'Star Trek' reveals why you shouldn't freak out about robots
When discussing my upcoming book on the economics of "Star Trek" with people who have only a passing interest in the show, I have noticed that the issue of work keeps coming back. More specifically, casual viewers, professional economists and members of the press alike seem to hone in on the (fictional) consequences of automation.
Arguably, "Star Trek" is the only sci-fi franchise that takes automation seriously.
In "Star Trek", the necessity to work to provide for oneself has vanished. "Star Trek" society, as depicted in the show, is perhaps the most popular example of what is called a 'post-scarcity' economy, for lack of a better term.
Blame the replicator. That machine can produce anything on demand and on the spot, from Captain Picard's tea, Earl Grey, hot to clothing, knickknacks and even medicine.
As described by art director Michael Okuda (in "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual" - yes! there is such a thing), the replicator draws from its tanks of shapeless molecular goo to form objects based on pre-existing designs, stored as data. The requested objects appear out of thin air on the replicator's plate, with the same tingling effect as a the illustrious "Star Trek" transporter of "beam me up, Scotty" fame.
Yet, how the replicator functions, its plumbing so to speak, is probably its least interesting aspect. Besides, you shouldn't take it too literally. This is science fiction, after all.
What really matters is the replicator's economic powers.
First, the device separates design from fabrication. Aside from the occasional maintenance, the only real work involved in operating a replicator is intellectual in nature. It consists mainly in creating software models of objects that can then be stored and readily be produced according to the whims of the machine's users. It should be noted that in "Star Trek", copyright protection and patents do not seem to exist. Models stored in a replicator's data banks are DRM-free.
Which leads us to the replicator's second striking economic feature - its ability to turn each and every single thing it materializes into non-rival, non-excludable public goods. Think of it as the air you breathe. Your consumption of air does not limit its availability to anybody else, and no-one can restrict access to air through any ad-hoc mechanism.
Obviously there are some limitations: lines may form in ship's mess hall at chow time, and from time to time an indelicate free-rider might drain the replicator's matter reservoirs by ordering too much stuff.
That being said, as it appears on the show, the replicator invariably delivers its products for free. Case in point: you never see Captain Picard put a coin in a slot on the side of his office machine. The Enterprise as a whole bears the costs of operating and maintaining the Captain's replicator. Those costs, matter, energy, and object design are mutualized.
This is clearly the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the United Federation of Planets. Consider the Ferengis, one of the more colorful species in Star Trek's alien bestiary. In the hands of Quark, the jocular and profit-obsessed bar owner of "Star Trek: Deep Space 9", the replicator becomes a license to print cash (or rather to press latinum into gold) and to fleece his patrons.
That in turn underlines the last, and perhaps most provocative aspect of the replicator. The services it provides force profound behavioral changes upon its users. When technology makes every necessity of life available to the consumer at no immediate cost, then all bets are off. The audience is thrown into a purely science-fictional world where most familiar motivations, greed, the accumulation of wealth and economic competition, no longer apply.
What is the point of conspicuous consumption and luxury for the Enterprise crew when everybody has equal access to all the good things life has to offer? What is the psychological effect on Federation citizens to never experience poverty or financial stress (it is well-known, for instance, that poverty has dreadful consequences on children's brain development)? What happens to people when satiation is the norm and the baseline, rather than a rare occurrence in a life otherwise devoted to struggling and hustling?
Well, for one, the characters on the show are notoriously unrelatable to us. They never squabble amongst themselves and they rarely display envy, jealousy or acquisitiveness. In fact they all come across as 50 shades of Spock: stoic, rational, devoted to improving themselves and infinitely curious about the universe.
Furthermore, the abolition of the necessity to work has certainly not abolished work itself. The Enterprise crew is always busy.
Geordi LaForge, the chief engineer, is constantly hacking away at his warp engine to squeeze more power and efficiency from it. Deanna Troi, the ship's counselor and therapist, holds regular sessions with her patients. Dr. Crusher and Nurse Ogawa are treating a stream of crew members who sustain injuries playing in the ship's holodeck.
The Captain is called upon to exercise his talents for leadership and diplomacy. Furthermore, the wider Federation, or at least what we get to see of it, seems inordinately populated by experimental scientists all eagerly trying to invent new devices and to test new theories.
"Star Trek" presents a world where freedom from material want, brought on by the replicator, compels people to be even more productive and creative. Not so much for monetary gains as for reputation, glory and the recognition of one's peers.
This at least is not entirely incomprehensible to us 21st century humans. There are in fact many hints of such incentives and behaviors in our own world, from free software such as Linux and TeX (which enables the sharing of scientific research), to Wikipedia and social networks.
This does not mean that once the robots have arrived and become self-aware we will instantly live in Star Trek's merry world. But it may indicate that perhaps the impact of automation will not be nearly as dire as some people predict.