Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity

December 14th, 2010  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Art and Literature, Political Economy  |  71 Comments

In the process of trying to pull together some thoughts on intellectual property, zero marginal-cost goods, immaterial labor, and the incipient transition to a rentier form of capitalism, I’ve been working out a thought experiment: a possible future society I call anti-Star Trek. Consider this a stab at a theory of posterity.

One of the intriguing things about 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. Aliens who still believe in hoarding money and material acquisitions, like the Ferengi, are viewed as barbaric anachronisms.

The technical condition of possibility for this society is comprised of of 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, due to anti-matter reactions or dilithium crystals or whatever. It is, in sum, a society that has overcome scarcity.

Anti-Star Trek takes these same technological premises: replicators, free energy, and a post-scarcity economy. But it casts them in a different set of social relations. 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?

Economists like to say that capitalist market economies work optimally when they are used to allocate scarce goods. So how to maintain capitalism in a world where scarcity can be largely overcome? What follows is some steps toward an answer to this question.

Like industrial capitalism, the economy of anti-Star Trek rests on a specific state-enforced regime of property relations. However, the kind of property that is central to anti-Star Trek is not physical but intellectual property, as codified legally in the patent and copyright system. While contemporary defenders of intellectual property like to speak of it as though it is broadly analogous to other kinds of property, it is actually based on a quite different principle. As the (libertarian) economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine point out:

Intellectual property law is not about your right to control your copy of your idea – this is a right that . . . does not need a great deal of protection. What intellectual property law is really about is about your right to control my copy of your idea. This is not a right ordinarily or automatically granted to the owners of other types of property. If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.

This is the quality of intellectual property law that provides an economic foundation for anti-Star Trek: the ability to tell others how to use copies of an idea that you “own”. 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. (Someone can’t give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license). What’s more, 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. (Presumably some other company owns the rights to cold tea.)

This solves the problem of how to maintain for-profit capitalist enterprise, at least on the surface. Anyone who tries to supply their needs from their replicator without paying the copyright cartels would become an outlaw, like today’s online file-sharers. But if everyone is constantly being forced to pay out money in licensing fees, then they need some way of earning money, and this brings up a new problem. With replicators around, there’s no need for human labor in any kind of physical production. So what kind of jobs would exist in this economy? Here are a few possibilities.

  1. The creative class. There will be a need for 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. What’s more, we can see in today’s world that lots of people will create and innovate on their own, without being paid for it. The capitalists of anti-Star Trek would probably find it more economical to simply pick through the ranks of unpaid creators, find new ideas that seem promising, and then buy out the creators and turn the idea into the firm’s intellectual property.

  2. Lawyers. In a world where the economy is based on intellectual property, companies will constantly be suing each other for alleged infringements of each others’ copyrights and patents. This will provide employment for some significant fraction of the population, but again it’s hard to see this being enough to sustain an entire economy. Particularly because of a theme that will arise again in the next couple of points: just about anything can, in principle, be automated. It’s easy to imagine big intellectual property firms coming up with procedures for mass-filing lawsuits that rely on fewer and fewer human lawyers. On the other hand, perhaps an equilibrium will arise where every individual needs to keep a lawyer on retainer, because they can’t afford the cost of auto-lawyer software but they must still fight off lawsuits from firms attempting to win big damages for alleged infringment.

  3. Marketers. As time goes on, the list of possible things you can replicate will only continue to grow, but people’s money to buy licenses–and their time to enjoy the things they replicate–will not grow fast enough to keep up. The biggest threat to any given company’s profits will not be the cost of labor or raw materials–since they don’t need much or any of those–but rather the prospect that the licenses they own will lose out in popularity to those of competitors. So there will be an unending and cut-throat competition to market one company’s intellectual properties as superior to the competition’s: Coke over Pepsi, Ford over Toyota, and so on. This should keep 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.

  4. Guard labor. The term “Guard Labor” is used by the economists Bowles and Jayadev to refer to:

    The efforts of the monitors, guards, and military personnel . . . directed not toward production, but toward the enforcement of claims arising from exchanges and the pursuit or prevention of unilateral transfers of property ownership.

    In other words, guard labor is the labor required in any society with great inequalities of wealth and power, in order to keep the poor and powerless from taking a share back from the rich and powerful. Since the whole point of anti-Star Trek is to maintain such inequalities even when they appear economically superfluous, there will obviously still be a great need for guard labor. And the additional burden of enforcing intellectual property restrictions will increase demand for such labor, since it requires careful monitoring of what was once considered private behavior. Once again, however, automation looms: robot police, anyone?

