A comment at my recent post on how innovation might be >50% of future GDP points us to a Thursday post by Matt Yglesias, favorably citing a December post by sociologist Peter Frase, who imagines an “Anti-Star Trek” society. Frase says that Star Trek society is:
A communist society. There is no money, everyone has access to whatever resources they need, and no-one is required to work. Liberated from the need to engage in wage labor for survival, people are free to get in spaceships and go flying around the galaxy for edification and adventure.
Frase says an Anti-Star Trek society shares the same access to replicators and “unlimited” energy, but is instead a hellish “system based on money, profit, and class power” because it enforces intellectual property in the designs replicators use. So, horrors, people who want to use the latest designs, rather than old or donated designs, need some sort of income, which Frase says they might get by creating and selling new designs, marketing and advertising them, or making and enforcing lawsuits.
Now it should be noted that Star Trek fiction has many cases of people using money and trading. Even setting that aside, replicators need both matter and energy as input, and neither could ever be in infinite supply. So even an ideal “communist” Star Trek must enforce limited budgets of access to such things. Lawyers and guardians would need to adjudicate and enforce such limits.
In both the Star Trek and Anti-Star Trek societies, the main source of long term value seems to be the accumulation of better designs. Yet Frase (and apparently Yglesias) is horrified to imagine that the people who contribute this main value might get paid for their contributions. After all, this might lead to unequal “classes,” where some own more than others. This even though Star Fleet displays lots of hierarchy and inequality, and spends large budgets that must come at the expense of private budgets.
The far future seems to have put Frase in full flaming far mode, declaring his undying allegience to a core ideal: he prefers the inequality that comes from a government hierarchy, over inequality that comes from voluntary trade. Sigh.
Frase also greatly underestimates how much we can spend on innovation:
People to come up with new things to replicate, or new variations on old things, … is never going to be a very large source of jobs, because the labor required to create a pattern that can be infinitely replicated is orders of magnitude less than the labor required in a physical production process in which the same object is made over and over again.
Yes the labor to create any one design might be small, but to find good designs we must search a vast space of possible designs. To search for good designs, we create candidates, try them out, diagnoses their failings, and then seek better variations. This can use up practically unlimited labor.
Quotes from the Frase post:
The world of Star Trek, as Gene Roddenberry presented it in The Next Generation and subsequent series, is that it appears to be, in essence, a communist society. There is no money, everyone has access to whatever resources they need, and no-one is required to work. Liberated from the need to engage in wage labor for survival, people are free to get in spaceships and go flying around the galaxy for edification and adventure.
The technical condition … [has] two basic components. The first is the replicator, a technology that can make instant copies of any object with no input of human labor. The second is an apparently unlimited supply of free energy. It is, in sum, a society that has overcome scarcity.
Anti-Star Trek is an attempt to answer the following question:
Given the material abundance made possible by the replicator, how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power?
… Central to anti-Star Trek is … intellectual property, … In order to get access to a replicator, you have to buy one from a company that licenses you the right to use a replicator. … Every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. So if the Captain Jean-Luc Picard of anti-Star Trek wanted “tea, Earl Grey, hot”, he would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea. … If everyone is constantly being forced to pay out money in licensing fees, then they need some way of earning money. … What kind of jobs would exist in this economy? …
People to come up with new things to replicate, or new variations on old things, which can then be copyrighted and used as the basis for future licensing revenue. But this is never going to be a very large source of jobs, because the labor required to create a pattern that can be infinitely replicated is orders of magnitude less than the labor required in a physical production process in which the same object is made over and over again. … Capitalists of anti-Star Trek would probably … pick through the ranks of unpaid creators, find new ideas that seem promising, and then buy out the creators. …
Lawyers. … companies will constantly be suing each other for alleged infringements … Marketers. … a small army employed in advertizing and marketing. But once again, beware the spectre of automation: advances in data mining, machine learning and artificial intelligence may lessen the amount of human labor required even in these fields.
Guard labor is …. to keep the poor and powerless from taking a share back from the rich and powerful. .. There is also another way for private companies to avoid employing workers for some of these tasks: turn them into activities that people will find pleasurable, and will thus do for free on their own time….
The main problem confronting the society of anti-Star Trek is … how to ensure that people are able to earn enough money to be able to pay the licensing fees … Even capitalist self-interest will require some redistribution of wealth downward in order to support demand. …
Would the power of ideology be strong enough to induce people to accept the state of affairs I’ve described? Or would people start to ask why the wealth of knowledge and culture was being enclosed within restrictive laws, when “another world is possible” beyond the regime of artificial scarcity?
Added 5:17 p 19July: Instapundit weighs in.
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