Now, don’t take this the wrong way–this is not a “geekery” post, but I have to begin by saying this:
When I was a kid, I loved Star Trek.
I’m sure most of the appeal had to do with really cool-looking starships whipping through the black of space and blasting at nasty Klingons and such.
But at least part of the attraction of this space opera was that very special vision of creator Gene Roddenberry: a future of humankind at peace with itself.
One never-quite-explained facet of that utopian future was the fact that in the society of the 23rd and 24th century where Star Trek takes place, there is no money, per se. As Captain Picard says in the eighth film, “The economics of the future are somewhat different.”
Star Trek may have never taken the time to really delineate how that economic future would work, but other science fiction authors like I.M. Banks have carved out a niche by describing “Post-Scarcity” futures. Banks’ future “Culture” is a society ruled by leisure and self-improvement, much like Star Trek‘s Federation, where material needs no longer dominate human thoughts. Scarcity, the concept that drives all of our economic theories, is eradicated in these future scenarios.
The early twenty-first century doesn’t seem to be in much danger of graduating to such utopian heights any time soon…at least not at first glance.
Behind the veneer of rampant consumerism and Global Capitalism’s tendency to foster widening economic inequality as quickly as it generates wealth, there is something else taking root.
Take the simple observation from CNN that new “at-home 3D printers could save consumers thousands.” For the price of a few bucks worth of plastic, a 3D printer can now generate all manner of household items that previously would have required a trip to the store. As this technology matures, it has the potential to be immensely disruptive to the cash-cows of Global Capital. There are other technologies, though, that have even greater potential to reverse the trajectory of the modern world.
Imagine a future where you micro-gardened your own food hydroponically and grew fresh meat in an appliance in your kitchen. Environment and animal friendly food without contributing to climate change through shipping or packaging. You “printed” most of the household items you use, from shoes to spatulas. Wireless broadband soaks your life in constant on-demand information so ubiquitously that there isn’t much to speak of by way of costs. Medicine, too, is virtually unheard of, as nano-machines course through your bloodstream repairing damage–and replicating themselves without any pricey pitstops.
This is not a flight of fancy. All of these technologies are possible. In fact, many are almost within reach. This is a science-ficiton scenario that our children could live to see. Hell, we could see it…maybe even see it with genetically engineered replacement eyes.
The crux, though, is that a new world that doesn’t need economics as its engine needs something better. It calls on us to be something more. People won’t need to be compelled to work by harsh economic necessity. The power lever that has driven the story of civilization since the beginning–the haves and have nots–will make no sense anymore. How will our power-driven society adjust? For Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry imagined humanity figuring itself out–abandoning sexism, racism, and irrational conflicts in favor of the pursuit of our higher natures. His characters, though, were fictional. Can we do it in the real world?
Very soon the question won’t be whether we can create a perfect society.
It’ll be whether we can live there.