These, it seems to me, would be the main source of employment in the world of anti-Star Trek. It seems implausible, however, that this would be sufficient–the society would probably be subject to a persistent trend toward under-employment. This is particularly true given that all the sectors except (arguably) the first would be subject to pressures toward labor-saving technological innovation. What’s more, 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. Firms like Google are already experimenting with such strategies. The computer scientist Luis von Ahn has specialized in developing “games with a purpose”: applications that present themselves to end users as enjoyable diversions, but which also perform a useful computational task. One of von Ahn’s games asked users to identify objects in photos, and the data was then fed back into a database that was used for searching images. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this line of research could lead toward the world of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, in which children remotely fight an interstellar war through what they think are video games.

Thus it seems that the main problem confronting the society of anti-Star Trek is the problem of effective demand: that is, how to ensure that people are able to earn enough money to be able to pay the licensing fees on which private profit depends. Of course, this isn’t so different from the problem that confronted industrial capitalism, but it becomes more severe as human labor is increasingly squeezed out of the system, and human beings become superfluous as elements of production, even as they remain necessary as consumers.

Ultimately, even capitalist self-interest will require some redistribution of wealth downward in order to support demand. Society reaches a state in which, as the late André Gorz put it, “the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed”. This is particularly true–indeed, it is necessarily true–of a world based on intellectual property rents rather than on value based on labor-time.

But here the class of rentier-capitalists will confront a collective action problem. In principle, it would be possible to sustain the system by taxing the profits of profitable firms and redistributing the money back to consumers–possibly as a no-strings attached guaranteed income, and possibly in return for performing some kind of meaningless make-work. But even if redistribution is desirable from the standpoint of the class as a whole, any individual company or rich person will be tempted to free-ride on the payments of others, and will therefore resist efforts to impose a redistributive tax. Of course, the government could also simply print money to give to the working class, but the resulting inflation would just be an indirect form of redistribution and would also be resisted. Finally, there is the option of funding consumption through consumer indebtedness–but this merely delays the demand crisis rather than resolving it, as residents of the present know all too well.

This all sets the stage for ongoing stagnation and crisis in the world of anti-Star Trek. And then, of course, there are the masses. 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?


  1. Livable4All says:

    December 15th, 2010 at 12:11 pm (#)

    Interesting article with a lot of great insights and questions raised. And it is really just a matter of deciding that we either do ‘all money’ (a guaranteed livable income for everyone, basic income guarantee, citizen’s income, minimum income, or whatever we call it) or ‘no money’ at all. Money is just something we made up, so we can decide to change how it works any time. Obviously the current scarcity-based idea of money is not working for the vast majority of world society. Why people don’t want to immediately implement a guaranteed income can be traced back to century old ideas about ‘hard work’, the ‘work ethic’ and things like the Benedictine monks idea that idle hands do the devil’s work.

    Three other related books that are relevant to this topic are “The Subsistence Perspective”, “Counting for Nothing” ( Marilyn Waring ), and “God Is Red” by Vine Deloria Jr.,_Jr. which concerns world views and how they affect society (and economics).

  2. Xamuel says:

    December 15th, 2010 at 10:53 pm (#)

    You should check out the book, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, by Doctorow. In an ironic and topical twist, this book, Doctorow’s intellectual property, is available for free on his website (despite him being a well-known writer):

    He paints a picture of a post-scarcity society where people exchange “whuffie”, a kind of quantification of gratitude/appreciation. People who have no whuffie suffer the humilities such as (gasp) not getting priority seating at restaurants, or, even worse, having to resort to the free food created by robots.

    Anyway, I’m not sure whether you’re just speculating, or whether you’re actually suggesting the licensing measures you’ve written about. If you’re really suggesting them, then I’ll just back up cautiously as if I just caught you strangling a litter of puppies……

  3. Peter Frase says:

    December 15th, 2010 at 11:11 pm (#)

    Hah, that’s funny. Of course I’m not advocating the all-encompassing intellectual property regime I describe in this post! I thought it would be obvious that what I’m describing is a terrifying dystopia, a reductio ad absurdum of the worst trends in contemporary capitalism. I guess it’s pretty telling that you can imagine someone defending this stuff with a straight face.

    I’ve read “Down and Out” and liked it. The world Doctorow creates is sort of the postive complement to anti-Star Trek: it’s a much more desirable society, because what people compete for there is something that is actually inherently scarce–status–rather than some kind of artificially-scarce good.

  4. Mr. Econotarian says:

    February 7th, 2011 at 3:24 am (#)

    Star Trek must be a horrible place, because it lost all its manufacturing jobs to the replicators!

    OK, if you don’t believe that, replace “replicators” with “Chinese”.

    OK, still sounds silly huh?

  5. Stealth says:

    July 14th, 2011 at 10:14 am (#)

    This sounds a lot like the economy of Second Life, though you’ve left out the sex trade and gambling.

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  8. Jay says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 11:11 am (#)

    You’ve missed part of the picture. The replicator works by disassembling your molecules and storing the pattern. Beam yourself out when you’re 21 years old. Save the pattern. At 40 beam yourself out again. Have a computer isolate the changes that correspond to your memories. Modify the pattern of yourself as a 21 year old to include the memories. Beam back the result. Replicator = Live forever. Perfect Health. Clones of anyone you want. etc.

