as having sex.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't quit my job, but I'd certainly adjust my parameters of acceptable behavior and time invested. Have you ever been out of work -- involuntarily -- for a long period of time? To some of us, it's maddening.

"There's no real bottom to human greed for more."

Calling that phenomenon human "greed" is a bit too cynical for me. How about human drive? Greed carries with it negative, counter productive connotations that you can't honestly attribute to everyone who continues to strive for new experiences and material property in their lives. The ethical foundation of your means of acquisition separate greed from this other driving force, call it what you will.

Just remember: as upsetting as it may be at times, we should really appreciate that not everyone thinks, acts, or does as we do.

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Anonymous said...

Is anyone paid to write here? Why in gods name would you guys work and create articles and comments if you were not paid to do so?
Imagine telling a caveman that in the future there will be no "need" to spend a day fishing like he does, but some people will do it anyway not to survive but just for fun.
People have volunteered to make amateur movies, free tutorials, Flash games, theres more volunteering that we consider and we should consider that most people do this in spare time! Imagine if no one had to work 40 some hours a week (because you can get most of what you need with a replicator) there would be massive amounts of projects and people working on stuff they like. Also it would be possible for many people to work part time on what used to be a single full time job. Some people might want to tend the bar every now and then to meet people, and if not enough people do you can have a self service(replicator) bar or for an old fashion retro theme an android could tend the bar. And there would be tons of people to redesign processes or create android programs to make most tedious jobs obsolete in my opinion.

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Deana Johnson said...

The reason most characters on star trek aren't addicted to the holodeck [although it is implied that some, like Barclay, are] is because the addiction to the unknown and thrill of discovery is more compelling.
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Mr. Christopher said...

It is difficult to dispute that, in the real Star Trek future, all thirty-year-old males may well be living in their mothers' basements, enjoying an endless orgy in their holodecks. If you dispute this, consider how many thirty-year-olds are at this moment living in their mothers' basements so they can play MMO’s and watch Star Trek. Now imagine what would happen to those young men if they could bang a virtual Uhura three times a day.

I wrote more about this at:

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