The society of Star Trek invented by Gene Roddenberry is sometimes held up by fans as something we should strive towards. In the Star Trek universe, they don’t use money: people strive towards bettering themselves and humanity. Doesn’t that sound like communism to you?
If we tried to apply these principles in our world today, it certainly wouldn’t work. That’s been demonstrated in communism. Money is a much better way to carry out transactions than bartering: with bartering there needs to be a double-coincidence of wants. A baker may barter a few loaves of bread in exchange for a haircut with a hairdresser. Now, the baker only needs his hair cut once every month or two. Between haircuts, the hairdresser has nothing to barter and thus cannot have any bread on the table.
As for striving towards bettering ourselves and humanity? It doesn’t work in communism: communism gives people incentives to do as little as possible as they aren’t individually rewarded. Free-market economics (or capitalism) works simply because it gives people individual incentives to work and perform better: wages for workers, profits for companies and dividends for shareholders. Economics uses the fact that people act in their own self-interest to lead to an optimal outcome for society. I’d argue that economics is the single most important invention ever: one which paved the way for science, technology and pretty much every single aspect of life we experience today.
I was watching Visions of the Future on the BBC the other day and it did lead me to wonder whether we might be on the verge of this Star Trek age where we might be able to do without money. There are two bits of technology which I believe would allow this to happen.
First of all, nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion promises to be an abundant source of energy which is inexhaustible. Limitless and pollution-free, nuclear fusion could render the assumption of scarcity in economics out of date (that society doesn’t have enough resources to meet human wants). With an infinite amount of energy, we could do anything: mitigate global warming, travel to other planets, whatever we like.
Secondly, molecular assemblers or “replicators” as they are known in Star Trek. The development of replicators depends on further research into nanotechnology but the promise is that they can produce more or less anything at the touch of a button by constructing objects atom by atom. The only limitations would be the amount of energy required to replicate the objects and knowing what we want to produce with them.
Many scientists believe that nuclear fusion and molecular assemblers are both viable technologies and may only be about 50 years away.
In a world with limitless energy and the means to create anything that we wanted, nothing is scarce. We could immediately create anything that we want in order to fulfill our wants and needs. And it’s that fact which would render economics redundant. If everything costs nothing to make, why would you need money?
So what would be the effect of such technologies on society? Wealth is more or less meaningless and there is no reason for money to exist, so there will be no such things as city stock traders or economists. In fact, anyone working in the primary and secondary sectors would be made redundant by replicators. The important people in such a society would be the scientists and engineers: in a world where we aren’t limited by resources, we are only limited by our ideas. Scientists and engineers are the people who will come up with those new ideas.
At first glance, the utopian society as described in ‘Star Trek’ can seem like a communist society which would never function in the real world. I believe that today we are beginning to see the glimpses of technology which would bring society into a new age where we are no longer constrained by resources, scarcity and economics. The only constraints would be our ideas and dreams. Gene Roddenberry’s dream of our futuristic society might not seem so farfetched afterall.