  9. Hank Roberts says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 11:12 am (#)

    how to use copies of an idea that you “own”

    Big difference between patent and copyright law, eh?

    Patent law deters me for a while from mass-producing your device for profit–so you can make money fast during your exclusive patent period–but encourages me to make one of them for my own use (you provided enough information in your patent disclosure for me to figure out how to build one myself).

    Copyright law keeps me from making an exact copy.

    So, I’m setting the randomizer level slightly above zero ….

  10. Hank Roberts says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 11:14 am (#)

    PS, from observing my rural neighbors, I can tell you what they’ll be making when the replicators are available:

    4wd offroad vehicles, dirt bikes, chainsaws, and really big guns and ammunition.

    Oddly, nobody seems to have suggested a way to replicate wilderness that works, other than leaving it alone.

  11. Name says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 11:32 am (#)

    Dude, what about all those engineers? Miles O’Brien can’t fix everything by himself.

  12. Dys says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 2:24 pm (#)

    While all labour (even intellectual and creative) can in theory be replaced by automated devices, it then becomes a relevant question to ask whether those robot artists and lawyers are sufficiently conscious and self aware to deserve wages.

    Arguably in a society which allows such a question, there must always be some tasks which require an awareness of such complexity as to require a wage, regardless of the nature of the worker.

    Turning that on its head, if you can enslave a self aware robot, you can do the same thing to a human being, unless the law maintains an artificial segregation between the two.

    I’m not enough of an economist to say much more, but it seems to me that maintaining power in such a society would be far easier via an authoritarian or theocratic government. Which is, of course, contrary to the stated idea. Maintaining capitalism in a post scarcity society seems massively pointless, even from the point of view of those in power.

  13. elliottcable says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 4:31 pm (#)

    A lot of Charles Stross’s books address these exact topics; but they’re set in the near-future (2020s, 2030s) instead of the distant future; they involve technology and society that’s real now (cheap garage fabbers, spam botnets, UK/US intellectual property laws, etcetcetc).

    You really should read them.

  14. Stan Denski says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 8:06 pm (#)

    This is fantastic! Well done.

  15. Cliff says:

    July 15th, 2011 at 10:18 pm (#)

    Interesting theory but I think you’re missing something in the basic premise of the replicator. The Star Trek replicator doesn’t make stuff out of nothing, it makes it out of basic raw materials, like water, carbon and base metals. Where does this stuff come from? Some if it surely comes from breaking down old and discarded things but there will be loses. Somebody’s got to provide the raw materials. Also, a replicator can make parts, for say a spaceship, but it can’t produce an entire spaceship. Somebody’s got to assemble it. The same would go for any sufficiently large article, like a building, or a car, or a piece of furniture. There would be work to do and people to be paid (somehow).

  16. Robert Cusumano says:

    July 17th, 2011 at 2:47 am (#)

    Well, it seems to me that the basic premise of this thought piece — that one should strive to preserve some profit motivation to facilitate the survivial of (under these circumstances) a somewhat unnecessary capitalism — should be open to question. It is a fun question to play with, given that the Star Trek series sets do not speak to the underlying economics of the “starship economy” at all. But I guess I wouldn’t pre-destine this fun conversation to be a “let’s preserve capitalism” exercise.

    Far more intersting, to me, are two questions: (1) how did this society transition from its capitalistic roots to the a state of instant abundance, and what were the dislocations associated with that? and (2) from an evolutionary psychology point of view, how to people actally react to instant and free-ish availability?

    Getting bogged down in the current legal/economic realities of rents and patents and so forth misses the real fun here, and would seem to be counter-presumptive. This is the Federation, man! Copyrights, patents, etc, have long since expired (one hopes). Clearly, the “incentives” in the various series have much more to do with pride and native competitive instincts than with the (supposed) benign effects of private ownership on energy levels. The series, all of them, postulate a post-property culture long past a transition from greed and “my stuff”, and yet the question posed in this essay postulates something entirely contrary.

    In the end, I guess my answer is that I just thought the Federation and its Starships were part of the military budget, and quite a generous one in light of free availability via replicatos and warp power. The TV shows never touch on Adam Smith, preferring a post-capitalistic concept, and it would seem to me that the questions associated with human nature are far more intersting than those associated with what is, by the Next Generation’s beginning, a capitalistic structure of historical interest only.

    Then again, if the point of this essay is that you can never get there (the Star Trek World Governemnt) from here (democratic and economic chaos), I could not manage a cogent argument to the contrary. But that’s a sad thing, and that’s why these little sci-fictional parables are one of the greatest parenting tools ever created.

