Watching Star Trek Is Doing the Dreamwork of Planning for Our Own Future, and Izabella Kaminska Is ON IT!!!!

In the utopian post-scarcity future, the extremely-sharp Izabella Kaminska will transcribe and curate my random blatherings into sharp, concisive, and useful diamond-like weblog posts–and will do so for free!

That future is here, albeit unevenly distributed–and a lot of it is distributed to me:

Felix Salmon: What is post scarcity?

Me: Well 400 years ago, in almost all human societies, being rich relative to your neighbours mattered a lot. If you were poor, especially poor and female, chances were you weren’t getting the calories you needed to reliably ovulate, and chances were your children weren’t getting the nutrients that they needed for their immune systems to be protected against the common cold. 400 years ago the great bulk of humanity lived lives that were nasty, brutish, short and they were hungry pretty much all the time. And when they weren’t hungry they were wet, because the roof leaked, and when they weren’t wet they were probably cold because damp proofing hadn’t been invented.

Now we, here, in the prosperous middle class in the North Atlantic are moving into another society. Gene Roddenberry tried to paint our future by saying: “Wait a minute! What’s going to happen in three centuries? In three centuries we are going to have replicators. Anything material, gastronomic that we want indeed anything experiential with the holo-deck we we want we are going to have. What kinds of people will we be then and how will we live?

And indeed, we are quite ahead on that transition already.

Whenever I go say, to the middle of the country, I find myself terrified: I’m rarely the fattest person in the room. That means right now in the United States what used to be the principle occupation of the human race–farming–we are down to 1 per cent of our labour force growing essential nutrients because time spent growing four-inch eggplants which are harvested isn’t really food. It’s art. And we have about three times as many people in our medical and health-support professions working to try and offset the effects of excessive calories.

We are now rapidly approaching a post scarcity economy not just for food, but–if you go and look at containers coming in from China–with respect to things physically-made [via manufacturing processes] as well.

And that’s one of the things Star Trek is about….

Those who are not maladjusted people [unhappy with life inside the Federation] become Star Trek officers. [They face challenges at the fringe of the society.] [And they] compete for status.

Perhaps–if you really want to be looking at what their lives [inside the utopian post-scarcity Federation] are like, we [you] should be looking at Regency Romances. [The Regency aristocracy is a historical] previous culture of [material] abundance where people [neverthless] find very important and interesting things for themselves to do. Even though [Note that] there is no serious [material] conflict in a Regency Romance world. If you want to, you can say there are three [standard] spheres of regional [narrative] conflict: fear of violent death, scarcity of resources, and who is going to sleep with whom. But what you’ll find In a society of abundance, like in a Regency novel about the aristocracy, is that who is going to sleep with whom becomes the focus of the plot. [And there is a] The secondary focus: [that] being a demonstration of human excellence, via proper appreciation of fashion….

Annalee Newitz: But don’t you think it’s possible, Brad, that what most ordinary people are doing is living on Bajor. [That] after having been screwed over by the Kardashians[a], and now the Federation is there screwing them over [again]–[that] maybe that’s more what [the whole] society is like?

Me: No, [I do not think so. Add in Bajor, and what we have] that’s [is] no longer [Roddenberry’s dream of] a society of abundance. That’s [Instead, Federation-Bajor is a metaphor for] the world we have today. We have the upper middle class of America. In But of [our] 7.2bn [people living] lives [toay], 2bn of them lead lives which are frankly indistinguishable from those of our pre-industrial ancestors. The other 4.5bn live lives that look to us like the standard of life people had in the 1970s and 1950s, 1920s and 1880s. And with their TVs and smartphones they can see us [700 mn of the Lucky Tenth]. I got off the plane today from Lima, Peru. A wonderful city, a wonderful culture, lots and lots of people–all of them working at least as hard as anyone in New York. Only about 1/8th as rich. We may be approaching material abundance in terms of manufactured goods, and calories and nutrients, etc. They are certainly still very far from that.

Backing up, Izabella:

As any good Trekkie will tell you, the economics of the 24th century are somewhat different. Why? Because the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in people’s lives. They — Ferengi excluded — work to better themselves and the rest of humanity.

Except, the bummer is, that’s probably a major over-simplification.

A post-scarcity economy — a.k.a. the economic reality of an abundant system — may not necessarily lead to a utopian world. At least if we go by the meritocratic example of the fictional Star Trek society.

In other words, here’s a post about how I attended a New York Comic Con panel on the economics of abundance — featuring Paul Krugman and Brad Delong, Annalee Newitz (i09), Chris Black (Enterprise writer), Felix Salmon and Manu Saadia, author of the new book Trekonomics — and learnt that even if we did have it all one day, chances are, highly-popular cosplaying events would still be capped by the natural limits of space-time.

Thus, while the acquisition of wealth might not drive people, the acquisition of access rights to highly prestigious events (a comic-con ticket commodity forward curve of its own, if you will) will continue to do so. And if not that, the more basic acquisition of connections to people who “know the right people who know the secret passwords that can sweet-talk you through the gate-keepers”. Plus ca change.

Yes. Sometimes it’s very good indeed to be an FT Alphaville reporter…


[a] I know it’s “Cardassians”. But “Kardashians” for “Cardassians” is just too delicious for me to even dream of correcting it…

October 12, 2015


Brad DeLong
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