Monday, June 6, 2016

Post-Scarcity Thinking: Manu Saadia's "Trekonomics"



Saadia’s “Trekonomics” is one of the most interesting books I have read in a while. I like it because it give context to the post scarcity economics that we are facing through something that is culturally familiar – the world Gene Roddenberry created and that was extended off of his work in the world of Star Trek. It is almost as if it already happened, though we know the world of Trek to be in the future.

That’s not entirely true. There is much of the world of Trek that is left out. The original series gets short shrift, as do the more recent movies. The focus in this book is that world of the next generation and deep space nine. Not that any of that matters for me. I am personally a nerd of the type that demographically missed out Trek. When I was a kid, the original series was old news, and the TNG was out but it was weird because though there were new episodes, they would appear sporadically – sometimes showing on some later in the dial channel too late at night. When I caught them, there was no sense of any continuity within the series. Missing out then meant that the later shows that had better network backing also missed my interest because there was so much backstory I missed I didn’t feel like getting back into the mythos. (Also why the only comic books I ever really got into were Archie – no real continuity needed there).

Ultimately, none of that matters. You can read and enjoy Trekonomics as I did even with minimal background because there is a lot of Trek that is part of the cultural currency that comes with growing up connected to pop culture in the western world that it is just part of the air you breathe. For example, I have never seen any of the Godfather movies, in spite of living with an Italian guy who wished he was mobbed up, but I bet that if I sat down and watched them, there would be very few surprises for me. So there is the cultural currency, and then there is the part where Saadia takes the world and uses it to leverage thought on what a world will look like when there is abundance for all.

Overall, it works very well, but I cannot think of many analogues to compare the book to. When I was reading it, it made me think of the academic papers in the humanities – where the paper is basically using a text and some sort of philosophy to better understand both (at the best of the papers) or just using a philosophy to try to explicate a text. However, this is different because the text in this case is the economics and the philosophy is that of Trek – more or less an inversion of the standard practice.

Post scarcity in the Trek world is defined by the replicator – it makes its first appearance in TNG, so that is why the focus is on that series for the book. Saadia is much more of a techno-optimist than I am, because even though he addresses it in the book, I feel that the rise of the robots, big data thing that we are going through right now has better chances of being SkyNet than it does United Federation of Planets. I could be wrong though, and we have to think of this as a linear process. There is no one leap from widespread want to universal abundance. It is a linear process, and importantly it is about distribution of resources more than it is about the absolute availability of resources. What the world of Trekonomics offers us is a blueprint of something to work towards as something concrete. There are enough theories and ideologies that exist critiquing the current order – perhaps the point is not to critique, but to change things. I would say that this book could help start a conversation about how we get from here to there.