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  20. Evan says:

    July 18th, 2011 at 3:08 pm (#)

    If we really did have an anti-trek society there would be no unemployment problem. All that would happen is that we’d compete for scarce time instead of for scarce goods. People would shift most of their buying power from goods to services. There’d be a huge upshift in demand for doctors, chauffers, massueses, servants, actors, clerks, strippers, etc. People would use the income they gained from providing services to pay royalties to patent owners. The patent owners would then use the money to hire tons of labor and put on Vegas-style gallas in their backyards every night or something like that.

    It would be just like our modern society in other words, except that everyone would be somewhat richer because the costs of manufacturing were so low, and the rich would blow their money on hiring the most talented servants instead of the most expensive goods. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there, it would be just like our time except goods would be cheaper and it would be easier to afford servants. I already work in a service industry, so it wouldn’t be a career change.

    I think the two mistakes you make are forgetting that there are other major sources of jobs than manufacturing, and assuming humans are naturally satiable. The service industry could absorb all the out of work farmers and manufacturers through the action of Say’s Law. And humans are not satiable, we always want more. This is not because companies brainwash us with ads, it is a natural, inborn, unchanging component of human psychology.

    [quote]I’ve read “Down and Out” and liked it. The world Doctorow creates is sort of the postive complement to anti-Star Trek: it’s a much more desirable society, because what people compete for there is something that is actually inherently scarce–status–rather than some kind of artificially-scarce good.[/quote] How is that more desirable? People who compete for status are huge jerks who spend all their time belittling people and badmouthing others to get ahead. People who compete for goods are hardworking, industrious individuals. If you want some good examples of societies where people compete for status because they can’t compete for goods, look at prisons and schools. Those nasty gossip circles housewives had before women were able to work is another good example of status-based society. Goods-competition teaches you to be tolerant of others because even if you don’t like them personally, you have to work with them to get ahead. Status competition teaches you to be intolerant of others, because belittling people who are different from you will raise your status.

  21. Sloppy Joe says:

    July 19th, 2011 at 3:52 am (#)

    If you need to pay for licencing fees, laywers or whatever comes out of a replicator, you replicate money, duh!

  22. Victor Friedlander says:

    July 19th, 2011 at 5:09 am (#)

    Regarding the creative class: The transformation of the creative class into a working class (and with exceptions, a very underpaid working class) is well-developed in the art world with publicists, marketeers, and bureaucrats besides garnering the lion’s share of returns from sales, also controlling creative production along the model of factory organization of productive labor. Something like the factory organization of creativity is also a feature of the “projects” sector of high tech industry. Imagine, it may well be that the replacement by a creative proletariat of the industrial proletariat may well engender a working class that is sufficiently powerful to overthrow capitalist control of the means of production. Something like this process is suggested in Charles Wilson’s sci-fi novel, Bios

  23. Ty sly says:

    July 19th, 2011 at 5:42 pm (#)

    I was going to post something about teaching, training, prostitution, massage, and other personal human-to-human services… then I rememberd the Holodeck.

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  25. dilbert dogbert says:

    July 24th, 2011 at 12:05 am (#)

    After reading, including the comments, all that came to mind was where does biology fit in? The other thought was why does this society even need consumers?

  26. clayton says:

    July 28th, 2011 at 4:45 pm (#)

    So, you have to buy the replicators? Why would someone who built a replicator want your money? Anything they could possibly want to buy could be built by the replicator. Money becomes completely obselete.

    Second, the license held by replicator manufacturers would immediately be violated by almost anyone and everyone, and the license would quickly become pointless. Newspapers are copyrighted, but as soon as their content was put on the Internet, everyone cut-and-pasted the articles and sent them all over the place for free, rendering the attempt to gain payment over that copyrighted material virtually pointless.

    So, everyone would rapidly have a replicator, allowing them to replicate absolutely anything they would want to buy. So why would anyone want to be paid for their intellectual property?

  27. clayton says:

    July 28th, 2011 at 4:51 pm (#)

    And of course, what someone above said, you could replicate all the money you wanted, so why would anyone want money?

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  33. David Resnler says:

    September 9th, 2011 at 9:04 pm (#)

    I think your article misses a major component of the economy, which is the service economy. Currently, health care is 1/6 of the entire United States economy and near that in most industrialized nations (give or take). While the ability to replicate medications, equipment, etc. would obviously have an effect, health care is, above all else, a time-intensive enterprise. Training doctors and nurses requires years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and triage, first aid, testing, treatment, surgery and rehabilitation are all time- not resource-intensive.

    While manufacturing and production would certainly fall, they are not a large part of the so-called industrialized world any more. The rise of the copyright economy described above would likely meet or even exceed manufacturing losses. Industries which are labor-intensive without production (research, customer service, health care, tourism, personal service, etc) would all maintain at roughly the same levels. The replicators can only copy, not develop. Things will still break, be confusing, or need set-up, configuration, and repair. People will still get sick, want to see new places, travel, get old, build things and clean things. All of these industries will go on, possibly at increased rates since basic needs will all be met. Why NOT mandate 6-8 weeks of vacation to all employees? Why not have 4 day work weeks? Minor government intervention alone could increase the demand for labor, due to less effecient use of it.

