Sisko’s Restaurant and My Blog: The Star Trek Economy is User-Generated

If you’re deeply into Star Trek, as I am, you’ve wondered what the hell people do all day. Not the folks in Starfleet of course, but, well, everyone else. We are told that within the United Federation of Planets, or at least in Terran society, there is no money, and people labor merely for self-improvement and scientific or cultural advancement.

Rick Webb has written a really fascinating piece trying to suss out the economics of the Star Trek universe, making sense of some seeming contradictions (such as “Federation credits” and human-owned private property) and delineating basic needs that are nearly-infinite (food and wealth on Earth) and those that are perhaps less so (the energy and material required to construct a fleet of starships). This analogy, previewing the meat of his explanation, gives the gist:

Imagine there’s some level of welfare benefits in every country, including America. That’s easy. That’s true. Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor. Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible?

I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek.

You should really read the whole thing.

Anyway, Matthew Yglesias doesn’t agree with everything Webb has written (though I don’t think even Webb believes he’s got it all figured out and totally correct). He concentrates on the question posed at the beginning here about what the hell people do all day since they’re not compelled economically to have a job. But then again, we know that some people do have “professions” outside even the straight sciences or the arts, such as Ben Sisko’s dad Joseph who owns a restaurant and Picard’s brother René who owns a vineyard. So, why would they if not to make money? Yglesias writes:

So what do the producers of scarce goods do? Well, presumably they’re giving a lot of stuff away. Friends and family get bottles of wine. Perhaps you send a case or two to some particularly admired athletes or scientists or other heroes. Maybe artisanal wine just isn’t that popular in general. And maybe you barter some bottles for other artisanal goods. Maybe you have a friend who hand-carves furniture. But at its most fundamental level, it’s a gift economy. The point of running your restaurant or your vineyard is essentially to show off your mastery, not accumulate wealth. There may be some more-or-less formal exchanges, but the key point is to get the output into people’s hands and not work so hard as to make yourself miserable.

I think he’s trying too hard. Think about it; what is it I’m doing right now? I’m blogging, for nothing. I try every day to post a new piece, some short and ill-considered, others long and (I hope) worthy of digesting. But I do it all for no expectation of compensation. Now, I would very much like to be compensated (and you can donate to this little enterprise here!) but because I enjoy it, I do it as much as my time and energy allows.

And if money were no consideration at all, I’d do a lot more of it. But here’s the key: it wouldn’t be exclusively for my own private satisfaction. I’d hope that folks would read what I write, engage with it, and discuss it with others. I’d hope that people would listen to my music and podcasts, and that they too would get a shot at making their own tiny dents in the universe. There’s value, scarcity, because while “writing” is overly-abundant, the writing of Paul is scarce. It comes from a single and mortal source, giving it value.

So I’m saying that the economy of Star Trek is a lot like that of the user-generated ecosystem of today’s Web.

Joseph Sisko didn’t open his restaurant so that he could be the only person to eat there. He wants people to come and enjoy themselves, to talk about the place, talk to him, and spread word of what a great place it is. This is important: with ubiquitous teleportation technology, having a brick-and-mortar restaurant is as “placeless” as anything on the Web. Anyone can come on any night from anywhere on Earth, and beyond! On a whim! Joseph Sisko gets to share his work with the literal world.

And so for René Picard and his vineyard (before, of course, the events of Star Trek: Generations). René, being a proud and meticulous man, may have even taken pleasure in the simple maintenance of his estate without ever feeling the need to share it with anyone outside his family. But he had access to the whole of the Alpha Quadrant. Had he wished, he could have, as Yglesias puts it, shown off his mastery throughout the galaxy, thanks to transportation technologies of the time. It’s as though one could sample his wine by popping a URL into a browser.

As much as I enjoy writing, and would have almost certainly tried to make a career of it no matter what, it is the advent of the Internet and ubiquitous and free or cheap publishing platforms that have allowed me to do what I do at this site. Whether or not people read and engage with my work is another matter, but the point is that they are able to, from wherever they are, at any time. And I do it without pay. As I said, I’d rather get paid, surely, and it would improve my output in terms of both quality and quantity. But on the Federation’s Earth in the 24th century, I wouldn’t need to worry about that. I could devote my energies as I wished. So would it be in Webb’s analogy of every American getting $10,000,000 from birth. In those situations, some would run restaurants, some would join the military, some would be artists, some would be explorers, some would be scientists, and some, perhaps many, would do nothing at all. And that would be okay, too.


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