Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
I'll admit it: I'm a diehard Trekkie. I've always thought it would be pretty neat to zip around the galaxy, or at least the Alpha Quadrant, in a starship. Of course, rather presumptuously, I always assumed I would get to be the captain or at least the science officer.
As we navigate one of the most tumultuous years in recent history, I can't help but wonder whether the world depicted in "Star Trek," one of the most popular TV/movie franchises in history, tells us anything about the changes happening around us?
Life in the 23rd century seems pretty good (the various "Star Trek" series depict a period ranging from the mid-22nd century to the late 24th century). There is no poverty or hunger. Everyone has a meaningful job. Medical science has advanced to inconceivable heights. The diseases that have plagued humankind can be eliminated with a pill or by waving a high-tech gizmo that instantly cures whatever ails you. Although that hasn't stopped new diseases from emerging, ailments that are beyond the reach of even 23rd century medical science.
At the heart of 23rd century life is a remarkable technological achievement: the mastery of matter-to-energy and energy-to-matter conversion. In the 23rd century, it's possible to take energy and convert it to virtually any form of matter you desire: diamond earrings, a T-bone steak or a rose. Couple that with virtually unlimited supplies of energy, and any material desire can be satisfied. Aladdin's lamp pales by comparison.
21st Century vs. 23rd Century Economics
The core of modern economics is the allocation of scarce resources in a manner that will maximize output. Capitalists believe that a free market is the most efficient mechanism for maximizing output. Communists believe that the state is more efficient at allocating those resources. Social Democrats believe in a little bit of both.
When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told America, "We will bury you," he was simply stating his belief that the allocation of resources by a communist bureaucracy would produce a higher output than the allocation by a free market. Over time, he believed that advantage would enable the Soviet Union to massively out-produce the United States, allowing it to become the dominant power in the world. To the Kremlin's chagrin, it didn't quite work out that way.
I wonder how the 23rd century's economic system would work. If there is no scarcity, then there is no advantage to a superior allocation of resources. For that matter, without scarcity, there is no differentiation of value.
In our time, a filet mignon is more expensive than ground beef because presumably a beef carcass will produce more ground meat than it does filets. But if you are converting energy into matter, and assuming it takes as much energy to make a hamburger as it does a filet, then there would be no difference in their value. Why would anyone eat a hamburger if, for the same price, you can dine on filet mignon?
We've already seen how abundance destroys value. Long-distance phone rates used to be expensive. It made AT&T into a global economic giant. Today, virtually unlimited bandwidth and Voice Over Internet Protocol have made long-distance calling free. I can't wait until Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bourbon is free, or at least no more expensive than a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Real estate poses much the same dilemma. The key to value in real estate, a developer will tell you, is "location, location, location." If you work in midtown Manhattan, a condo within walking distance of your job will be more expensive per square foot than, say, an identical condo on Long Island that would require a long commute.
But in a world where a transporter can convert your body into energy, zip it around the globe and convert it back instantaneously, location is meaningless. A condo in midtown is no more valuable than a condo on Long Island or, for that matter, one in Nairobi.
Matter-energy conversion is not limited to the 23rd century. Humankind has had considerable experience with converting matter to energy. We've been doing it ever since primitive man discovered the wonder of a wood fire.
Indeed, you can measure technological progress by tracking the ever more efficient ways we have converted matter into energy -- from wood to hydrocarbons to atomic power. We've mastered fusion, an even more efficient conversion of matter to energy -- at least we've mastered uncontrolled fusion in the form of the hydrogen bomb. Controlled fusion has escaped us.
Converting energy into matter, however, is still out of reach. Digitization is a rudimentary form of matter to energy back to matter conversion. It allows us to scan a picture, an X-ray or a book, transmit it to the other side of the world and print out an exact duplicate. That's not the same as transmitting and reassembling the original, but it's progress.
Sadly, we can't do that for a T-bone or a 30-year-old scotch. In a way, a web-connected 3D printer gives us an inkling of how that brave new world of distributed, just in time, "replication"/manufacturing might work. With a web-enabled 3D printer, you can transmit the specs for a part anywhere on the globe or even a space station in Earth orbit, and manufacture remotely what you need on the spot, i.e., locally -- the ultimate in distributed manufacturing. It's already been done!
In a world of on-demand, distributed manufacturing, you'd have little use for retailers, wholesalers or factories. You wouldn't need shopping centers, warehouses or freight companies either. Amazon and an energy-to-matter converter would suffice. On second thought, you might not even need Amazon.
The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have also given us an inkling of what might happen in a world where physical presence (i.e., proximity) no longer matters or at least is less important.
As of the end of June, roughly 42% of American workers were working from home. The number peaked at more than 62% at the height of the lockdown. If you look at just those workers whose jobs do not require manual labor (i.e., so-called office jobs), the number was probably over 80%.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 59% of employees working from home "would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible." Will they ever go back to the 9-to-5 office routine? Some won't. The pandemic, the explosion of urban violence and the realization that they can do much of their work from a remote location has fueled a steady exodus from cities to more rural locations.
We're still a long way off from living in Bali and commuting daily to Los Angeles, although there are already scores of financial firms based in London that telecommute daily to New York. We may be seeing the emergence of a new kind of globalism -- one that's defined not by globalizing companies and their supply chains but by globalizing people.
Does Star Trek Offer Any Insights About the Present and Our Future
Star Trek is science fiction. It was designed to entertain, not to provide a carefully thought out blueprint for the future. The 23rd century is still centuries away. The program may turn out uncannily accurate or completely wrong. The future, after all, has a way of surprising us.
What we can say, however, is that we can see, even now -- albeit still in a very rudimentary form -- the beginning of the developments that, at least according to Star Trek, would define life in the 23rd century: the digitalization revolution that allows us, in a way, to convert matter to energy and then back to matter, the shrinking of distance and the untethering of a physical presence in carrying out many of the functions of daily life.
Maybe the 23rd century museum that chronicles the 4th industrial revolution will begin with exhibits of a facsimile zoom conference and a 3D printer.
So, does Star Trek tell us anything about how current events will shape globalism and economics? It may tell us a bit, some of it intriguing.
What drives globalism is the ease in which goods and services can be moved from one place to another. Digitization and, ultimately, the ability to convert matter to energy and back to matter will give rise to just another form, maybe the ultimate manifestation of globalism. It's different from outsourcing factories. It's more like a combination of outsourcing people and local, on-demand/distributed manufacturing, but the net effect will be the same. I'm not sure the term globalism works if it's applied on an interplanetary or larger scale. We might need a new term.
Finally, what do the economics of the future look like? In the Star Trek world, there is, virtually, no scarcity; therefore, anything that is reproducible has little or no value. Can an economic system designed to allocate scarcity function when there is no scarcity? If anyone can have anything, there is not much point to being a billionaire. I suppose that also means that the government wouldn't need to levy taxes. (Although I'm not sure how it pays for all those starships.) Now that's something to look forward to.
Time will tell whether we are in the beginning of the 4th industrial revolution, one that will fundamentally transform how people live and work; how society functions; and how a new understanding of value, abundance and scarcity will shape our economic system. The world of Star Trek may just be a peek into what's to come.
Beam me up, Scotty!
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