    Finally, the danger in loosing the retail economy could be minimzed strongly by two governmental limits. First, require expensive licenses to own and operate replicators, thus maintaining what are now retail stores and the service employees that go along with them. This could easily be done under the guise of safety (can’t have people replicating guns, swords, C-4, yellowcake uranium, etc). And second, limiting the number of licenses a company can sell for any patern before it becomes a public good. If you can only get Coke at the Replimat and Pepsi is only available at Repli-Mart, you still have retail competition. This rule would be similar to current rules about ubiquity in copyrights. Basically, if a trademarked or copyrighted word becomes so universal that it defines a genre, the copyright on the word itself is not enforceable. (examples are kleenex or xerox. Google is currently fighting to avoid this and has very strict guidelines for internal use of the word “google” because it is already common to “google something” which if it tips, will no longer be a trademarked word, allowing people to say things like “just google us on Yahoo!”

  34. Ragweed says:

    September 13th, 2011 at 1:12 pm (#)

    A number of thought-provoking and interesting points here.

    One minor correction to David Rensler – Kleenex and Xerox are trademarks, and they are both still legally enforcable. While nobody is going to go after you for writing about “making a xerox” in your blog, if you try to sell Toshiba brand “Xerox’s”, you will at least get hit with a big cease and desist letter. Xerox and Kleenex also have strict internal guidelines on how the trademarks can be used, because the issue the causes loss of trademark is not so much that the term becomes one of common use, but that the owner of the trademark does not defend it sufficiently.

    But this also raises an interesting question for Star Trek/Anti-Star Trek – would a replicator world still have brands? Based on the internet obsession with personal branding, I would suspect that they may even become more prevelant – if all products could be produced with equal quality, then image and status that could be associated with them could become even more important.

    Another factor of Star-Trek world – eductation. Access to space travel seems to require passing a gate-keeper institution, and apparently a monopoly one at that (“The Academy”) which not everyone can get into, nor pass. Also, it appears to be mostly taught by humans, rather than uploading information from neural programs or some-such.


  35. xopherg says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 7:55 pm (#)

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote a good book about a sort of post-labor-industrial society in which most every labor task was automated:

    “Player Piano”

  36. KhanneaSuntzu says:

    December 3rd, 2011 at 3:43 pm (#)

    This economic system would be pretty much unstable as icecubes in the Sahara – give aliens with different ideas. And that is precisely where I think our current human terrestrial civilization is flawed – we are a closed worlds with a singular way of doing things. If I decided tomorrow “I do no longer subscribe to this whole IP idea” and would start selling ‘pirated’ goods from my Atlantic base I would (a) make a ton of money with my pirate business and (b) find myself quickly invaded by UN WTO marines. They’d kill me and probably the whole media and most gullible civilians would be cheering my public execution.

    This is obviously ridiculous and it bears the hallmarks of early planetary autocracy. Nobody is allowed to disagree with IP. In the same token nobody is allowed to disagree on poppy/cannabis production, or cloning humans, or research in to recombinant DNA treatments, or not being capitalist/globalist or selling oil in something else than dollars. There are a range of taboo types of conduct which are clearly neither immoral or unethical, but whose illegality in international law wholly depends to consolidate wealth and establish a arbitrary and purely unilateral dictate. In other words – we obey this law because it benefits someone in power.

    I’d love it if people would be able to settle space and declare independent colonies. Then you’d instantaneously see many nonsensical rules on this planet collapse overnight – even without near magical advanced technologies. Just the existence of viable political alternative would be a godsend at this stage.

    I think we have painted ourselves in a painfully constrictive corner. This won’t end well.

  37. xeeglee says:

    December 5th, 2011 at 9:27 pm (#)

    This is nonsense. People would be outlaws. They would say to hell with your “copyright laws” and stuff, and would produce and download the goods and material items they want into their replicators. What are you going to do about it?

  38. “Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity” by Peter Frase | midwestaholic says:

    December 6th, 2011 at 12:08 pm (#)

    […] consideration of Star Trek and capitalism by SUNY Sociology Prof Peter Frase (h/t Jacobin Mag): Ultimately, even capitalist self-interest will require some redistribution of […]

  39. Voting on 3 Quarks Daily’s Best Politics and Social Science Blog Writing Prize is Underway | Rortybomb says:

    December 8th, 2011 at 10:55 am (#)

    […]  Peter Frase’s Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity is also nominated.  I understand the terribleness of using the “it’ll change your […]

  40. Anonymous says:

    December 8th, 2011 at 12:26 pm (#)

    1. Roddenberry was only involved with the original Star Trek series and the first couple of seasons of TNG, later series was done by others adding to his concepts. On that note, there is a DS9 episode where the use of transporter credits is mentioned related to travel from San Fransisco to New Orleans.

