Saturday, May 12, 2007

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG

This question of money in the Star Trek universe has bugged me ever since Star Trek: First Contact.

As far as I'm concerned, that "acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives" comment wasn't Picard talking. It was Patrick Stewart -- who's never made any secret of being a committed socialist -- indulging in a moment of wishful thinking (and Frakes and Berman letting him get away with it). For me, that was the one gratingly false moment in an otherwise excellent movie.

Not that it started there. Even the first season TNG episode "The Neutral Zone" has Picard condescendingly lecturing a wealth-creating businessman on the elimination of the profit motive. And the invention by Berman et al. of the Ferengi to ham-handedly mock "capitalism gone wild" (capitalism = subjugation of women!) is beneath contempt.

To my admittedly biased mind, the whole anti-capitalist 'tude of Trek from TNG onward has far more to do with socialist stars and Hollywood politics than with a carefully reasoned extrapolation of economic history into the future. Trying to find a workable intellectual basis for the Trek economy is a lost cause.

So of course that's exactly what I'm about to try to do. :)

Even if the "we don't use money" thing is nonsensical, it's still fun to consider what the advent of replicator technology would do to an economy. The phrase "post-scarcity economy" comes up here, and it's appropriate. When replicators allow the mass fabrication of objects large and small by simply feeding it cheap raw materials, industrialized labor is immediately displaced as a foundation for economic activity.

Even so, I think the notion that replicators invalidate capitalism is utterly bogus wishful thinking. Replicators don't mean the end of labor as a source of wealth generation. Even if they eliminate the need for manual fabrication of basic items, there are still numerous labor-intensive activities required by a modern society:

  • resource collection (mining)
  • large-scale construction (undersea arcologies, starships)
  • information processing
However, with the introduction of robots and (later) holograms, even the first two of these will no longer be required.

And yet for a civilization to survive and grow, the production and exchange of wealth is still necessary. Well, if you can replicate most things, and manual labor is clearly on the way out, where does "wealth" come from?

It seems to me that even in a post-scarcity world, there are still some things that would be scarce. There would still be some things that can't be replicated. Those, therefore, would become the new bases for economic growth and exchange -- the new "gold standard."

IMO, there would be two such things in particular: antimatter, and imagination.

Let's take antimatter first. If this is the key source of power throughout the Federation, and if it can't be replicated, then antimatter is not only a critical strategic resource, it basically becomes your new form of currency. (That's not so crazy -- we basically treat gold the same way; it's both a useful metal and a measure of scarcity.) "Wealth," in a world of replicators and robots, could be measured by how much antimatter you control. (Interestingly, in their wonderful "Sten" novels Allan Cole and Chris Bunch used antimatter as both a power source and a source of power.)

But there's another resource whose generation is critical to a society, and that is the imagination of sentient beings. When we think of a new idea, when we put old concepts together in a new way, we are adding to the sum total of all intellectual capital in our society. As the Agricultural Revolution gave way to the Industrial Revolution, today we can already see progress toward an Information Revolution where the key measure of productivity is value added to information through creative thought.

Even in a "post-scarcity" economy, intelligence would still be scarce. Replicators can't replicate that!

So I'd guess that creative thought would be an even more valuable commodity in a Star Trek future than it already is today. That gives it economic value. So, as with antimatter, whoever can control the supply of imaginative creativity will be rich -- not in money as we understand it today, perhaps, but still wealthy in influence. Whoever can best organize people for creative work would contribute the most to society, and would reasonably expect the largest reward of that society for their contributions. I'd bet that, if anything, the corporation would be an even more powerful entity in the future than it is in our world.

So in a Star Trek world, where replicators and robots fulfill our basic needs, I would conjecture that the quality and quantity of your creative output determines the amount of antimatter at your command, which can be used to turn essentially free raw materials into whatever you want.

Which sounds to me like a pretty reasonable behind-the-scenes explanation for how we've seen Federation citizens act. When they need something, they replicate it, and the power used to do so is deducted from their antimatter account balance. To increase that balance, they render something of value -- either services or intellectual creativity -- to someone who pays by transferring control of an agreed-upon amount of antimatter to the vendor's account.

In the case of working for an employer, whether a corporation or Starfleet, I'd guess there'd be a long-term draft system established -- control of X amount of antimatter is added to your balance every month or so. (Maybe with a bonus for especially creative thinking or problem-solving.)

In all of this, there's still one critical question, however: who owns antimatter initially? If only the Federation can create antimatter, that pretty much puts all "money" in the hands of the government... and I don't know about you, but I don't think I would trust even the Federation that much. Alternately, antimatter could be created by privately-owned corporate entities... but while that would be better than a government monopoly, it's still open to abuse.

So it might be interesting to think about how that could work.

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