February 07, 2004

Entering Geek Mode - Speculations set for Stun.
Posted by Jon Henke

The Geekosphere has been discussing the economic and political nuances of Star Trek, lately. If I recall correctly, it began with Jonah Goldberg, then a response by Pandagon, comments by Matt Yglesias, and finally (as I've followed it) a post by Dale Franks.

I must admit, despite being a sci-fi fan (Golden Age of the literature: 1938-60s), I've little interest in Star Trek. It strikes me as fairly comparable to the pre-1938, pre-John W. Cambell Jr. era of sci-fi when there was a great deal of shoddy silliness...."Space Operas", they were called.

So, I didn't follow the discussion very much...until I read one of Dale's remarks. (a must-read, by the way)

(warning: speculation, geekery and further mental masturbation follow in the extended entry. It's essentially a stream of consciousness mental excercise, so...you've been warned)

What makes Star Treks economics fundamentally different, and, in many ways, fundamentally incomprehensible to us, is that scarcity is no longer a factor. The invention of the replicator in the ST universe means that essentially no good is scarce. Practically any physical good can be obtained at negligible cost, either through replicators, or through construction by Artificially intelligent robots.

So imagine a universe in which your food, clothing, vehicle, home, and practically every other tangible good is essentially free, and in which energy can be obtained for free through your home's antimatter reactor.
If we could have all those things for free would we actually work? Probably not.

But, as Dale mentions, humans would still have wants that could not be fulfilled with rote material goods. Bill Gates, after all, still puts in more than a few hours.
But there would still be scarce things. Book collectors might still wish to obtain signed first editions of John Grisham novels. But that opens up a whole can of worms, too. How would they obtain them? There would have to be some medium of exchange, but what would it be? And, if you aren't particularly interested in formulaic legal novels written by long dead scribblers, what you use that medium of exchange for, what with most other things being essentially free? If you own a first edition Grisham, what would I have to give you in order to obtain it for myself, if you already have everything else you want?
Ok, I can do without the rest of the "Star Trek is Pro/Anti-US", "Star Trek is a Marxist wet-dream" stuff. Really. It's a TV show. I don't care.

But, this sort of economic speculation is intriguing. What WOULD a future in which scarcity was not a problem look like?

I think Dale's hit on one aspect of such an economy with his example of a "collector". In such a future, first-editions by John Grisham, original Picassos, and small furry rodents from the vicinitty of Betelgeuse would be extraordinarily rare. Specifically, verifiably authentic versions of those would be rare....thus, valuable. (documentation and analysis might be fairly prosperous prosperous fields)

Many human needs might be fulfilled, but human nature would not be changed. Humans still have an innate need to compete and to excel. Collecting unique artifacts, historic or other-worldly, would be a natural outlet for this aspect of human nature.

But it would only be one outlet. Others strike me as much less benign. It's quite naive to assume that in the future we'll all get along and agree on everything. Regardless of how easy it is to acquire goods, there will remain people who want to impose their will on others. Economic benefit may generally the reason now, but others exist....and would remain. (Taliban, anybody?)

The social shape of such a society would be just as contentious as any current society. And so you'd have conflict. And what do humans value more highly than anything else? Life.

The economic power of coercion (trade) is the predominant means of shaping generally free societies, on the micro and macro scale, at this point. If the economic power of trade in goods is removed from the table, what do we have left as a means of shaping society? Power: Physical force and intellectual persuasion.

How would humans leverage physical force? Threat of deprivation. Deprivation of life, deprivation of the means of acquiring goods, or any other similar methods in which a greater power can impoverish a lesser power. The biological drive to procreate - the continuation of the species - would dictate that humans not simply work to survive and procreate, but to excel...to design their environment in such a way that the most powerful is the most successful.

In short, those who can acquire power - in whatever form it is leveraged - would be able to design society. And to compel those less powerful to adapt.

So, I've mentioned the presence of "collectors" and "force". Why? It occurs to me that "uniqueness" and "power" would be the only two real currencies in such a world. (note: power is not only strength of arms, but of persuasion, status, etc)

In such a world, novelties/collectibles/rarities and the ability to apply power would be the coin of the realm. Power would be predominant, and collectibles would be traded among the powerful. In short, the future could be an awful lot like the Middle Ages.

But that's just speculation on my part.

Note: My wife just shook her head, rolled her eyes and said "you are SUCH a geek". (in the future, we simply must do something about wives, too)



Sci-fi author James Hogan explored this question in Voyage From Yesteryear (I think it was).

His answer? Competence.

In the story, he postulated an alternate civilization seeded from Earth via ship onto another world, developed in vitro from DNA and raised/taught by robots. The idea was to raise a population free from "contamination" by the values of Earth.

Like STNG, all physical wants were provided for by replicators. But, beyond food, clothing and shelter, someone had to design and build each and every thing else. What was good and wanted was chosen to be replicated according to how good and wanted it was. It then became free for the taking. Very "capitalistic" as it was driven by the same attributes of human action which, more or less, drive quality products to the top in any free society.

People in this population were not at all free loaders, as they were raised to value competence above all. Accordingly, they largely took from the system according to the value of what they felt they had to contribute. They felt guilt otherwise. The very opposite of Marxism, of course.

The conflict of the story is what happens when "regular" Earth people arrive. Good reading.

Posted by: Stephen at February 8, 2004 02:38 AM

But that's still very similar to Marxism, in that is presupposes that people would react according to plan, despite the reduction - even elimination - of incentives.

Why, after all, would this replicator be limited to a few items? The author supposes "competence" would be valued...but competence at what? Why would people value competence that wasn't necessary?

In other words, we're reducing incentive to zero, but assuming people would still act as if there were great incentive. It does not follow.

Posted by: Jon Henke at February 8, 2004 09:07 PM

Ah...but incentives weren't eliminated. That's why the replicators were limited. The system assumed people would behave exactly as they always have...the inner need to be the one, or 'a' one think of and produce better clothing, food, art, equipment for defense, etc. etc. It wasn't all done for them--they had to think it out for themselves. Competence was very necessary (the respect for competence was ingrained deeply enough so as to win out over professional jealousies, for one thing). It was merely the means of production which were simplified. Rather like the Blogosphere in that respect.

In fact, as I think further on that analogy, the writers and readers of the Blogosphere are behaving exactly as did the population of that planet. Sooner or later, the best sites (however you define that) garner the heaviest traffic, and the readers tribute them through increased linkage--if they are reader/writers--and by hitting tip jars. Perfect? No, of course not, but most definitely not Marxist. IMO, for example, by the very act of setting a site in motion, each Blog writer is getting 'paid' in terms of visibility--both physical and psychological. Thus, 'ability' is arriving from each writer because of this 'payment', not because it's expected from a system by the 'needy' reader. The needy reader, in turn, can read free forever, but many do not. But, IMO, the payment I mention above is crucial and I believe Blog writing would go on even with no tipjars.

To get back, incentive was not reduced to zero but rather, enhanced. The results of this, as I said, made for an absorbing story when the folks from Earth came to collect on their "investment"--and attempted to use the usual methods.

Almost anything by Hogan is worth reading.

Posted by: Stephen at February 9, 2004 01:35 AM

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