    2. Diamond Age holds reference to a replicator like device that is hooked to a large pipeline of atoms. That is, rather then do the a E to M conversion they pipe around atoms that is then used to construct various things. Some basics are free, like blankets and basic food. But others are costly. The device, as could the replicator, could also be used as a recycler, dismantling objects put inside it into atoms that go back into the pipeline.

  41. Dark Cyberian Knight says:

    December 8th, 2011 at 12:43 pm (#)

    Sue them and have guards aka police arrest them. Wasn’t that laid out plainly in the article?

  42. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu says:

    December 10th, 2011 at 10:32 pm (#)

    […] Robin (Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism), or Peter Frase (Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity ) or  Brian Thill (On the Early Iconography of Certain of the 2012 Presidential Campaign Logos, […]

  43. Occasional Link Round-Up: D.C. Edition « A (Budding) Sociologist's Commonplace Book says:

    December 11th, 2011 at 5:32 pm (#)

    […] Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity. Peter Frase of CUNY Sociology wrote this post a year ago, but I just saw it recently. Noting that Star Trek’s universe is a classless utopia premised on free energy and replicators, he asks, “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?” In other words, are those conditions sufficient for eliminating capitalism? His answer is a quite convincing no. Using strong IP law, corporations could maintain a new form of capitalism. Highly recommended and relevant to contemporary debates. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_bg", "f3f3f3"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_text", "888888"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_link", "b91313"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_border", "d2d2d2"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_url", "b91313"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "science"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "technology"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "education"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "links"); LD_AddSlot("wpcom_below_post"); LD_GetBids(); Share this:EmailFacebookTwitter Leave a Comment by Dan Hirschman on December 11, 2011  •  Permalink Posted in Links […]

  44. Thomas Körtvélyessy says:

    January 4th, 2012 at 2:12 pm (#)

    How about the spaces created by Occupy Wall Street or any of the Alternative Living Communities across the planet? …

  45. Maintaining a profit-based system in a post-scarcity society. | Null Entropy says:

    February 13th, 2012 at 3:38 am (#)

    […] Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity Written by admin Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with economics, scifi, star trek […]

  46. Owledge says:

    May 3rd, 2012 at 5:39 pm (#)

    To me, the essay reads a lot like our world today. There is a basic misconception in it: that scarcity or abundance is decided by technology. But that is only a minor factor. Power structures in society are to a great degree designed to artifically create scarcity. The example of the replicator is – if at all – merely in detail a somewhat easier technological means for creating oaowlbundance than in our current world. Our current power structures are in fact so successful at maintaining scarcity that most people don’t even know that there are already technologies in use (on small, private scale) that can generate virtually unlimited amounts of electricity without a limited input required. And there is the more widely known fact that we produce more than enough food in the world, but that unequal distribution is the problem. To solve the so-called ‘problems of the world’ (more accurately: problems of society), we don’t need to look at technologies or systems, but people have to mature emotionally: to overcome the fears that dominate their actions. And that can only be facilitated by people not attempting to create change through behavior that is based on their own fears and misconceptions. Any approach that is rotten at the core will eventually create more of that.

  47. cls says:

    July 22nd, 2012 at 1:02 pm (#)

    Here is my attempt at a critique of intellectual property: Anti-Star Trek was a very important impulse.

  48. Intellectual Property: An Abolitionist Case | says:

    July 23rd, 2012 at 7:19 am (#)

    […] Sociologist and blogger Peter Frase has called it ‘Anti-Star Trek’. In his excellent blog post, he asks and answers the question: Given the technological means of the Star Trek civilization, how […]

  49. Citizen_sputnik says:

    July 30th, 2012 at 2:41 am (#)

    Nah bro, nah! The Star Trek replicator converts energy to matter and creates things from the atom up! There are no raw materials, except for the those needed to power the replicators/ship’s engines. In the show they talk about, but we never see, industrial replicators, which presumably are for large capacity industrial sized objects (they send just a few to help rebuild a world devestated by an interstellar war for instance). Coupled with the transporter technology, these could be used to create and beam parts of even very large structures into place! There would still be some work to do but not much!

  50. brucesat says:

    August 7th, 2012 at 2:36 pm (#)

    in our current system, the rentier-capitalists use the military as a way to have some other well paid workforce be the consumers for the system, which they of course, do not want to pay for.

  51. Link Farm and Open Thread: Cynical Sinister Spinster Edition | Alas, a Blog says:

    December 5th, 2012 at 2:43 am (#)

    […] Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity :: Peter Frase […]

  52. BonesRodriguez says:

    December 6th, 2012 at 5:35 pm (#)

    This article misses the point of the economy though. I believe that it’s no longer a “trade” economy, in that it’s not based on a “I did for you, now you owe me” idea at all.

    Of course, Roddenberry didn’t have it clear in his mind either, and there are many references to that.

  53. Winchell Chung says:

    December 6th, 2012 at 6:41 pm (#)

    Sir, the problem was discussed in a 1945 science fiction story called “Pandora’s Millions” by George O. Smith (one of the Venus Equilateral novels). He points out that while the invention of a replicator utterly destroys the value of all material goods, it does not affect personal services. Your replicator can crank out gold bricks and replicas of the Mona Lisa, but that doesn’t help you if you have an attack of appendicitis. For that you still need the personal services of a doctor.

    The story also points out that there can be no basis for commerce and contracts without some material that cannot be replicated. This will be what you write checks on, and what you use to mint money. If it can be replicated, both are worthless. In the story they invent some science fictional material that explodes when a replicator scans it during the replication process.

  54. 3mhk says:

    December 6th, 2012 at 7:36 pm (#)

    “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”?… I couldn’t disagree more.

    While the economics of 23rd and 24th century Earth and Starfleet are never fully explained in any of the series or movies, there has always been a central theme in the Trek universe, FREEDOM, LIBERTY and INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS. (I’m not going to list episodes trust me it’s there)

    In a communist society the government owns and controls everything and there are no individual rights, only the collective good.

    Question: If the Trek world is communist then why is it that the military (Starfleet) was not able to claim the android Lt Cmdr Data as Starfleet property?

    Answer: Picard successfully argued that he was an INDIVIDUAL and thus afforded all of the individual rights therein, this just doesn’t happen in a communist society, especially a communist military.

    Capt. Sisko’s dad owns a successful restaurant, Picards family owns a vineyard and sells wine, Kirks uncle had a farm. Kirk owned a country home and later sold it, how is this all possible without money?

    Starfleet officers are free to resign and pursue other careers. On Earth there are still careers ranging from groundskeepers, cooks, horse-breeders, barbers to doctors, engineers, and politicians, And they all get paid.

    You don’t get to own property and turn a profit in a commie society, nor are you permitted to choose your own path, the state determines what you will do.

    Oh and buy the way, if there is no need for money how do Starfleet officers pay their bar tab at Quarks? How does Scotty buy a boat?

    There is still capitalism in Trek. But because of the tech there is no poverty.

  55. Epicene Cyborg says:

    December 12th, 2012 at 12:26 pm (#)

    […] Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity. […]

  56. Lola Keamey says:

    March 8th, 2013 at 12:46 pm (#)

    This is interesting, but I disagree with the easea t which the replicator would be limited. Intellectual property is much harder to police than materials. With intellectual property it is harder to determine when a theft is made, unlike when a home is broken into and you can get uniformed officers to track down the suspect. The amount of file sharing that goes unchecked is evince of this. As well as the tendency to “jailbreak” personal devices. It only takes a few people producing replicators to create a general disregard for the law.

    Also, there is the possibility of a rise in demand for unlimited replicator products, which could create a market for license free software. could create a class system, with the upper classes using licensed replicators and products.

  57. jeanocelot says:

    April 7th, 2013 at 6:28 am (#)

    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?

    This reminds of the movie In Time (Justin Timberlake was the lead), which is about a dystopic future society in which humans are genetically engineered to never age (and thus seemingly immortal, from natural causes at least) past the age of 25, but also engineered to have a digital life clock, such that when the life clock goes to zero, the human is “out of time” and is automatically killed (at age 25, folks are given a year.) The time on the life clock is essentially one’s bank account, as such life time is drained to pay for stuff and reloaded as wages earned (or expenses disbursed, etc.) There is the working class who live in the ghettos and go to work in the factories and have to suffer the brutish reality of earning enough life time to stay alive (scenes of the ghetto are abound with dead folks lying on the ground who unfortunately got “out of time”, with a lot of the suspense revolving around various characters trying to get time before it’s too late), where as the wealthy class has a seemingly unbounded amount of time.

    The plot of the movie revolves around the lead character basically becoming a Robin Hood, stealing time from the rich and giving to the poor, remarking that there is no reason for the artificial scarcity of life time.

  58. jeanocelot says:

    April 7th, 2013 at 6:32 am (#)

    Intellectual property is much harder to police than materials. With intellectual property it is harder to determine when a theft is made …

    Which is why we have the ridiculous DMCA law to extraordinarily burden someone who tries to make such a “theft”.

  59. jeanocelot says:

    April 7th, 2013 at 6:36 am (#)

    In a communist society the government owns and controls everything and there are no individual rights, only the collective good.

    You are confusing the communism of an economy of scarcity – along with an authoritarian regime – which unfortunately has been the main way that communism has been practiced, with a communist society based on abundance and liberal democratic principles, which is what the Star Trek type of society is.

  60. BenK says:

    May 7th, 2013 at 4:59 pm (#)

    “From the atom up” still means that if you want to make a sword, you need to have a certain number of iron atoms available. They have not solved the problems of alchemy, they can’t transmute elements and turn lead into gold (hence the continued use of latinum as galactic currency, and the extensive mining of dilithium). Now you can go outside and clear some brush and toss in a handful of dirt, and this combined with the outgoing sewer line will give your replicator plenty of raw materials to feed you with as far as food goes. But for finished industrial products you still need to input the right component atoms. The platinum in your shuttlecraft’s catalytic converter still needs to be dug out of the ground somewhere, it can’t just be rearranged from nucleons and electrons as whole cloth. All they’ve taken away is the marginal cost of labor (which, granted, is huge). So even in Star Trek, they don’t actually have a post-scarcity society; it’s just that raw organic materials are so easy to rearrange that the cost of food, clothing, and 2x4s is zero, so once nobody has to work to eat, Habitat For Humanity And Others can catch up pretty quickly. This drives up the price of nails and hence iron, so everyone not employed in administrative, creative, or transportation industries quickly runs out to the asteroid belt and becomes a proletariat of miners.

  61. zc says:

    November 19th, 2013 at 10:47 pm (#)

    Incorrect – replicators use energy->matter conversion (something that is probably not actually solvble)

  62. Bookmarks for March 22nd through March 23rd : Extenuating Circumstances says:

    March 23rd, 2014 at 10:00 am (#)

    […] Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity – […]

  63. Zap says:

    April 2nd, 2014 at 4:58 am (#)

    Oh god, stop..stop…STOP ! “Intellectual property”? Dear GOD what an archaic model of thinking it makes me cringe!

    Copyright is a relic of capitalism, one works for the betterment of the society in a Star Trek world not for “personal gain”. This attempt at insistently trying to create class-division where none should be is getting tiresome.

  64. Peter David Jones says:

    April 23rd, 2014 at 10:56 am (#)

    Boasting and bitching are the rough equivalents of begging and stealing, status-wise. Earning status means climbing mountains and writing symphonies.

  65. Peter David Jones says:

    April 23rd, 2014 at 11:02 am (#)

    I kinda see your point about the service sector, but one could come up with a ST ++ society that has lots of humanoid robots to do that.

  66. Gerr Gerring says:

    August 4th, 2014 at 2:30 am (#)

    Way to think inside the box, mate. Well done. How technological advance can lead to no social or cultural progress? You know, of course, the means to post-scarcity society doesn’t mean we get a post-scarcity society. We have the means to post-scarcity of digit products right now, intellectual property rights are used to prevent or delay the eventuality of post-scarcity. You ask ” how to maintain capitalism in a world where scarcity can be largely overcome?” Same way it is now; through private ownership and control of the means of production, and the use of the state to enforce the will of concentrated capital (and whoever minority happens to control that concentration at any given point in time) for it’s own protection and further growth or accumulation. Artificial scarcity is common within today’s capitalism. This system of constant crisis and conflict, of boom and bust, regularly over produces and under-produces in a effort to predict, produce and meet often fickle demand, yet maintain scarcity so as to keep profit margins maximised, as means of maintaining economic equity, and thus political and civil inequality. Class stratification on the most materially causal basis, an economic basis.

  67. Gerr Gerring says:

    August 4th, 2014 at 3:03 am (#)

    That’s why intellectual property laws make as much sense in the ST universe as our own; that is, bugger all sense beyond enriching corporate capitalist middlemen.

  68. Gerr Gerring says:

    August 4th, 2014 at 3:04 am (#)

    “there can be no basis for commerce and contracts without some material that cannot be replicated.” That “material” that cannot be replicated may be time. the second, minutes, hours of a person’s finite lifespan.

  69. Gerr Gerring says:

    August 4th, 2014 at 3:20 am (#)

    ST is not a consumer society or economy. Peoples’ values would be different, their ideology, their world-view would be different to ours, just as such things vary from society to society and time to time. People would be free from wage subservience making a boss richer, and to feed and house themselves, to engage in more meaningful labour that’s in part an expression of themselves. The alienation that capitalist driven divisions of labour produces in order to increase a kind of profit making efficiency, would be radically diminished or gone. Since anyone can replicate a chair, the chairs that people would most value will be person made, and made not on an assembly line where individuals repeat menial tasks all day with no sense of accomplishment or self-expression, but by one or more tradespeople, or people seeking to master a skill and art, and the various laborious tasks involved in the process. Still, that hand crafted chair won’t be built to sate an unquenchable thirst for ever more accumulation of wealth to the point of exercising power over other peoples’ lives, but rather to learn, experience, express, to grow one’s self-awareness and broaden experiential horizons, to build esteem in a community, renown for a talent, to barter, to gift, to add to a creative culture, to be remembered and so on.

  70. A cup of tea and a crowbar materialize in space... - Christopher Butler says:

    October 16th, 2014 at 8:00 am (#)

    […] of its universe. But some nerds can’t leave well enough alone. So, we get a web page on the anti-Star Trek — a theory of how capitalism can survive in a replicator’s […]

  71. learn more says:

    November 14th, 2014 at 2:13 am (#)

    learn more

    Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity :: Peter Frase

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